The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 20.

The “Argus” Gives its Opinion.

The morning after the trial was concluded the following article in reference to the matter appeared in the Argus —

“During the past three months we have frequently in our columns commented on the extraordinary case which is now so widely known as ‘The Hansom Cab Tragedy.’ We can safely say that it is the most remarkable case which has ever come under the notice of our Criminal Court, and the verdict given by the jury yesterday has enveloped the matter in a still deeper mystery. By a train of strange coincidences, Mr. Brian Fitzgerald, a young squatter, was suspected of having murdered Whyte, and had it not been for the timely appearance of the woman Rawlins who turned up at the eleventh hour, we feel sure that a verdict of guilty would have been given, and an innocent man would have suffered punishment for the crime of another. Fortunately for the prisoner, and for the interests of justice, his counsel, Mr. Calton, by unwearied diligence, was able to discover the last witness, and prove an alibi. Had it not been for this, in spite of the remarks made by the learned counsel in his brilliant speech yesterday, which resulted in the acquittal of the prisoner, we question very much if the rest of the evidence in favour of the accused would have been sufficient to persuade the jury that he was an innocent man. The only points in favour of Mr. Fitzgerald were the inability of the cabman Royston to swear to him as the man who had got into the cab with Whyte, the wearing of a diamond ring on the forefinger of the right hand (whereas Mr. Fitzgerald wears no rings), and the difference in time sworn to by the cabman Rankin and the landlady. Against these points, however, the prosecution placed a mass of evidence, which seemed conclusively to prove the guilt of the prisoner; but the appearance of Sal Rawlins in the witness-box put an end to all doubt. In language which could not be mistaken for anything else than the truth, she positively swore that Mr. Fitzgerald was in one of the slums off Bourke Street, between the hours of one and two on Friday morning, at which time the murder was committed. Under these circumstances, the jury unanimously agreed, and returned a verdict of ‘Not guilty,’ and the prisoner was forthwith acquitted. We have to congratulate his counsel, Mr. Calton, for the able speech he made for the defence, and also Mr. Fitzgerald, for his providential escape from a dishonourable and undeserved punishment. He leaves the court without a stain on his character, and with the respect and sympathy of all Australians, for the courage and dignity with which he comported himself throughout, while resting under the shadow of such a serious charge.

“But now that it has been conclusively proved that he is innocent, the question arises in every one’s mind, ‘Who is the murderer of Oliver Whyte?’ The man who committed this dastardly crime is still at large, and, for all we know, may be in our midst. Emboldened by the impunity with which he has escaped the hands of justice, he may be walking securely down our streets, and talking of the very crime of which he is the perpetrator. Secure in the thought that all traces of him have been lost for ever, from the time he alighted from Rankin’s cab, at Powlett Street, he has ventured probably to remain in Melbourne, and, for all that anyone knows, he may have been in the court during the late trial. Nay, this very article, may meet his eye, and he may rejoice at the futile efforts which have been made to find him. But let him beware, Justice is not blind, but blind-folded, and when he least expects it, she will tear the bandage from her keen eyes, and drag him forth to the light of day to receive the reward of his deed. Owing to the strong evidence against Fitzgerald, that is the only direction in which the detectives have hitherto looked, but baffled on one side, they will look on the other, and this time may be successful.

“That such a man as the murderer of Oliver Whyte should be at large is a matter of danger, not only to individual citizens, but to the community at large; for it is a well-known fact that a tiger who once tastes human blood never overcomes his craving for it; and, without doubt the man who so daringly and coolly murdered a drunken, and therefore defenceless man, will not hesitate to commit a second crime. The present feeling of all classes in Melbourne must be one of terror, that such a man should be at large, and must, in a great measure, resemble the fear which filled everyone’s heart in London when the Marr murders were committed, and it was known that the murderer had escaped. Anyone who has read De Quincy’s graphic description of the crime perpetrated by Williams must tremble to think that such another devil incarnate is in our midst. It is an imperative necessity that such a feeling should be done away with. But how is this to be managed? It is one thing to speak, and another to act. There seems to be no possible clue discoverable at present which can lead to the discovery of the real murderer. The man in the light coat who got out of Rankin’s cab at Powlett Street, East Melbourne (designedly, as it now appears, in order to throw suspicion on Fitzgerald), has vanished as completely as the witches in Macbeth, and left no trace behind. It was two o’clock in the morning when he left the cab, and, in a quiet suburb like East Melbourne, no one would be about, so that he could easily escape unseen. There seems to be only one chance of ever tracing him, and that is to be found in the papers which were stolen from the pocket of the dead man. What they were, only two persons knew, and one knows now. The first, two were Whyte and the woman who was called ‘The Queen,’ and both of them are now dead. The other who knows now is the man who committed the crime. There can be no doubt that these papers were the motive for the crime, as no money was taken from the pockets of the deceased. The fact, also, that the papers were carried in a pocket made inside the waistcoat of the deceased shows that they were of value.

“Now, the reason we think that the dead woman knew of the existence of these papers is simply this. It appears that she came out from England with Whyte as his mistress, and after staying some time in Sydney came on to Melbourne. How she came into such a foul and squalid den as that she died in, we are unable to say, unless, seeing that she was given to drink, she was picked up drunk by some Samaritan of the slums, and carried to Mrs. Rawlins’ humble abode. Whyte visited her there frequently, but appears to have made no attempt to remove her to a better place, alleging as his reason that the doctor said she would die if taken into the air. Our reporter learned from one of the detectives that the dead woman was in the habit of talking to Whyte about certain papers, and on one occasion was overheard to say to him, ‘They’ll make your fortune if you play your cards well.’ This was told to the detective by the woman Rawlins, to whose providential appearance Mr. Fitzgerald owes his escape. From this it can be gathered that the papers — whatever they might be — were of value, and sufficient to tempt another to commit a murder in order to obtain them. Whyte, therefore, being dead, and his murderer having escaped, the only way of discovering the secret which lies at the root of this tree of crime, is to find out the history of the woman who died in the slum. Traced back for some years, circumstances may be discovered which will reveal what these papers contained, and once that is found, we can confidently say that the murderer will soon be discovered. This is the only chance of finding out the cause, and the author of this mysterious murder; and if it fails, we fear the hansom cab tragedy will have to be relegated to the list of undiscovered crimes, and the assassin of Whyte will have no other punishment than that of the remorse of his own conscience.”

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42