Murder most foul (or perhaps not)

A couple of years ago, I became fascinated by the Madeleine Smith case – not by the story itself, involving as it did sex and murder among the middle classes of 1850’s Glasgow, but how it was reported world wide.

Madeleine was accused of poisoning her lover by putting arsenic in his cocoa.

She wasn’t the first to do so, nor was she the last, but she was one of the first to be reported in newspapers around the world, in part due to the development of the electric telegraph – although of course the Madeleine Smith case happened before Australia was connected to the rest of the world by telegraph.

She wasn’t the first – the murders perpetrated by Sarah Chesham, aka Arsenic Sally, in the early 1850’s in Essex were reported reasonably widely in Australia.

Other earlier murders less so. For example, Ursula Lofthouse, who murdered her husband in 1835, and was incidentally the last woman to be hanged in York, appears not to rate a mention, despite the case being reported widely in Yorkshire at the time.

However, the use of arsenic by women to dispose of unwanted husbands and lovers was certainly common currency by the 1850’s, and is the reason that sales of poisons became restricted in the late 1850’s in England, and a little later in Victoria and New South Wales.

It didn’t stop it happening though. Louisa Collins, the last woman to be hanged in NSW, managed to poison both her husband and lover, probably to get an insurance payout.

What is interesting though, when you read the newspaper reports of the time is how careful the authorities were in Victorian times to determine the cause of death, usually having autopsies performed by two separate doctors, and often having tests for poisons performed by two analysts.

Just as in the case of the attempted rape of Catherine Morton in Beechworth in 1858, where the victim was blindfolded and given bottles of different substances to smell to confirm the use of chloroform, there seems to have been an attempt by the authorities to use objective scientific methods to obtain a conviction rather solely relying on witness statements.

Of course this could work against them – in the case of Louisa Collins, her husband was a wool processor and employed arsenic in his work – and it was possible to argue for accidental poisoning.

I was curious to see if I could find reports of similar scientific tests being used in murders in the Beechworth area during the gold rush period. Arsenic is often found in gold deposits and is still a hazard in the washout from old mine tailings, so I would have expected to find cases of suspected accidental poisonings which turned out to be murder or attempted murder.

Well, I didn’t find any, but I did find a sensational case from the 1880’s. The fullest report can be found in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of 16 July 1886, and a rather shorter version made it into the Press in Christchurch in New Zealand.

Essentially, the murder victim’s body had been burnt, perhaps to get rid of the evidence, and the alleged perpetrator, Harriet Stevens,  claimed that she had a small taxidermy business and consequently had a legitimate use for arsenic. She also claimed that the victim’s house had been struck by lightning at the time of his death and that was why the body had been burned.

Despite two of her previous partners having died in mysterious circumstances, the evidence was not enough to convict Harriet Stevens of the murder of John Plum.

Incidentally her (last) husband John Stevens appears to have been an equally dubious character, but nowhere near as bad as Harriet Stevens …

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Libraries …

Yesterday I tweeted a link to an article from the Atlantic about how libraries, and we really mean university and research libraries, are seeing a massive decline in the use of the books on their shelves.

No real surprises there. Some years ago, ANU cleared a lot of books off their shelves to make space for student study areas – informal sitting areas, classic desks, power sockets and wifi – basically the aim was to provide a warm and congenial workspace.

Likewise if you visit the State Library in Melbourne, the reading rooms are crammed with desks equipped with power sockets and of course wifi is everywhere.

Even more humble establishments like the Albury Public Library, provide well equipped workspaces, and even really small public libraries can provide a viable workspace – just add wifi and desks.

Everything else is online. Digitised newspapers, older books, the rest it’s all online.

It’s even possible to do family history online – no more trekking to old record offices, or sending off requests for copies of old documents, all you need is a computer and some sort of affiliation to access some databases.

My best example is the work I’m currently doing for the National Trust, documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.

Some of the work is fairly mechanical – brown glass bottle ~120mm h, metal cap, etc, printed label …, but some of it isn’t.

Some of it involves tracking down vanished pharmaceutical companies and finding information on when they were in business, what they sold, who, if anyone, they were taken over by, etc etc,

Background information, and in many cases more interesting than the actual material – like the story of Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound, and what it says about nineteenth century trade patterns and the rise of newspapers as advertising media following improvements in printing technology, cheap woodpulp paper, the reduction of taxes on newspapers, not to mentions increasing literacy.

Or the fact that Australia had no home grown glass making until 1872, and that consequently bottles were valuable, as can be seen in the case of this nineteenth century bottle of whale oil

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with a sticker on the back informing that a deposit of 4d – quite a substantial amount of money then, and in purchasing terms a hell of a lot more than the 10c container refund you get in South Australia today.

All this information could not have been assembled without the aid of Trove, Welsh Papers Online, the Science Museum in London, Collections Victoria, MAAS in Sydney and others too numerous to mention.

Once, not so long ago, I would have needed to visit a range of institutions to do this work, and some of it would frankly have been impossible for me, as a volunteer, to do. Even though I have the skills to do the research I would have had to cover the travel costs somehow.

But now it can be done, and is done, either sitting at home in my study, or else in a draughty nineteenth century shop byulding in rural Victoria.

And that’s the power of digitisation, and why, increasingly, reference books are basically wallpaper …

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I was wrong about Petropaulowski …

Well about the Polish origins of the name anyway.

The name Petropaulowski was in use in English long before the Crimean war.

Searching GoogleBooks for the name shows it is used in an account of Cook’s voyages published in Manchester in 1811, and in the British parliamentary proceedings in 1848 discussing a search to find Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition, as well as other places.

The name in this form also turns up in German and Dutch accounts of expeditions  to the Russian Far East in the 1840’s and 1850’s so I guess that it was first transcribed as Petropaulowski, possibly by a German or Dutch merchant, and the name stuck …

But not everyone used it. Using the Google Ngram viewer for Google corpus of English books we see that both names were in use in the first half of the nineteenth century, and crucially Petropaulowski is the most common in the 1850’s


Of course what the ngram viewer does not show is what town Petropavlovsk, or indeed Petropaulowski referred to – there are several in Russia …

… and it wasn’t just a British thing either – David L. Gregg, the US consul in Hawaii (then an independent polity) uses it in his diary entries referring to the comings and goings of the joint Anglo French force.

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Petropavlovsk in the Crimean War

The Crimean War has been referred to as the first modern war, by which people usually mean that there was something very like modern trench warfare during the siege of Sebastapol, few large set piece battles with the exception of Alma and Inkerman in the early stages of the war, and of course the presence of newspaper reporters, who made use of that newest invention, the telegraph, to send home reports, often less than flattering to the British military establishment from the battlefront.

However, what’s often not appreciated is that this was not just a conflict localised to the Crimean peninsula, but involved naval actions in the Baltic sea and an attack on the Russian naval base at what was then Petropavlovsk, and is now called Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (Петропавловск-Камчатский) in the Russian far east.

There’s quite a good account of the attack in Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat the details here, but essentially British and French naval squadrons in the Pacific sought to interrupt trade between California and the Russian Far East by attacking Russian ships, just a few years later, the Russian navy was to support the Union navy during the American civil war in hunting down Confederate commerce raiders trying to disrupt the trade between California and Russian Far East – remember that at this time Alaska was still a Russian province and there had even been  a Russian fort in Hawaii.

While the Hawaiian fort had been abandoned by this stage, the Pacific was of great military interest to Russia, which is why  a Crimean war cannon was sent to Cooktown to defend the town from possible Russian invasion, and also why, for one, Port Fairy on Victoria’s south coast sports an impressive nineteenth century gun battery


And the war had other effects – it’s been suggested that the Crimean war curtailed organised mass emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to Australia.

So, you could guess that the attack on Petropavlovsk would have been of great interest to Australian (and New Zealand) newspapers of the time, and you would think that it would certainly show up in a search of digitised newspapers in Trove.

There’s only one problem, It doesn’t. Using QueryPic, it’s simple to show that there was a great interest in the Crimean war:


Search for Petropavlovsk, and you really only find references to the loss of the  battleship Petropavlovsk in 1904 during the Russo Japanese war.

Nowadays, there’s pretty much a set of standard rules about how to transcribe  Cyrillic to Latin script. Back in the nineteenth century, the rules were a bit more vague, and sometimes they followed nineteenth century German transcription rules, which is why sometimes you see Chaikovsky written as Tchaikowski  and Chekhov as Tchekhov (or Tchekhoff) in old books.

So my first guess was a transcription problem, so I want looking for websites that included contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the battle.


In this Russian example we can see that Petropavlovsk is spelled in Russian exactly as we would expect, and that the post Revolution spelling reforms have had no impact on the name.

And in this English map of about the same date


the town’s name is given as Petropavlofsk.

Well, that’s believable, the way the stress falls on the ‘o’ – pyetrO-pavlofsk – means the final ‘v’ would be pronounced softly, and could well have sounded like an ‘f’ to a nineteenth century ear, just as a lot of Russian surnames which end in ‘ov’ (ов) are transcribed as ending in ‘off’ in nineteenth century transcriptions – closer to the sound if not the way it’s spelled.

Only one problem. That doesn’t show up either in QueryPic.

In fact it was only by searching Trove for the names of the ships involved in the action did I discover what the British called the town: Petropaulowski or even Petro-Paulowski – a transcription that looks almost Polish, but there it is when you search QueryPic

chart (1)

Perhaps because it was a joint Anglo-French operation there was an officer of Polish heritage among the French  naval officers who could speak some Russian – I’m waving my hands here – and his transliteration got into the official reports of the time. I don’t know, I’m guessing, but it’s odd given that a near contemporary English language map gives it as more reasonable  Petropavlofsk.

But when you do search Trove for Petropaulowski, you notice something else interesting about the reports – they almost all come via Californian newspapers, rather than, as is the case with reports from the Crimea itself,  from English newspapers such as the Times.

Just as we can see with the prevalence of American condiment bottles in Norfolk Island from the 1850’s, do we see that already trade across the Pacific between Australia and California  was already well established in the 1850’s …

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Baked beans and the British Empire

We’ve just had brunch – baked beans (Watties’ from NZ), toast, bacon and the last of our home grown tomatoes.

And it struck me that everywhere we’ve been that was governed by Britain in colonial times has a local brand of baked beans, as in English style baked beans in tomato sauce out of a can.

There’s Ayam in Malaysia/Singapore, Cargill’s in Sri Lanka, Wattie’s in NZ and of course SPC and Heinz here at home in Australia, even if we disloyally prefer Watties’.

Even in Abu Dhabi airport, they served English style baked beans (no bacon of course) with toast.

Now, baked beans only really became popular in England at the end of the 1800’s, with Heinz opening their first factory in the UK in 1905.

So why the rapid spread?

Perhaps it was the army – baked beans, troops for the use of – certainly that’s how Watties got into the baked beans business

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Early mobile photography

Early photography, and we’re talking 1850’s and early 1860’s here, was a cumbersome process.

Photgraphic plates had to be prepared almost immediately before use – in itself a messy fume laden business, and then processed almost after exposure, so unstable were the photographic emulsions.

This is, or course, why most of the photographs we have from the period are studio portraits – doing photography outside was just too difficult – even the family group pictures of Victoria and Albert with assorted sprogs at Osborne, were carefully posed, and doubtless the photographers had a tent pitched that contained their impedimenta.

There are of course exceptions, such as the picture of the Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common in 1848,

(photo: Wikipedia)

but they’re rare.

Roger Fenton’s famous photographs of the Crimean war had a tremendous impact but again they required a horse drawn van load of equipment

(photo: UK royal collection trust)

In fact even the early American Civil War photographers used horse drawn vans:


But then the State Library of Victoria recently blogged about Thomas Hannay, an itinerant Scottish photographer, who drove a horse drawn van around the west of Victoria in the late 1850’s photographing people and things

(source: State Library of Victoria)

which is kind of interesting.

Obviously in an area with a small and scattered population there probably wasn’t enough work to keep a studio photographer in business – people like J.A. Rochlitz in Beechworth could run a business as there would always be people on the gold fields wanting to send photographs home, but in the western district, with its scatter of hard working farmers and fisherfolk, less so. Much less so.

Now what I don’t know is whether Hannay was unique, or if there were other itinerant country photographers across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

However, Hannay, who seems to have been based in Maldon originally, seems to have got about quite a bit, having been identified earlier this year as the first photographer of the Naracoorte caves in South Australia …


And to answer my own question, Hannay wasn’t the only one – as this advert from the Age in July 1858 suggests

travelling photographers

–  travelling photographers were common enough to be targeted in adverts for used horse vans …

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A visit to a grand old lady …

Mount Buffalo was Victoria’s first National park, and really where winter sports began in  Victoria in the late 1800’s.

So popular was the park that in 1910 someone had a plan to build a hotel for skiers and summer walkers modelled after Alpine resorts in Europe.

There wasn’t enough money to build it all at once, but over the years bits were added on, new wings, tennis courts, ski hire and the rest, so that by the 1930’s it was large rambling wooden building and something close to the original dream of a European Alpine hotel in Australia.

At some time along the way it was acquired by Victorian Railways, who continued to run it in the grand manner with silver service and dressing for dinner.

But of course times changed, and the railways were privatised, and the by now rather run down hotel ended up with Parks Victoria, who not knowing what to do with it leased it out to various operators, the last of whom walked out in 2006, unable to make it pay.

And there it sat, neglected, rotting, and falling apart. There was talk of demolishing all or part of it, but eventually money was found to begin restoring at least part of the building.

So, for the last few years it’s been empty, and shrouded in scaffolding, but by this year, restoration works have progressed enough to allow visitors in to see progress.

A large part of the building is still fragile, with rotting floors, but the dining room, the ballroom, a few of the bedrooms and some of the lounge areas have been restored and the original 1930’s furniture put back.

The toilets still don’t work, there’s no heating, but the building is more or less weathertight, and there’s lighting in the restored part of the building.

As part of the Australian Heritage Festival, Parks Victoria were offering tours of the building, so we signed up.

Actually, we signed up twice.

The first time we underestimated the traffic up the mountain, arrived 5 minutes late to find that the tour had already set off and that there was no way to catch them up as they lock the doors to keep casual visitors from getting in to what is still officially a work site.

The second time we were more successful, arriving in good time in pouring rain, and joining the other heritage geeks trying to keep dry on the verandah.

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Inside it’s very much like these large moribund timewarp hotels that you used to find in the highlands of Scotland, or indeed in such outposts of empire as the Queens Hotel in Kandy.

Large rooms, over stuffed armchairs, a billiards room for the gentlemen, a sitting room for the ladies and a definite air of waiting for someone to order a stiff whisky.

IMG_0279 IMG_0283

Upstairs they’ve restored some of the bedrooms and dressed them to give an impression of how they would have been in the 1930’s, but most of the bedrooms are awaiting restoration (and such luxuries as a new floor), but most of the ground floor area has been restored – well except for plumbing and heating.

Suggested uses are as a restaurant, as a location for ghost tours or even mystery evenings where people role play an Agatha Christie story, but truth be told it’s all a bit unknown, as to where the funding is coming from to complete the restorations, but it’s an interesting piece of Australian history, and almost a time capsule …

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