The Murder of Sophia Lewis

In December 1856 a young prostitute, Sophia Lewis, was found murdered in her house in Stephen Street (now Exhibition Street) Melbourne.

Sophia’s throat had been cut, and her jewellery stolen, and the money she was reputed to keep in her house in a mix of bank notes and gold, gone.

The police surmised that she had been murdered by one of her clients.

At this point things become murky.

In 1856 there were an increasing number of Chinese migrants come to work on the gold fields. Mostly they were young men, some of whom may have had wives and children back in China, who came alone.

Even though many were hardworking, quite a number resorted to European prostitutes. Some prostitutes preferred the Chinese, as they were cleaner and better mannered than many of the European diggers, and Sophia Lewis was one of those.

Generally, in Victoria during the goldrush period, there were many more men than women, meaning that inevitably prostitution flourished.

There were various schemes to encourage female migration, as there were in New Zealand during the Otago goldrush, but prostitution was a fact of life in goldrush Australia.

Sophia Lewis’s murder occurred at a time of rising anti Chinese sentiment in Australia. They were seen as too culturally different and were feared due to their difference. Politicians such as John Pascoe Fawkner whipped up racist sentiment and proposed legislation to restrict Chinese migration.

The police arguably bungled the investigation. However, once an item of what might well have been some of Sophia Lewis’s jewellery turned up in Chinese hands they proceeded to basically frame Sophia’s last known clients for murder. They were of course Chinese.

So far so predictable. The trial and subsequent execution of two Chinese men was widely reported in the Australian press at the time. One of the men confessed to having been at the scene of the murder but not to participating in the killing, and named two other men, known police informers. He was at worst an accessory to murder.

Strangely, his naming of police informers was never followed up – the police needed a victim, and now they had one.

The other man was simply framed – wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, one of my interests is how news spread around the world at the time – remember this is 1856 – 1857 when there was no telegraph link between Australia and Britain, which meant that news travelled slowly between the two. The Crimean war had just concluded, and the great Indian Rebellion had yet to begin so I was interested to see if a sordid murder in a colonial city far away would make the British press in the same way that the much more sensational (and equally sordid) trial of Madeleine Smith made the Australian press.

As a first pass I used Welsh Papers Online as a proxy for coverage the British press, and let’s say that it hardly registered – by the time the news reached Britain it was competing with news from India about the rebellion – a basic search turned up only a couple of mentions, and none about Chinese involvement.

But the reports were themselves surprising – here’s an example from the Welshman and General Advertiser:

sophia lewis 2

and one from the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser:

sophia lewis 1

both hinting at the involvement of an English aristocrat. Was this just a rumour at the time, or was there any basis in fact ?


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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