Ghost upon the Rail – Intermediate Level
IT was a winter’s night – an Australian winter’s night – in the middle of July. Two wealthy farmers were sitting in front of the fire in a hotel in the district of Penrith, New South Wales. The hotel was about a mile distant from their homes. Their names were John Fisher and Edward Smith. Both of them had been brought to the colony as prisoners. They had served their time, bought land, farmed it, and done well. People said that Fisher had a lot of money put away in the bank. It was also known that in addition to the large farm on which Fisher lived, he owned several houses and some land in Sydney. Smith was also a successful farmer. However, unlike his neighbour, he had not been able to save much money.
“Why don’t you go home to England, John, and see your friends and relations?” asked Smith. “You are now quite rich. I am sure they would be very glad to see you.”
“I don’t know about that, friend,” replied Fisher. “When I got into trouble it broke the heart of my old father and mother. And none of my seven brothers and sisters have answered any of my letters.”
“But you did not tell them you are rich, did you?”
“No, but I don’t think they would care much about that. They are far from wealthy but, as small farmers, they live quite well and are greatly respected in the local community. I have often thought that they would be sorry to see me if I was to go back. I don’t think money would change their mind, even if I could show them £100,000 earned through honest work.”
“You don’t know human nature as I do. Money means a lot – believe me. Besides, who is to know anything about you, except your own family? And they would never tell anyone that you were once a convict. Why, how many years ago is it?”
“Let me see. I was eighteen at the time, and now I am forty-six. That makes it twenty-eight years ago. When I threw the stone at that man I didn’t think it would hit him, let alone kill him. And I had no idea that if they they caught me I would be sent here. But so it was.”
“The reason I say you should go home, John, is that you are always talking of England and your family there. As for the farm, I could manage that for you while you are away.”
“Thank you, Ned. I’ll think about it.”
Soon the hotel-keeper entered the room. “What do you think, Mr Dean?” Smith asked him. “Here is Mr Fisher going home to England to have a look at his friends and relations.”
“Is that true, Mr Fisher?” said the hotel-keeper.
“Oh, yes,” was Fisher’s reply.
“And when are you thinking of going?” said the hotel-keeper.
“That’ll depend,” replied Fisher, smiling. “When I’m gone you will hear of it, not before. And neighbour Smith here, who is to manage the farm while I am away, will come and pay you any little account I may leave behind.”
“But I hope you will come and say goodbye,” said the hotel-keeper.
“Oh, of course,” said Fisher, laughing. “If I don’t, you will surely know the reason why.”
Soon after this the two farmers left. Their farms were next to each other, and they were the best of friends.
One morning about six weeks after this conversation, Smith called at the hotel. He informed the hotel-keeper that Fisher had left for England, and offered to pay any little sum that he owed. There was a small amount owing. While taking the money, the hotel-keeper remarked that he was sorry Fisher had not kept his word and come to say ‘goodbye’. Smith explained that Fisher had very good reasons for not telling anyone until after he was at sea. He did not want to be rude to anybody – far from it. Fisher wanted to leave quietly to get away from a woman who was after him to marry her.
“Ah! I see,” laughed the hotel-keeper. “That’s what he must have meant that night when he said, ‘if I don’t, you’ll hear the reason why.'”
“I feel the loss of his company very much,” said Smith. “When we did not come here to spend our evening he would come to my house, or I would go to his. We would play cards, smoke a pipe and drink a glass of whiskey together. He left me with a Power of Attorney to take care of things for him while he is away. I have gone to live at his house, and left a manager in charge of my farm. When he comes back after a couple of years, I am going home to England and he will do for me what I am now doing for him. Between ourselves, Mr Dean, he has gone home to get a wife.”
“Indeed!” said the hotel-keeper. Here the conversation ended and Smith went home.
Fisher’s leaving leaving as suddenly as this caused some surprise throughout the district. But when the explanation given by Smith was spread about by the hotel-keeper, people no longer thought any more about the matter.
A year went by, and Smith told everyone that he had received a letter from Fisher. In it he stated that he was not planning to return to Sydney. He asked Smith to sell all that he owned and send the proceeds to him in England. Smith showed this letter to several of Fisher’s closest friends. They were very sad that they would see no more of so good a neighbour and so worthy a man.
Acting on the Power of Attorney Fisher had given him, Smith advertised the farm for sale. This included the land, the cattle, the farm equipment, the furniture, and everything else in the farmhouse. He also advertised the sale of the houses and land that Fisher owned in Sydney.
An old man named David Weir farmed a small piece of land on the Penrith Road. Every week he took some butter, eggs, chickens, and a few bags of corn to sell at Sydney market. About a month before the day of the sale, Weir was returning home from Sydney. He saw, seated on the top rail of the fence next to the road, the well-known form of Fisher. It was very dark, but he could see the figure and the face very clearly. The old man was not drunk, though he had stopped for a few drinks at Dean’s hotel. He pulled up and called out, “Halloa, Mr Fisher! I thought you were at home in England!” There was no reply, and the old man, who was impatient to get home, as was his horse, proceeded on his journey.
“Mother,” old Weir said to his wife, as she was helping him off with his coat, “I’ve seen either Mr Fisher or his ghost.”
“Don’t be silly!” cried the old woman. “You could not have seen Mr Fisher, for he is in Old England. And as for spirits, you never see any without drinking them. You must be full of them now.”
“Do you mean to say I’m drunk, mother?”
“No, but you have been drinking.”
“Yes; but I can see, and hear, and understand. I know what I saw.”
“Well, then, have your supper and go to bed. And take my advice and say nothing to anybody about this ghost. You will only get laughed at for your pains. Ghosts, indeed! To be talking about such things at your age after saying all your life you didn’t believe in them!”
“But I tell you I saw him as plain as plain could be. It was just as we used to see him sometimes when the day was warm and he had been round checking on his fences.”
“Yes, very well. Tell me all about it tomorrow,” said the old woman. “I was up before daylight, and it is now nearly midnight. I’m too tired to listen to a story about a ghost. Have you sold everything well?”
“Yes, and brought back all the money safe. Here it is.”
The old man handed over a bag to his wife and went to bed. But he did not sleep. The memory of what he had seen was still clear in his mind and he could not help thinking of it. He got out of bed at daylight as usual, as did his wife. His first job was always to milk the cows and take the milk to his wife so that she could make butter.
“Well, David, what about the ghost?” she asked when he brought the milk to her.
“I tell you I saw it,” said the old man. “And there’s no call for you to laugh at me. I don’t think Mr Fisher would have gone away without coming to say goodbye to us. And if he didn’t go away, I’ll have to talk of this. I’ll speak to the police and everybody else whose job it is to keep the peace. I will, as I’m a living man! Why would Fisher go to England? England would be no home for him after being here for so many years. And what’s more, he has told me as much many a time.”
“He has told me the same, David. But then, you know, people can change their minds. And you heard what Mr Smith said about that woman?”
“Yes. But I don’t believe Mr Smith. I never had a good opinion of that man. He could never look me straight in the face, and he is too smooth-talking to please me. If Mr Fisher is not alive here in Australia, then that was his ghost that I saw and he has been murdered!”
“Be careful what you say, David. Whatever you do, don’t do anything to make Mr Smith angry at you. Remember, he is a rich man and you are a poor one. We are working hard to save enough money for when we are too old to work. If you say a bad word about Mr Smith, he may take you to court and make you pay for it. And that would be very bad for us.”
“There’s been foul play I tell you, old woman. I am certain of it.”
“But that can’t be proved by your saying that you saw a ghost sitting on a rail as you were coming home from market. Especially since you stopped for a drink on the way. You know that Mr Fisher has sent letters from England. What a great fool you would look if he should still be alive!”
“Well, perhaps you are right. But I tell you that I’m sure I saw either Mr Fisher or his ghost sitting on that rail. Don’t laugh at me, or you’ll make me angry.”
“I won’t laugh at you, but it must have been your imagination, old man. Where was it you saw, or thought you saw him?”
“You know where the fence between Fisher’s land and Smith’s meets the fence on the main road? Near the old bridge at the bottom of Iron Gang Hill?”
“Well, it was there. I’ll tell you what he was dressed in. You know that old coat with yellow buttons, and the trousers he always wears that have lines in the cloth, and that big red handkerchief that he used to tie round his neck?”
“Well, that’s how he was dressed. He held his hat in his left hand, and his right arm was resting on one of the posts.”
“And you called him, you say?”
“Yes; but he did not answer. If the horse had not been in such a hurry to get home I’d have got down and gone up to him.”
“And then you would have found out that it was all smoke.”
“Say that again and I’ll be angry with you.”
The old woman held her tongue. She put up with old David talking about the ghost all that day and the next, without making any remark whatever.
On the following Wednesday – Thursday being the market day in Sydney – old David Weir loaded his cart and made his way to the city. True to his word to his wife, he did not mention one word about the ghost to anyone. Having sold his butter, eggs, chickens and corn, the old man left Sydney at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. At half-past ten that night he arrived at Dean’s hotel.
He had travelled in that space of time thirty miles, and was now about eight or nine miles from home. As usual, he fed and watered his horse there. But he would not take a drink, although asked by several friends. During the whole day he had been careful to drink only water.
At a quarter to twelve the old man put his tired horse back in the cart. He was about to continue on his journey when two men, who were going to Penrith, asked if they could ride with him.
“Jump up, my lads,” said old David, and off they went at a fast walk. One of the men in the cart was a freed convict in the employ of Mr Cox, the Penrith magistrate. The other was a newly appointed policeman of the district. Both of these men had lived in the area for several years and knew everyone who lived nearby.
As they came to the spot where the old man had seen the ghost, he brought the horse to a slow walk. Again the figure of Fisher was seated on the upper rail of the fence. It was in exactly the same position and wearing the same clothes.
“Look there!” said old David to the two men. “What do you think that is?”
“It is a man!” they both answered. “But how odd! It seems as if a light were shining through him!”
“Yes,” said old David. “But look at him more closely. What man is it?”
“It is Mr Fisher,” they both said at the same time.
The old man was as brave as a lion. “Hold the horse, one of you,” he said. “I’ll go and speak to him. They say he is at home in England, but I don’t believe it.”
Getting down from the cart, old David approached the ghost and stood in front of it. “Speak!” he cried. “Don’t you know me, sir? I am David Weir. How did you get that cut on the top of your head? Are you alive or dead, Mr Fisher?” When there was no answer, the old man reached out his hand and placed it on what appeared to be Fisher’s shoulder. But it was empty space that the hand rested upon!
“There has been foul play!” said the old man. He was talking to the ghost, but speaking loudly enough to be heard by both men in the cart. “And, by heaven, it shall be brought to light! Let me mark the spot.”
He broke off several small branches from a tree near the fence and placed them opposite to where the ghost remained sitting. Then, to be sure, he took out his pocket-knife and made a cut in the post on which the right hand of the ghost rested.
Even after the old man returned to the cart, all three men could still see the ghost of Fisher sitting on the rail. It looked exactly as he did when he was alive. They sat gazing at it for around ten minutes, and then drove on.
When old David Weir arrived home, his wife was very happy to see him so calm and relaxed. With a smile, she asked if he had seen the ghost again. “Never mind about that,” said the old man. “Here, take the money and lock it up while I take the horse out of the cart. He is very tired, and no wonder, for the roads are nearly a foot deep in dust. This is the fifteenth month that has passed since we had the last shower of rain. But never mind! If it holds off for two or three weeks longer our corn will be worth thirty shillings a bag.”
“Thirty shillings a bag! Why, that will help us put away a nice amount for the future! I am so glad that we didn’t sell when it first passed nine shillings!”
“Get me some supper ready, for as soon as I have eaten it I have some business to do.”
“Not out of the house?”
“Never you mind. Do as I tell you.”
Having finished his supper, the old man rose from his chair, put on his hat and left the house.
“Where are you going?” his wife asked.
“To Mr Cox’s,” he replied. “I’ll be home in an hour or so. I have business to do, as I told you.”
“Surely it can wait till the morning,” the old woman suggested. But he would not listen to her and walked away.
Mr Cox owned one of the largest properties in the district. He was also one of the most enthusiastic and hardest-working and magistrates in the colony. He would see any person who considered they had business with him at all times of the day or the night.
It was past two o’clock in the morning when David Weir arrived at Mr Cox’s house and informed the the man at the gate that he desired to see the master. It was not the first time that the old man had visited Mr Cox at such an hour. Two years previously he had been robbed on the road on his way home from market. As soon as they had gone he went to Mr Cox to give the information.
Mr Cox came out, welcomed the old man and invited him to enter the house. Old David followed the magistrate in and told about his two meetings with the ghost of Fisher.
“And who were the two men with you on the second occasion of your seeing this ghost?” asked Mr Cox.
“One is a freed convict named Williams, who works for you. The other is a man named Hamilton. He used to work for Sir John Jamieson, but now is a policeman in Penrith. They both rode with me in my cart,” the old man answered.
“Has Williams returned?”
“It is very late, and the man may be tired and have gone to bed. However, I will send for him.” Mr Cox gave the order for Williams to be called.
Williams came in a few minutes and supported David Weir’s statement in every particular.
“It is the most extraordinary thing I have ever heard in my life,” said Mr Cox. “Go home, Weir. And you, Williams, go back to bed. Tomorrow morning I will go with you to the spot and examine it. You say that you have marked it, Weir?”
The old man then left Mr Cox and Williams and returned home. Mr Cox did not sleep again till a few minutes before daylight. Then, when he when he finally did sleep, he dreamt of nothing but the ghost sitting on the rail.
At eight o’clock the next morning – or rather, on that morning – Mr Cox rode over to the town of Penrith. He met Hamilton, the second person who had travelled with Weir. Hamilton, as did Williams, agreed with all that Weir had said in relation to the second time he had seen the ghost. Hamilton further told Mr Cox that none of them were in the slightest degree affected by drink.
There was a tribe of aborigines living nearby. Mr Cox sent for the chief and several others. The European name of this chief was “Johnny Crook,” and, like all of his race, he was very good at tracking. Mr Cox proceeded to the spot along with Weir, Hamilton, Williams and the aborigines. Weir had no difficulty in pointing out the exact rail. The broken branches and the cuts on the post marked the spot.
Johnny Crook, after examining the rail very closely, pointed to some stains. “White man’s blood!” he explained. Then, jumping over the fence, he examined the bushes and the ground on the other side. Before long he started off through the forest, following the signs left by a man and something being pulled along the ground. He continued on for almost a mile. Fortunately, so far as the needs of justice were concerned, no rain had fallen during the fifteen months since Fisher was last seen. One heavy shower would probably have covered all these tracks. Strangely enough, that very night there was a frightful storm. More rain fell than had been known for many years.
Finally they came to a water-hole. There was an oily film on the surface of the water. After an examination, the aborigines declared this to be ‘white man’s fat’. The water-hole in question was not on Fisher’s land, or Smith’s. It was on government land at the back of their properties. When full to the top, the water would have been about ten feet deep in the centre. But at the time it was no more than three and a half feet deep. There were no cattle foot marks around the water-hole. As thirsty as the cattle in the area must be, it was clear that they would not drink this water.
Mr Cox asked the aborigines to walk into the water and feel about the muddy bottom with their feet. It did not take long for them to find a bag. The aborigines raised it to the surface and brought it to the shore. The bag was full of bones… or rather, the remains of a human body. It had been kept together by clothing which fell to pieces with the slightest touch. The skull was still attached, and around the neck were the remains of a large red handkerchief together with a rope tied to a big stone. The features of the body were not recognisable. But the buttons on the clothes and the boots were those which Fisher used to wear. And in the pocket of the trousers was a pocket-knife which bore the initials ‘J.F.’. This was identified by Weir, who had seen Fisher use the knife many times. The murderer, whoever it might be, had either forgotten to take away the knife or had purposely left it with the body. All the other pockets had been emptied.
“Well, sir, what do you think of that?” said old Weir to Mr Cox.
“I am not sure what to think of it,” was Mr Cox’s reply. “But it is lucky for you, David, that you are a man of such good character. If it wasn’t for that, people might think that you were be the murderer.”
“Yes, you. If it were not that this dead man’s property is advertised for sale, it could have gone very badly for you, old man. It would have been suggested that you gave me the information about the ghost because you felt guilty about killing him. All of you stay here with the body until I return. I shall not be gone for more than an hour. Hamilton, do you have handcuffs with you?”
“Several pairs, sir,” replied the policeman.
After leaving the dead body, Mr Cox rode to Fisher’s house, in which Smith was living. Smith, on being informed of the approach of such an important person as Mr Cox, came out to receive him with all respect and honour. Mr Cox got down from his horse and asked if he could speak with Smith for a few minutes.
“Most certainly, sir,” Smith replied. He ordered a servant to take care of the magistrate’s horse and showed his visitor into the living room.
The furniture in the room was plain and simple, but comfortable and remarkably clean. There were all types of pictures on the walls. Fisher had bought these over the years by going to auctions of the furniture and personal possessions of dead officials. Among them were two valuable oil paintings. These had been bought for less money than the frames were worth. There were also six Dutch paintings for which he paid forty-two shillings. They were worth more money than Fisher and the other people who bid against him at that auction could ever have imagined.
“I have come to speak to you on a matter of business,” said the magistrate. “Is the auction of this farm to be final? That is to say, will everything be sold to the highest bidder no matter how low the amount?”
“And the full price must be paid in cash?”
“Sales for cash are not very common in this country. People usually accept ten percent on the day of sale, with the rest paid equally at three, six, nine and twelve months.”
“Very true, sir, but these are Mr Fisher’s instructions, by which I must be guided.”
“What do you imagine the farm will sell for, including the cattle and all that is upon it?”
“Well, sir, it ought to get £1,500.”
“I hear that everything Fisher owns is to be sold.”
“What will it realise, do you think, in cash?”
“Not under £12,000 I should say, sir.”
“One of my brothers has an idea of bidding for this farm. What about the title?”
“As good as can be, sir. It was originally given to Colonel Foucaux, who sold it to Mr Thomas Blaxsell, who sold it to Fisher. And as you know, sir, under the law you can also get title for land if you have farmed it for twenty years and no one else has made a claim on it. Fisher has been here far longer than that. All the papers are here. You may see them, if you please, sir.”
“There is no need for that. As Mr Fisher has given you his official Power of Attorney, will you be signing the documents for him?”
“What is the date of the Power of Attorney?”
“I will tell you, sir, in one moment,” Smith said. He opened a desk in one corner of the room, took out the Power of Attorney, and placed it in Mr Cox’s hands.
Mr Cox did not know if the signature on it was really Fisher’s. In fact, he would not have known even if he had seen Fisher write his name many times. All uneducated men in the colony seemed to sign their name using the same writing style. But as to the identity of the two people who witnessed the signature, there could be no question. They were those of two of the most respected lawyers in Sydney. They also happened to be Mr Cox’s own solicitors.
“And the letter of instructions telling you to sell by auction, for cash? It says in the Power of Attorney that you can only sell the farm if you get written instructions from Fisher.”
“Here is the letter, sir,” said Smith, producing it.
Mr Cox read the letter carefully. It said:
I got home all right, and found my friends and relations quite well. They were very glad to see me again and gave me a warm welcome. I am so happy among them that I shall not be returning to the colony. So sell everything, by public auction or by private contract, but let it be for cash. I want the money quickly as I am going to buy a share in a business with it. I reckon you should be able to get about £17,000. But do your best, and let me have the money quickly, whatever it is.
Your faithful friend,
There was no postage stamp on the letter. In those days the cost of posting letters was very high. It was very common for persons in all positions in life to send letters by private hands. As to the signature of the letter, it was exactly the same as that on the Power of Attorney.
“All this is very satisfactory,” said Mr Cox. “Is this letter, dated five months ago, the last you have received?”
“Yes, sir. It came by the last ship. There has not been another since.”
“Good morning, Mr Smith.”
“Good morning, sir.”
Riding away from Fisher’s farm, Mr Cox was not sure what to do. The Power of Attorney was drawn up correctly and signed by Fisher in front of two well-known lawyers. The letter appeared to have been signed by the same person. All this supported the idea that Fisher had gone to England and left everything that he owned in the hands of Smith, his friend and neighbour. But then, there were the remains! Mr Cox was certain that they were the remains of Fisher.
When Mr Cox returned to the water-hole, he ordered the aborigines to carry the remains to Fisher’s house. He rode along with them, heading the party. When they arrived, Smith came out and looked at them with an expression of surprise and wonder. But there was nothing in that. The most innocent man in the world would have had the same look on his face.
“What is this, Mr Cox?” he said.
“The last that I have heard and seen of Mr Fisher,” was the reply.
“Of Mr Fisher, sir!”
“These were his clothes,” said Smith, examining them carefully. “Most certainly this was the old suit he used to wear. But as for the body, it can’t be his. He is alive, as you have seen by his letter. He must have given these old clothes away, as he did many other old things, the day before he left. And the man to whom he gave them must have been murdered.”
“Do you think he would have given away this knife?” said David Weir. “To my knowledge, he had it for better than twelve years. I often heard him say that he would not part with it for £50.”
“Give it away? Yes!” said Smith. “Didn’t he give away all his horse riding things? Didn’t he give away a cow and a calf?”
“He was a good man, and an honest man and fair man. As he got older he was also a very Christian man. But he was never a giving away man,” answered old David.
“And if he gave away these boots,” said Hamilton, “they were a very good fit for the man who received them.”
“This man, whoever he is, was murdered, no doubt,” said Smith, with a calm look on his face and in the coolest manner. “Just look at this hole in the back of the skull, Mr Cox.”
“Yes, I have seen that,” said the magistrate.
“And that’s where poor Fisher’s ghost had it,” said old David.
“Fisher’s ghost!” said Smith. “What do you mean, Weir?”
“Why, the ghost that I have twice seen sitting on the rail not far from the old bridge at the bottom of the hill over there.”
“Ghost! You have seen a ghost, have you?” said Smith. “Well, I have heard that ghosts do visit those who have sent them out of this world. I am sure that Mr Cox has heard heard the same. Ghosts are creatures of our mind. Now, if I had been you, I’d have held my tongue about a ghost for fear of being arrested.”
“Arrested!” said old Weir. “No, no! I have done nothing wrong, and what I’ve seen and said I’ll swear to. Wherever I go I’ll talk about it up to my dying hour. That was the ghost of Mr Fisher that I saw, and these are the remains of his body.”
“If I were a magistrate like Mr Cox,” said Smith, “I would have you arrested.”
“I will not do that, Mr Smith,” replied Mr Cox. “I feel that my duty forces me to ask this police officer to arrest you.”
“For what, sir?”
“On a charge of murder. Hamilton!”
“Handcuff Mr Smith and take him to Penrith police station.”
Smith held out his hands. He had the look of a man who has done nothing wrong and is totally sure of his innocence.
A coroner’s hearing was held in relation to the remains found in the water-hole. The coroner ruled that although the remains had been in the water so long and could not be identified, they were those of John Fisher. He also ruled that Fisher had been murdered, and that Edward Smith should stand trial for the murder.
The ship in which Fisher was reported to have left Sydney happened to be in the harbour. The police talked to the captain and officers. “Did you take a man named John Fisher back to England the last time you sailed?” they asked.
“Yes,” was the answer. “And the police came on board, as usual, to check on the people travelling and search the ship to see that no convicts were attempting to escape. Mr Fisher produced his Certificate of Freedom which, as you know, contains a description of his person.”
“And did the man answer exactly to that description?”
“Yes, making allowance for his years. He would have been arrested if he had not, as many convicts have been.”
“And did he talk of himself when you were at sea?”
“Frequently. He said that he was a farmer near Penrith. He told us that after he had served his time as a convict he went to work. He saved some money, rented a farm, then bought it, and by hard work made a lot more money.”
“Did he ever mention a Mr Smith… a friend of his?”
“Often. He said he had left everything in Mr Smith’s hands. After being away for so long, he did not want to sell his property till he saw how he liked England. He told me that if he decided not come back to the colony, he would have all his property sold off and start some kind of business in England.”
The police also spoke to one of the solicitors who prepared the Power of Attorney and watched as Fisher signed it. He said that a person calling himself John Fisher of Ruskdale, in the district of Penrith, gave instructions for the document to be made up. He was about forty-six or forty-eight years of age and around five feet eight inches in height with a strong build. He had light blue eyes, sandy hair, a partially gray beard, and a rather reddish nose. This description exactly matched that of Fisher at the time he left the colony.
After the document was signed, the man requested that a copy be made and kept in the solicitor’s office. This was done and he took the signed copy away with him. In payment of the £5 bill, the man gave a cheque on the bank of New South Wales. This was cashed on presentation.
The police showed the cheque for £5 to the manager of the bank. He said that Fisher had an account there, and took out his balance of £200 two days before he was said to have sailed for England. This was not done done in person, but by a cheque. He had written several letters to the bank. On comparing those with the letter Smith said he had received from England, they matched exactly.
Opinion was very much divided in the colony about Smith’s guilt. Many of those who knew Smith said that he would never do anything so monstrous. They looked into the records to find out why he was originally sent to prison. It was for stealing the sum of twenty-two shillings from his employer, a vegetable farmer. As for the story about the ghost, very, very few put any trust in it.
Smith’s house and farm, as well as those of Fisher, were searched in the hope of finding some clothing stained with blood. But nothing was found. There was nothing in Smith’s letters and papers that strengthened the case against him. His accounting records in relation to Fisher’s property were kept completely separate from his own. In his note books were entries such as the following:
Sept. 9. Wrote to Fisher to say P. has paid the money he owed him.
Sept. 27. Received £27 10s. from Wilson for one year’s rent of Fisher’s house in Castlereagh Street.
Nov. 12. Paid Baxter £3 12s. due to him by Fisher for farm equipment.
No case had ever before created, and probably never will again create, so much talk among the people of Sydney. Many people believed Smith’s story that Fisher had given away the clothes. They thought that Weir must have murdered the man who wore them. Many others agreed with the coroner that the remains were those of Fisher. However, they believed that the murderer was a stranger who robbed Fisher and, pretending to be him, then left the colony.
The day of Smith’s trial for the murder finally came. The court was crowded with persons from every level of society, from the highest to the very lowest. Smith faced the judge calmly, as though he had only been charged with a small crime that might result in a fine or short time in prison.
The judge handled the case with the greatest fairness imaginable. When the witnesses (Weir, Hamilton, Williams and Mr Cox) gave their evidence, everyone appeared to hold his breath. Smith, who defended himself, did a very good job of politely questioning them all. At the conclusion of the case, Smith gave a long address to the jury, speaking clearly and effectively.
The judge then went over the main points of the evidence for the jury. He said that he was the last man in the world to believe in ghosts. However, in order to be as fair as he could, he weighed up the probabilities and improbabilities in great detail. To list all the points made by the judge would bore the reader but, if they had any leaning one way or other, it was in favour of Smith.
The jury in those days was not made up of common people, but of military officers. In normal court cases, these men did not apply much of their minds to the points being made. Some of them would throw themselves back and shut their eyes – not to think, but to sleep. Others would speak quietly to each other – not about the guilt or innocence of the prisoner, but about their daily lives. Those who had any drawing ability exercised it by sketching the court room or one or more of the people in it. But in this case they seemingly listened very carefully so that they could arrive at the truth. They paid breathless attention to every word that fell from the judge during his summing up, which lasted over two hours. When it was over they were sent away to consider their verdict. This was at half-past five on a Friday afternoon. At a quarter to eleven the jury returned, having made a decision.
There was great excitement in the court room, as is common upon such occasions. When the noise had died down, the court official asked that famous question: “Gentlemen of the jury, what do you say? Is the prisoner guilty, or not guilty?”
With a firm, clear voice, the head of the jury – a captain in the army – replied. “GUILTY!”
Shouts of both agreement and disagreement could be heard around the room. It was clear from the way the judge put the black cap upon his head that he was not totally satisfied with the finding of the jury. However, he had no choice and sentenced the prisoner to be hanged on the following Monday morning at eight o’clock. Smith heard the sentence without moving a single muscle or showing any emotion. He left the court room as calmly as he did when entering it. The way he had acted through the trial, and after he was sentenced, caused many who had thought him guilty to believe in his innocence.
The press of the colony went along with the most popular opinion. They wrote that it would be the same as murder for the government to hang a man based upon such weak evidence as that presented at the trial. Hundreds of people signed a letter asking the Governor to let Smith live. The judge who tried the case wrote to the Governor suggesting that the jury may have been wrong. The Governor, having received these, ordered that the papers needed to stop the hanging be made out. However, he said that these must not to be delivered to the jail until one hour before the hanging was due to take place. It was later stated that this was because the Governor was of opinion that the finding of the jury was correct.
The rocks outside the wall of the jail in Sydney provided a good view of the gallows. They were crowded with people as early as half-past six on the Monday morning. At a little before seven, the hangman came out to set the rope in place and make other preparations. He was met with loud calls in favour of Smith. By seven o’clock the crowd had doubled. When any prison or court official was seen inside, he was greeted with angry shouts.
At five minutes to eight Smith was brought out. They stopped at the foot of the gallows, next to his coffin which lay on the ground. His arms were tied, and then he was helped up the ladder. As this was happening the shouts of the people became louder. “Murder! Murder! Murder! Hang Weir! He is the guilty man! This is a murder! A terrible murder!” The cries came from every part of that great crowd. The calm manner in which Smith listened to the priest who attended him in his last moments brought on even more shouting.
At one minute past eight the hangman pulled the handle that caused Smith to drop. After struggling for about half a minute, he was dead. When the crowd saw this they renewed their shouting. But their cries could not bring Smith back to life. He had gone to meet his god.
After hanging for an hour, Smith’s body was cut down. Then it was put in the coffin and carried in an uncovered cart to Slaughter-House Point, the last resting place of all great criminals.
There was a sadness over Sydney until half-past six that evening. Almost everyone believed that an innocent man had been hanged. “The witnesses all lied, including Mr Cox!” “The jury were a group of fools.” “The Governor should have listened to the judge. He is a cruel, cold-hearted man.” Such were the opinions from one end of Sydney to the other.
At half-past six the public mind changed. It became generally known that on the previous night Smith had sent for the priest and confessed that he did in fact kill Fisher. He said that he had been thinking about doing it for more than two years to get at Fisher’s wealth, which could come to as much as £20,000.
Smith told the priest that the man who had pretended to be Fisher and signed the Power of Attorney was a convict who looked like the dead man. He had given him Fisher’s Certificate of Freedom. The convict had then escaped the colony and gone back to England. From there he had written the letter which Smith used in his defence. This was a copy of a letter that Smith had prepared and given to him before he left. Smith made it clear that the convict knew nothing of Fisher’s murder.
It was Smith’s plan to leave the colony as soon as he received the proceeds of the sale. This was not only because he wanted to spend the last part of his life in England. From the day on which he killed Fisher, he had been visited every night by the ghost which old Weir had seen sitting on the rail.
Smith said that the murder was done by a single blow from a hand axe, and that Fisher died the moment it was done and never spoke a word. He finished by saying that he had not enjoyed a moment of peace since killing Fisher. Although he had tried, he could no longer hide his feelings and act as if he were innocent. He would much rather, as he had been convicted, suffer death than be set free. He asked, however, that his confession be kept a secret until after the last breath had left his body.