For the sheer drama as one of the truly great sensational murders in
Australian criminal history, few could match the rape and murder of
12-year-old Alma Tirtschke (1909-21) on the afternoon of 30 December 1921.
Described as slightly built, 4 feet 10 inches in height, freckled faced and
with long dark auburn hair, quiet disposition and studious habits, Alma
lived with her paternal grandmother Elizabeth Tirtschke née Le Maitre
(d 1939) at 10 Jolimont Road, Jolimont. Alma was a well-behaved, popular
and above average student who attended Hawthorn West High School where she
was dux of her class; her mother Ellen (Nellie) née Alger (1878-1914)
died when she was a young girl and her father was a builder and contractor
working at Maffra in country Victoria where Alma was about to live
It was on this fateful hot summer afternoon that Alma, dressed in navy
blue box-pleated overalls with a white cambric blouse, black shoes,
stockings and a white leghorn hat was asked to collect a parcel of meat from
“T. K. Bennet and Woolcock’s” of 154 Swanston Street in the city where her
uncle worked for delivery to her aunt, at Masonic Chambers of 31 Collins
Street. After leaving the shop at 1:30pm, Alma was in no rush to deliver
the parcel and took her time to marvel at the shops along the way.
Witnesses reported seeing her at various locations along Little Collins
Street, Bourke Street and the seedy Eastern Arcade then a popular haunt for
the prostitutes, pimps and petty criminals who frequented the area. She was
last seen just before 3:00pm near Alfred Place at the southern entrance of
The following morning, an unemployed veteran of the Great War, Henry
Errington accompanied by his daughter were looking for empty bottles in
Little Collins Street, when around 6:00am they spotted the body of a naked
girl in a cobbled laneway off Gun Alley just south of Exhibition Street. It
was an ideal place to dispose of a body. Narrow, unlighted and seldom used,
it ran parallel to Little Collins Street providing access to the rear of the
shops. A post mortem revealed marks of violence on her face though no
evidence that she had been strangled. Her body was washed before being
disposed in the alley. No sign of her clothes were ever found.
From the outset, Senior-Detectives John Brophy and Frederick Piggott, who
were the two most experienced homicide detectives of the era were baffled
with few promising leads. With the city outraged and the press in a state
of emotive hysteria (“The thought that so base a wretch may remain free to
enjoy life is utterly repugnant to all decent citizens”), they were under
enormous pressure for a speedy arrest and all the resources of the C.I.B
were assigned to the case. By 10 January, the police were feeling the
strain and the first signs of public criticism were aired. The newspapers
began to raise questions, suggesting that the detectives had few tangible
leads even though every house bordering Little Collins between Russell and
Spring Street had been searched in vain. In the hope of a breakthrough, the
Government increased the initial £250 pound reward to £1,000.
Two days later, Colin Campbell Ross, the licensee of the Australian Wine
Saloon located at the entrance of the Arcade was arrested at his mother’s
residence Glenross - Ballarat Road, West Footscray and taken to the
Russell Street police station where he was later charged with murder. News
of his arrest spread through the suburbs like wildfire. At the coroner’s
inquest (25 January) and subsequent trial (20 February) before Mr Justice
(William) Schutt (1868-1933) with
Hugh Macindoe (q.v.) prosecuting, Ross never once wavered from his
evidence while maintaining an “air of bravado”. He stated he left home at
lunch time after feeling unwell on the day of Alma’s disappearance and
between 2:00pm and 3:00pm remembered seeing a schoolgirl matching
Tirtshcke’s description outside his salon. At 4:00pm a friend, Gladys Wain
arrived and they were together on and off for the rest of the evening before
Ross arrived home shortly before midnight.
But evidence was heard against Ross from an assorted mix of shady
characters with questionable motives: David Alberts verified seeing Ross
outside the salon at about 7:30pm; Ivy Matthews a street walker formerly
employed by Ross who received the largest share of the £1,000 government
reward, testified seeing Tirtschke in a private room in the salon, that Ross
was known to harbour young girls and tellingly, that he had confessed to the
assault the following day; Sydney Harding, a habitual thief and proven liar
who admitted making false statements against two warders also testified that
Ross confessed his guilt while on remand at the Old Melbourne Goal; but the
most telling piece of evidence was strands of hair similar to Alma’s being
found on blankets at Ross’ home that were previously kept at the wine
saloon. This, with the evidence of the State Government analyst, Charles
Price sealed Ross’ fate and he was found guilty “to be hanged by the neck
until you are dead”. Right until the end when he met his fate on the
gallows on 24 April 1922, Ross vehemently protested his innocence; but this
mattered little when a conviction at all costs was demanded. Against the
formidable forces of a police force under political and public pressure from
an outraged city, a press with a ‘lynch mob’ mentality, questionable
evidence from shady characters, and use of hair analysis to secure a
conviction for the first time in Australian criminal history it remains
improbable that Ross was guilty. Most tellingly, tests on the strands of
hair 75 years after the crime showed the two were not from the same scalp.
Nor did the
Tirtschke family find peace - nearly a month to the day after Alma’s
disappearance, her father Charles Henry (“Harry”) Tirtschke (1876-1922) was
accidentally shot by his nephew in a bush paddock eleven miles from Maffra
and was buried on 31 January 1922.
(above) Monumental headstone
to Alma Tirtschke's paternal grandparents where Alma was originally interred
(above) Monumental headstone to Alma Tirtschke
where she was reinterred
Morgan, K., "Gun Alley. Murder, lies
and failure of justice" (2005).
Sharpe, A., “Crime and punishment. 50 crimes
that shocked Australia” (1997).
The Argus 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12,
13, 14, 16, 20, 25, 26, 27 & 31 January 1922, 1 & 11 February 1922.
The Age 24 April 1922.
The Herald 24 April 1922.
The Sunday Age 5 March 2000.
[ Previous ] [ Next ]