Podcast Available Here – Let’s Spend a Life Together (28:21)
Dark Stories True Crimes
In February of 1925 George Gershwin’s jazz experiment Rhapsody in Blue performed to mixed reviews in New York City. Across the Pacific in the small city of Newcastle, 19-year-old Mona May Mary Beacher met Arthur Oates in the humble rooms of the Hamilton card club. The nice girl from Islington won all but one game after pairing up with the neatly dressed and quietly polite new member, who impressed everyone with his considered calling. At the end of the night Arthur suggested clumsily to Mona they made a fine team. Arm in arm with her Mother to the tram that would take them home to Mayfield, Mona could not stop agreeing.
Gershwin said Rhapsody in Blue was conceived on a train with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise … And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance. After a few weeks of tram rides home to Mayfield, Mona Beacher may not have heard avant-garde rhythms in her head, but as she rag-dolled to the jutted swinging and waving of her small town tram she made her own monumental decision: her life’s project would be to release the taciturn Arthur Oakes from a loneliness that might have mimicked the whimsical, yearning clarinet of Gershwin’s homage to the future-as-now.
Months of shared second-guessing at card games fortified and ripened the couple’s intimacy. They started keeping company. Arthur’s work as packer in David Cohen’s warehouse allowed them most weekends together (when he wasn’t visiting his parents in Sydney). The shy and intense tea-totaller shunned pubs, dancing and parties, preferring the picture palace or the occasional lost weekend at Lake Macquarie.
A visit to Taronga Park Zoo’s landscaped paths drawn around the famous Rustic Bridge confirmed their romance, though Mona was spiked mysteriously in the neck by a projectile, later put down to larrikins firing air guns at unsuspecting, strolling couples from hideouts in the surrounding bushland.
Despite a petty concern with the ten years age difference, Mona’s father George decided if Mona liked Arthur, he would too. A doting father and straight shooter, George Beacher was shoemaker and repairer known for his generosity to others. Despite loyalty to the politically rugged victimhood of his chosen Roman Catholicism, George had vocally rejected Archbishop Mannix’s anti-conscription voice during World War 1, and considered contraception a sensible, modern option for the mistakes people made in Newcastle’s gruff working & drinking culture. For George, life was a series of broken boots, some repairable. For this reason he refused to question Mona and Arthur’s intimate weekends away together, regardless of his parish priest’s hectoring condemnation. When Arthur asked permission in April of 1925 to marry the now pregnant Mona, George called him a gentleman for sticking by her, reassuring him “that if things don’t go well, he could “send Mona back to me, and I will look after her.”
The Beachers only demand was for a Roman Catholic ceremony in their local church. Arthur agreed if the marriage was organised quickly, as he was hoping for a transfer to Cohen’s Sydney warehouse. It took a staunch George to see his wavering future son-in-law through the marriage day, reminding him “he was a gentleman, that it would be all right, but most of all, he needed to man up”. Dusk was pulling a clear day’s light down when a motor called at Mounter Street to transport Mona and her father to the church. George accompanied his daughter to a glowing candle lit altar. After singalong drinks at Mounter Street, the newly married couple caught a 7.20 pm train for Strathfield, where they would stay overnight before another train took them to Melbourne for their honeymoon proper.
Mrs Beacher received a telegram the following Tuesday, 19 May 1925: ARRIVED SAFE AND SOUND. ARTHUR HAS THREE WEEKS HOLIDAY AS WEDDING PRESENT. GOING MELBOURNE WEDNESDAY. LOVE, MONA. The uppercase news thrilled Mrs Beacher, but it was all a fraud. The couple had, by their own machinations, never arrived in Sydney, and had no intentions of travelling to Melbourne.
Some claim the word Honeymoon dates to the Roman June solstice, when honey was harvested wild from hives. Playing on its more idealised nuptial connotations, certain 16th century poets ironically troped the idea as proof that love’s first flush was unsustainable, and ultimately fleeting.
A fortnight before her wedding, Mona Beacher was consumed by its initial flush while placing an newspaper ad for short term rentals around Toronto, a lakeside holiday town south of Newcastle. A few days later she made the half hour train ride from Newcastle to meet Mrs Williams, owner of a small waterfront cottage. Mona left a deposit under the pseudonym Miss Anderson, excitedly telling the landlady that next time they met she would be Mrs Arthur Turner.
The morning of the wedding Arthur caught the same Hamilton-Toronto train. Weighed down with two heavy suitcases, he hired a taxi for the short walk from the station to the cottage. After introducing himself to Mrs Williams as Mr Turner, he asked if he could store the suitcases and pick out the best bedroom in the cottage. Mrs Williams suggested he come through while she finished her inventory.
While following Mrs Williams, Arthur tore his clothes on a piece of protruding tin. He produced a hammer from his pants pocket wrapped in brown paper, and knocked it back in. He told a slightly quizzical Mrs William he knew it would come in handy. Before Mrs Williams could show him how the sewing machine worked, Arthur thanked her not to worry about it, as ‘the wife will not want to do any sewing for a long time.’ After inventory was taken and the train timetable confirmed, Arthur Turner (aka Oates) said he looked forward to returning that evening with his new bride.
It was raining heavily when the 8:15 pm train terminated. The newlyweds stood under the station’s yellow lit awning with some late commuters, seemingly hypnotised by the bejewelled wall of water cascading off the roof. Arthur’s booked taxi was stalled two streets away with engine trouble. The couple finally made it to the cottage about 11. Mrs Williams had left for Newcastle, leaving behind her husband to settle them in, before he bunked out in a skilling attached to the rear of the cottage.
Early next morning was crisp, clear and cloudless. Albert Williams found Mr and Mrs Turner standing in the backyard, deep in conversation. A beaming Mrs Turner thanked him for the sunny day and having everything ‘clean and nice’ for them.
Williams sorted dry wood for the fireplace and a bag of coal for the stove. He double checked with the local butcher on the milk and bread delivery and headed back into Newcastle for the Saturday races. The Turner’s agreed to feed his chickens. He would not be back before Monday.
A SLOW SILENCE
Hewson the baker noticed the milk and bread he had delivered Sunday still at the front of the cottage on Monday. No one had seen either of the couple, but he figured they weren’t thinking about milk and bread. As the hit song said …
Another bride, another June
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee
Williams also returned on the Monday and suggested they might be exploring the lake on foot, staying somewhere else overnight. He cancelled the butcher’s order, and returned to his barber’s shop in Newcastle.
Williams was back again on the Thursday morning. The couple had still not been seen or heard from. There was no response when he knocked heavily on the front door. A noisome smell followed him as he circled the building to an unlockable side window he could climb through.
The smell inside gagged and frightened him. There were signs of the couple’s habitation: Catholic ‘good luck’ medals hung on the walls, an open bottle of unfinished wine, and playing cards laid out mid-game on a table. In the main front bedroom the smell was overwhelming. Under a loose bed sheet he was confronted with the body of the woman he had known as Mrs Turner. She was dressed as if for bed, but her skin was grey, and her face a mess of matted hair and thick dry blood.
A CHAIN OF ROSARY BEADS
Detective-Sergeant Ferguson and two detective constables arrived from Newcastle about 2 pm. An experienced and sharp criminal investigator, even Ferguson baulked at the state of the deceased lying on bed, which the Government Medical Officer’s examination would later detail six lacerated wounds an inch long on the skull; the left ear badly lacerated; the nose broken, and the right eye smashed. There were four sharp cuts — one about three inches long on the jaw; one four inches long on the neck, and two from the angle of the mouth about an inch long. The chest, brain, and abdominal organs were in a healthy condition, but deceased was about five months pregnant. Death was due to concussion of the brain, and could have been caused by a hammer. The Injuries could not have been self-inflicted.
For Ferguson the tableau suggested an attempt to erase the woman from the physical world. The fact she still was still in a nightdress, singlet, and boudoir cap somehow lessened the butchery and disfigurement, allowing for a momentary redemption of her personhood.
The body was removed to the Newcastle Morgue while the detectives methodically catalogued evidence; a razor on the bed near the body; a kerosene lamp on the bed table; a used teacup and a half drunk bottle of wine sitting next to playing cards on a loungeroom table. Three hands of the deck had been dealt out — two face up and the other face down.
In the stove-firebox they found a hammer head; a razor blade; pieces of a lady’s necklace; a two-shilling piece & a sixpence; charred remains of dress material, and a chain of bluestone rosary beads shining in the still warm ashes; under the bathtub were six women’s hats and two pairs of men’s shoes. There was a pile of women’s clothing (for each part of the day and every occasion), a man’s pyjamas and a new blue serge suit with a nametag seemingly cut out. Ornamental religious medals tied with ribbon were hung throughout the house, and more clothes hurriedly jammed up the flue of the chimney. Nothing specifically identified anyone until sheet music was found between the keys and the damper of the piano. It included quaint singalong music and a more risqué jazz piece: “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate”. They also bore the flourishingly rounded signature of Mona Beacher, of Mounter Street Tighes Hill. Mrs Williams confirmed there was no sheet music in the cottage before the couple arrived and they had definitely paid using the name Turner. This unexpected development gained more credence after a broach found amongst clothing removed from the chimney was engraved Mona.
TWICE A GENTLEMAN
Electoral rolls and the street directory confirmed there was a Beacher residing in Mounter Street. George Beacher was inconsolable after confirming his daughter as the body on a Newcastle Morgue slab. Detectives with him were silently amazed what staff had achieved transforming Mona’s butchered face into something presentable, even replacing an eye that had been knocked out of its socket. Her nose was still flattened and broken, and in one way the cosmetic miracle more definitively revealed the brutality and force of the attack by clearly outlining the number of hammer impacts and the length of the razor cuts.
Between entering and leaving without slipping on the morgue’s freshly washed concrete floors, George Beacher’s life was irreversibly suspended: forever psychically tethered to a static, idealised fantasy of what should have been. Mary Beacher felt her husband’s faith in any future die, meaning the family’s infinite grief would be hers to bear, each hour, each day of their forevers.
The Beacher’s were clueless as to why their daughter and son-in-law used false names, and why they had lied about Toronto. While these were legitimately puzzling questions, Detective Ferguson’s team were only interested in tracking down Arthur Oates. At Cohen’s warehouse, where the Beachers’ understood Arthur worked, they found there was a packer resembling the description of Arthur, but his surname was Oakes, not Oates. A quiet and dependable worker for almost seven years, he lived in Islington with his wife and two boys, aged five and two. He had taken the previous Friday off to accompany his wife to Sydney for family reasons. He was back at work the following week except for Tuesday. Work colleagues noticed no change in his demeanour, but then he always kept to himself. He didn’t play team sport, drink or gamble, and was not particularly religious. They never knew he played cards, or how he spent his free time. That he might have been hanky-pankering on the side beggared belief.
On Friday morning of May 22 at 1 a.m., Ferguson, accompanied by Det. Ryan, Det. Sergeant Charters, and Constable Knox, called on the house of Arthur Oakes in Islington. With his wife at his side Oakes (having confirmed his surname) claimed the first he knew of Mona Beacher was reading his wife the newspaper report of her terrible murder. Mrs Oakes also stated Arthur had been home with her all last weekend. Convinced both were bad liars, Ferguson asked Arthur to drive the short distance to the Beacher’s home, just to confirm he was not the man who married their daughter. Oakes overconfidently agreed, repeating he had nothing to hide. Out the front of the Beacher’s home, a short-sighted George took a moment to focus through the dark on the man standing before him, before quietly and plainly asking “why did you kill my dear little Mona, Arthur?”
A CLEAN BREAST OF IT
Back at Newcastle station Ferguson carefully worked on Arthur’s increasingly odd, and distracted mannerisms. There was something pathetic, even childish about him. Ferguson reasoned sympathetic massaging and patronising reassurance would be more successful than muscle or threats — regardless of Oakes’ feeble and illogical answers. After an hour or two of cross-referenced questioning, the term ‘in over their head’ came to Ferguson’s mind. By sun-up Arthur Oakes wanted to make a clean breast of it with a chilling statement made without threat or persuasion:
“I first met Mona Beacher about 14 months ago. We were knocking around together for a while. I did not see her for about six months. I was knocking around with her when my wife was running a business in Sydney, and then we sold out in Sydney. My wife came back to live in Newcastle, and I did not see Mona or about six months. I met her again after that and she told me that she was pregnant.
She said we had better get married. She had me that way that I did not know what to do. I agreed to marry her, and we got married at the Roman Catholic Church, Tighes Hill last Friday night. We then went to Toronto to a house which we had rented previously from Mr. Williams. We lived there together. On Saturday night we had a game of cards, and I drank some port wine.
We both went to bed together at about 9 or 10 o’clock. About the middle of the night I got up while Mona was asleep, and murdered her with a hammer and a razor, I then went to sleep in the same bed with her. When I got up in the morning I burnt the hammer and razor, also a handbag, and a lot of clothing in the stove.
I put a lot of her clothes up the chimney in the dining-room. I took all her jewellery off her, and caught the first train on Sunday morning. I threw her jewellery into a bit of a river near Blackalls as the train was going. I got out at Hamilton, and went home on Monday morning. I went to work at David Cohen’s and on the next day (Tuesday) I got the train something after nine in the morning, and went to Strathfield, and sent a telegram to Mrs Beacher. I had some dinner down there, and came back home. I done it so as I would not get found out. I knew that I had done wrong, and I wanted to keep it, so as no one would find out (signed), A. A. Oakes.”
In trying to present himself as an unfortunate man tricked and trapped by a calculating girl, Oakes only reinforced certain uncertainties about his own behaviour. When Arthur was taken to the morgue to identify Mona’s body he could only reply that it’s something like her; I can’t say. On Sunday a xylonite case was discovered floating in the creek between Blackalls and Fassifern stations. It contained rings Mona had excitedly shown the Williams on their arrival at the cottage while confirming Arthur’s claim to have thrown it from the train bridge.
MAD AS MAD AS IS (A SHORT DIVERSION)
England’s Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800 determined that a criminal madman should be subject to detention and state care rather than criminal law. It was a radical legal proposal for a time in which malice aforethought was generally applied in more direct, black and white terms. As common law precedence, the defence of criminal madness was driven by extraordinary cases such as James Hadfield’s attempted assassination of King George III on 15 May 1800.
The King’s Song was a notationally simple tune built around a mnemonic, nursery rhyme progression. The Royal Theatre custom of playing it before each performances led its popularity as an Empire wide ritual by George’s reign. On the evening of the 15th May an especially excited audience rose and faced the flesh and blood Monarch (and his son Prince Frederick) in the Royal Box. During a gushing rendition of the anthem, James Hadfield climbed on his seat and calmly pulled a horse pistol from his jacket. He slowly raised and aimed it at the King before firing a single shot-and-ball load. It missed the royal target by 14 to 18 inches, though reporting varied on the distance and the importance of this fact.
Six years before that wild evening James Hadfield was lying on the battlefield of Tourcoing in Flanders. A French sabre had slashed a cut along his cheek along with a second blow to his skull that cracked a hole through which it was possible to finger-feel his exposed brain membrane. After four years as a prisoner of war Hadfield returned to London as part of a goodwill exchange. Freedom intensified Hadfield’s headaches and the maddening, disruptive voices in his head. Like many veterans, he was head-fucked in mayhem, a disposition that mimicked Britain at the time: mad like its monarch, and war weary like the citizenry. Hadfield found a tranquillity of sorts in the millenarianism of apocalyptic eschatology spouted by radical London street-prophets like Richard Brothers, who claimed God had, among other things, commanded him to assume the throne of England.
Hadfield’s trial provoked popular astonishment and public sympathy when his military history was relayed. This sympathy increased when Banister Truelock, another street prophet, introduced himself in the witness box as Hadfield’s spiritual advisor and a ‘Supreme Being’ who cared little for imitators: the Virgin Mary was a bloody whore, Jesus Christ was a thief, and God Almighty was a blackguard. Banister Truelock had convinced his new acolyte that a new world order without Kings and soldiers would mean no more war, the true cause behind the increased price of provisions and lack of life’s necessities. He did not however expect James Hadfield to take him literally. When not saving the world, Truelock was an excellent shoemaker: cool, steady and deliberate in all his actions, cleanly in his person and regular and decent in his apartment. As fellow preacher John Wesley asserted, cleanliness is next to Godliness. It became clear James Hatfield was a lost soul easily coerced by the loudest and simplest religious blowhards.
Like Truelock, James Hadfield was scrupulous in his personal habits. He kept his Light Dragoon’s waistcoat clean and would never use his weapon unless dressed in it. Military training remained with him as muscle memory. He had had been a crack shot, so his lawyer’s claim in court that he never really intended to kill the King was believable enough. On the stand a confused James Hadfield explained that by feigning to kill George III, he expected to be executed. His execution would trigger the second coming of God. This chain of events would bring prosperity to the world and save his own tortured soul — in his head Hadfield would cleverly avoid suicide and eternal damnation.
Hadfield was tried for treason rather than attempted murder. The trial went public and beyond logical debate, more Drury Lane farce than cathartic drama. Evidence unravelled into questions about insanity and the effects of hot weather on a person’s humours. Hadfield’s lawyer, Thomas Ervine, convinced the court that the idiot or the madman knew not what they were doing. His client was like a godless Aborigine, with child reasoning that knew nothing of theology’s guidance, which allowed understanding of good and evil’s natural impression on the mind.
Thomas Ervine proved James Hadfield was common-law precedent mad. The fact that his illness resulted from fighting for of his country made this all the more saddening. Except for one subsequent escape, James Hatfield lived out his asylum days keeping birds and cats while writing Byronic verse which he bartered for tobacco.
At his trial for the murder of Mona Beacher, Arthur Oakes reneged on the signed confession to claim that madness (triggered uncontrollably by the viperous and manipulating Mona) made him do it. According to Oakes, on the Saturday morning — the first day of their honeymoon — he got cold feet, telling his new bride that we have done a wrong thing. We have acted the fool about it. Mona said they couldn’t go back, and told Arthur to go out for a walk and blow it away while she decorated the bedroom walls with Catholic text cards, and prepared dinner. Oakes slunk off to a local hotel, returning to the cottage around four o’clock.
Not used to drinking alcohol in any quantity he fell asleep reading a newspaper. That night the couple ate, played cards and sipped from a bottle of fortified wine. Going back on his original statement, Oakes claimed that a drunkenly brash Mona began taunting and insulting him: This girl I married with the idea of protecting … turned round and said I was not responsible for her condition. She said I was a fool for having married her and for having run away from my home. She put her hands behind her back and stepped forward and said: ‘Now what will you do if I go and tell your wife?
Then a mist seemed to come before my eyes, my brain, already inflamed by the wine, became more inflamed, and I seemed to go raving mad. I don’t know what I did. When I woke up next morning I found myself lying beside the body in bed.
When I saw the horrible sight I cried: Oh, God, Oh, God. What have I done! My sole intention was to protect this girl, not to injure, not to destroy, to protect.’
I stuck to her all through like a man, I sacrificed myself for her, and after I did, she turned round and called me a fool.
Like James Hadfield, Oakes claimed preternatural voices took control of his reasoning, non–violent self. The man who spent his working days in order and containment, could not separate dreaming from wakefulness that Saturday night. Doctors who examined Oakes in pre-trial custody at Maitland Gaol diagnosed him dull but not clinically mad. The public evidence of his tremulous and bewildered first wife added to this conclusion, stating that Arthur had always been easily led and prone to cloud mongering, but he was a good father, husband and provider. He had never been violent with herself or the boys. Covered in a black veil, Mrs Oates left court harassed by reporters and hangers on. All she could hope for now was to leave Newcastle with her children.
Arthur Oakes had retreated into a dream world by the time Crown Prosecutor Doyle methodically unpicked his insanity defence. Each skilfully framed question was targeted at upending the logic of Oakes’ desperately revised narrative …
On the Sunday morning when you woke up, you say you said: ‘Oh. God, Oh, God my sole intention in murdering this girl was to protect her.’ Is that right? — Yes.
Did you say it to God? — Yes, as my God is in heaven.
You were nearly mad? — Yes.
Yet you went back to Cohen’s next day? — Yes.
You were able to control your madness there? — Yes.
Were you mad when you told Pitt to tell Williamson that you were too sick to go in work on the Tuesday? — I was struck with fear.
Why did you take a holiday to go to Strathfield? — I don’t know. I did not know what to do.
Horror stricken? — Yes.
You were not too horror-stricken to eat a meal at Strathfield? — I only had a cup of tea.
You said you were horror-stricken when you read the account of the murder to your wife. Were you horror-stricken when the police came? — I was not in my right mind.
Knowing you had done this murder you sent a telegram purporting to come from Mona to her poor old people to make them believe that their daughter was enjoying herself with you in Victoria. Why did you do it? — I was horror-stricken.
Why did you throw her poor little rings out of the train into the creek? — It was madness.
Do you only get mad when you are not working at Cohen’s? — No answer.
You were not mad on the Monday? — Not exactly.
Were you mad when you were at Strathfield? — I was upset.
Why did you throw away the rings? — She took them off each night and put them in her box on the table. I was horror-stricken, and I did not know what I did.
Why did you hide her clothes— I didn’t.
Why did you cut the tab from your coat? — I went that mad I don’t know what I did.
Were you mad all the time? — Yes.
All the time? When does this madness leave you and your self return? — I don’t know.
Why did you burn her rosary beads and her bag? — I don’t know.
You burned the very articles you had used to kill her? — I was horror-stricken.
Is that all you have to say? Why did you burn them? — When I saw her dead body I did not know what I was doing.
THERE’S ALWAYS AN END
Doyle persuaded the jury Oakes was a cool, callous, and right-minded murderer, fully deserving the death sentence. He was perfunctorily sentenced to hang at Darlinghurst goal.
Mona was encased in a metal coffin with a glass lid, which sat inside a second coffin of polished cedar. The crowd of family, friends and morbidly curious locals needed three extra carriages on the funeral train for her burial at Sandgate cemetery. Reverend Grace’s words focused more on how fortunate Mona was to have the church and God see her off, rather than a potential second life in heaven (she problematically had sex before marriage).
Branded by some newspapers as “the honeymoon murderer”, Arthur Oakes successfully appealed his death sentence to the State Legislature. He would stay in prison for life, totally alone, his wife unable to bring her self or the sons to visit. Guilt and incarceration did send Arthur off the rails: he became increasingly haunted by nightly spectral visits from an accusing Mona, demanding to know why he killed her. His screams regularly tormented the warders and fellow prisoners before he was removed to the Parramatta lunatic asylum. The asylum tranquilised him into forgetful stupor, and kept the judgemental Mona out of his head. He died quietly and alone in 1960, lost and forgotten to an outside world that had seen a world war, the atomic bomb, and satellites orbiting space.
On the winter afternoon in June 1930, at about 3:30 pm, George Beacher collapsed of heart failure at the front gate of his home. He died before he could be laid on a bed inside. Mary and their surviving daughter Lydia were shocked to find he secretly saved a more than modest sum to keep the rats from their door. Mary endured to see her grandchildren. She never bothered herself with Arthur Oakes fate, having always trusted Detective Ferguson’s assurance he would never be released from prison.
Within months of the Toronto Murder, Detective Sargent Ferguson was first to a particularly gruesome scene in New Lambton, where a mother of four had attacked two of her boys with an axe during a psychotic meltdown, decapitating the slower six-year-old. The second child was also hacked up badly but survived and recovered. At his retirement Ferguson reflected that seeing action in the Great War had steeled him to horror, but what people had done to each other in peace often left him speechless.
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”.