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Decisions of the Superior Courts of New South Wales, 1788-1899

R. v. Davidson [1822] NSWKR 16; [1822] NSWSupC 16

attempted murder

Court of Criminal Jurisdiction

Wylde J.A., 26 September 1822

Source: Sydney Gazette, 4 October 1822


            William Davidson, otherwise John Davidson, was next indicted for attempting to murder Mr Robert Howell, on the evening of the 15th of June last. The case was open, on the part of the Crown, by Mr Solicitor Norton, in the absence of Mr Solicitor Moon (Crown Solicitor). Mr Solicitor Rowe conducted the defence.

            Mr Howe being the first witness called, deposed that, as he was proceeding homeward from the Mission house in Prince street, about 15 minutes past nine of the evening named, he was violently assaulted and dangerously wounded by some individual, in the left breast. Being about 60 yards distant from Mr Scott's, he made the best of his way thither, giving the alarm of "murder;" and that he was enabled to reach the house of his friend in an apparently dying state, where he threw himself on a sofa till surgical aid was procured. It was then found he had been stabbed with an old rusty bayonet, which had penetrated about four inches. Of the unfeeling perpetrator of the horrid deed, the Deponent stated he had not the least knowledge; and, as to the prisoner at the bar being the wretched creature he would have been as ready to suspect the greatest stranger in the Colony, as well from his non-intimacy, as from positive consciousness of never having most a distantly injured him. In addition to the above, Mr Howe conceived it incumbent on here on him to inform the Court of the following circumstance, which had been strongly impressed on his mind: About three weeks prior to the 15th of June, the deponent was proceeding to Macquarie-street Chapel in the evening when his attention was arrested by the circumstance of seeing a man upon the outside of the Chapel, perched under one of the north windows, sustained by a stick and looking into the Chapel. Curiosity prompted Mr Howe to see who the individual was, and upon approach, found it to be the prisoner at the bar, Davidson: that, seeing the deponent, he left his curious situation, and retired from the building.

            Mr F.E. Forbes deposed as to the fact taking place and also, that he, with others, went in search of the instrument which were said by Mr Howe to be in the street: that an old rusty bayonet, fixed upon a native waddy, was found in the centre of the road, about 15 yards from Mr Scott's, and that Mr Howe's hat was picked up in the drain near the pathway, about 15 yards further distant. Mr Forbes further said that the point of the weapon was imbrued with blood.

            James Bowman, Esquire Principal Surgeon of the Territory, who kindly visited the sufferer under his affliction occasionally at the request of Dr. Bland, deposed, that he considered Mr Howe to be in imminent danger.

            Dr Mitchell, of the 48th Regiment who first attended upon the unfortunate event, in company with Dr Stevenson, of the same Regiment also deposed, that it was his opinion, upon examining the wound externally, that death would very likely soon be the consequence.

            Joseph McKinlay, a resident near the Market-wharf in Cockle bay, deposed, that he had been absent on the 18th of June up the Parramatta River, on business that had prolonged his return till about a quarter past nine; that he had scarcely been in the house three minutes before the prisoner Davidson, who had lodged at his house for 7 or 8 years past, tapped at the door, and begged that his lamp might be lighted; that the prisoner was undressed, and did not seem in the least way agitated; that upon the contrary he made enquiry how the witness had disposed of his business, and then retired. McKinlay further said, that the demeanour of the prisoner, for so many years, had been peaceable to an almost extraordinary degree; that he was a steady harmless creature; that he was certain the occurrence referred to, in his testimony, occurred on the 15th June, as the following day he heard, from various quarters, of the accident that had befallen Mr Howe. This witness also said, that he never heard the prisoner mention the name of Mr Howe, directly or indirectly. The bayonet being handed to him for inspection, he recollected having a similar instrument in his possession about his premises for some years, but that he had not seen it for nine months past, at least. The one produced he could not identify to be the same with that which was now absent, but it had something of its general appearance,  for it was an old rusty bayonet. Several native waddies, too, were in the house; two were before the Court, one of which he remembered to have seen in the room occupied by the prisoner, but the one to which the bayonet could alone be conveniently fixed, he could not, and therefore would not, swear to.

            Henry Durban next sworn, deposed, that he was rightly acquainted with the prisoner at the bar; that the early part of June, he was in the house of Mr Bullivant, in Cumberland street, and there met with the prisoner, that the latter and Mr Bullivant were in the act of conversing what he was engaged reading, and that he heard very distinctly, the following words: "This would be of service to Mr Howe:" the prisoner Davidson holding a dirk or dagger in his hand; which the deponent said had been produced by Mr Bullivant. Mr Charles James Bullivant confirmed the statement of the last witness, with some small variation. He said that the dirk or dagger was suspended in the ceiling or rafters of the room in which the prisoner and himself were discoursing upon various topics; that the instrument accidentally catching the eye of the prisoner, he took into his hands, and lovingly said, that "Mr Howe deserves a portion of this". This witness informed the Court, that he had been accused of pilfering a book by Mr Howe, which circumstance had come to the knowledge of Davidson, and upon that account he supposed the prisoner conceived he (Mr Howe) delivered some such chastisement; but still he, Bullivant, believed Davidson,  from his laughing mood, to be only sporting.

            [ It is as well just to mention here, that Mr Howe, in the onset of the trial, acquainted the Court that he, of the moment, suspected Mr Bullivant to have been the individual who had stabbed him; being conscious that he had, a few days before, innocently accused him of a crime from which he, (Mr Bullivant) had been satisfactorily exonerated. That in consequence Mr B. was taken into custody for a short time on suspicion, as well as a man named Johnstone; both of whom appearing to be unconnected with the horrid offence, were consequently discharged.]

            Mr Charles Gray deposed, that in a casual conversation with the prisoner on Friday evening, the 14th of June, at his gate in York-street, he expressed it as his opinion, that Mr Howe had severely injured him. This assertion induced the witness to make further enquiry, and it appeared that the prisoner was aggrieved at the circumstance of a Mr John Davidson being advertised to depart the Colony, saying that the Printer was sporting with his feelings, as he was a prisoner of the Crown. The witness then endeavoured to explain away the mist that covered over the mind of the prisoner, and told him that the advertisement alluded to was intended for a gentleman of the name of Davidson, who was supercargo of the Medway, and therefore was not meant for war. The prisoner had a waddy in his hand, one of those before the Court seemed to be it, and asked Mr Bray wherever it would not knock a man down? to which the latter replied in the affirmative. The prisoner had then said that he would be revenged and went away. Upon Sunday morning following, the circumstance that had taken place being reported to the witness, he immediately went in quest of the prisoner; you found him in the course of a few minutes, and then said to him, that he hoped that he (Davidson) had not any hand in the attack on Mr Howe; he replied, "No! That it was no more than he deserved at my hands, if it had been so."

            John Forster, constable, deposed, are between six and seven on the evening of Thursday, the 13th of June, he, in company with others of the police, was walking up George-street, and met the prisoner Davidson opposite the new building intended for the police office; that his intention was attracted, it being a fine starlight night, by the prisoner being armed with a waddy; that he stopped him, and upon examining the waddy found a bayonet turned down, to use his own words, upon it; that the prisoner was questioned as to the motive for carrying such a weapon, when he replied it was to protect him from the dogs, as he had been violently attacked a short time before by those belonging to Smithers. Forster then handled the weapon, and drew it through his hands several times; but it was a very rusty bayonet, and a heavy and rather rough waddy. Upon being desired to examine one of the waddies and bayonet before the Court, he stated that it much resembled that in the possession of the prisoner. The other waddy was then attempted to the enfixed in the bayonet, but was found not fit. This active police officer added further, that the prisoner told him he was then going to Church. Next morning the prisoner spoke to the witness Forster, as well as those that were with him on the preceding evening, and asked him if the bayonet had been found, as he supposed the constables must have seen him secrete the same under some rubbish near the new police office; but the witness replied in the negative. That upon the Tuesday morning, the third day after the attempted assassination, he went to the prisoner's lodgings; that he was met at the door by the prisoner, who had been once or twice apprehended and discharged on suspicion; that he had a waddy in his hand, and said that was the waddy he had with him on Thursday night. This waddy was before the Court also; and the witness Forster solemnly averred that was not the waddy, but that the other one much resembled that which the prisoner had, both in point of weight, size, and roughness.

            John Matthews, another constable, confirmed the former part of the last evidence, and also said, that the bayonet was a dark looking rusty bayonet.  

            Mr Thomas William Parr, deposed, that upon suspicion being first attached to the prisoner, from a long knowledge of his person, and an acquaintance with his general mild character, he felt disposed to befriend him; that upon the second or third time of his apprehension on the horrid charge, the prisoner sent for him into the back room of the present police office; he then asked him (Mr Parr) if he was still inclined to serve him; to which the witness replied in the affirmative, so long as innocence was the garment he wore; that the prisoner then requested him to procure a bayonet, instead of that which was missing (for the immediate recovery of which Mr Parr had strenuously advised the prisoner to offer a reward), and have it placed in the spot which the prisoner said his bayonet had been secreted by his own hands, but which appeared now to have been unfortunately removed; that the witness then shook his head, said he would have nothing to do with the affair, and left him. Upon the point being strongly urged by His Honor the Judge Advocate, on the recollection of Mr Parr as to the request of procuring another bayonet, he further affirmed, that the prisoner said, in that case, viz. on the obtainment of the bayonet, "the matter would be hushed, and it would do away that the business." The prosecution here closed.

            The prisoner being called upon for his defence, informed the Court that he left it entirely to his Solicitor Mr Rowe. A sensibly written address to the Honorable Members of the Court was recited by His Honor: it went to say, the prisoner had been an active and brave officer in the army in former days; that he had comported himself with every possible decency and good conduct since his arrival in this Colony; and that the preparation of such an outrage upon society, as that with which he then stood charged, was as opposite to his nature, as it was abhorrent and disgusting to the dictates of humanity.

            To witnesses, who were in the boat with McKinlay upon his return from up the river, corroborated the testimony of McKinlay, so far as related to the circumstance of having returned by a quarter past nine, more or less.

            John Thomas Campbell, Esquire, Provost Marshal, being called upon as to the character of the prisoner since his knowledge of him, deposed, that, for the last nine years, his quiet, orderly, and apparently meritorious conduct had impressed him with the most favourable views; and that he should have believed the prisoner to be one of the last persons that could be capable of perpetrating so truly diabolic an act.

            His Honor the Judge Advocate proceeded to sum up the evidence, in the performance of which important and involvement task, His Honor remarked upon the nature of the evidence that had been presented to the Court upon this occasion; that it was wholly circumstantial; and that not a single fact had been alleged against the prisoner that could possibly criminate him as the perpetrator of the crime with which he was now awaiting the judgement of the Court. It was a case of that peculiar complexion, which demanded the most jealous attention, and should therefore be narrowly watched. His Honor said, that it was a chain of circumstances that required to be traced link by link, and if but one link should be found wanting, which gave birth to a doubt, that that doubt should most unquestionably be thrown into the scale of mercy, and weigh on the side of the prisoner, however guilty he might be; thus leaving him to the vengeance of Him, who hath wisely pronounced that "vengeance is mine!" But, upon the other hand, should there be found a sufficiency of evidence to establish the crime against the prisoner, in that case, His Honor said, it would be unnecessary for him to remark as to what punishment would visit such an offender. The Court retired, and in about five minutes return with a verdict of Guilty. Remanded.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University