The barque Swanhilda elbowed through a crowded Newcastle harbour in the wake of two muscular, iron hulled steamers transporting chancers to the gold rush towns of West Australia. Taking in the midmorning breeze on deck was master mariner Captain Lee Weller, who had hurriedly signed on as general crew for the voyage to San Francisco.
After about a fortnight at sea the Swanhilda was stopped by a passing steamer who informed Captain Frazer and his first mate Captain Lee Weller’s body had been found in a shallow grave in the Blue Mountains bush with a bullet through the back of his skull. The man assuming his identity on their ship was thought to be Frank Butler, who police suspected of the murder. Captain Frazer was persuaded to continue on to Frisco without alerting anyone on board of this revelation.
Butler had arrived in Newcastle a few weeks previous on 15 November 1896. His arrival had coincided with the end of the rat coursing season played throughout the coal villages that made up the municipality of the city. More gambling than sport, coursing involved trained dogs hunting rats released from a cage. It combined a colosseum blood-thrill, family outing and slim gambling odds. Butler watched it as a gullible circus, marking out who he could fool with odds, if he could be bothered. He was finished with the short con, and suffocating Australia; just a slightly different version of the small-minded England he had grown up in. His new schemes American, where individual opportunity and enterprise were prized more than a birthmark, and reinvention did not reside in the past, but in what you could sell in the here and now.
Butler had handed over Captain Weller’s papers to Charles Booth, the manager of a harbourside sailors’ home, who was also an agent for shipping companies seeking crews. Butler told Booth he was looking for a Frisco coal run as general crew … he needed a break from the responsibilities of being a captain. Booth told him trade out the port was busy so ships were stretched finding crew. It meant a short wait, but also increased the chance of being shanghaied. Working out of dockside hotels, the crimpers used threats, brute force, seduction and anesthetising booze. Local police were stretched dealing with the more ruthless gangs led by John O’Sullivan, “Shanghai Brown” and “Buffalo Bill”. There was also the brutal “Ragged Thirteen” who operated out of an alley off Hunter Street around Bolton and Newcomen Streets, and signed off their work with a complimentary facial scar. Their infamies were fuelled by tall stories such as the unsuspecting Newcastle husband who went to the shops for tobacco and woke up surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Butler sneered at Booth’s concerns. He’d seen it all, and could handle shellbacks and harbour-crab thugs.
Butler had unnerved the unflappable Booth with his constant interruptions and bloated and unlikely commentary on life as a sea captain, all the while flashing cash and jewellery as if trying to impress the unimpressible manager. His crowing made Booth question why a cashed up master captain would choose a swabby’s barrack bunk on a long voyage, but he let that slide. Over the following days Butler played up the captain role in the boarding house and local hotels. He boasted of exploits and singular bravery, constantly and ostentatiously fiddling with his fine gold watch on a chain. He made much of various female trinkets he ‘owned’, including rings, ornaments, bangles and bracelets. At one hotel he was momentarily silenced when a former shipmate sat down beside him, having recognised him as Darkey Ashe, a threatening loner he had previously sailed with. Later that same day Captain Petrie of the trading barque Olive Bank recognised him in passing as Frank Butler, a troublemaker on a voyage from San Francisco to Newcastle about two years previous. Petrie told local agents to keep him away from his ship. Butler was a doubtful signing, having been arrested on that previous voyage before the Olive Bank docked, charged with threatening the lives of Captain Petrie and his crew. He was sentenced as Frank Butler to time in Maitland Gaol after his shipmates refused to cough up for the ten-pound bail surety customarily put in to keep a confrere out of the cage.
Butler’s vaunting had also brought him to the attention of Detective James McHattie, who was at the time investigating a string of East End house robberies possibly connected with visiting sailors. What made McHattie suspicious about Captain Weller was not so much his peacocking, but the ease with which he shadowed through the brawny docks. Like most working harbours, Newcastle operated by masonic gossip and a contrived honour of silence that meant not minding another man’s business. Increasingly competitive and fast global trading had made millennial ports separate worlds within their cities; raw and self-regulating nexuses full of liminal, disorderly spaces and entertainments, and perfect for manipulative or fugitive types to exploit. Insular and uncoordinated police record-keeping meant even savvy detectives like McHattie were always in the wake of suspects: they could not know if a criminal had previous offences in other towns or cities unless a state‑wide warrant had been publically issued. New South Wales had only begun photographing its gaol prisoners in 1871, but without an interconnected administrative system it was inexact and localised. Identity and imposture were fluid and mobile for the cunning and the criminal. Men like Frank Butler bent or erased their past to ghost unnoticed into the next city or country as someone else, either real or imagined.
Just as Detective McHattie was gathering some increasingly contradictory information on Captain Lee Weller, the man abruptly signed articles after a position came vacant on the Swanhilda. Perhaps keen to avoid attention and another Olive Bank incident, Butler kept a low profile on board. Crewmates found him diligent and aloof, often wearing a black felt cap conspicuously covering his eyes. A potentially appalling farce was playing out, with Fraser and the first mate forced to secret the fact that a possible murderer was walking freely in their midst. Captain Fraser decided not to put Butler in the brig while he behaved himself. Frank Butler remained perfectly unaware that he was at the centre of a global manhunt and murder investigation, as his multiple identities finally converging in on themselves.
Butler’s final circumvolution had begun almost three years before, after his release from Maitland gaol in 1893, when he immediately left Newcastle for Freemantle and the West Australian gold fields. His later boasts of having made a flash fortune there were undercut by a ruder reality of five incarcerations over two years for robbing prospectors’ tents, forging papers and horse stealing.
In the spring of 1895 he robbed a metallurgist called Frank Harwood of his professional qualifications and work papers. Harwood was too well known about the state, so Butler headed back east to Sydney with a new scam to exploit Harwood’s estimable work history. Placing a notice in the Sydney Herald he offered equal shares in prospecting trips into western New South Wales. The idea of Harwood’s identity overloaded Butler’s thinking and the limits of his bravado. This was no dicey short con, he was someone formidable, a gentleman professional. As Frank Harwood, he controlled the world around his story, and this fantasy of desire had an emotional reality. With the blind confidence of a self-infatuated Greek god, he imagined himself radiating authority, respect and sexual power. He convinced himself that he was like an American entrepreneur, singularly designing and impacting the zeitgeist of the age, marking the world, and even naming it after himself.
In reality, his newspaper ads proved mundanely hit-and-miss. When Butler did receive a bite, the urgency with which he demanded a cash payment upfront turned off those with any basic business nous. Butler reduced the word count in the ad to save money, removing ‘rough country’ from the message. He eventually signed up a naïve and socially reticent young man called Charles Burgess after dazzling him with a few gold teeth fillings as proof of an untapped gold reef that was waiting to be plundered. The pair headed west towards Parkes in Burgess’ red-wheeled wagonette, where they set up camp on the Bogan River. One local passer-by would later recall receiving a mouthful after criticising Butler’s panning technique. After about a week a wild-eyed Butler arrived back in town fuming that his young partner had run off with his money and the gold they had found. Claiming to be desperate to hunt down the chiseller, Butler undersold the wagonette for 15 pounds, along with clothing and camping gear the treacherous Burgess had left behind in his haste. In reality, Burgess was already lying in shallow bush grave not far from the river camp. There was a rifle bullet through the back of his head. The pattern of the wound suggested he was shot at close range. His lucky new cap (bought optimistically for the expedition) was tossed indifferently in beside him.
Butler returned to Sydney where his Harwood scam continued to fall flat. Going slowly penniless, he reluctantly joined a team of miners in Grafton. When one of group dug out a substantial gold nugget, Butler suggested they keep it quiet and split it fifty-fifty split. He was sent packing back to Sydney where a young Irishman called Michael Conroy answered the ad. He was keen on seeing his adopted country while awaiting entry into the NSW police force. His first impression of Frank Harwood was one of a blowhard and dissembler unable to answer a straight question. Conroy never followed up on their forgettable meeting, which would turn out be an encounter of Dickensian coincidence.
Not long after Michael Conroy, Arthur Preston turned up at Butler’s door. It was the young geology student’s first time away from a small country town and his fiercely religious father. Like Burgess, Arthur Preston’s relationship with Butler would end in a shallow grave, a rifle bullet passing through his brain and out his nose. He was wrapped in a red and white striped towel, spotted purple with his blood. Both Charles Burgess and Arthur Preston were barely missed at first, having told friends they were heading bush for at least six weeks.
Burgess and Preston’s murders outlined a pattern of cold degeneracy in Frank Butler’s increasingly homicidal tendencies, which culminated in his meeting Captain Lee Mellington Weller at the Metropolitan Hotel in the Blue Mountains in October 1986.
The 38-year-old Weller had been at sea since boyhood and worked up to the rank of master mariner — able to captain a ship or vessel. Failing eyesight meant forced him into early retirement. In 1896 he left England to start a new life after marriage to a London music hall singer. They tried Boston and Johannesburg before settling on Australia. During the Johannesburg to Newcastle leg, Mrs Weller fell sick and suffered a fatal heart attack as the ship reached Newcastle. A distraught Weller headed to Sydney and drank his anguish down in an alcoholic bender, where he met Frank Butler. His empathetic new friend shared his own tales of deep loss and convinced the grieving widow he had an antidote to his bitterness and grief: a prospecting trip into the wilderness. ‘It is a wild, free open life’ Lee Weller enthused to his solicitor in a letter before setting off into the Blue Mountains hinterland with Butler.
When a friend of Weller’s turned up in the Blue Mountains to check on his friend’s health he found his accommodation ransacked. This triggered a police search of the Glenbrook area (“the village with the friendly smile”) which became more urgent after Arthur Burgess’ body was found in nearby Linden, and the police found a clear link between both men and Frank Butler/Harwood. By late November 1896 a syndicated paper published news of a concerted police manhunt: Butler, Captain Weller’s mate, is described as being about 40 or 44 years of age, about 5ft 10in high, and a native of Shropshire (England). He is of medium build, sunburnt completion. His features bear a hard, weather-beaten appearance. He has dark hair, turning grey, dark brown moustache tinged with grey, and a deformity of the nose. ‘When last seen he was dressed as a bushman and carried a pick, shovel, and Winchester rifle. The man had in his possession a large quantity of gold specimens and some valuable gold and diamond jewellery, as well as papers in the name of Frank Harwood or Horwood. They went to show that the rightful Harwood had been employed as assayer some time ago at the Broken Hill Proprietary mine, and that he was a certificated assayer. Following up a clue obtained, the detectives have ascertained that Butler has more than once advertised for partners to go prospecting in the country, and a somewhat similar notification believed to have emanated from Butler has appeared in the daily papers, but not recently since Weller disappeared.
Search parties narrowed the search for Weller to dense bush around Glenbrook. The plein-air painter, Arthur Streeton, had recently worked in the area, describing ‘all around and above fine tall red gums, smooth of trunk, as though cast in iron … Below runs a crystal virgin brook with a rocky bottom and rushes…”. In this picturesque landscape an expired campfire was found with Weller’s coat, remnants of his notebook, a pair of trousers, leggings, and a coat with the name ‘Butler’ discarded around it. On 6th December 1986, in a gully under overhanging rock, Captain Lee Weller’s grave was found. His uncovered corpse was in a kneeling position. Like Burgess, his hat had been tossed back in next to him. A coat was also loose in the grave. The trousers were on the body. A close friend would later describe Weller as an active, genial, open-hearted fellow, thick-set, strong as a lion … the man who attacked him would have had a bad time, if he had not taken the captain unawares.
Witnesses later claimed hearing two gunshots echo out at around four am on the morning Weller was murdered. It would be almost five weeks to the day before his body was found. It was time enough for Frank Butler to make his way to Newcastle after cleaning out Weller’s room of money, papers, books, guns, Mrs Weller’s jewellery, clothing and a railway station cloakroom ticket for a sea chest. He kept Weller’s papers and jewellery after selling everything else to a local second-hand dealer called Miss Woolf.
While immanent departure from Newcastle gave Butler licence to recklessly carry on in the town, the chance of playing at being a master mariner proved too thrilling an opportunity. His need to test the world that he considered somehow beneath him was a compulsion. He haughtily paid for one last Frank Harwood advertisement in the Newcastle Herald: ‘Metallurgist wants agreeable mate, prospecting; mining experience unnecessary, equal shares’.
The city of Newcastle marked every one o’clock by a wicker time-ball dropped from a mast atop the Customs House. Most were unaware it was detonated by a telegraph signal from Sydney. The time-ball measured the crowded harbour’s extraordinarily busy trade in coal and sheep, regulated by massive hydraulic staithes of such technological simplicity, beauty and power that it was said a child could expertly lift a steam train with a touch of its foot. The quality and quantity of its exports had made the young city a global phenomenon by the 1890s; a ‘Coalopolis’ overreaching its geographical isolation and coupling it to the new age of mass communication, where submarine telegraph cables stitched together most of the inhabited planet. Conversation, commerce and news were traded and measured in hours, rather than days or months. Mark Twain told his readers that the line from Sydney to San Francisco covered approximately 20,000 miles, equivalent to 5/6ths of the way around the globe. While it could not stop Frank Butler’s escape from Newcastle, it would prove crucial in hunting him down.
Detective McHattie had watched Captain Lee Weller sauntering around town in a new suit and fine shoes the day before he sailed, and recognised a conman playing shick. When news came through on the wire of Glenbrook, McHattie had just taken possession of a vanity photograph given to a local girl frequently known to be “in liquor”. The back of the portrait was signed Butler, but the man had claimed to be Captain Lee Weller.
A plan was devised to beat the Swanhilda to San Francisco. Detective McHattie was selected along with Superintendent Inspector John Roache from Sydney, and constable Conroy (the young Irishman who had declined Butler’s digging invitation in Sydney). Although slower than steamships, barques like the Swanhilda were ocean greyhounds and cheap to run. While Captain Frazer surreptitiously slowed his run down (after assurance he would not lose his time bonus) the police trio set out on an astonishing, coordinated global journey beginning with a steamship sprint via Sydney, London and New York, and then a locomotive across the American continent to San Francisco. Their chase fed a global news story that too often descended into melodrama and wild speculation which contrived that the elusive Butler was anywhere but the contained and floating world of the Swanhilda. He was transformed into a monstrous, grisly shadow methodically stalking his next unsuspecting victim in any dark laneway across the world. Despite reliable witnesses confirming Butler was on a boat to San Francisco, his time in Newcastle had local residents manufacturing strange claims out of flimsy gossip and unreliable sightings. One innocent sailor was mistaken for Butler and chased and bashed in the street by a mob approaching around 200 people.
In the end Roche, McHattie and Conroy made it to Frisco with days to spare. On the morning of 21 February 1897 they boarded the Swanhilda in the harbour where Conroy identified Butler, who after a brief silence told them ‘You’re making a hell of a fuss about nothing. I am Lee Weller’. After gathering Weller’s portmanteau, which Butler shamelessly referred to as his property, he would not go ashore without his soft, black felt hat, which he dropped on the deck. Conway duly retrieved it and turned it down over Butler’s eyes as requested.
The three arresting officers were quietly satisfied as they took their prisoner ashore. Arresting Butler on the water assured his arrest under New South Wales law, even though he would be processed on American soil. At the Office of the Chief of Police at New City Hall, Butler was further searched and questioned. The portmanteau produced incriminating papers, a chequebook in the name of ‘Lee Weller’, bookstand music, and articles of jewellery in a box (including two bangles, a brooch, two rings, a mail chain and a locket). Butler initially dismissed a framed photograph of Mrs Lee Weller as ‘a photo of a lady friend’, before revising it to being a ‘photo of my recently deceased wife’. A revolver and cartridges recovered on the Swanhilda were also marked in as evidence. Most of the items would prove to be the property of Lee Weller or Arthur Burgess.
Local papers turned Butler into a standard West Coast personality-villain, good for two weeks of headlines and vaudevillian laughs. In London and Australia, distance and half-verified titbit facts fed carnivalesque speculations, with Australian papers comparing him to the worst killers, with the “cunning of Deeming and the facility of execution of H. H. Holmes”. His black hat was a must see in a Frisco shopfront display in the weeks awaiting his extradition. One local woman claimed to be his wife. His daily routines were itemised and analysed. People paid to pass him in his holding cell. Butler indulged his sideshow celebrity, convinced he was more than just complimentary tobacco and anonymous lady-love tokens. He gave interviews which were rambling, rudderless, tumid and irrationally self-absorbed, a forever wavering and contradictory account of coming and goings, guilt and innocence. Alone in his cell, he read back his words written down and published in ink. They felt theatrically justifying, beyond the hard dullness of his arrest warrant. He imagined the local media attention charismatically reflecting the person he thought he was. Being Frank Butler was now okay. He looked forward to clearing his name back in Australia if only to confirm that Captain Lee Weller had committed suicide, and taking on his identity was an act of respect to a good friend. Alone in his cell, away from the public, Butler’s plans oscillated between mock silence and violent cunning. He attempted physical assaults on his gaolers, hoping to be tried under San Francisco’s more lenient criminal laws and to avoid extradition and possible hanging in Australia. The antipodean press had made much of American law as arbitrary farce, its obsession with the renegade and individual freedom allowing too many murderers and scoundrels to avoid the justice of the noose.
Butler was released into the custody of Roche, McHattie and Conroy after the local authorities tabulated their massive bill for services provided. Butler was locked in a secure cabin for the voyage back to Sydney. Fantasy gave way to memento mori and nightmarish dreams of the makeshift public gallows outside Darlinghurst gaol. Shock gave way to a hunger strike. Fortunately, the internationally famous musical theatre actor, Miss Maggie Moore, was returning home on the same vessel. She had just completed touring another world-wide hit, “Struck Oil”, where she performed two characters each night to sellout crowds in London, India, Egypt, Italy, France, Germany, and the toughest of all, New York. Maggie agreed to serenade Butler outside his cabin, and two or three hit tunes miraculously got him back on salted beef and hard bread. Butler morphed into a solemn, rather than charismatic, evangelistic wowser for the rest of the voyage, forever chiding passers-by about damnation and the seven deadly sins.
Despite histrionic press reporting and excitable public opinion, Butler’s trial and sentencing proved —beyond his erratic and disruptively belligerent behaviour — relatively straightforward. His increasingly contradictory and unlikely responses to questions reinforced his guilt. Butler finally realised his wild explanations were being dismissed as gimcrack and folded into a dark eremitic cloud, attempting suicide in his cell. He refused to admit to any of the three murders. He was sentenced and hanged, and after a period of hindsighted journalistic moralising, discarded into historical irrelevance.
Detective James McHattie returned to policing in Newcastle, where he would reach Senior Detective before retiring in 1915. Millennial coppers like McHattie were administrative polyglots: inspectors of tobacco, liquor licences and distilleries, the Early Closing Act, magazines, sanitary stuff, vineyards, immigration, slaughtering houses, fisheries, diseased animals and meat. They oversaw plague and epidemic duties, the dairies and cattle slaughtering act, issued licences for timber and quarry, small mining licences, small debts, keepers of miners’ rights, assistant customs officers, collector of government departmental returns, and registrars of births, deaths and marriages. McHattie had transferred to Newcastle from Sydney in the 1880s. Before the Butler circus, he had already won the hard-earned respect of Novocastrians after bravely apprehending two armed robbers in a shootout and rescuing hostages in the process. ‘Tough but fair’ was a genuine moniker given out to few police in his day. Maybe it was the Scots in him, but he responded to the city’s parochialism, and its status as Sydney’s grubby, ugly sibling.
Policing the port revealed a Newcastle many locals were unaware existed. McHattie was sharp to sailors and their formidably peripatetic existence. His fearlessness was complemented with a sixth-sense in dealing with the port’s unique and often phantom-like crime. In 1907 he and colleague Sergeant Hickey were presented with gold medals for hunting down and arresting an arsonist-sailor with a penchant for burning building societies. In his final years, he studied the workings and habits of cracksmen (a new generation of criminal safecrackers using dynamite to blow open their prize). He served when guns were made standard issue in 1894, and saw in the revolution of Bertillon’s scientific policing, in which anthropometry (standardising human features from photographs) was linked to a language and indexing system that could be transmitted in clear shorthand over the telegraph. If he wasn’t a lawman James McHattie would have made a peerless crim.
As a measure of McHattie’s professional career, Frank Butler proved to be his most enigmatically mundane case. Butler was an average conman that murdering turned into a lunatic who earnestly believed in the reality of his fantasies. For all the newspaper ink wasted on analysing the reasons for his killing spree, McHattie saw the killings as cowardly and opportunistic. He remembered Butler as a “repulsive looking man” at the time of his arrest. That said, it was “possibly before he had his nose broken and crime had stamped his features with an ineffaceable expression that caused many people to shrink from him, he may have had some masculine attractiveness…”, always a handy for a con artist. McHattie understood how Butler was content in his aloneness. In the aftermath of his trial, stories real and fantastic surfaced describing the chameleon life of a man who switched effortlessly between worlds and identities, moorless and fleeting, playing the odds: sailor on HMS Sultan at the bombardment of Alexandria, deserter from HMS Liffey, enlisted in the US Army as John McKnight, member of the Manitoba Mounted Police (using the name John Newman), he had once claimed to be an NC officer in the Royal Navy with first-class certificates in musketry, signalling and horsemanship, and had once carried sergeants discharge medals for fighting Zulus and Egyptian campaigns. He provided testimonials from generals and meteorological observatories; claimed membership to the Institute of Mineral Engineers and had deserted from the Canadian Mounted Police; he re-joined the US Army as George Anderson before spending time in a San Francisco prison, working in the humdrum job of laundry assistant. The massive geography of his multiple lives fired a reasonable speculation that there were numberless other victims who might never be found.
McHattie thought they were probably lucky to catch him in the end. In truth Butler caught himself when he drunkenly, vainly forgot whether he was Captain Lee Weller or Frank Butler trying to impress a girl in a Newcastle bar. McHattie struggled with the ‘for what?’ recalling how Butler had lured his trusting victims into the bush and mercilessly shot them in the back of the head. Butler couldn’t look his victims in the eyes after making them dig their own graves. The man’s refusal to sign a “dying declaration” proved to McHattie that he was a bastard counterfeit rather than a criminal, murdering mastermind man. On the day Butler murdered and buried Captain Lee Weller a man by the name of John Grooley of Motueka in New Zealand was walking around and around the dead body of his wife in a trance after attacking her with an axe. He had been released on probation just a fortnight before from a Nelson Lunatic Asylum. Police noticed he had washed his face and hands, waiting to be arrested and taken away. He said the devil made him did it. For McHattie, Frank Butler was too slimy even for that excuse. At the time of leaving the force, James McHattie’s two sons were frontline fighting in the mass human slaughter that would be known as ‘The Great War’. Life was ridiculously what it was.
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”.