Colin Campbell Eadie Ross (11 October 1892 – 24 April 1922) was an Australian wine-bar owner executed for the rape and murder of a child which became known as The Gun Alley Murder, despite there being evidence that he was innocent. Following his execution, efforts were made to clear his name, and in the 1990s old evidence was re-examined with modern forensic techniques which supported the view that Ross was innocent. In 2006 an appeal for mercy was made to Victoria’s Chief Justice and on 27 May 2008, the Governor of Victoria pardoned Ross in what is believed to be an Australian legal first.
The life of Colin Ross
Colin Ross was born in North Fitzroy, Melbourne, the third of five children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Ross. Thomas Ross died in 1900 leaving his wife to care for the five young children, including one who was newly born. Consequently, none of the children were well educated, as each left schooling as early as possible to find work to help support the family. Colin Ross began working at a local quarry at the age of 11, and over the following years he worked as a labourer and later as a wardsman at the Broadmeadows army hospital. In 1920, Elizabeth Ross became the manager of the Donnybrook Hotel, 30 kilometres north of Melbourne, with Colin as partner and another of her sons, Ronald, as licensee.
During this time, Colin Ross began a relationship with Lily Mae Brown, who worked in a Melbourne hotel. On 5 March 1920, Ross asked Brown to marry him, and when she refused, he produced a revolver. He followed her onto a tram, where he continued to threaten her, until she agreed to meet him later in the day. Instead she contacted the police and a plain clothes detective was present when she kept her appointment with Ross later in the evening. Ross was charged with using threatening words and for carrying firearms without permission; on the charge of using threatening words he was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment, along with a 12 month good behaviour bond, and was fined for carrying the firearm .
In April, 1921 the Ross family returned to Melbourne, where Colin Ross, with his brothers Stanley and Ronald, bought a wine shop in the Eastern Arcade, in the business centre of Melbourne. With the purchase of the shop, renamed “The Australian Wine Saloon”, the Ross’s continued the employment of its barmaid, Ivy Matthews. She later commented that the saloon had previously attracted a quiet and respectable clientele, but that the Ross brothers were willing to serve anyone, with the result that it was soon frequented by alcoholics and criminals. Other tenants in the building resented the intrusion of Ross’s customers, who drank to excess and vomited and urinated in the arcade, and made lewd comments to passing women.
On 13 October 1921, one of the saloon’s customers was robbed in the saloon’s outdoor lavatory, and during a struggle with his assailant was shot. His wound was not serious but he was unable to give an account of events to police, due to the large amount of alcohol he had consumed. An investigation revealed that his assailant was a young English traveller, Frank Walsh, who had spent most of his money, and who had been approached by Colin Ross to rob the customer on the understanding that the proceeds would be shared between them. Ross and Walsh were arrested and charged with armed robbery. Ross’s comments to police incriminated Ivy Matthews, who had until that point refused to discuss the matter. Following a visit by Elizabeth Ross, Matthews began to speak on Ross’s behalf, and at the same time began referring to herself as the saloon’s manager, and drawing money from the saloon’s account. Ross made no further attempt to draw Matthews to the attention of police. Ross was acquitted of his charge, however Walsh was sentenced to six months hard labour. Following Colin Ross’s acquittal, Stanley Ross confronted Ivy Matthews and dismissed her from her position.
Nell Alma Tirtschke, known as Alma, was born on 14 March 1909 at a remote mining station in Western Australia, the first child of Charles Tirtschke and Nell Alger. In 1911, Charles Tirtschke accepted a position with a mining company in Rhodesia, and the family moved there, where Nell gave birth to a second daughter, Viola, in 1912. The family was returning to Australia in December, 1914, when during the journey Nell died of complications relating to a third pregnancy, and was buried at sea. After arriving in Melbourne, Charles Tirtschke was unable to care for the children, and returned to Western Australia where he worked at the goldfields. Alma and Viola were cared for by their grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth Tirschke and were assisted by their five adult daughters. By 1921, Henry Tirschke had died, and their grandmother assumed all parental duties. She was remembered by Viola as a strict disciplinarian who kept a close watch on both daughters. Alma was studious and well behaved, and excelled in her studies at the Hawthorn West Central School, however her grandmother greatly restricted her from social activities with other students, and she became very shy. An uncle, John Murdoch, said of Alma Tirschke, “Though of a bright disposition, she was somewhat reserved, and did not make friends readily like some girls. She lacked the vivacious manner than encourages chance acquaintance”. Viola Tirschke later described her with the comment that Alma was “soft in speech and soft in manner”.
On the afternoon of 30 December 1921, twelve year old Alma Tirtschke was sent on an errand by her aunt. She was to collect a package of meat from her uncle’s butcher’s shop in Swanston Street, Melbourne and take it a short distance to Collins Street to deliver it to a customer. The errand should have taken no more than 15 minutes, and when Alma, who was known to be reliable and obedient, failed to return home, her grandmother became alarmed. She was reported as missing, and the police, along with the Tirtschke family searched for Alma through the night. Early the next morning, her naked body was found in Gun Alley, a laneway off Little Collins Street, near the address Alma had been sent to. She had been raped and strangled.
The case became a major newspaper story, sensationalised by the Melbourne press and convincing its readers that a maniac was on the loose and likely to strike again. A reward of 1250 pounds was offered for the capture of the killer; one of the greatest rewards offered in Australia at that time. As time passed with no real progress, the police were criticised, and were subjected to public pressure to make an arrest.
Investigations revealed that Alma had last been seen alive between 2.30 and 3.00pm on the afternoon of her disappearance, at the corner of Alfred Place and Little Collins Streets, near the lane in which her body was subsequently discovered. Among the numerous men interviewed was Colin Ross, a saloon manager, who described seeing a girl matching Alma’s description, outside his saloon. His description of events closely matched that of several witnesses who had also seen her.
Ross was well known to the local police as he had recently been acquitted on a charge relating to his involvement in the shooting and robbing of one of his customers. Despite Ross’s willingness to co-operate police began to interview him in greater detail. Ross was able to nominate several witnesses who had seen him tending his saloon on the afternoon of Alma’s death, and who would confirm that he had not left the premises, but the police remained convinced that he had killed Alma, and on 12 January 1922 they arrested him for murder.
The public fascination with the case intensified as newspapers published news of Ross’ arrest, but Ross told his lawyers, family and friends that he had nothing to fear. As an innocent man, he said, it was only a matter of time before he would be released.
The trial began on 20 February 1922 and witnesses were presented to speak of Ross’s guilt. John Harding, who had a previous conviction for perjury, was being detained in prison at the time, “at the Governor’s pleasure”. He testified that Ross had confided in him in prison, and had admitted his guilt. Ivy Matthews, a prostitute, and Julia Gibson, who worked as a fortune-teller under the name “Madame Gurkha” also testified in court that Ross had confessed the crime to them.
The prosecution also offered forensic evidence in the form of several strands of hair they had obtained from Alma Tirtschke shortly before her funeral. A detective testified that on the day of Ross’s arrest he had noticed several strands of “golden hair” on a blanket in Ross’s house, which were later removed and examined by the state government analyst, Charles Price, a trained chemist with little previous experience in the new field of forensic science. Price testified that he compared the hairs under a microscope, and concluded that the hair found in Ross’s house was a light auburn colour”, while Alma’s hair was a dark red. He measured the diameter of the hairs and concluded that they were of a different thickness. At one point in his testimony he commented that the hairs on Ross’ blanket had most likely fallen from the head of a regular visitor, such as Ross’s girlfriend, but after a long testimony stated that he believed the hairs were “derived from the scalp of one and same person.” His contradiction was accepted by the judge without comment.
Ross’s barrister, Thomas Brennan, protested and requested that a further examination be carried out by a more qualified person but the judge refused. The jury found Ross guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death by hanging. His legal representatives were convinced of his innocence but found that public opinion remained strongly against Ross and news of his death sentence was met with public celebration. Ross’s representative sought to obtain the right to appeal but this was refused by the judge who stated that Ross’s guilt had been proven beyond doubt. Brennan sought leave to appeal to the Privy Council in England, but his application was refused.
Brennan remained supportive of Ross and certain of his innocence, but had exhausted all avenues in his attempt to save Ross from execution. During this time Ross received a letter in prison from a man, who failed to give his name, but who admitted that he had killed Alma, and although consumed by guilt, was not willing to come forward as it would cause grief to his family. Brennan later wrote that he believed the letter to have been authentic. On the eve of his execution a letter was sent to his lawyer. This letter is now believed to have been written by the real killer.
Before his execution in his farewell letter to his family, Ross wrote: ‘The day is coming when my innocence will be proved.’
Ross composed himself with dignity for his quiet but resolute statement from the scaffold:
- ‘I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.’
But it would take 86 years before his innocence was eventually confirmed by a thorough investigation. Faces of Exoneration
Ross was executed on 24 April 1922 at Melbourne Gaol in a particularly gruesome manner. A new four-strand rope was used for the first time in an Australian execution and proved to be a failure, Instead, the knot of the noose did not run freely. Authorities had decided to experiment with a four-stranded rope rather than the usual three-stranded European hemp.
Ross did not die immediately because his spinal cord was fractured, not severed. Although his windpipe was torn and obstructed by his destroyed larynx, the condemned man continued with rasping breaths and convulsed on the rope. Three times Ross bent his knees and flexed his arms as he battled his killer bonds, before succumbing. Ross slowly strangled to death by asphyxiation. A prison report later ruled that such a rope must never be used again. Wrong Man Hanged
Attempts to clear Ross’s name
Thomas Brennan became consumed with his failure to save the life of Colin Ross, eventually writing a book, The Gun Alley Tragedy in which he attempted to establish that Ross had been hanged for a crime he did not commit. Although Brennan attracted supporters it was not enough to persuade the Victorian government to have the case re-examined, and over the following years, interest began to wane in all but the most ardent of Ross’s supporters.
In 1993, Kevin Morgan, a former school-teacher became interested in Ross’ case, and began to research the events surrounding the murder of Alma Tirtschke and execution of Colin Ross. He read handwritten notes in the bible Colin Ross had kept with him in prison, and which had been preserved by his family following his death. Morgan was moved by the simple notations in which Ross wrote of false witnesses, knowing that Ross had written these notes without expecting anyone else to read them.
Morgan examined interview records and court transcripts and discovered information that had been kept from the court at the time, including the testimony of six reliable witnesses who placed Ross inside his saloon for the entire afternoon of Alma Tirtschke’s murder. Furthermore, a cab driver, Joseph Graham, had heard screams coming from a building in Collins Street at 3.00pm, thus in the time frame within which Ross was verified as having been in the saloon. Graham’s interview had been disregarded by police and he had not been called to give evidence. Following Ross’s arrest, Graham attempted to have his story told through a solicitor, but was not permitted to present his version of events in court. Morgan also noted that the witnesses against Ross were of dubious character and could have been motivated to present false testimony; John Harding’s sentence was reduced after he stated that Ross had confessed to him in prison, and the prostitute, Ivy Matthews and fortune-teller, Julia Gibson had shared the reward money. A closer examination of the long testimony of Charles Price regarding the hair samples seemed to support Ross’s innocence.
Two years after he began researching the case, Kevin Morgan found a file in the Office of the Public Prosecutions, which contained the original hair samples, which had been thought lost. He began a legal fight for the right to submit the hair samples for DNA testing, finally winning the right in 1998. Dr. Bentley Atchison of the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine found that the hairs did not come from the same person, thereby disproving with certainty the most damning piece of evidence presented at Colin Ross’s trial. His findings were confirmed by a second series of testing conducted by an independent agency.
On 23 October 2006 the Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls wrote to the Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren, with a 31-page petition asking her to consider a plea of mercy for Ross. The subsequent pardon, granted on 27 May 2008, is the first case in Victoria’s legal history of a posthumous pardon.
The family of Alma Tirtschke believes that the pardon does not go far enough and that Ross should be exonerated. In a Fairfax Radio interview discussing the pardon, the murdered girl’s second cousin recounted how her grandmother was preoccupied with the murder “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung“. In a later interview on the Nine Network’s A Current Affair program, the family stated they believe the true murderer was a family member.