On 23 November 1932, Walter
William Henry James Henderson was facing the verdict of the Criminal Court
jury before Mr Justice (Sir James) Macfarlan (1872-1955) on the charge of
murdering his mother, Sarah Jane Henderson née Bradbury aged 64 of
fashionable St. Vincent’s Place, Albert Park. But Walter had every
reason to be confident; he had been acquitted previously on the same charge.
From the onset, the case
against the 47 year old former farmer from Lake Boga near Swan Hill,
Victoria lacked a vital inconclusive piece of irrefutable evidence that
would enable the Crown to sustain the charge of murder. On the afternoon of
27 July 1932, Mrs Henderson was found by her son at the foot of one-flight
stairs leading from the passageway into the kitchen. Between 2:15pm and
2:30pm, Walter rushed to his neighbours - Mrs Elizabeth Meurillian
(c1869-1952) and Mr J. Fogarty - for assistance and she was admitted to the
Homeopathic Hospital only to
die around 6:00pm having suffered horrific head injuries; five lacerations
were found on the left side of her head. She was laid to rest the following
day in the Church of England portion of the Brighton General Cemetery at
4:15pm; friends described her as “a pleasant, amiable women”.
Blood was found everywhere in
the house leading police to suspect murder; some
thirty items were found to be bloodstained including the overalls Henderson was
wearing on the afternoon. Blood was found on the carpet in the hall at the foot of the
stairs; in the passage leading to the kitchen; in the scullery at the rear
of the house; as well as blood finger prints on a table used for sewing.
Significantly, police found a broken, bloodstained hammer and handle
containing hairs at the house.
What should have been a
straight-forward homicide soon became a puzzle of contradictory pieces.
Crawford Mollison (1863-1949) the respected government pathologist stated before the
coroner Mr D. Grant on 15 August that “the injuries could not possibly have
been caused by a fall down a flight of stairs, but they could have been
caused by a hammer” only to change his evidence at the first criminal trial before
Mr Justice (Sir Frederick) Mann (1869-1958) on 19 September stating that “he did not believe that the
hammer produced in court could have killed Mrs Henderson” as her skull was
not fractured and would not have been able to “resist a blow from such a
heavy instrument”. At the same trial, Dr John Kennedy of Collins
Street told Justice Mann that the
could have been caused by her falling over the banister of the stairs”. As
for the hairs found on the bloodstained hammer and broken handle, Henderson
could not explain the appearance of blood. The defence speculated that the hairs found on both
the hammer and handle may have come from a Persian cat which evidence showed
had came into
contact with both items; the government analyst Mr Harold Wignell admitted he had
not examined this possibility.
Nor could the prosecution
suggest a motive necessary to sustain the charge; while Mrs Henderson had
two life insurance policies, they were of small amounts.
Was it murder or mishap? After deliberating
for three hours, the verdict of “Not guilty” was returned and Henderson
walked a free man having been acquitted for a third time.
freedom was short-lived. On the day of his third acquittal he was charged at Brunswick Court
with bigamy having married Ethel Emma née Daldry on 12 April 1913 and
Daisy Nell née Nichol on 31 July 1930; he pleaded guilty and was
sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Justice Love said “the crime to
which you have pleaded guilty affronts public morality and the evidence
shows that you have done a great wrong to two women”. It was revealed
that Henderson had twelve convictions, three of which were for larceny and
nine for false pretences.
Main, J., “Murder in the First Degree. True
Australian Cases” (1992).
The Herald 28 July 1932.
The Argus 28 & 30 July 1932, 16 August 1932,
20, 21, 22 & 24 November 1932, 1, 13 & 14 December 1932.
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