"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This is one of the odder deaths I've come across in some time.  From "The Press" (Canterbury, New Zealand) for December 11, 1888:
One of the most painful and mysterious cases of death which has ever occurred in the colony came to light on Friday last. Mr. G. B. W. Lewis, the well known theatrical manager, resides on the St. Hilda road. In the household was one servant girl named Fanny Perry, aged twenty-three, and on Friday last her dead body was found on the premises under very singular and mysterious circumstances. The girl Perry came to Mrs. Lewis as a general servant last Christmastime, and was with her until August 23rd of this year, when she obtained a fortnight's holiday, and left with the intention of visiting her mother, who resides near Talbot. Subsequent inquiries have shown that she did go there, and while there endeavored to negotiate for the sale of some land which she held jointly with her sister. On September 2nd she resumed duties at Mr. Lewis'. Prior to her departure on this holiday she had been a cheery, lively, happy natured girl, but after her return she appeared to have some trouble on her mind, and her old heartiness of spirit seemed to have gone.

On the 25th of October Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, accompanied by their son, visited the Theatre, and the girl was left in charge of the house. When they returned home they found the place in the usual order, and concluded that the servant had retired to rest prior to their arrival. Next morning, however, she did not put in an appearance, and an examination of her room showed that her bed had not been slept in. Mr. Lewis reported her disappearance to the police, and communicated with the girl's friends. No information as to her movements could be gained.

On the 23rd of November, while Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were sitting together in the evening, they heard moans coming from a large corrugated iron shed erected by Mr. Lewis when he retired from the management of the Bijou Theatre as a store-room for large quantities of scenery he owns.  Knowing that this store-room was continually overrun with rats and cats, it was concluded that one of these animals had been unfortunate enough to become jammed between two pieces of the scenery and was unable to escape. The moaning ceased after brief duration, and nothing more was thought of the matter until last Friday, when the smell from this shed became very offensive. It grew in noisomeness until it became almost unbearable. Mr. Lewis, junr., returned on Thursday, and his father and himself determined to overhaul the scenery and endeavor to ascertain the source of this annoyance. They moved large quantities of the flats, but one piece defied their united efforts, and Mr. Lewis, junr., climbed up to the top of the mass to see what was the cause of resistance. To his horror he discovered lying on the top of the scenery the dead body of the girl in an advanced stage of decomposition. The body was lying on its back with the hands crossed over its breast, and the bodice of the merino dress which the girl had worn when last seen torn as if in great agony. She lay on a bed, which she had carefully prepared, of old theatrical dresses, a large quantity of which are stored in another portion of the building. This bed must have been prepared in a most deliberate manner, and must have been difficult to reach. The whole of the features were completely destroyed, and the flesh deeply discolored. A purse found in the pocket of the dress contained £5 17s 4d in money, a silver brooch, and a pair of earrings. By her side, on a nail in the wall, was hanging her watch. In the shed was also found a portion of. the Argus of November 16th. The girl had disappeared on November 15th [sic], and was found on November 30th. The paper being of the date of November 16th seems to show that she was then alive, but this is only conjecture. The closest enquiry cannot discover any one who saw her after October 15th.[sic]  The inquest was held yesterday. The medical evidence was to the effect that the body was too far gone to enable it to be said how long she had been dead. There was no trace of poison or of any tampering with the girl. The doctors favored the idea that she had died of starvation, though they could not say positively. The girl shared a piece of land with her sister, and some disagreement had taken place between them as to selling it. This appeared to be the only trouble on her mind. After returning from her holiday she told Mrs. Lewis she would like to leave, for no other cause than that she wished to "go right away—right away from everybody." Mrs. Lewis said in evidence —"I asked her what her trouble was, but she had a way of clenching her teeth and nothing could then be got from her. I told her to go in and have a good cry, but she threw herself on the kitchen table, and said 'It is my stepfather who is driving me to this; I want my money, I want my money.' I laughed the matter off, and tried to comfort her as much as I could. I had engaged another servant to come on the Wednesday afternoon, but on the Wednesday morning before I went out she asked me if she could remain. She said, 'I might as well stay here as anywhere else.' She said this with what appeared to be some meaning, but at the time I did not take any notice of it. Her depression on the night of her disappearance was very remarkable, and there was a very peculiar look about her eyes. I never saw her again alive." The Coroner in summing up said the deceased had evidently been most respectable and trustworthy. She had become much depressed in consequence of the unsatisfactory position of her property; and his long experience as a medical man and as Coroner had convinced him that young women in certain conditions of health were likely to take most irrational views of matters which they would at other times treat lightly. It was not at all unlikely that the deceased had given way to despondency to the extent of determining to take her own life by starvation. There were no indications of violence having been used towards her, so that any theory that she had been murdered was quite untenable, nor were there any signs of poisoning. The post mortem examination revealed conditions which bore out the theory of starvation, and he would not say that the examination absolutely established that as the true solution of the mystery surrounding her death, but it pointed to it as being most probable. The circumstance that the body was almost nude was also evidence in favor of that explanation, because it was a remarkable fact that in every case of death from starvation or thirst that he had heard of, the deceased had been discovered partly nude. A surveyor who had nearly perished from thirst in an adjoining colony told him that just before losing his reason he was overtaken by an uncontrollable desire to tear off his clothes. While indications of starvation were thus present in this case, there was an absence of direct evidence to that effect, and the jury would probably be unable to express any opinion as to what had actually occasioned the death. The jury, without retiring, returned a verdict that deceased, Fanny Perry, was found dead on the 30th November, but that there was no evidence to show how death had occurred.

Here is a more contrarian view of Perry's death, from the "Riverine [New South Wales] Grazier" for December 14, 1888:

Many of your readers must be acquainted with the weird writings of the great American poet, Edgar Allan Poe, and especially with those prose works in which he has clothed and solved most intricate mysteries which are a wonder to the fascinated reader. Crimes were imagined and surrounded by a detail of circumstance which made them appear motiveless and impossible of performance, even the probability of suicide being precluded. Yet in the hands of the writer circumstance is linked to circumstance, detail to detail, probability to probability, and possibility to possibility, in so skillful a manner that a perfect exposition of tho whilom mystery is built up and exhibited to the astonished reader. Such is tho case in Poe's "Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Mystery of Le Rue Noir," in the latter of which it will be remembered the murderer turned out to be a baboon who had stolen his master's razor, escaped down the street, noticed a window high up in the air open, climbed the spouting, entered, cut the throats of the two women he found there, and escaped by the way he went.

Although such mazy mysteries are frequently found in French fiction, the writers of which are very fond of that form of literary trick, it is seldom that anything so mysterious ever happens in the ordinary everyday common prose of civilised life. True, there are often crimes which go untraced as to their perpetrators, but very rarely as to their causes. An exception to that rule has startled Melbourne during the last fortnight through and through. Such a problem as it presents to our detectives has never been surpassed in difficulty, the experience of the oldest members of the force being unable to recall any case in Victoria which has been so surrounded with incongruities. As briefly as the multitudinous facts of the case can be compressed, they are these:

Fanny Perry, a domestic servant, 22 years of age, disappeared from the house of her employer, Mr. G. B. W. Lewis (late theatrical impresario,), situated in the St. Kilda road, on the 25th of October last. She took with her only the clothes she wore, and her jewellery, leaving the bulk of her effects behind. Strange to say, although Mr. Lewis had always taken a great interest in the girl, no particular notice was aroused by her unannounced and peculiar disappearance, which was forgotten. The recollection of it, however, was recalled in a most startling and tragic manner. In a large shed used for the storage of a quantity of theatrical scenery and other stage effects.  Mr. Lewis was wont to pass some time daily in doing little works of carpentry and other jobs, such as are constantly protruding themselves for performance in a household. On the 22nd of November he was thus employed, when he heard a moaning sound. He paid no particular attention to the occurrence, attributing it to a rat or a cat which he surmised had become jammed between two pieces of scenery. A few days after an objectionable smell was perceptible in the air of the shed. That was put down to the cat or rat again, which it was this time surmised had succumbed to the cause of its utterances of distress previously noticed. The disagreeable odour, however, increased in objectionableness until it became absolutely unbearable, and steps were at once taken to remove it. Search was made, and in its pursuit Mr. Lewis climbed to the top of a huge stack of scenery, 15 feet high in one place, and not less than 12 feet in any other. When there the cause was discovered in horrible unmistakeableness. The body of the missing girl Fanny Perry was found there in the active stages of decomposition!

 As soon as Mr. Lewis recovered from the shock and prostration that such a startling sight naturally begot in him he hastily proceeded to give information to the police. Some officers of that body accompanied him back to the shed, where a door was wrenched off an old scene and extemporized into a stretcher, on which the body of the unfortunate girl was carried to the morgue. A palpable disregard to the collection of evidence was shown by both the police and Mr. Lewis in thus impulsively acting, but by the police particularly, for they thus neglected part of what is the duty of their profession. Mr. Lewis is not to be as severely condemned in this respect, for on putting the case in the hands of the police he legally renounced all responsibility in regard to it, yet at the same time he cannot be commended for the exhibition of even common sense. It was not noted how the girl was lying when she was found; how she could have got there; or anything, indeed, that might have aided in the subsequent attempts to elucidate the mystery. . A second examination, under the superintendence of Detective Considine, was necessary before any evidence whatever could be adduced. The first official visitors only found a few trinkets, a few pounds in money, and some old rags with which a bed had been roughly arranged. The results of the second inspection wore far more important— a copy of the Argus dated the 15th November having been found on that occasion.

Efforts were at once made after the discovery of the body to obtain some clue as to the cause of its death. A most careful post mortem examination was made, when it was found that the deceased was neither enceinte nor unvirtuously violated, and that there was not the slightest perceptible trace of poison in the system. Thus two very plausible theories were disposed of. There seemed only one idea left to go upon — that of self-starvation. True, the body appeared to be perfectly nourished; there was mucous in the stomach which might have been food, and faeces in the system, sufficient signs to a layman that the starvation theory was untenable. But medical experts have affirmed that starvation could still have been the cause of death in spite of such symptoms to the contrary, for similar signs have been observed when it was absolutely known that starvation was the cause of death. If that theory is accepted, we have to imagine a young girl deliberately lying down to die in tho heat of the fierce reflections of a galvanised iron roof almost melted by the hottest suns that have ever been experienced, and within a whisper of food and all the other temptations of life.  And, besides, we must imagine the girl doing this for no other cause than that there was a difficulty in disposing of some land of which she and her sisters were the joint proprietors; for that is the only thing that is ever known to have troubled her in any sense, and such a trouble cannot be seriously considered, for she  always treated the matter as a joke.

With such evidence and theories as I have described the coronial inquiry was conducted. At that examination of the case it was stated by Mr. Lewis that Fanny Perry was frequently morose and behaved peculiarly, but no specific instance of peculiarity was adduced unless it was that given in the evidence of a neighbour who declared that he had seen the girl running about the yard wringing her hands. The girl's lover, a letter carrier, also gave evidence, and showed her love affair to have been extremely happy and pure. Then evidence was given as to the finding of the body, the probable date of death which was fixed as the 1st  November, and the difficulty that a girl would have in climbing unassisted to the height at which the body was found, for it was shown that there was absolutely nothing in the shape of outjutting pieces of wood or movable boxes, or the like, to assist in such an ascent. The jury retired and returned the open verdict "Found dead."

Such are the facts of this most extraordinary case. So that its mystery may be appreciated, an examination of the available dates and the incidents connected with them will be advisable. On the 25th October the girl disappeared. On the 1st November she is supposed to have died; in fact the burial certificate was made but to that effect; yet how came it that a copy of the Argus dated the 15th November was found alongside of the body? Who put it there? Who could have been there besides the girl before Mr. Lewis to put it there? Mr. Lewis certainly took no Argus with him in his first search. Then did the girl get the Argus herself or did some one knowing she was there take it to her, or, supposing the theory of death on the 1st of November be granted, did the paper get there by accident, and by what accident? From evidence given by Mr. Lewis at the inquest, the importance of the point as to the newspaper is very obvious. He said that he took the Argus regularly, and that when the papers were a week old they were sent to the kitchen.  Supposing then that the Argus found near the girl was identical with that delivered to Mr. Lewis on the 15th it would reach the kitchen on the 22nd. In still further tracing the career of the papers in the Lewis household, another interesting item of evidence was elicited. It seems that the servants were in the habit of wrapping up refuse in them, and placing the parcels thus made in the shed where the body was found, to be taken thence to the fowl yard.  Did Fanny Perry take the particular parcel that may have been wrapped up in the Argus of the 15th November? Still examining the dates, it is remembered that Mr. Lewis heard groans on the 22nd November; if they proceeded from the dying girl she could not have died on the 1st of that month. Query upon query presents itself for answer from this intricate network of impenetrable mystery. There is one more which I have not yet seen put. Was Fanny Perry murdered? And was her body conveyed by her murderer to the spot where it was found? If so, why was she murdered? All these questions are absolutely unanswerable, and it seems, unless some extraordinary accident occurs, that the mystery must ever remain a mystery.

Unfortunately, this anonymous correspondent was right. Although the young woman's death practically reeks of sinister weirdness, there seem to have been no further attempts to investigate the mystery.

Incidentally, G.B.W. Lewis and his wife were important enough figures in the history of Australian theater to have earned a recent book about them.  I do not know if the author mentions the decidedly theatrical drama that once took place in Lewis' own home.


  1. What a strange fate for the girl. The second article states that she disappeared on October 15 and is supposed to have died on November 1. I don't think a person can die of starvation in two weeks, though dehydration is possible. Yet she may have died nearly a month after that. Nothing is known for sure. It's interesting that even in 1888, some people at least are cognizant of the physical evidence to be gathered at a crime scene. That pre-dates a great many police forces' recognition of that fact by generations!

  2. Something was done to that poor girl and whoever did it met some nasty karma head on without doubt. And speaking of that, I cannot help but wonder what Charles Baudelaire would have said about that anonymous reporter's opening paragraphs. Baboons and "French fiction" indeed.

    1. When that correspondent mentioned "French fiction," you could practically hear him sniff.

      Some Australian papers were quite critical of the whole police investigation, which they found unforgivably slipshod. A couple of articles stated flatly that if investigators and the medical "experts" had done their jobs more efficiently, probably the mystery could have been solved.

      I get the definite hint that the investigators simply weren't all that interested in working hard to find out how poor Perry died. Faced with a messy case, they opted to take the easy way out and just sweep it under the rug.


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