Massacre at the Botanical Gardens

  Crime & Tragedy: short stories

If ever there was a decade that marked Melbourne’s coming of age into the world of uncivilised cities, it was the 1920s for never before had the citizens experienced the scale of wanton violence that included the first child sex-murder, the worst domestic tragedy and the most terrible level-crossing smash.  But added to this would be a more devastating outrage that would change the city forever on the evening of 23 January 1924 - a massacre at the Botanical Gardens, South Yarra.

The terrible events that unfolded can be traced back to 21 January when Archibald Forsyth, farmer of Laverton posted a cheque to 21 Charles Street, Richmond for harvesting work done by a former employee (“a good workman”) between 28 November and 14 January.  At 1:10pm on the afternoon of the tragedy a “calm and sane” man aged about 30 or 35 years of 5 feet 4 inches in height and carrying books, entered “Alcock & Pierce”, gunsmiths of Little Collins Street asking for a .44 rifle “to go shooting”.  Before seeing the rifle the man asked the shop attendant, Vernon Evans of Mitchell Street, Fairfield if he could cash a cheque for £10 saying he “had been working for a farmer at Laverton”; the accountant refused as the cheque was crossed and so the man left.  A little later between 3:30pm and 4:00pm, Keith Hayter of Leopold Street, East Melbourne working for the firm of “Donald MacIntosh”, gunsmith of Bourke Street, Melbourne served a young man wanting a rifle who had a “large mouth with gold fillings in his teeth” wearing a “dark grey suit of fine material and a dark felt hat”.  After an examination, the man paid £7:10:0 for the 1894 model US-made Martin .44 repeating rifle number 3022 19.  It was wrapped in brown paper with a bottle of Burr’s gun oil; he did not purchase any cartridges stating they were too expensive.  He gave his name and address to Hayter and said he was “going into the backblocks and would use the rifle shooting kangaroos and wallabies”.  The purchase took no more than twenty minutes.  At another shop a short time later the same man purchased a box of 25 .44-cailbre soft-nosed Winchester cartridges for 16s.  By approximately 4:30pm the man was armed and ready to carry out his deed.

At the Botanical Gardens, the afternoon was like any other.  Hundreds had visited that day before heading home for tea while those living in the vicinity enjoyed a quite read in the pleasant surroundings; amongst them was Frederick William McIlwaine (c1849-1924) a widower of St Ives - Toorak Road, South Yarra who was reclining on his arm while sitting under a cypress tree on the eastern lawn.  McIlwaine, described  as “5 feet 7 inches high, with thin features, grey hair and a small grey moustache” was a native of Londonderry, Northern Ireland.  Throughout the gardens were family groups scattered about the lawns having a picnic party taking advantage of the summer closing time at sunset (7:40pm); people such as Mrs Eugene Strohhaker (c1885-1924), of 29 Hardy Street, South Yarra with her three children enjoying a meal with Mrs Marie Parry aged 42 of Coventry Street, South Melbourne and her 11-month adopted daughter.

At the corner of Park Street and the Domain Road entrance, the man alighted the cable tram carrying the parcel and other items before entering the gardens through gate D.  He walked a short distance to a group of thick trees near the first plot of grass on the eastern lawn, unwrapped the brown paper parcel and proceeded to load the gun.  It was about 6:30pm.  Advancing behind the trees, he sighted Mrs Strohhaker in the distance crocheting on the lawn and fired a shot killing her instantly while her children were washing under the tap some distance nearby.  He next fired at Mrs Parry wounding her in the jaw while she sat on a seat reading a book.  Moving east towards gate C, the man approached a clump of trees.  Sitting nearby under a tree was 35 year old Miss Miriam Podbury, legs crossed reading a book with an attaché case containing some food enjoying a day off from work as a parlourmaid.  She was killed with a bullet to the neck.  Knelling down and levelling his gun north-east towards Tennyson lawn, the man fired across open lawn hitting McIlwaine in the chest who was about 50 yards away sitting on a seat.  With little delay the gunman crawled behind a bed of flowers, crossed the footpath leading to gate C and took aim at Mrs Maud Moxham who was with her husband John (Melbourne General Cemetery) and children in a shady nook on the lawn near the Anderson Street rockery.  She screamed on seeing the man and managed to dodge the line of fire each time it was pointed at her until the gunman aimed at her husband who had not had time to seek shelter wounding him in the back and hand; he was to die from his wounds on 27 January.  By this time, people were approaching and the gunman became frightened.  He ran into a shrubbery nearby and discarded the gun and bullets before climbing the iron fence enclosing the reservoir out of sight of the public.  Soon after he escaped along Anderson Street.  The deadly deed was all over within just four minutes.

Special-constables Ward and Munroe were amongst the first to reach the scene (“It was pitiful to see the children running about crying, terrified at the scene around them”) and by 9:00pm some 150 constables were in the vicinity; one of the largest man-hunts ever conducted had begun.  Less than 48 hours the police had issued a detailed description of the suspect - “Age 31 years, looks about 26 or 27 years; 5 feet 2 inches in height of medium build, good shoulders, small at the waist, high cheekbones, upper portion of teeth and mouth prominent, a large mouth, well-kept teeth, a large number of teeth in upper and lower jaws crowned and filled with gold: dark complexion, brown eyes, thin nose, with a lump just below the bridge, black hair; not of very smart appearance wearing a dark grey suit (clerical grey) of rough material, dark grey hat, and stripped cotton shirt.  Generally wears soft collars and board-end ties, and brown boots.  Never wears watch, chain or rings”.  His name was Norman Alfred List (Burwood Cemetery) the son of Charles List (d 1949) and Adelaide Emma née Stone (d 1919, Burwood Cemetery); it was reported that List was a veteran of the Great War with the British Army.  On 1 February, List's body was found by Charles Johnstone in deep bush at Deep Creek four miles from Pakenham; his left wrist had been slit and he had been dead for some days.

Both McIlwaine and Strohhaker were interred in private ceremonies at the Brighton General Cemetery on 25 January at 11:45am attended by a few close family members.  McIlwaine who had been in Australia for nine days visiting relatives and was due to return home on 14 February was buried beside his twin brother.  Mrs Strohhaker was born in Germany and arrived some 10 years ago with her husband; she spoke imperfect English and suffered from deafness.

(above) Botanical Gardens - Eastern Lawn area near where McIlwaine was shot (2003)

(above) Botanical Gardens - Eastern Lawn near where Moxham was wounded (2003)

(above) Botanical Gardens - looking north along Anderson Street where List escaped (2003)

(above) Monumental Headstone to

Eugene Strohhaker (enlarge image)

(above) Gravesite to Frederick McIlwaine

(enlarge image)


The Argus 24, 25, 26 & 28 January 1924, 2, 4, 7 & 27 February 1924, 5 March 1924.

The Herald 24, 25 January 1924, 4 February 1924.

The Australasian 26 January 1924.

The Truth 26 January 1924.

The Age 24 January 1924.

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Last Updated: 02-Dec-2018 11:50.