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Decisions of the Nineteenth Century Tasmanian Superior Courts

R. v. Williams [1842]

murder of convict by convict -  Port Arthur - confession

Supreme Court of Van Diemen's Land

Pedder C.J., 9 December 1842

Source: Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen's Land Gazette, 16 December 1842[1]

            Samuel Williams was placed in the dock charged with the wilful murder of James Harkness, at Port Arthur, on the 18th ult. To this charge the prisoner pleaded not guilty. Messrs. Macdowell and Stewart appeared for the defence.

            The first witness called was Richard Walters, a prisoner of the crown, who deposed, viz:- I was at Port Arthur on the eighteenth of November last; my duty was to tend goats; knew the deceased, James Harkness; he was a goatherd; the last time I saw him alive was about half-past twelve on the above day; he was then at Opossum Bay, which is about a mile and a quarter from the settlement. I went to the spot where we agreed to meet at half-past two; it was about 400 or 500 yards from Opossum Bay; Harkness was not there. On perceiving his goats making for the settlement, I sent word that the deceased was missing, and soon after, drove the herd to the settlement, where I saw Mr. Newman, the Chief Constable. Mr. Richard Newman, and Abrahams, a Constable, afterwards accompanied me in search of Harkness; on our way to the spot we were joined by Constable Williams, a watchman; after some time we found the deceased, at a distance of about 70 yards from the place where I had left him, lying dead on the pathway; his head was beaten to pieces; I searched for a weapon, but could not find any; Mr. Newman, Dr. Brownell and several others arrived soon after.

            By His Honor. - We had both charge of the same herd of goats - Harkness lived at the settlement; I did not hear any cry; the path led from the spot where I left him to that at which we were to meet; it was 7 o'clock when we found the body; I did not touch it.

            James Wilson. - I am a prisoner at Port Arthur, where I am employed as a sub-constable. On the 18th ult., I went with Samuel Sugden in search of a man who had absconded from his gang; it was Samuel Williams, the prisoner at the bar. In consequence of what I heard from Brown and Jones, I proceeded on a search for the deceased; I met Mr. Newman, Walters, Abraham, and Gibson; we separated for the purpose of scouring the bush; Walters was about twenty yards from me when he called out "Here he is;" (it was then past six o'clock;) I went up to the deceased; he was dead and quite cold; traces of struggling were on the ground, as also marks of blood; a handkerchief saturated with blood lay near his cap; (both articles produced were identified;) a twig covered with blood was also found near him; there were several extensive wounds on the head, but we could find no instrument calculated to inflict such severe injuries; Sugden and I went in search of the prisoner; whom we found with his irons on his legs; we took him to the settlement and there stripped him; his shirt and trousers were spotted with blood; ;which appeared to be fresh; on the following Thursday the prisoner, the Chief Constable, Sugden, and I went to the place where the deceased was found. Prisoner, pointing to the spot, said "that is where I killed the old goatherd!" He stated, as the manner in which he had accomplished the deed, that he had knocked him down with a pick-handle, and had afterwards repeated the blows nine of ten times; he then led us right through the bush; in reaching a particular spot he looked about for a few minutes, and then pulled out a pick-handle from underneath a tree; he handed it to me saying "I killed the old goatherd with that;" the weapon was not tinged with blood; Williams also said that he had fallen into a water-hole on that day, whilst having the pick-handle in his hand; it was a very wet day.

            By His Honor. - The deceased was between fifty and sixty years of age, and was very infirm.

            By Mr. Stewart - I did not observe the prisoner's clothes when he was apprehended; it was quite dusk.

            Samuel Sugden was called to corroborate the testimony of the foregoing witness.

            Mr. Richard Newman. - I am Chief Constable of Tasman's Peninsula. On the 18th ult., I sent two constables in search of a prisoner named Williams, who had absconded from his gang; in consequence of a report which had been made to me, I proceeded to Opossum Bay in company with the Commandant and Dr. Brownell; the body of James Harkness was there shown to us by a man of the name of Brown, a watchman; the body was lying on the right side, and was quite dead; the head was much bruised; Dr. Brownell counted nine or ten wounds; the prisoner was then brought to the spot by assistant constables Wilson, and Sugden; when shortly after removed to the settlement I had him stripped, and, on examining his clothes, I found several marks of blood on his trousers, and others, though feint, on the wristbands of his shirt; the marks appeared quite recent; (the trousers and shirt were here produced and identified;) on the following Monday morning I visited the prisoner in his cell; Sugden was present; the former asked for a prayer-book which was, by my direction, given to him; I saw him the next morning, when, holding the prayer-book in his hand, he said, "I am very uneasy in my mind;" I then left him; I went to him again on the Wednesday morning in the presence of Sugden; the prisoner repeated the remark which he had before made to me, viz:- "that he was very uneasy in his mind;" I inquired for what reason? Williams replied, "I am guilty of the murder of the old goatherd;" I cautioned him to mind what he said to me, as it would, no doubt, militate against him on some future day; he requested I would see him again that afternoon; I did so; on my entering the cell he repeated his confession, adding, that "when he left the gang, he took with him a pick-handle with the determination to kill the first person he met, as he was tired of his life; the first individual whom he saw was the deceased Harkness;" the prisoner endeavoured to take a goat, but Harkness interfered, and said "he would take the other to the settlement.:" they walked a few yards together, when Williams struck the old man on the head with his pick-handle; Harkness endeavoured to run away, but after struggling a few yards, fell on the ground, where he was beaten on the head until life was extinct; the prisoner soon after left the body and proceeded through the bush - a distance of about half a mile. - and concealed the pick-handle under a tree; he said that, if I thought proper, he would show me where he had hidden it; on the following morning I asked the prisoner whether he was ready and willing to accompany me to the spot where the weapon lay? He replied that he was, and immediately accompanied Wilson, Sugden, and myself, on reaching the place, where the body was found, he said, "this is where I killed the old goat-man;" he was led the way through the bush a distance of half a mile; when he arrived within a distance of 100 yards from the "Safety Cove Road," Williams looked about for a few minutes, after which, he said, "I think this is the tree;" He then stooped down and picked up the pick-handle, which he delivered to Constable Wilson.

            Wm. Gibson, overseer to the "Brick-field Gang," deposed that, on the day in question, he last saw the deceased at about twenty minutes to 12 o'clock; he was then tending his goats within sight of the Brickfields; he saw him lying dead at about half-past six on the evening of that day; at about twenty minutes to twelve witness heard the rattle of irons, and searched in that direction, but could not see any one.

            Mr. Petty, the muster clerk at Port Arthur, had missed Williams on the 18th of November; at the mid-day muster, and had reported him absent; no other prisoner had absconded on that day.

            Dr. Brownell, assistant surgeon at Port Arthur, corroborated the evidence, as to the finding the body, and described the wounds which he had found on examination of the deceased; there were ten wounds about the head and face; there was a severe one across the chin, and another above the left eye-brow; both eyelids were black and much swollen; there was a deep cut above the corner of the right eye, penetrating through the integuments into the bones; there were three incisions, varying in extent from an inch and a half to three inches, besides several others of less severity; the death of the deceased had been caused through a violent concussion of the brain; the injuries had evidently been inflicted by means of a blunt instrument, such as the pick-handle produced.

            Mr. Stewart rose in the prisoner's defence, and contended that little doubt could be entertained but that the confession, which had been made so much to militate against the man, had been offered under the hope of being relieved from a portion of the hardships of his incarceration as an absconder. Wilful confessions could not be held as good evidence, since it had not unfrequently been found that innocent persons had pleaded guilty of an offence for the sake of being removed from a penal settlement to the metropolis.

            His Honor here interfered, and remarked on the absurdity of such a supposition.

            The learned counsel, seeing the difficulties which arose before him, would content himself with expressing the hope that the prisoner would receive the benefit of any doubt which might arise in their minds, and that the jury would return a verdict tempered with mercy.

            The jury retired, and shortly after returned a verdict of Guilty.

            His Honor then passed sentence of death on the culprit, who maintained the expression and posture of vacancy which had marked him throughout his trial.


[1]          See also True Colonist, 16 December 1842.

            According to AOT SC 41/5 Williams was to be hanged and dissected.  On the gallows, Williams 'created an unpleasant scene' when he extricated a pinioned arm and tried to remove his death cap', R.P. Davis, The Tasmanian Gallows: A Study of Capital Punishment, Hobart: Cat and Fiddle Press, 1974, p. 45.

Published by the Division of Law, Macquarie University and the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania