The Mysterious Murder in the Metro


Some murders hold a rare fascination not so much for the question of ‘who did it?’, but ‘how did they do it?’. This has never been truer than the case of a glamorous 29 year old Italian woman, murdered on the Paris Metro in 1937. The exact circumstances of her killing remain so unfathomable that the crime ranks high of those labelled ‘impossible’.

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Laetitia Toureax, the victim of one of the most perplexing murders ever committed.

On the evening of Sunday, the 16th of May 1937, Laetitita Toureaux was anything but inconspicuous. Having left a dance hall in one of the city’s suburbs, she entered the Métro station at Porte de Charenton at 6.23 pm, dressed in green with a white hat and gloves, furs and a distinctive parasol. Just four minutes later, at 6.27 pm, she was seen by witnesses stepping into a first-class carriage on train number 365. The carriage was in-between two second-class carriages that were packed with passengers, as the majority of the citizens of Paris could not afford to purchase a first-class ticket.

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A Paris Metro station and train in the 1930’s.

According to those present, this explains why Laetitia was the only traveler who could be seen in her carriage as the train left the station to go through a tunnel to the next stop. It took just sixty seconds for the train to pass through the tunnel and arrive at the platform of the next stop Porte Dorée at 6.28 pm.

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Paris Mero Map – Porte de Charenton and Porte Dorée are in the bottom right corner

As new passengers boarded the first-class carriage, from doors at either end, they were horrified to see a woman’s body slumped forward from her seat. A 9-inch stiletto-style blade was protruding from her neck. Laetitia tried to whisper something to the first police officer that arrived at the scene, but with blood pouring out of her wound, she didn’t live long enough to name or describe her attacker. No one was seen leaving the carriage at Porte Dorée station, but witnesses who had been travelling in the second-class carriages swore they heard a scream just as the train pulled into the station.

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Paris detectives examine the spot where Toureax was murdered inside the carriage

An autopsy suggested that the blow to Laetitia’s jugular vein had been delivered with such swiftness, force and accuracy that it must have been the work of a professional, while the knife being left in the would also indicated the signature of a certain type of hitman. While there were some discrepancies in the statements of the witnesses who got on the train at Porte Dorée, it was still puzzling that no one had seen the killer exit from the carriage. Adding to the puzzle was the fact that the doors between the first-class and adjacent second-class carriages were locked – the killer could not simply have switched cars.

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Diagram showing the narrow window of opportunity available to the killer.

Laetitia was identified from documents that she was carrying, and it was soon evident to detectives investigating her murder that she had been leading a complicated life. She was a widow who worked in a glue factory by day, but she spent much of her time in dance halls and had been dating an arms smuggler. The arms smuggler belonged to La Cagoule (The Hood). Officially called the Secret Committee of Revolutionary Action, La Cagoule was a fascist-leaning and anti-communist terrorist group that used violence to promote its activities from 1935 to 1941. La Cagoule wanted to overthrow the Third Republic, and performed assassinations, bombings, sabotage of armaments, and other violent activities to achieve this aim.

In fact, Laetitia had been leading a double life as an undercover informant working for the authorities. It is commonly accepted that her murder was carried out by a La Cagoule operative after her cover was blown. Her murder was carried out so expertly that police had little to go on, and despite hundreds of people being interviewed, no one was ever identified as the killer. Just how her murder was executed without anyone observing the killer, in such a public location, remains perplexing to this day.

My theory is that the murderer needed an accomplice, to unlock the door to either second-class carriage either side of the first-class carriage. This could be a railway worker who was sympathetic to La Cagoule and who unlocked the door before the train arrived at Porte de Charenton, or someone who could pick the lock from the adjacent carriage. This would allow the killer to murder Toureaux under the cover of darkness caused by the train going through the tunnel, and then returning to the second-class carriage before the passengers on the platform at Porte Dorée saw the first-class carriage. Toureaux must have been followed from the dance hall to Porte de Charenton, as the assassin(s) knew that she would catch the Metro to get home. When they saw that she was the only passenger in the carriage, the murder plan was put into action.

The puzzle of Toureaux’s murder echoes the so-called ‘locked room’ genre of fictional murder mystery stories, featuring crimes so cleverly devised they seem to have been impossible to commit. The murder on the Metro shows that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

“Murder by Numbers –Fascinating Figures Behind the World’s Worst Crimes” by James Moore (Stroud, England, 2018 p. 78-79) was the source for this blog post.

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Oisne Aisne Military Cemetery – “Plot E”


Plots A-D of the Oise Aisne American Cemetary hold the remains of American soldiers who died fighting in a small portion of Northern France during World War I. However set across the street unmarked and completely surrounded by impassible shrubbery is Plot E, a semi-secret fifth plot that contains the nearly forgotten bodies of a number of American soldiers who were executed for crimes committed during and after World War II.

Over 6,000 soldiers are buried in the first four plots of the Oise Aisne Cemetery, but just 94 bodies are currently buried in the shunned fifth plot. While the small patch of land is technically on the grounds of the greater cemetery, it is not easily distinguished as it sits across the street, hidden behind the tall hedges that surround it. The only way into the secret cemetery is through the superintendent’s office.

 

The soldiers eventually interred in Plot E were tried for rape, murder, and in one case, desertion (although the remains of the deserter, Eddie Slovik, the only American executed for desertion in WWII, were returned to the states in 1987). After being convicted in U.S. courts martial held in Europe, the men were dishonorably discharged and executed via hanging or firing squad. In many cases, the men who were buried in Plot E were initially buried close to the site of their execution. Those bodies were later exhumed and moved to Oise Aisne in 1949 when the plot of shame was established.

 

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The lone headstone in Plot E.

 

Plot E has been referred to as an anti-memorial. No US flag is permitted to fly over the plot and the graves themselves, small in-ground stones the size of index cards, have no names; they are only differentiated by numbers. Even underground they are set apart with each body buried in Plot E positioned with its back to the main cemetery. The site does not exist on maps of the cemetery, and is not mentioned on the cemetery website.

 

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Marker for Private Louis Till, who was hanged in Italy in July 1945 after murdering an Italian woman, raping two others and then assaulting a US navy sailor.

 

Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” especially as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name.

“The Fifth Field: The Story of the 96 American Soldiers Sentenced to Death and Executed in Europe and North Africa in World War II” by French L.Maclean (Schiffer Publishing, 2013) was the basis for this blog post.

The strange disappearance of Lars Mittank


With the increase in the numbers of CCTV cameras in public places around the world, there are many examples of footage of people caught on camera shortly before they disappear. A lot of this footage is mundane – people walking down the street, or entering a shop, and then leaving again, and acting normally. The CCTV footage of German tourist Lars Mittank is far from normal, and has become one of the most popular, infamous and disturbing pieces of CCTV footage taken in recent years.

Lars Mittank was 28 years old, and worked at the Wilhelmshaven Power Station in northwest Germany. In the summer of 2014 Lars decided to take a holiday to Bulgaria with some friends. The group travelled to Golden Sands, a sea side resort on the coast of the black sea in Bulgaria, a popular and relatively low cost holiday destination for those in nearby European countries who want to take a break and soak up the sun. They arrived at their destination on the 30th of June 2014, after a 2 hour plane trip from Germany, and checked into their hotel.

The group enjoyed themselves until the 6th of June, when they got into a confrontation with a group of locals, which lead to Mittank suffering injuries, which included a ruptured ear drum.  Mittank visited a local doctor, who suggested that surgery needed to be performed to repair the ear drum. Mittank was reticent about having surgery in a foreign country, and asked if he could be given some medicine or antibiotics. The doctor prescribed 500mg of Cefuroxime, which is used to treat bacterial infections. Because of his injury, he was unable to fly back to Germany with his friends. They offered to stay with him till he recovered, but Mittank said that they should go home, and that he would stay in Bulgaria until he had recovered, and would then fly home. Mittank’s friends left Bulgaria on the 7th of June, they day after the altercation. Mittank purchased the Cefuroxime from a local pharmacy, and then booked a room at a new hotel.

The following day Lars started acting strangely. At 11.50 pm Lars called his mother using his cell phone and told her that he felt scared. He asked her if she would contact his bank and freeze his credit card. He also called her again at 3.00 am and told her in a low whisper that he was hiding from a group of men who had been following him. He then checked out of the hotel with his belongings, and caught a taxi to the Varna airport. Lars shared the cab with a fellow passenger, who said that Lars appeared to have dilated pupils, a condition known as mydriasis, which can be caused by drug abuse or severe trauma. Once at the airport he again called his mother who advised him to visit the airport doctor before boarding his flight home. Lars visited the doctor who examined him and would later describe him as being nervous and erratic. While the examination was happening, the doctor was interrupted by a construction employee, who wanted to chat to the doctor about doing some renovation work on her office. At this point Mittank ran out of the doctors room, leaving his belongings behind, and then continued running outside of the terminal. Once outside the airport, he was seen climbing a fence, running into a meadow and disappearing into the woods. He has not been seen since.

The following CCTV video shows Mittank acting normally when arriving at the airport, followed by his rushed exit out of the terminal, and then climbing the fence into the woods.

The footage is very confronting – what happened to Mittank to cause him to flee the terminal without his belongings and then run randomly into the woods? There have been several theories that could explain his actions:

  • Mittank was suffering from side effects of the Cefuroxime, which has caused him to act in an unstable manner.
  • As mentioned by the passenger in the cab, Mittank may have been suffering from mydriasis, which may have been caused by the injuries he received in the altercation at the hotel on the 6th of June. As well as the ruptured eardrum, Mittank also received a jaw injury.
  • Mittank mentioned to his mother that he believed that he was being followed by a group of men. Could they have been the same group that he had the altercation with? Could they have followed Mittank to the airport, and were waiting for him, which caused Mittank to flee hurriedly?

    Only Lars Mittank knows the answers to these questions, but as there has been no confirmed sightings of him for over 4 years since he disappeared, these questions will probably never be answered.

 

John Friedrich and the National Safety Council


Gordon Gecko said in the movie Wall Street that “Greed was good”, and the 1980’s was a decade that showed that gaining great wealth and showing it off was considered almost a virtue, rather than as a trait of poor character. Australia was not immune to this – examples included Christopher Skase and Qintex, Alan Bond and Swan Breweries and John Elliott and CUB. One of the more interesting and notorious examples of the “Greed is Good” motto was the rise and fall of the National Safety Council of Victoria, and its charismatic leader John Friedrich.

The story began back in January 1975, when John Friedrich arrived in Australia from his native West Germany. John Friedrich wasn’t his real name, which was Friedrich Johann Hohenberger. Hohenberger was born in Munich in 1950, and started work for a road construction company there in the early 1970’s. In December 1974 it was discovered that Hohenberger had defrauded the company of 300,000 Deutschmarks. Before he could be arrested for embezzlement, Hohenberger disappeared, making it look like he had either committed suicide or had died in a skiing accident in Italy. Instead he caught a plane to the other side of the world to make sure that the West German police couldn’t follow him, and rearranged his name to make the name that would make him infamous a few years later.

After spending several years working in remote Aboriginal communities in South Australia, Friedrich landed a job with the National Safety Council, Victorian Division (NSCV) in 1977. The NSCV was founded back in 1927 to promote road and industrial safety, and was barely known to the general public. This anonymity would quickly change with Friedrich’s arrival.

Friedrich quickly rose through the organisation until becoming executive director in 1982, earning a yearly salary of $130,000. It was when Friedrich reached the top position in the NSCV that things started to get out of hand.

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A very confident John Friedrich during his time as Executive Director of the NSCV in the 1980’s.

Partly organised on paramilitary lines, the assets of the NSCV included multiple helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, flagship, midget submarine, search and rescue boats, vehicles, decompression chambers, computer equipment, infra-red scanners and much else that was shiny, flashy and expensive. Pigeons were being prepared for search and rescue missions, while dogs were going to be parachuted with their handlers into remote areas to look for missing people.

Friedrich surrounded himself with fit young men – some of whom he rewarded with expensive cars, and was especially proud of the elite rescue group, which was known as the parachute jumpers, or PJ’s. Staff of the NSCV had grown from 100 in 1984 to approximately 450 by the end of the decade. The NSCV often worked in tandem with the Australian Defence Forces, and there were rumours that the NSCV may have also had links with Australian intelligence services, or that the whole organisation was a front for the US Criminal Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Friedrich, who had been described as an affable, motivated workaholic, was able to transform what had been an obscure and sleepy organisation into a sophisticated search-and-rescue organisation by fraudulently borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars and eliciting the assistance of a few friendly business that helped him ‘cook’ the books. The purpose of the fraud was not for his own personal financial benefit – Friedrich lived a modest lifestyle on a farm with his wife and children on a property near the NSCV’s base at Sale in Gippsland. Friedrich was a classical narcissist, and the building up of the NSCV would put it (and thus Friedrich) in the public eye, where he could bask in the glory of the changes he had made.

Unfortunately for Friedrich, the house of cards collapsed in 1989, due to the use of millions of dollars that he borrowed as cash flow to keep the organisation running. When the NSCV chairman asked Friedrich to explain some anomalies in the financial accounts of the organisation, Friedrich disappeared, leading to the collapse of the NSCV with debts of over $250,000,000. Friedrich became the target of a police manhunt that attracted the attention of the media. Friedrich was reportedly sighted in all parts of Australia , but after a couple of weeks he was arrested near Perth and extradited to Victoria, where he was released on bail.

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A not so confident John Friedrich after his arrest in 1989.

 

Multiple court appearances followed, and when Friedrich realised that he may be deported from Australia as an illegal immigrant, he committed suicide with a shotgun on the 26th of July 1991, shortly before his trial for fraud was to begin. After the collapse of the NSCV, the National Safety Council was restructured – the search and rescue function was disbanded, and the NSC concentrated on promoting safety awareness, occupational health and safety training, consulting and auditing – functions which it continues to this day.

So how did an illegal immigrant with a dodgy past rise to the top of such an organisation and build an empire based on lies and deception? Friedrich himself was one of the key elements – a driven and charismatic man, who was notably successful in persuading others to trust in his ability and integrity, and who had built up powerful connections with bankers, politicians, police, public servants, military officers. These connections protected him from serious scrutiny until there was substantial evidence of suspicious behaviour.

The other element was the attitude of the banks, and the way that they almost pushed money onto entrepreneurs like Friedrich. Between his arrest and suicide, Friedrich wrote his memoir Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich”, which was released after his death. While the book contained many lies and falsehoods (Friedrich claimed that he was born in South Australia in 1945, and was recruited by the CIA, given the codename “Iago”, and worked against left-wing extremists before returning to Australia in 1975), his description of the behaviour of the banks when lending money seemed to have a ring of authenticity about it:

“[We] never once had to approach anyone to ask for money. They came to us every time and asked us if we wanted money….They made much more effort to sell their product to us than we did to buy it.”

This video clip gives some information on Friedrich’s life and running of NCSV.

 

The main source for this blog post was the book “The Eighties – The Decade That Transformed Australia” by Frank Bongiorno, Black Inc Publishing, Melbourne, VIC, 2015, pp. 140-142

 

The man who sold the Eiffel Tower – twice!


Circus promoter PT Barnum is alleged to have said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and as long as there are gullible people, there are cons and crooks who will exploit that stupidity for their own financial gain. One of the most famous of these cons was Victor Lusing.

“Count” Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia, on January 4, 1890, in what is now known as the Czech Republic. He was originally known as Robert V. Miller, one of several children born into the upper-middle class Miller family. His father was the mayor of the small town of Hostinne, Czechoslovakia, and under his care Lustig proved to be a bright child with a penchant for trouble.

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“Count” Victor Lusig

By the time he was 19, Lustig was taking time away from his studies at the University of Paris to gamble in poker, bridge and billiards. Around this age he also earned a scar across the left side of his face from a jealous man, who though Lustig was paying too much attention to the man’s girlfriend. Using his quick wit and his fluency in the Czech, German, English, French and Italian languages, Lustig left school and began committing dozens of petty crimes under countless aliases across Europe. His favorite, however, was that of “Count” Victor Lustig. Under this name he traveled Trans-Atlantic cruise ships, gambling and bilking wealthy passengers out of their money. When World War I put an end to pleasure cruises, Lustig’s con career also dried up. He decided to head to the United States, during the height of Prohibition.

By 1922, Lustig had conned his way to Missouri, where he learned of a repossessed ranch. Posing under the alias Robert Duval, Lustig offered the American Savings Bank $22,000 in Liberty bonds, and convinced them to exchange an additional $10,000 of the bonds for cash, so that he would have some extra capital to run the ranch. The deal was struck, and the money was placed in two identical envelopes. Through a sleight of hand, however, Lustig had switched envelopes and made off with both the bonds and the cash. He was tracked to Kansas City, where he was arrested, but Lustig managed to talk his way out of an indictment and walked free.

In May of 1925, Lustig traveled to Paris to plan another con, the one which would make him famous. While reading the newspaper, Lustig noticed an article about the run-down condition of the Eiffel Tower. At the time, the Eiffel Tower had become an expensive nuisance left over from the 1889 Paris Exposition. The original plan was to move the monument, but time and money prevented the transfer. The tower had instead fallen into disrepair, and Parisians lobbied for its removal. Lustig saw an opportunity, and forged government credentials naming him Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He met with a small group of scrap metal dealers, and explained that the city wanted to sell the Eiffel tower for scrap but that officials wanted to keep the plans a secret to avoid backlash from citizens.

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The Eiffel Tower, the site of Lusig’s most brazen confidence trick.

 

One of the dealers bought the story and put down a cash bid to tear down the tower. Yet when he went to city officials to cash in on the deal, they had no idea what he was talking about. The dealer realised he was duped, and was so embarrassed that he refused to go to police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris and ran the whole scam yet again. Lustig barely managed to elude authorities the second time around, and was forced to flee to America to prevent his own capture.

But Lustig seemed incapable of keeping a low profile, and in 1926 he became even more infamous for a con known as the Rumanian Box. Lustig had a cabinetmaker in New York City make a handcrafted mahogany box with a narrow slot cut in either end. One side of the box, Lustig had installed a series of complicated handles and levers. Lustig told his marks that the mahogany box was the world’s only “money-duplicating machine.” He would place an authentic $1,000 bill in one end, along with a piece of paper, and then turn a series of cranks and knobs. The only problem was that the process, he told his victims, took six hours to complete per bill.

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The Rumanian Money Box.

Together, he and his victim would wait six hours then Lustig would turn the crank to produce another, authentic $1,000 bill. Lustig would then have the victim take both bills to a local bank to confirm their authenticity. They were real bills in actuality, because Lustig had concealed a second real $1,000 bill in the box. Once his mark, sensing high profits, paid a remarkable sum for the box, Lustig would disappear-and no real money would ever come out of the box again.

By 1934, Lustig had gained too much attention as a counterfeiter in the U.S., and the Secret Service put together a special squad to find out who was flooding the United States market with counterfeit bills. Lustig was arrested, and a search revealed a set of money-printing plates and $51,000 in fake currency. Lustig was sent to the Federal House of Detention in New York City.

On December 5, 1935, he stood trial, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lustig received and additional five years for his escape attempt a few months earlier. According to The Evening Independent in Massillon, Ohio, Lustig died in prison on March 11, 1947, after suffering a brain tumor. Other sources claim Lustig died from complications of pneumonia. Lustig was 57 years old at the time of his death. Secret Service agents said that the occasional counterfeit bill, known as “Count Lustig Money,” still managed to turn up in the years after his death.

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The Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where Lustig died in 1947.

 

The biography of Lustig at http://www.biography.com was used as the basis for this blog post.

The mysterious disappearance of the Bermagui Five


Late on the afternoon of Sunday, the 10th of October 1880, farm worker William Johnston was riding his horse at Mutton Fish Point, near the coastal New South Wales town of Bermagui, 100 kilometres south of Sydney, when he noticed something ‘shining’ on the rocks. He dismounted, tied his horse to a tree and walked closer, discovering that the ‘shining’ object was a fishing boat, painted green with its mast and sail lashed.

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Mystery Bay, near Bermagui, where the abandoned boat was found in October 1880.

In his subsequent statutory declaration Johnston wrote:

I went over to the boat and judged from her position that she had been wrecked. I did not touch or in any way interfere with anything…..I returned to my horse and only noticed my own tracks going out to the boat. I mounted my horse and rode away. After going about 100 yards [90 metres] it struck me to look at my watch, saying to myself, ‘as this is likely to have been a drowning match they will want to know the time I found the boat’. I saw that it was about 4.20 pm.

Johnston galloped to a nearby property owned by dairy farmer Albert Read. Both men returned to the boat and inspected it more closely. It was obvious to them that the vessel had been deliberately damaged. Someone had dumped a pile of boulders, along with pillows, blankets and piles of clothing into the stern. Read reached down and retrieved a book. It was a geology text, and written in copperplate on the flyleaf was the name ‘Lamont Young’.

 

Tall, bearded Lamont Henry Young was a 29 year old geological surveyor with the NSW Department of Mines. He was highly thought of by his colleagues, both for his considerable expertise and his modest demeanour. In October 1880 Lamont’s superiors instructed him to survey the newly-discovered goldfields north of Bermagui with a field assistant named Maximilan Schneider, who had recently arrived from Germany. Young and Schneider reached the goldfields on the 8th of October, and after pitching their tent, introduced themselves to Senior Constable John Berry, officer in charge of the police camp at the diggings. The three men lunched together, and then Schneider excused himself, saying that he was returning to the tent. He was never seen again.

Young spent the rest of the day examining the goldfields, and accepted an invitation from Berry to go fishing the next day. Young started the long walk back to his camp. Peter Egstrom, owner of a sly grog store, noticed Young near the local lagoon, walking towards Bermagui Heads. He a miner named Henderson spotted him again, shortly afterwards – the last time anyone was known to have seen Young, alive or dead.

On the morning of the 11th of October, Berry and Read, accompanied by goldfields warden Henry Keightley, examined the abandoned fishing boat. A second book signed by Young was found among the garbage. Why had Young been aboard the vessel? Who were his companions? And more to the point, where were all of them now?

Keightley noticed that someone had vomited copiously in the stern. Feeling sick, he ordered Berry to continue the examination of the boat. Berry produced a minutely detailed inventory of the boat’s contents, which included a pocket compass, several sacks of potatoes and pipe and coat belonging to Schneider, the other missing man.

Police determined that the boat belonged to a Thomas Towers, who two days earlier had set sail from his home at Bateman’s Bay, approximately 100 kilometres up the coast. He and his companions William Lloyd and Daniel Casey had intended to fish off Bermagui, and sell their catch, along with the sacks of potatoes to the goldminers.

In a report to his superiors, Keightley stated that there was nothing to suggest that anything of a unusual nature had taken place on board. There were no blood marks nor any sign of a struggle. A bullet had been found in the boat, but it had been used as a sinker for a fishing line. Senior Constable Berry was unable to continue the investigation, as he fell ill with a fever and vomiting. When he returned to duty nine days later he was told that the remains of a campfire and meal had been found close to the wrecked boat.

Keightley offered a reward of 10 pounds for the recovery of Young’s body, while the Metropolitan Police in London offered a 300 pound reward for information relating Young, Schneider and the boatmen Casey, Towers and Lloyd. Police, Mines Department staff and volunteers conducted an extensive land and see search for the five missing men – but found nothing.

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The 300 pound reward notice issued by the Metropolitan Police of London.

A journalist writing in the Sydney Morning Herald described the whole affair as ‘a puzzle enshrouded in an enigma’ – adding,

‘I cannot conceive of any motive to account for the horrible suspicion that they were murdered …. But how could the murders (assuming they existed) have known where the men were to land – unless they were murdered by the first party they met? …. The idea is so dreadful and the motive so unintelligible that I cannot yet entertain it.”

Young’s father Major General CB Young wrote to the NSW Under-Secretary of Mines on the 31st of December:

‘The universal conclusion of all parties in this country is that the five men could not have drowned or been murdered without leaving some trace behind. I earnestly beg of you, my dear sir …. to take up this line, to see what the Governments, Imperial and local, have done in this direction, to look for the bodies.”

 

Young also raised suspicions about Schneider, his son’s assistant:

What sort of person and of what character was Mr Schneider? Where does he come from in Germany and to whom was he known in England?”

With the official searches and investigations appearing to have run into a brick wall, members of the public weighed in with their own investigations, searches and theories as to how the five men had disappeared. One man, William Tait, visited police headquarters and claimed that Lamont Young had spoken to him on the 13th of November, more than a month after the disappearance. Tait, a self-styled spiritualist, claimed that Young had appeared to him as a ghost, and revealed that he and his companions were murdered by three men who asked them for matches to light their pipes. After beating the five victims to death with oars, the killers buried the bodies in a deep hole near a black stump, about 50 metres above the high water mark, covering the makeshift grave with boulders. Police mounted a search, but found no black stump nor a cairn of boulders.

More promising to detectives was a small blue bottle, filled with a mysterious liquid, recovered from a saddlebag in the boat. There was speculation that the liquid may have been an exotic poison, but tests shows that it was the balm, oil of copaiva.

On the 11th of March 1885 the Melbourne Argus reported that Young’s bloodstained coat, ridden with bullet holes, had been found near Bermagui. Unfortunately for the Argus, the ‘report’ was a practical joke, and the paper was forced to make an embarrassing retraction.

On the 22nd of August 1888 the Bega Gazette announced that it had uncovered vital new evidence:

Though the police authorities have kept the matter a secret, it has transpired that during the past two months the police have had under surveillance a person suspected of complicity in the Bermagui murder, but that he has escaped their clutches. It appears that some time ago a man who is said to have lived with a woman near the scene of the alleged murder, came to Sydney and married a barmaid employed in one of the leading hotels. Shortly after their marriage, he gave way to drink and on several occasions uttered remarks which led his wife to believe he was concerned in the murder of Lamont Young and his companions. The detective police got wind of the affair and kept the suspect person under surveillance for several days. All at once, however he disappeared …. The barmaid has since returned to her situation in the hotel from which she was married and expresses herself as willing to aid the authorities in bringing the supposed murderer to the police.

Bega police checked with their colleagues in Sydney. There was no barmaid, nor a drunken husband who had confessed to the murder – just the writings of an imaginative journalist.

To this day, there is still no definitive proof of what happened to the five men, not has there been a credible explanation found for the abandoned boat and its contents. The inlet where the boat was found was renamed Mystery Bay. A park and road is named after Lamont Young, while a monument was erected in 1980 to commemorate what is still one of the most mysterious and unexplained disappearances in Australian history.

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The memorial plaque erected in 1980, the 100th anniversary of the disappearance.

The source for this blog post is “The Five Missing Men of Bermagui”, by John Pinkney, from his book “Unsolved – Unexplained – Unknown: Great Australian Mysteries”, Five Mile Press, Rowville Vic, 2004, pp. 269-281.

 

The man they couldn’t hang


Old stories of last minute reprieves for condemned prisoners on the scaffold are legend. Gallows protocol had it that if the hangman was unable to execute his victim after three attempts, the prisoner was allowed to live. This is what happened at the Exeter jail in England in February 1885. John Lee escaped the hangman’s noose and lived to tell his tale to many a fellow prisoner and astonished journalists for years after.

Not many criminals who have been condemned to die survive to describe the awful experience of mounting the scaffold – but there were a few. An inefficient executioner, chopping a head off with an axe, had very little option but to carry on if the first blow did not achieve its intended swift purpose. With a hanging, if the rope broke, the scaffold collapsed or the trap door failed to open, a second or even third attempt could be carried out or abandoned altogether. In the rough and ready days of hangings, when some hangmen were not as professional as others, hangings were often botched. It became a tradition that if the victim survived three attempts as being hanged, he would be reprieved. On some occasions he was granted his freedom but more often he had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

In November 1884 John Lee was a servant in Babbacombe, Devon, when his employer, a Miss Keyse, was savagely beaten to death. Lee, protesting his innocence all the while, was convicted of her murder and condemned to death in February 1885. On the day appointed for his execution he was bound and blindfolded by the hangman, James Berry, and led out from his cell. The hanging was to take place in the coach house. Instead of a scaffold there was a pit in the floor, some 11 feet deep, covered by trap doors and operated by a lever.

Lee was positioned over the doors, the noose about his neck. He was calm and dignified. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied “No – drop away!”. He held his breath, clenched his teeth and prepared to die. Berry pulled the lever and, to gasps of astonishment from the prison officials, nothing happened. Berry kept pulling – but still nothing. Lee had the noose removed from his neck and was led away into the next room while the trap doors were tested. They seemed to work well, with no-one on them. Lee was brought back and again prepared to meet his maker. Again the executioner tugged at the lever and once again the trap doors refused to drop away. The officials decided to postpone the execution again, but Lee – perhaps with a traditional reprieve in mind – insisted on a third attempt. The lever was pulled but again to no avail.

The prison chaplain could bear it no longer and decided to leave. An execution had to be witnessed by the chaplain and without him the proceedings had to be stopped anyway. Lee was led away to his cell to wait the whole day in dreadful uncertainty. Late that evening the governor visited him. The message as that he was to live. He was officially reprieved and had his sentence commuted to a life term. There were no more such reprieves; the prison authorities learned their lesson from the incident at Exeter and built their scaffolds with more care. John Lee spent 23 years in jail, before walking out a free man in 1907. He then disappeared into obscurity, and is believed to have died under the name “James Lee” in the United States in 1945.

This website is an excellent overview of the murder at Babbacombe, and the botched execution.

The source for this blog post was “The Guinness Book of Lasts”, by Christopher Slee, Guinness Publishing, Enfield, England, 1994, p. 48-49