COAL RIVER TRUE CRIME: WHEN I FINALLY SLEEP TONIGHT

coalrivertruecrime

CASE 7:
When I finally sleep tonight

Plan of the Australian Agricultural Company's Railways and Collieries Newcastle.
Plan of the Australian Agricultural Company’s Railways and Collieries Newcastle.

 

Just a few train-miles from the port of Newcastle, The Borehole village grew up around two profitable mine shafts in the 1850s. Its patchwork of hut-hugging streets, small factories and a gas works was cut in two by a healthy tributary of water running off the nearby Styx River. Surrounded by fern lined tracks its vicinage suggested connectedness rather than isolation from the thick and scrubby surrounding bush. By the 1860s it was home to the staunch, ethnic blood of imported Great Britain mine workers, who remapped its space into tribal, mini-boroughs known about Newcastle as Pit Town, Happy Valley and The Borehole.

The two mines and most of the surrounding land were monopoly owned by the Australian Agricultural Company, who shrewdly sponsored road construction, schools and civic housing. Brass bands and banquets were also laid on for public holiday picnics, but these tokens failed to impress an increasingly organised labour force with their ‘irresponsible and insolent clubs’ and ‘self-nominated chiefs and agitators, who began questioning the legitimatised primacy of the Masters and Servants Act that covered working conditions of the time. The Borehole’s union clubs provided material support for sick or injured miners and their families, but they were also a site of compromise for the village’s divergent religious and social tribes. The assertiveness they bred extended to wives who infamously confronted armed police and seaman trying to scab-load coal trucks headed for the harbour in the early 1860s. More than passive ‘kettledrums and frying pans’ Borehole women saw beyond the authority of Palladian facades and the cursory noblesse oblige of Treble clef music and sandwiches for the children.

The promise of regular work also made The Borehole a refuge for solo drifters like Adam Kennedy. The rootless Irish bachelor arrived in the colony as just another mid-century gold-rush chancer. A fruitless Victorian dig saw him travel north and find work at the No 2 Mine. A salty and intimidating bruiser, Kennedy rarely attended church or public meetings. He generally shunned the recreational thwacks, thumps and squawks of social sport, though he was known to sometimes join in the weekend shooting of birds, possums and kangaroos. For Adam Kennedy work paid for a life ‘on the burst’ to be spent ‘drunk by Saturday and drinking on Sunday’. Despite the strong code of abstinence preached by many Presbyterian Methodists in the working ranks, alcohol remained the only sure medicine for joints and minds stiffened by repetitive and exhausting manual labour. For men like Adam Kennedy, drinking deified the workingman’s world more emphatically than any tree stump sermon: it momentarily transformed the world’s grime and dust into sweet song and fighting promise. In the elemental warmth of oil-lit bars, drinking’s golden camaraderie mocked the God-fearing world and its unreasonably rocky road to grace.

Life on the burst unharnessed Kennedy’s primitive ego and gave him the reputation of a man whose frame seldom combines such enormous power with such uncommon symmetry to be met with, but he was merely a splendid animal and once in liquor he was the terror of nearly everyone. Drinking partners would lay odds on Kennedy’s transmutation from ‘friend of all’ into a berserker obsessed with fist fighting his way to being ‘best man’ at the bar. Even members of the notorious ‘No.1 Lodge’ — a cartel of old hands who influenced who worked where in the mine — avoided Kennedy on weekends. As a liminal villager his personal topography was a thick rectangular line consisting of the mine, the paymaster’s office, Patrick Murray’s public house and Margaret Cavender’s boarding house in Happy Flat.

Not far from the No 2 Mine, Margaret Cavender offered three rooms and a kitchen; in the two front rooms with stretchers for sleeping; of the rooms at the back, one is the bedroom of Margaret Cavender, and the other the kitchen. In Mrs Cavender’s bedroom there was a four-post bedstead, which occupied a third of the room — the side of it being on a level with the window. As a business woman Margaret’s rambunctious character worked well for dealing with the brusque and uncomplicated single miners she usually hosted. The idea of a boarding house was almost forced on her after separating from her railway pointsman husband. As the business settled Margret buried any sensual needs behind stony professionalism, and after four children and a marriage, the short set lady considered that time and nature had blown the whistle on her anyway. That was until Adam Kennedy turned up and entranced her with suggestive compliments, sure hands, muscular advances and sweet thinking ballads they both soon referred to as ‘their songs’.

Adam Kennedy sauntered through the boarding house like an exiled Spanish prince by the time Francis Drum turned up looking for a room. Tall and prepossessing, Drum’s accent squared with rumours he had seen fighting with the Federal army in the Yankee Civil War. Like Kennedy he had drifted into Australia seeking quick fortune. Unlike Kennedy he didn’t allow liquor or bluster to affect his quiet and generous nature. His easy good manners impressed the tough, squared jawed landlady enough for her to offer him a superior front room bunk when it became available.

Drum’s appearance at the lodging house also coincided with a turn in Kennedy’s affections for Margaret. Flat as yesterday’s ale, his clever love songs now flipped into barely concealed insults. A disappointed Margaret simply ignored him. Kennedy somehow managed to twist her silence into an expression of her pathetic neediness, and an excuse to disrespect her more. During this time Francis Drum unwillingly became Margaret’s sounding board and ersatz, protective son. He accepted a fickle universe had affixed Adam Kennedy to his orbit, just as his Civil war experience of violence and slow bloody death allowed him to dismiss Kennedy as a brutish, grandiose buffoon. It also helped he had Kennedy’s measure physically and emotionally. Drum gave Margaret the confidence to evict her fouled romancer. Kennedy moved across the lane into lodging house which provocatively shared a common backyard with Cavender’s. His harassment of Cavender would now be relentless as it was unoriginal. When drunkenly begging for sex at her bedroom window failed, Kennedy resorted to cursing Margaret as a slut and a whore who fucked her lodgers for back rent. Margaret gave as good as she got until the grog’s soma sent Adam home tripping ape feet and humming petulant songs to the night sky.

The promise of quieter times for Margaret and her lodgers became a farcical carousel which continued into the early spring of 1865. On a cool October afternoon of that year a drunken Kennedy found Drum and Patrick Shields (another Cavender lodger) heading home. Kennedy first tried provoking Drum into a fist fight by removing his shirt but after a few pathetic swipes Drum simply pushed him over. When they arrived at their backyard nexus together Kennedy contrarily suggested more booze and a sing-along in Margaret’s kitchen: just what the sweet arsed Margaret would want; she loved his singing more than any sound in the world. Drum and Shield argued sleep for work the following day. Kennedy followed them uninvited through the back door and into the kitchen where Margaret was preparing food. A screaming match sent Kennedy backwards out the door. After filling up on cheap champagne and blind certainty at his digs he returned to Margaret’s bedroom window just after dark where he was denied entrance and mercy sex. After proclaiming Margaret and her young daughter ‘the same sort of whore’ he frothed black oaths back across the empty yard.

While his last visit was no more or no less obscene than any previous, it snapped Margaret’s latent dread loose from her fortitude. She was suddenly terrified for her two sleeping children. Against Drum and Shield’s wishes she grabbed another lodger’s hunting rifle from a front room. They were unable to persuade Margaret she didn’t know how to control the weapon. The agitated landlady assured them it was only to scare Adam off, as she instinctively expected another visit that night. Francis Drum reluctantly poured enough powder and duck shot to down a moping kangaroo.

Drum and Shields kept candlelight with Margaret into the night. The yellow kitchen light merged with tumescent air filtering through windows, exaggerating a churchlike stillness punctuated by occasional, over-enthusiastic dogs and the intermittent shuffling of light wind through nearby gum trees: a reassuring sign of protective ancestor spirits out and about, so the local Aborigines said. The dead-eyed Drum and Shields eventually took to bed after Richard Ashman, the owner of the gun, came home. Margaret blessed them, assuring them she would not be far behind. She imagined Adam Kennedy snoring tangled and dreamless in his sweat stained bedsheets, but still feeling uneasy with a phantom knot in her stomach, she lifted the gun and cocked and uncocked it once more for practice. Satisfied with her technique she extinguished the lamp and headed for bed.

**

A single gunshot rattled the thin glass windows of the lodging house about midnight. The boom echoed throughout the house. The force sucked the sleeping lodgers upright and awake. Shields’ choked the air. For a frantic second or two he imagined gas had exploded down a mine tunnel he was now stuck in.

**

A punctured human lung deflates slowly and inexorably. Breathing becomes shorter and carbon dioxide replacing oxygen in the blood as the body poisons itself to death. The victim feels like a large weight is crushing their chest as the slow hours oscillate grimly between faint hope and slow death: enough time to tell all that was never said and repeat it backwards. At about one pm in the afternoon— almost thirteen hours after the gun was fired — Dr William Irwin, who had diligently attended the victim in their final hours, declared death by asphyxia.

A week later Irwin read out his post mortem report to the packed Agriculture Hotel in Newcastle. His pompous attention to medical jargon was incomprehensible to most of the inquest crowd until his conclusion that apart from some nasty calcification found around the victim’s heart, he believed death resulted from asphyxia caused by a gun-shot wound penetrating the upper portion and throughout the left lung.

Local constable James McCullum had arrived at the scene shortly after the midnight shot was fired. He found Kennedy supine and bloodied on a stretcher, but breathing well enough to make a statement. Francis Drum, Shield and Richard Ashman had set him down in the kitchen and cleaned the wound as best they could. The constable took custody of Margaret Cavender and the gun and headed along the AAC railway line to Newcastle police station, where Cavender admitted shooting Kennedy as is it was a misunderstanding: Kennedy had come to her bedroom and attempted to climb through her window, an ominous, contrary combination of cursing drunk and drunken amorist. She had warned him repeatedly before firing blindly in self-defence.

During their hike into town she reminded the constable how he had repeatedly ignored her pleas about Kennedy’s behaviour. If he had spent less time Inn singing and more time on the streets doing his job this might not have happened. McCullum suggested she not use him as an excuse. A defiant Margaret retorted that she nothing to apologise for.

Adam Kennedy’s drawn out expiration allowed supervisor of Police Charles Harrison and Police Magistrate Helenus Scott time to travel to the Borehole and take a full statement. Margaret Cavender was present at this, but she found is difficult keeping her silence at times, especially when Kennedy claimed: believing that I am in a dying state, I on my oath state that Margaret Cavender shot me some time last night; we have been always good friends, but for some reason she was enraged with me; the Mrs Cavender now present is the woman; I was in the yard at her house; we were always good friends; I had been drinking yesterday; I was not drunk at the time I was at the kitchen window; I did not insult her that I know of; I did not try to get into her bedroom window; she shot me without saying a word; I have been lodging with Mrs Cavender for three years, off and on; we were always good friends; we have had many arguments; she has told me to go away and find other lodgings; I do not live in the same house with her; we have been too intimate; we have cohabited with each other; she has come to my bedroom; I am dying, and will tell the truth; she wanted to get shut of me, as she had another cove; I do not know confidentially with what man she cohabits; I did not hear her yesterday threaten to see me; Mrs Cavender did threaten to scald me if I would not be quiet; I had a glass yesterday; I was not drunk; I knew what I was doing; I had no ill-feeling to Frank Drum and he had none towards me; we were not stripped to fight on yesterday to my knowledge … I was with Hughes yesterday; he is a miner; I was at Patrick Murray’s public-house; I was drunk on Saturday and drinking on Sunday; I do not know that I abused Mrs Cavender last night; I do not recollect it; I went to the window last night because we were in the habit of cohabiting; I did not go with any evil purpose; the window was up a good bit, and I had my head in at the window; I had my arms on the window-sill; she did not shut the window down … this place is called the Borehole …

Kennedy’s words swirled around the hot and cramped inquest room alongside further contradictory, witness time-slides concerning who did what when. For all that the inquest provided a straightforward linear summary of the evening: Adam Kennedy (found to be an alias for his real name: William John McCormack) had decided to ‘kick up’ trouble with Cavender under the impression she had replaced him with another live-in lover. At some time around midnight a drunken Kennedy came to Margaret Cavender’ bedroom window after which she shot Kennedy with a pre-loaded hunting gun.

The frankness which she Margaret Cavender presumed would confirm her honesty and innocence failed to convince the jury or Coroner Robert Knaggs. Two facts were compelling: she had a loaded the weapon ready her bedside, and she claimed to moved back in fright away from the window before firing off the gun in a moment of panic. No evidence of duck shot residue was found inside the house. Likewise Kennedy’s wound suggested the gun was fired at close range and down on him at an angle, with the gun barrel half defenestrated out the window before it was fired. Margret and Francis Drum (who had loaded the weapon) were indicted for murder.

Cavender was stunned by the verdict. Hadn’t she repeatedly begged with the local police to keep Kennedy away from her? Couldn’t they recognise self-defence? Francis Drum remained implacably silent and unmoved. The savage injustices of Civil War battlefields had taught him that hindsight can never fully comprehend the fickle moments that reflection recasts into narratives of right and wrong.

Margaret Cavender spent the next six months in Maitland Gaol awaiting trial. Like most new gaols throughout the colony Maitland‘s design was a failed fusion of anachronistic convict stockading with poorly placed towers to gesture the new contemporary, penitentiary culture of surveillance. The result was chaotic overcrowding, poor sanitation and increased use of solitary confinement for refractory prisoners (for which there were never enough cells to meet the numbers). After major rioting at Sydney’s Darlinghurst gaol the New South Walsh administrators responded by issuing all warders with batons.

When Margaret Cavender was processed the gaol housed around one hundred inmates at any one time. Reflecting the general population, men outnumbered women. While they were kept separate within the prison yards, lock up proved a nightly mess trying to balance genders into the inadequately sized cells. Long term lags shared cells with custody prisoners like Margaret, which at the time included celebrity inmates like Mary Ann Bugg, the stunning and fiercely intelligent half-caste wife of bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.

At the trial Francis Drum was exonerated and discharged. Margaret maintained her self-defence plea on the grounds she was preserving herself and her daughter from violation. Her only regret was that if she been her usually professional and emotionally cooler self, she would have smacked Kennedy’s drink-charmed lips to the blackest edge of the sky and arse-booted his Trojan physique onto the Borehole slagheap. It was revealed to the judge that her ex-husband had been paralysed four years previous, and he and her children were now totally dependent on her for support. Despite her exonerations the geometry of the gunshot, and the fact she took a loaded gun to bed, stood against her. The judge ambivalently downgraded the charge of murder to manslaughter, and sentenced Cavender to serve nine months (minus the seven months already spent in Maitland). After her release she returned to running the boarding house and regained custody of her children. It was said the first thing she did was plant a boundary garden in her rock hard, unforgiving backyard.

**

In the court of public opinion, the law is judged by informed gossip. The community thereby regarded Margaret Cavender’s crime with a bleak mixture of slight sympathy and ‘I told you so’. Sydney newspapers reported it as cheap social commentary dressed in moral indignation: the history of the case disclosed a very low state of morals in that district. Kennedy had formerly cohabited with the woman Cavender, whose husband is still living, but separated from her, and whose house appears to have been a den of iniquity. Kennedy was a most abandoned character, and from his enormous muscular power and overbearing disposition, the terror of the whole neighbourhood. He and Cavender quarrelled, and he went to live in a house at the back, and within a few feet of her own, and used to go to her house and abuse her, calling her names to which she was quite entitled, although she did not feel well pleased in having her real character publicly announced.

The local newspapers also fed the reactionary outrage of a few local zealots who also contrived the isolated incident as proof of comprehensive social malaise. For some of those determined citizens Margaret Cavender represented a Pandora’s box of modern female corruption: Sir — In reading the report of Mary Cavender and F. Drum’s trial in the Maitland Mercury of the 30th for the wilful murder of Adam Kennedy at the Borehole, in October 1865, before Judge Hargreaves, I am greatly astonished to read in that paper that there would be found twelve man in the whole colony who could have unanimously agreed to such a verdict (that of manslaughter), when every title of evidence given at this trial makes out one of the clearest cases of wicked, malicious, and malice aforethought murder ever recorded … I am sure you, Mr Editor, the respectable portion of the inhabitants of this city express their minds in most unmeasured terms upon the bungle made by this jury … I think the public have seen enough of these advocates of murderers pleading for prisoners of the blackest and worst dye … If twelve men sworn to perform a duly are to be overridden by these advocates of criminals it is high time to do away with trial by jury; yet we know the class from which the jurors are chosen are frequently of such a stamp that that they are almost incapable of forming a judgement upon the most commonplace subjects of everyday life. Then, with such a class a prisoner’s counsel has a light task; he aims at shaking confidence, and upon succeeding dictates their judgment… Life is thereby jeopardised and rendered uncertain from the evil minded women of the colony at large; for this case will surely have a prejudicial effect upon all cases which may hereafter happen, and I cannot but think that the judge has done a grievous amount of wrong to society at large by his leniency in this case, therefore giving encouragement to the vicious and blood thirstiest characters of this colony. We want no soft judges, but stern upholders of law and order, and particularly protectors of society from the repetition of the Borehole tragedy… Your insertion of this will oblige Sir, your obedient servant, Alfred Steele.

Alfred Steele’s dismay with the legal system could possibly be traced back to Morpeth in 1862, where three boys aged 15 to 17 were charged with throwing stones at him in front of the Catholic Church after Sunday evening service. His indignant fury was complete when instead of a long gaol sentence, the larrikins were given the option of paying a fine or spending seven days in goal.

The unrepentant Margaret Cavender waited a time before publically having her say. Her rambling letter to The Newcastle Chronicle was part fearlessness and part release from the suffocating intimacy of village life and religious ostracism: Sir — Perhaps you will have the goodness to publish a few simple truths in your journal, and as you have not spared me in your columns, I think you have a just right to do so. Now, I would ask you, sir, and the Newcastle public at large what they know of me that is bad? I have lived in Newcastle for the last seventeen years, and I would ask any man or woman in it if I have ever done them a wrong? And I would ask those who have known me longest and best; whether I have ever neglected to do a kind action when it was in my power? It is true I have been the cause of Adam Kennedy’s death, but I had no alternative, I must either use the means I had within my reach for my own protection or otherwise become the victim of his violence and brutality. I had no thought or intention of taking his life as I have one day to meet my God. I had given him notice to leave my house because of his bad conduct, and he took it as an insult and did not forgive me for it, but took every opportunity of insulting and annoying me and my children. The only cause of this man’s ill-feeling to me was because I would not allow him to burn the Bible in my house; and on a former occasion I sent for a police constable to take this man in charge on a Sunday, but he refused to come without a warrant. Now I would ask you, sir, where was the police constable stationed at the Borehole for the protection of the public? Kennedy was drunk and fighting all day at the Miners’ Arms, and he was like a roaring lion in his own house all Sunday night, and he did not hear him; he was drinking all day on Monday and fighting with several men and yet the constable did not see or hear him. He swore he was on duty in Newcastle on Monday till one o’clock in the day. Well, where was he from that time till ten at night that he never saw the outrages this man committed during that interval? But I suppose he would rather be watching a few old women on the Borehole than to come in contact with such a man as Adam Kennedy. Had he been at his post of duty this unfortunate man had not lost his life nor had my family suffered as they have done; but it is done and can’t be undone.

I would ask why they did not send for a clergyman and get him to make a true confession before his death? Had they put a pack of cards in his hand he would have had more faith in them than he had in the Bible they swore him on. Now the only fault I had committed was a quarrel I had with the Rev. Father Martin, of the Roman Catholic Church, eleven years ago after he refused to give my child Christian burial and I insisted on him doing his duty; and mine was not the only one he refused to attend. Well I left the church in consequence of that quarrel, and that was enough in the eyes of some of the Newcastle people to bring me to a bad end, for they said I could not expect any better luck after getting the priest’s curse. But I never got the curse, and if I did, I did not deserve it, and, therefore, I care nothing for it? I suppose if I had let this man come into my house on that night and he had cut my throat, or that of my daughter’s, the people of this town would have been highly indignant and loud in their cries for justice on the perpetrator of such an outrage. Well, they are just as loud in condemnation of a woman who dared to defend herself against a ruffian mad with lust, drink, and revenge, and all the worst passions of the human heart, at one o’clock in the morning. He blood is on his own head, not mine … by publishing these few facts you will be doing a simple act of justice, and you will greatly oblige yours, &c Margaret Cavender.

Francis Drum left town after the trial while Adam Kennedy’s death slowly drifted into realm of proprietary gossip. The shared exhaustion of working to survive, which already kept in check many of the petty jealousies and resentments particular to intimate village life, made little room for the domestic moments, no matter how novelistic or dramatic they sounded. For the seven streets of Pit Town, Borehole and Happy Flat, Margaret’s letter appeared at a time when both mines had hit a thick seam of atomic coal. This flimsy, dusty, light weighted variety broke apart easily into small cubes and required more effort and longer hours to dig out. The only scales of justice concerning the Boreholers were increasing shift hours as weight bonuses decreased. In the end, Margaret and the villagers knuckled down and carried on, watching their meal plates, drinking grog or praying to God, all the while waiting as the men dug further and further, waiting for the crumbling atomic dust to again give way to harder black diamonds.

________________________________

‘Faults and Follies of the Wages Movement’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 1854.

The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News, Saturday 14 October 1865.

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842 – 1954) Friday 13 October 1865

The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866) Saturday 7 July 1866.

The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866) Saturday 7 July 1866.

_________________________________

 

David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the Mascara Poetry Journal.

Murray treats historical true crime creatively as a cultural marker of everyday life. It’s a process concentrating on ordinary lives while reflecting Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.


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