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Search for Missing Body at Carrum

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Dr Samuel Peacock.

In 1911 the small Carrum community was intrigued by the activities of the police who were trying to find the body of a young woman believed murdered. The focus was on Dr Peacock’s property, which was adjacent to the Patterson River. Two Aboriginal trackers who were brought from Dandenong failed to detect anything extraordinary despite careful examination of the environment. The use of pointer dogs also failed. Nevertheless, Dr Peacock was charged with the murder of Mary Margaret Davies between August 16 and August 29, but without a body it was harder to get a conviction. The jury in the Supreme Court of Victoria found him guilty of murder and the Chief Justice, John Madden, pronounced the sentence of death, although several matters of law were referred to the full bench of the court where the original sentence was confirmed. But Dr Peacock successfully appealed to the High Court of Australia where the decision was quashed, and a retrial ordered. The jury in the second trial failed to reach agreement. It was in the third trial in the Supreme Court of Victoria that a not guilty verdict was brought down by the jury. Dr Peacock was free.

Seventy-one-year-old Dr Samuel Peacock was a general practitioner who conducted a private hospital at 62 Wellington Parade, East Melbourne, but he owned 260 acres of land at Carrum. [1] The property ran in a long strip from the railway line beside the water canal. [2] Half of this land was undulating, uncultivated and thickly covered with scrub and ti-tree. Entrance to the barbwire-enclosed property, according to Frank McGuire, was via either a cart track, or a bridle track, along what is now Mascot Avenue. The two winding tracks joined together about half way to the downhill slope which now leads to the practice fairway of the Patterson River Country Club. [3] A small house and a corrugated iron hut in a grassy clearing almost surrounded by honeysuckle trees formed the homestead. [4] Detectives were aware that Dr Peacock occasionally used the hut, which contained a stretcher with flock mattress and pillow, shelves fixed to the wall, a small table and two boxes. [5] Sixty-six-year-old Mr Matthews lived alone in the house, and worked on the property as an employee of Dr Peacock.

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Aerial view of the Patterson River Country Club and the Patterson River 1960. Courtesy Chelsea and District Historical Society.

On September 2, 1911 some excitement was generated amongst the search party of police, trackers, dogs and forty local volunteers when a pile of sand a foot high and several feet in diameter was found, suggesting something was buried there. After digging, the anticipated feeling of triumph dissipated when the carcase of a skinned horse was found, and the detectives confirmed that nothing had been interred in or under the animal. [6] However, a minor success was achieved after combing the ashes of a fire to find the silver mountings of a purse, gold and amalgam which had perhaps belonged to four false teeth, seventeen buttons, two safety pins and fragments of gloves, shoes and other articles of clothing. The police had been informed by a local resident that he saw Dr Peacock on Sunday morning, August 27, standing by a fire near a tangle of dead ti tree. [7]

The police later took the items found in the ashes of the fire to Melbourne where they were inspected by Mary’s father and two sisters. They were unable to positively identify any of the articles as the property of Mary but according to an Argus report, “they stated that the purse mountings were exactly similar to the mountings of a purse which Mary Davies possessed; that the seventeen buttons corresponded in size and design with the buttons on the woman’s costume; and that the safety pin and other articles were of patterns similar to those that belonged to her. Mr Davies stated to the detective that his missing daughter had four false teeth, which had been fitted to plate by a dentist in Ballarat eight years ago.” [8]

On September 5 grabbling irons were brought from Frankston and Dandenong to drag the Patterson River and the water channel. This was not seen to be a difficult task as the water was not deep and the bed was largely sandy and free of snags. However, the exercise proved to be fruitless. At this stage of the investigation detectives were of the view that the body would not be found at Carrum. [9]

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Patterson River looking East from the Railway Bridge, c1930. Courtesy Chelsea and District Historical Society.

Nicholas Davies, Mary’s father and former Ballarat publican, reported her missing to the South Melbourne police. His last contact with his daughter was on August 4 when she went to visit her aunt in Traralgon. It was three days later that Mary returned to Melbourne, staying for two nights in the Victoria Coffee Palace using the name Mrs Nelson. The next day she was admitted to Dr Peacock’s private hospital in East Melbourne where she was seen by Dr Peacock’s staff and visited by Clifford Poke.

Clifford Poke was employed by the firm of Henry Berry, merchants of Collins Street, who paid him thirty five shillings per week. He lived for twelve months with the Davies family in South Melbourne following his arrival in Melbourne from Tasmania. He had left Stanley, his home town in Tasmania, after “getting into a bit of trouble and he wanted a change.” The trouble was with a girl who had a child. As a consequence he had to pay £35 in addition to an unknown sum paid by his father. While boarding with the Davies’ family, he confirmed, he had frequent sexual intercourse with Mary, which resulted in her pregnancy. At the time of her admittance to Dr Peacock’s private hospital she was in the fifth month of her confinement. [10]

On Mary’s return from Traralgon she was met at Flinders Street Station by Poke. They in turn met Sydney Lack, an engineer at Rosella Preserving Company in Richmond, who took them to the Victoria Coffee Palace where he registered them as Mr and Mrs Nelson. Although Sydney Lack only recently became an acquaintance of Mary Davies, through a mutual friend, he acted to gain the necessary money for her admission to Dr Peacock’s hospital. At the time Lack noticed that Mary Davies “looked a little worried, but otherwise she was well. She looked drawn in the face and a bit red about the eyes.” [11]

Mary was admitted as a patient to Dr Peacock’s hospital on August 9, 1911 and allocated to room five at the top of the stairs. Poke visited her there on five subsequent days. On each of these occasions Mary Davies was in bed but according to Poke seemed bright and well. Two days later, on August 17, when visiting he was told by Miss Elliott, the housekeeper, that the doctor wished to speak with him. Poke alleged that Dr Peacock informed him that Mary was not well saying, “She had absorption of poison. In olden times it was called puerperal fever.” [12] At that time he was also told that ‘Mrs Nelson’ had a fall that caused a cut on her nose and hand, and that he should call in the next day..

On August 21, Poke claimed he was informed that things were as bad as they could possibly be and the following evening the news was that Mary was dead. The doctor told him that she took a fit of screaming before she died and he had to administer chloroform to quieten her. A discussion on the actions that needed to be taken then ensued between Poke and the doctor. Poke stated that the doctor indicated that if no one inquired about Mary for a fortnight he could have her secretly buried. He would dispose of her clothes on his farm at Carrum where there was plenty of scrub and no one living there.

Elizabeth Colman, a general servant, and Ethel Parr, a housemaid employed by Dr Peacock at his hospital, were witnesses to Mary Davies’ presence at the hospital and the visits of Poke. However, both were given holidays leaving the doctor and his housekeeper, Sarah Elliott, alone in the hospital with Mary Davies on August 22. Miss Elliott stated to the police, during their subsequent inquiries, that she went to the patient’s room on Wednesday August 23 and found that she was not there. She claimed that Mary Davies had left the hospital well and strong.

Acting on information provided by Poke, four detectives visited Dr Peacock at his hospital in East Melbourne on August 29, to enquire whether he had a patient named Mrs Nelson within the last fortnight. He replied ‘No’. He also denied telling Poke that he burned Mary Davies’ clothes and destroyed her jewellery. [13] Later in an unsworn statement to the court he admitted he refused to give the police information and that he had denied that Mary had been in his hospital because he thought it his duty as a medical man to respect her confidence. Dr Peacock went on to state that Mary Davies had come to him to avert a miscarriage and not to procure one. He claimed his treatment was successful and Mary left his hospital on August 25 feeling ‘fairly well’. She thanked him, expressing disappointment that she was unable to pay him, but left some jewellery on the mantelpiece as compensation. [14]

Dr Peacock denied that he had any conversation with Poke after August 17 and that the claims of Poke were wholly untrue. He specifically denied that he said the girl was suffering from absorption of poison or puerperal fever, or that she had a fit of screaming, or that he gave her chloroform, or that she was dead, and that he had recently buried her body. Moreover he refuted the suggestion that he had ever burned any of Mary Davies’ clothes or anything belonging to her. [15]

During the court hearing expert medical witnesses were called by the prosecution and asked to comment on the treatment provided by Dr Peacock. Dr Crawford Mollison pointed out that puerperal fever was a special form of septic poisoning occurring in women following child birth and was always serious. He went on to say that assuming a woman suffering from that fever were to have a fit of screaming it would be always especially dangerous to give chloroform because of the effect the poison had on the heart. Dr Meyer confirmed that screaming does sometimes arise from puerperal fever when the poison reached the brain and causes delirium. [16]

Dr Mollison suggested that a body could be disposed of within the week in a house that was sewered and had a large copper. The body would be dismembered and treated either by burning or by boiling and subsequently burning. The destructive action of boiling bones would be partly hastened by using washing soda and caustic soda or potash. The soft parts would be destroyed and more or less liquefied. The bones would become fragile and could easily be broken up, and could be more easily destroyed by burning. The operation could be completed in a maximum of two or three days. [17]

Mr Bryant, the lawyer acting for Dr Peacock argued that the Crown had to prove that the prisoner committed an offence, that the prisoner attempted or procured an abortion on Mary Davies, and that death resulted. Moreover, the body of the deceased had to be produced.

Witnesses were called by Peacock’s lawyer, including Thomas Wilson a dentist who practised in Ballarat. Wilson had repaired a dental plate for Mary Davies in 1905 and had reinforced it “with a lattice metal which gave it a diamond shaped pattern which could not disappear from it.” [18] The plate claimed by the prosecution to belong to Mary and found at Carrum had no such pattern. The dentist pointed out that it was somewhat unusual for a patient to discard one plate and get another.

Another witness for the defence was Hamilton Ferguson, an individual who had been employed as a general overseer by Peacock in 1907 and supervised work at Mordialloc, Carrum and Tyabb. In his testimony he spoke of Edward Stewart who he described as a little dark chap with sore feet. At Carrum Stewart always wore lady’s shoes in the evening after work. Ferguson claimed that when Edward Stewart completed his employment he left a vest and old trousers, underpants, and a pair of woman’s shoes. All were burnt. [19] Ferguson also spoke of Sam the fencer who had false teeth. He told the court that Sam was always cleaning his false teeth and the other men objected. Sam had two sets, one old, and one that did not fit him. After he left the Carrum property to work at Cheltenham a plate of false teeth was discovered by the remaining workers near the track where Sam had been working. Ferguson said he showed them to his mate who threw them into the scrub near the bank. [20]

A jeweller and tailor were also called to assist the defence. Both John Sherman, a tailor of Collins Street, Melbourne, and Max Luscombe of Fitzroy threw doubt on the evidence advanced by the prosecutor concerning the buttons and purse mountings found at Carrum. Sherman described the buttons as common because thousands were made and used on women’s apparel. Luscombe, after being shown the pieces of metal found at Carrum, observed that they were more like pieces of a hand purse than of a handbag. They were more suited to a child’s bag. [21]

After the defence completed its presentation the judge, Chief Justice John Madden, summed up the case and directed the jury to reach a verdict. He said, if they believed the prisoner’s statement corroborated by Sarah Elliott, his housekeeper, then he should be acquitted. If they did not believe what Dr Peacock claimed, they had to consider the credibility of Poke’s story about events at the hospital, the prisoner’s attitude and conduct towards the police, and the alleged destruction of Mary Davies’ clothing by him at Carrum. Madden went on to explain to the jury that if the evidence advanced was believed then there was a strong probability that Mary Davies was dead, and that the prisoner by some felonious or unlawful act had caused her death. If they , the jury, did draw these inferences from the evidence, it was lawful to do so.

Mr Bryant, for Samuel Peacock, challenged the correctness of these directions by the judge, “contending that it was not legally possible for the jury on the evidence in the case which left so large an area of essential proof, to depend on circumstantial evidence only, and upon inferences to be drawn from it.”[22] Because of this the judge referred two questions of law to the Full Court. Firstly, whether or not there was evidence sufficient for the jury to find on the question whether the girl was dead and secondly, whether , if so, Dr Peacock was responsible. There were three further matters of law that council for the defence raised seven days after the trial concluded. Only one was accepted for presentation to the Full Court for consideration, “Should the conviction of the prisoner be allowed to stand, as the judge did not expressly warn the jury that they should not convict on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice?” [23]

The Full Court of the Supreme Court of Victoria upheld the conviction against Samuel Peacock and the sentence of death, but leave was given to appeal the decision by the High Court of Australia. As a result the conviction was quashed and a new trial ordered. This was a majority decision reached by Justice Barton and Justice O’Conner with the Chief Justice dissenting. Although Justice Barton thought there had been a misdirection he believed it was not of such a nature to allow the prisoner to go free. Justice O’Conner agreed there should be a new trial. [24]

At the second trial in Melbourne, Wolmarski, the crown prosecutor, summarised some of the evidence of the case. Clifford Poke, Mary Davies’s lover, had met Dr Peacock by appointment and was told that she had died that morning after a fit of screaming and the administration of chloroform. In addition, the doctor told Poke that if no inquires were made for a fortnight he would have the body secretly buried but would have to tell his housekeeper. The girl’s clothing was to burnt on his farm at Carrum.

Poke agreed that when the police inquiry began he told many lies. “I did not understand what I was doing,” he said. Initially nothing was said to the police implicating Dr Peacock but when the detectives warned him about his actions he finally made a full and true statement. Elizabeth Colman and Ethel Parr who had been employed as servants at the hospital, and although given holidays on August 22, identified Mary Davies from a photograph as a patient at the hospital. [25]

Mr Maxwell, the barrister representing Dr Peacock at the second trial, summarised the agreed facts of the case. He then went on to use these facts to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the case, resulting in a scenario that differed significantly from that advanced by Mr Wolmarski.

The prosecutor argued that Mary Davies was in good health when she went into Peacock’s hospital, therefore she had not been interfered with prior to that time, so whatever caused her death happened during her stay at East Melbourne. Countering this the defending barrister drew from two witnesses information that Mary was not in ‘good health’ when she went into Dr Peacock’s Hospital. He suggested that the evidence was equally consistent with the theory that Mary Davies had been interfered with and that a miscarriage was then impending. The fall she experienced in the passage way of the hospital precipitated the event. As for the lies told by Dr Peacock, Mr Maxwell posed the question, “Was it not perfectly possible that a man placed in such a position and being perfectly innocent, should be tempted to tell lies?” He went on to suggest, given the girl’s condition, that she or someone else had interfered and rendered miscarriage possible. Given this situation Mr Maxwell said the only question to decide was whose was the hand that tampered with the girl. [26]

After Justice Hodges reviewed the evidence of the case the jury retired at 1.30 p.m. only to return forty five minutes later to ask if the verdict had to be unanimous. They were informed that a majority verdict was not acceptable. Given their inability to agree they were dismissed. Dr Peacock was released on bail against a bond of £1000 together with a surety of a similar amount provided by Sarah Elliott his housekeeper.

A third trial covered much of the same evidence presented in previous trials, but Mr Maxwell was able to elicit some fresh information from answers to questions asked of Lack and Poke. On the night that Mary Davies stayed in the Victoria Coffee Palace the two men attempted to obtain some whisky for her. Lack thought the girl’s face was drawn and she seemed to be in pain and Poke admitted she was suffering from a headache. Maxwell pointed out that women, to alleviate abdominal pain, often resorted to whisky. This total situation he saw as curious given the Crown’s contention that Mary was in her usual health when she returned from Traralgon. Moreover, he saw it as stranger still that Poke and Lack remained with Mary until midnight and Lack returned shortly after eight o’clock next morning to find out what was her state of health. [27]

The jury retired to consider their verdict and after four and a half hours returned a verdict of not guilty. Dr Peacock was reported, without any show of emotion, to have stepped from the dock and quietly greeted several friends. While no demonstration followed the acquittal, the Argus reported there was animated conversation in the corridor amongst groups of men and women who had been present in the court during the day, suggesting some people were surprised by the verdict. [28]

Dr Peacock as a free man lived on until 1936. He died at Kew, a resident at “Ivy Grange”, a Rest Home in Princess Street and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery, on July 27, 1936. Cause of death was listed as senility and heart failure. His wife Jane Hughes had pre-deceased him. There were no children by the marriage. [29]

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Aerial view of the Patterson River Country Club and the Patterson River 1980. Leader Collection.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Some records suggest that the Peacock Estate consisted of 300 acres at Carrum. Dr Peacock also owned land in other places including Cheltenham on the west side of Reserve Road, which now forms part of the Sandringham Golf Links.
  2. This land was first taken up by George Whitehead in 1871 when the Carrum Carrum Swamp was thrown open to selection.
  3. McGuire, Frank, Chelsea: A Beachside Community, 1985, page 100.
  4. Argus, September 5, 1911.
  5. Argus, September 5, 1911.
  6. Argus, September 21, 1911.
  7. Argus, September 4, 1911.
  8. Argus, September 4, 1911.
  9. Argus, September 5, 1911.
  10. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Public Record Office VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11.
  11. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Ibid.
  12. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Ibid.
  13. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Ibid.
  14. Rex versus Peacock, Public Record Office, VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11, page 10.
  15. Rex Versus Peacock, Ibid, page 11.
  16. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Public Record Office VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11 page 28.
  17. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Ibid.
  18. Rex versus Peacock page Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Public Record Office VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11 page Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Public Record Office VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11 page 9.
  19. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, Public Record Office VPRS 10008/p Unit 34 File 26-0-11, page 32.
  20. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, page 32.
  21. Copy of his Honour the Chief Justice’s Notes of Evidence, page 34.
  22. Rex v Peacock page 13.
  23. Rex v Peacock page 13 & Argus, October 30, 1911.
  24. Argus, December 9, 1911.
  25. Argus, February 21, 1912.
  26. Argus, February 23, 1912.
  27. Argus, February 28, 1912.
  28. Argus, February 29, 1912.
  29. Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Melbourne. Dr Peacock’s place of birth was listed as County Antrim in Ireland and that he had been 64 years in Victoria at the time of his death. Dr Peacock graduated M.B. from Glasgow University in 1870 and obtained the L.R.C.S. and L.M. of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh during the same year. He practised as an assistant in England for several years before coming to Melbourne via Adelaide.

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