Ghost upon the Rail – Pre-Intermediate Level
IT was a winter’s night – an Australian winter’s night – in the middle of July. Two farmers were sitting in front of the fire in a hotel near the town 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 completed their sentences and been set free. Then they worked hard, bought land, farmed it, and did 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 family and friends?” asked Smith. “You are now quite rich. I am sure they would be very happy to see you.”
“I don’t know about that, friend,” answered 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 that you are rich, did you?”
“No, but I don’t think they would care much about that. They are far from rich but, as small farmers, they live quite well and are highly thought of in the local community. I have often thought that they would be sorry to see me again. I don’t think it would change their mind if I had £100,000 with me, made through honest work.”
“I think you are wrong about how they will feel. Money means a lot – believe me. Besides, no one other than your family will know anything about you. 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 here I am.”
“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. “Mr Fisher here is going home to England to have a look at his family and friends.”
“Is that true, Mr Fisher?” said the hotel-keeper.
“Oh, yes,” said Fisher.
“And when are you thinking of going?” asked the hotel-keeper.
“I’m not sure yet,” said 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 later, Smith called at the hotel. He told the hotel-keeper that Fisher had left for England, and offered to pay any money on his account. There was a small amount to be paid. While taking the money, the hotel-keeper asked why 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 come to say goodbye, you’ll hear the reason why.'”
“I miss his company very much,” said Smith. “When we did not come here, he would come to my house or I would go to his. We would play cards, smoke a pipe and have a drink 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 to take care of my farm. When he comes back after two or three 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.”
“Really!” said the hotel-keeper. The visit ended here and Smith went home.
Fisher’s leaving as suddenly as this came as a surprise everyone who knew him. But when the hotel-keeper told them the story given by Smith, they no longer thought about it.
A year went by, and Smith told everyone that Fisher had sent him a letter from England. 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 money 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 such a nice man.
Smith advertised the farm for auction, acting on the Power of Attorney Fisher had given him. The sale was to include the land, the cattle, the farm equipment, the furniture, and everything else in the farmhouse. He also advertised the sale of Fisher’s houses and land 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 auction sale, Weir was returning home from Sydney. He saw, sitting on the top rail of the fence next to the road, the well-known form of Mr Fisher. It was very dark, but he could see the clothing and the face very clearly. Weir was not drunk, though he had stopped for a few drinks at Dean’s hotel. He pulled up and called out, “Hello, Mr Fisher! I thought you were at home in England!” There was no answer and the old man, who was in a hurry to get home, as was his horse, continued 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 a ghost, if you thought you saw one its only because you’ve been drinking.”
“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 something to eat and go to bed. And please don’t speak to anybody about this ghost. You will only get laughed at for your trouble. Ghosts! And 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 clearly as could be. It was just as we used to see him sometimes when the day was warm and he had been out 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 image of the ghost sitting on the rail was still clear in his mind and he could not help thinking of it. As usual, he and his wife got out of bed at daylight. 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 have never liked that man. He could never look me straight in the face. And although he always speaks to us in a friendly enough way, he doesn’t come across to me as being completely honest. 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 a murder I tell you, old woman. I am certain of it.”
“But you can’t go around saying that just because you think you saw a ghost on your way home from Sydney. Everyone knows that you always stop for a drink on the way. People will laugh at you. 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 mind playing tricks on you, 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, I called from the cart 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 said no more about it, and had to put up with old David talking about the ghost all that day and the next.
Thursday was the market day in Sydney. On the following Wednesday, old David Weir filled his cart with things to sell and made his way to the city. True to his word to his wife, he did not say a 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 reached Dean’s hotel.
He had travelled thirty miles in that space of time, 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,” said old David, and off they went at a fast walk. One of the men in the cart was a freed convict who worked for Mr Cox, the Penrith magistrate. The other was a policeman. Both of these men had lived in the area for several years and knew everyone who lived nearby.
As they came to the area where the old man had seen the ghost, he brought the horse to a slow walk. Again the form of Fisher was seated on the top rail of the fence. It was in exactly the same place 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 strange! 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 walked up to 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!
“You have been murdered!” 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 God, it shall be brought to light! Let me mark the place.”
He then picked up some sticks from under a tree near the fence and placed them opposite to where the ghost was 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 looking at it in wonder for around ten minutes, and then drove on.
When old David Weir reached 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. 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, we should be able to get thirty shillings a bag for our corn.”
“Thirty shillings a bag! That will help us put away a nice amount for the future! I am so pleased that we didn’t sell when it first passed nine shillings!”
“Get me something to eat quickly, for I still have some business to do.”
“Not out of the house?”
“Don’t you worry about it. Do as I tell you.”
When he finished eating the old man stood up, put on his hat, and left the house.
“Where are you going?” his wife asked.
“To Mr Cox’s,” he answered. “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 farms in Penrith. He was also one of the hardest-working magistrates in the colony. He would see any person who 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 reached Mr Cox’s house and told the man at the gate that he needed to see the magistrate. It was not the first time that the old man had visited Mr Cox at such an hour. Two years ago he had been robbed on the road on his way home from market. As soon as the robbers had gone he went to Mr Cox to give the information.
Mr Cox came out, welcomed the old man and asked him into his 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 the second time you saw this ghost?” asked Mr Cox.
“One is a man 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. His story agreed with everything that David Weir had said.
“It is the strangest thing I have 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 place that you say you saw the ghost 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 finally did sleep, he dreamt of nothing but the ghost sitting on the rail.
At eight o’clock 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 about his second meeting with the ghost. Hamilton further told Mr Cox that none of them had been drinking.
There were some aborigines living nearby. Mr Cox sent for their leader and several others. The European name of the leader was “Johnny Crook.” Like all of his people, Johnny Crook was very good at tracking. Weir led Mr Cox, Hamilton, Williams and the aborigines to the where the ghost had been sitting. The sticks and cuts he had made on the fence post to mark the place were still there.
Johnny Crook, after examining the rail very closely, pointed to some dark marks in the wood. “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. He was helped by the fact that 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 top of the water. After an examination, the aborigines said that this was ‘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 farms. 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 bottom with their feet. It did not take long for them to find a bag. The aborigines lifted it up and brought it to the shore. There was a human body in the bag… or what was left of one. It had been held together by clothing that fell to pieces when touched. The head was still on the body, and around the neck were the remains of a large red handkerchief together with a rope tied to a big stone. The body had been in the water too long for them to be sure it was Fisher. 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 was marked with the letters ‘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 it away or left it with the body because he did not want to be seen with it. 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,” said Mr Cox. “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 everything this dead man owns 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?”
“I have several, sir,” said the policeman.
After leaving the dead body, Mr Cox rode to Fisher’s house, in which Smith was living. When Smith was informed that such an important person as Mr Cox had come to visit, he came outside at once to meet him. Mr Cox got down from his horse and asked if he could speak with Smith for a few minutes.
“Most certainly, sir,” said Smith. He ordered one of his men to take care of the horse and showed his visitor into the living room.
Although the furniture was simple, it was a pleasant room in which to sit and talk. There were all types of pictures on the walls. Fisher had bought these over the years by going to auctions of the things owned by dead army officers. Among them were some very valuable oil paintings that he had bought for next to nothing.
“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 for the highest price offered no matter how low the amount?”
“And the full price must be paid in cash?”
“Selling farms for cash is not very common in this country. People usually pay ten percent on the day of sale, and the rest over the next year.”
“Very true, sir, but these are Mr Fisher’s instructions, which I must follow.”
“What do you think the farm will sell for, including the cattle and all that is upon it?”
“Well, sir, it should get £1,500.”
“I hear that everything Fisher owns is to be sold.”
“How much do you think you will be able to get for all of it, in cash?”
“Not under £12,000 I should say, sir.”
“One of my brothers has an idea of trying to buy the farm. What about the ownership papers?”
“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 papers for land if you have farmed it for twenty years and no one else has said that they own 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 Power of Attorney, will you be signing the papers 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 the same way. 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 best known lawyers in Sydney. They also happened to be Mr Cox’s own lawyers.
“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 family and friends quite well. They were very pleased 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 direct sale, 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 think you should be able to get about £17,000. But do your best, and let me have the money quickly, whatever it is.
Your good 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 people of all levels to pay someone travelling on a ship to carry their letters. As to the signature of the letter, it was exactly the same as that on the Power of Attorney.
“All this looks fine,” said Mr Cox. “Is this letter, dated five months ago, the last you have had from Mr Fisher?”
“Yes, sir. It came by the last ship. There has not been another since.”
“Good morning, Mr Smith.”
“Good morning, sir.”
Mr Cox was not sure what to do as he rode away from Fisher’s farm. 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 Smith came out and saw what they were carrying, there was look of surprise and wonder on his face. But there was nothing in that. The most innocent man in the world would have looked the same.
“What is this, Mr Cox?” he said.
“The remains of Mr Fisher,” was the answer.
“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. “He had it for better than twelve years. I often heard him say that he would not sell it, even if someone offered him £50.”
“Give it away? Yes!” said Smith. “Didn’t he give away all his horse riding things? Didn’t he give away a young cow and its mother?”
“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 got them.”
“This man, whoever he is, was clearly murdered,” said Smith, with a calm look on his face. “Just look at this hole in the back of the head, 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. “If I were you, I wouldn’t have said anything about seeing a ghost. Don’t you know that it could lead you to being arrested?”
“Arrested!” said old Weir. “Why? I have done nothing wrong. I know what I’ve seen, and 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.”
“Ghosts are creations of our mind,” said Smith. “I have heard that they sometimes visit those who killed them. I’m sure that Mr Cox has heard heard the same. If I were a magistrate, I would have you arrested.”
“I will not be doing that, Mr Smith,” said Mr Cox. “In fact, I feel that I must ask this police officer to arrest you.”
“For what, sir?”
“For 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 to identify the remains found in the water-hole and decide on the cause of death. The coroner ruled that although the remains had been in the water too long to identify the face, 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 traveled to England happened to be back in Sydney. The police talked to the ship’s officers. “Did you take a man named John Fisher back to England the last time you sailed?” they asked.
“Yes,” was the answer. “And before we sailed the police came as usual to check on the people travelling and search the ship to see that no convicts were trying to escape. Mr Fisher produced his Certificate of Freedom which, as you know, contains his description.”
“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?”
“Yes, often. He said that he was a farmer near Penrith. He told us that after he was given his freedom he went to work. He saved some money, bought a farm, and by hard work made a lot more money.”
“Did he ever speak of 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 farm till he saw how he liked England. He told me that if he decided not come back to the colony, he would have everything sold off and start some kind of business in England.”
The police also spoke to one of the lawyers who prepared the Power of Attorney and watched as Fisher signed it. He said that a person calling himself John Fisher of Penrith, New South Wales, gave instructions for it to be made up. He was about forty-six or forty-eight years of age and around five feet eight inches tall with a strong build. He had light blue eyes, sandy hair, a partially gray beard, and a very red nose. This is exactly what Fisher looked like at the time he left the colony.
After the Power of Attorney was signed, the man asked the lawyer to make a copy and keep it in his office. This was done and the man 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 later cashed at the bank.
The police showed the cheque for £5 to the manager of the bank. He said that Fisher had an account there. Fisher took out the rest of his money, an amount 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. These looked exactly the same as the letter which Smith said had come from Fisher in England.
The people of the colony could not agree on whether Smith was guilty or innocent. 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 taking an amount of twenty-two shillings from his employer, a vegetable farmer. As for the story about the ghost, very, very few believed it.
Smith’s house and farm, as well as those of Fisher, were searched in the hope of finding some clothing with blood on it. But nothing was found. There was nothing in Smith’s letters and papers that helped the case against him. He kept good accounting records of how he managed Fisher’s farm and houses. In his note books were entries such as the following:
Sept. 9. Wrote to Fisher to say P. has paid back the money he had borrowed from him.
Sept. 27. Wilson paid £27 10s. to live for one year in Fisher’s house in Castlereagh Street.
Nov. 12. Paid Baxter £3 12s. for equipment for Fisher’s farm.
No case had ever before caused, and probably never will again cause, so much talk among the people of Sydney. Many 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 used his papers to leave 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 was in court for something small that might result in a fine or short time in prison.
The judge made sure that the trial was fair. When the witnesses (Weir, Hamilton, Williams and Mr Cox) gave their evidence, everyone listened with great interest. Smith, who did not want a lawyer, spoke for himself. He did a very good job of politely questioning them all. At the end of the trial, Smith gave a long address to the jury to tell them why he was innocent. He spoke 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 talked about the probabilities and improbabilities of Weir having seen Fisher’s ghost in great detail. To list all the things the judge talked about would bore the reader. However, most people in the court room thought that his arguments were in favour of Smith being found not guilty.
The jury in those days was not made up of common people. It was made up of army 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 what was happening in court, but about their daily lives. Those who had any drawing ability drew pictures of the court room or one or more of the people in it. But in this case they listened very carefully to every word. When it was over they were sent away to decide whether Smith was guilty of the murder. This was at half-past five on a Friday afternoon. At a quarter to eleven the jury returned, having made a decision.
As usual, there was great excitement in the court room. When the noise had died down, the court officer asked that famous question: “Officers of the jury, what do you say? Is the prisoner guilty, or not guilty?”
With a strong, clear voice, the head of the jury answered. “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 pleased 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 feeling. He left the court room as calmly as when he entered 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 newspapers of the colony went along with what most people thought. 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. When the Governor read these, he ordered that the papers needed to stop the hanging be made out. However, he said that these must not to be taken to the jail until seven o’clock on the Monday morning. It was later stated that this was because the Governor thought 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 was twice as large. When any prison or court officer was seen inside, he was met 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 way in which Smith listened to the priest who was with 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 moving his legs about 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 murderers.
There was a sadness over Sydney until half-past six that evening. Almost everyone believed that an innocent man had been hanged. From one end of Sydney to the other people were saying: “The witnesses all lied!” “The jury were fools!” “The Governor was wrong!”
At half-past six the public mind changed. It became generally known that on the night before the hanging Smith had sent for the priest and told him 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 riches, which could come to as much as £20,000.
Smith told the priest that the man who had said he was 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 said had come from Fisher. 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 got the money from selling Fisher’s farm and houses. 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 that 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 had been found guilty, and thought it was better for him to die than to be set free. He asked, however, that news of what really happened not be given out until after his death.