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

R. v. Worroll [1827] NSWSupC 1

murder - capital punishment, dissection - phrenology - Aboriginal trackers - Campbelltown - Fisher's ghost

Supreme Court of New South Wales

Forbes C.J., 2 February 1827

Source: Australian, 3 February 1827

 

George Worroll stood capitally indicted for the wilful murder of Frederick Fisher, on the 17th of January last.[1] 

Mr. Daniel Cooper deposed that the prisoner came to him several times, prior to the deceased being found, respecting some papers, which were the title deeds of a farm belonging to Fisher, in the district of Campbell Town; these papers were in witness's possession and prisoner said if witness would give them up he would satisfy a debt due to witness about £80.  Witness pressed him to state what had become of Fisher; but prisoner, in an indifferent manner, said he had gone out of the country to avoid a prosecution for perjury.  In another conversation which witness had with the prisoner, he said that Fisher had given him a power of attorney to act for him; but witness never saw any such document.[2] 

James Coddington, is overseer of a farm belonging to last witness, in the district of Campbell Town.  On the 8th of last July, he was in the township, and met the prisoner, who proposed selling him a young horse, which witness partly agreed to buy; however, having some scruples that the horse formerly belonged to Fisher, who was then reported to have absconded - witness requested to see prisoner's authority for selling the animal, when he presented a bill of sales and receipt for 134l. for four horses, signed "Frederick Fisher."

Thomas Hammond, knew deceased - remembers prisoner coming to him about the mouth [sic] of July last, and offer to him some building boards for sale, which he stated to belong to Fisher - but must be sold to ratify an execution.  Prisoner said that Fisher had left the Colony, and assigned as a reason for his departure, that he was apprehensive of a criminal prosecution being entered against him - prisoner said he would produce his power of attorney to sell - but failed to do so.

In August following, prisoner came with witness to Sydney, in a gig, and put up at the Emu Inn.  On the road, witness mentioned to prisoner, that it was the opinion of a good many persons, Fisher had been murdered.  The prisoner treated the subject with levity - observed him turn pale, and affect to smile.  The conversation on that subject ceased.  It had been arranged between witness and prisoner to stay at the Emu Inn that evening, and return to Campbell Town next morning - but prisoner without stating his intention to any one, left the house, and was not seen until next morning; when he appeared, he said, he had been to Parramatta and back.

A receipt deposed by the last witness, to have been shewn to him by the prisoner, purporting to be Fisher's, was here handed to the witness, and denied by him to be Fisher's receipt.

Mary Talbot deposed, that prisoner received monie from witness, on Fisher's account. - Prisoner said that Fisher was not in the Colony.

Jane Hopkins deposed, that on the 17th June last, prisoner and deceased left the house wherein they both lived, at about the same time - saw deceased about nine o'clock on that evening - he gave some trifle of money to some men on the farm, to go and get something to drink.

Newland, a constable, was employed to search for the body of Fisher - saw sprinkling of blood, on some paling, about 50 rods from prisoner's house - some blacks accompanied him to a creek, at a short distance - Gilbert, the black native, jumped into the water, and with a corn husk swept the surface of the water - then put it to his nose and declared that he could smell "a white man's fat."[3]   The body was found, buried close to - his features, though decomposed, were identified by several persons to be the body of Fisher.  Proof was adduced that the prisoner made a declaration that two persons were guilty of the murder, and confessed he was present, though not an active agent in the business[4] - Guilty. - To be executed on Monday.[5] 

 

 

Execution, 5 February 1827

Source: Australian, 7 February 1827

 

EXECUTION. -  Monday morning George Worrell, who was convicted on Friday last of the wilful murder of Frederick Fisher, a settler living at Campbell Town, underwent the awful sentence pronounced upon him, in pursuance of his conviction.  The culprit, during his trial, appeared wholly indifferent as to its issue, and that sameness of demeanor was observable upon the retirement of the Jury.  Criminals in his situation are generally remarked to betray some emotion of alarm upon the return of the Jury, but this was not the case with this unfortunate man.  As the Jury re-entered their box, after having retired for consideration, prepared to give the fatal verdict, the prisoner stood boldly forth, and without betraying the slightest visible change of countenance, heard the fatal verdict of guilty recorded.  His demeanour was afterwards precisely the same, but savoured of sourness, which precluded the society of those who were desirous of conversing with him. - As the awful hour which was fixed for his final dissolution drew on, he expressed a strong desire to be visited by a Protestant Clergyman.  The Rev. W.Cowper promptly attended to the request, and administered to him spiritual consolation. The Rev. Minister was unremitting in his exertions to bring the culprit to a proper sense of his awful condition.  The criminal, aroused to a sense of religious duty, communicated to his Clergyman that what he had stated to the Magistrates upon his examination, was wholly false, and confessed he alone was the murderer.  It will be recollected by our readers that the prisoner attempted to relieve himself from the imputation of murdering the deceased Fisher, by stating that two persons were guilty of the murder, and that he was present, though not an active agent in the business.  In accounting for his motive in perpetrating the awful deed, he said, that he and Fisher (the deceased) left the house together, with an intention to go into the township to enjoy the evening.  They were perfectly good friends and had been so for some time before - that having walked together a distance of about 30 rods from the house, he observed some stray horses among the wheat crop, one of which was within a short distance of him, when he laid hold of a rail, which lay on the ground, and thereupon aimed a blow at the horse; it struck his companion Fisher.  The latter, by the force of the blow, fell to the ground.  The night was dark, but he quickly discovered his mistake, and in raising Fisher up, found that he was in an almost lifeless state.  Fearful of communicating the circumstance to any one he watched by the insensible man for some time, when finding life was extinct, he raised him on his back, and in that position carried the deceased to a distance of about fifty yards.  For that night he left the mangled victim among some rushes, which grew on a marshy spot of ground, and which was strongly impregnated with alum.  Having done this, he returned to his home.  There was a jovial company of hard working labourers, who had met to spend the evening - but he escaped to rest.  "Ah," said the wretched man, "the evening before this fatal occurrence I was happy; I could boast of being a free man; I had my two or three servants at command, and my orders were obeyed; I was possessed of property; I had a relative who was dear to me, but now how can I dare to meet the face of an honest man to-morrow."  The man died penitent, but left the confession of his guilt to be made known by a person who sat up with him the previous evening.  A few moments only sufficed for his dissolution. [6] 

 

Notes

[1] The Sydney Gazette reported the case on 5 February 1827, noting that the prosecution was conducted by W.H. Moore, Acting Attorney General.  Worroll was defended by Mr. Rowe.  The Gazette spelt his name Worrall, and the Monitor Worral (3 February 1827).

Fisher's estate was subsequently advertised for sale: see, for example, Sydney Gazette, 8 March 1827.

This is the famous Fisher's ghost trial, which is so well known in the Campbelltown district.

[2] According to the Sydney Gazette, 5 February 1827, Cooper said that the victim and the defendant usually lived next to one another, but at the time of the victim's disappearance he was living on the defendant's premises.

[3] The Sydney Gazette, 7 April 1825, noted that the magistrates could reward Aboriginal trackers, but that they were too miserly in doing so on some occasions.  On trackers, see also R. v. Styles and Shepherd, Sydney Gazette, 6 January 1831; Australian, 14 January 1831.

[4] According to the Sydney Gazette, 5 February 1827, Forbes C.J. said in his charge to the jury "that when a train of circumstances all meeting in one point were brought together it was almost impossible to have any stronger evidence, more particularly in cases like the one before the Court, where the crime was usually perpetrated in such a way as to preclude the probability of obtaining direct proof."

[5] In this case, as in many other murder cases, the trial was held on a Friday and the prisoner condemned to die on the following Monday.  This was consistent with the provisions of a 1752 statute (25 Geo. III c. 37, An Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder).  By s. 1 of that Act, all persons convicted of murder were to be executed on the next day but one after sentence was passed, unless that day were a Sunday, in which case the execution was to be held on the Monday.  By holding the trials on a Friday, judges gave the condemned prisoners an extra day to prepare themselves for death.

[6] The account of the execution published in the Sydney Gazette, 6 February 1827, said that he "also acknowledged that it was his full intention to hang the two men who were apprehended, in order to save himself, but now he acquitted them, or any other, of having any participation in the crime".

The Monitor (10 February 1827) described the discovery of the murder after an interval of four months as being "almost miraculous".  The Monitor said that he did not die instantly, but that he showed symptoms of life five minutes after he was hanged.  It went on to say that his "body, we understand, was given to one of our Sydney practitioners, as a subject for anatomical and phrenological experiment; the sentence of law having awarded dissection."

Under (1752) 25 Geo. II c. 37, s. 5 (An Act for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder), the judge was empowered to order that the body of the murderer was to be hanged in chains.  If he did not order that,  then the Act required that the body was to be anatomised, that is, dissected by surgeons, before burial.  The most influential contemporary justification for capital punishment was that of William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1785, reprinted, Garland Publishing, New York, 1978, Book 6, chap. 9.  He argued that the purpose of criminal punishment was deterrence, not retribution.  As Linebaugh shows, the legislature's aim in providing for anatomising was to add to the deterrent effect of capital punishment.  In England, this led to riots against the surgeons: Peter Linebaugh, ``The Tyburn Riot against the Surgeons", in Hay et al. (eds), Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, Penguin, London, 1977.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University