The murder of Alma Tirtschke is one of Melbourne’s most notorious crimes. After a lengthy investigation and trial, her killer was hanged; did police get the wrong man?
At dawn on December 31, 1921, a man named Errington was looking for empty bottles, around the streets at the eastern end of Melbourne.
This part of the city was awash with bars, and a decent income could be made by rounding up the empties, and turning them in for recycling.
Errington found good pickings near the Eastern Market, a flower and retail market that stretched the block between Little Collins and Bourke Street (where the Commonwealth Bank and Vic Roads is today). The streets around the market were a hub of night-time carousing; a warren of laneways and cul-de-sacs, small bars, betting shops and brothels.
But around dawn, the streets were quiet.
Errington’s rounds took him to Gun Alley, a dead-end, L-shaped lane which ran south off Little Collins Street. A short distance down this alley, Errington was stunned to find the body of a dead, naked girl.
She was just a child, and lay on her back with her legs bent under her.
Errington ran to get help. The body in Gun Alley was soon identified as belonging to Alma Tirtschke, a 12-year-old reported missing the day before.
Alma Tirtschke was born in Melbourne in 1909.
Her mother died of a kidney disorder when she was young and her father, a mining contractor, was frequently absent. Alma was raised by her grandmother, an elderly lady who had a modest house in Jolimont.
Alma was a friendly girl and good at school, but also quiet and solemn. Her most distinguishing feature was her vibrant red hair; long and straight, she wore it hanging down the middle of her back.
On December 30, 1921, Alma's aunt, Maie Murdoch, paid the Tirtschke household a visit.
Maie had an errand for Alma. She was to go to a butcher's shop on Swanston Street, where Maie's husband worked, and collect a parcel of smallgoods, which she would then deliver it to Maie's house on Collins Street.
After the delivery, Alma was to return to her grandmother's house, a round trip that was expected to take about two hours. Maie gave her money for tram fare and the two women saw her leave about noon.
It was the last time they would see her alive.
The investigation of Alma Tirtschke's murder was charged to two men, John Brophy and Fred Piggott, both senior detectives in the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Piggott had seniority and was well-known to the public, having been involved in several high-profile cases. The task facing the two men was difficult. No witnesses to Alma's murder had been identified, and there was little in the way of physical evidence.
She had been sexually assaulted and then strangled, and the detectives quickly concluded that she had not been murdered in Gun Alley. There was no sign of any disturbance, the victim had likely been moved post-mortem.
Alma's clothes were not found and her body appeared to have been washed prior to being dumped, removing any trace evidence. This indicated the killer probably had privacy.
A thorough search was conducted of all the buildings in the surrounding streets, lasting two days, but no further evidence was found.
Complicating the investigation was the location of the crime scene.
The Eastern Market was thought of as a disreputable part of Melbourne; 'squalid and depressing' according to The Herald, and 'a haven for evil characters' according to The Age.
Residents in this part of the city were suspicious of the police, and reluctant to cooperate with any official investigation.
The violence of the crime, and age of the victim, soon stirred up enormous feeling across the city. Thousands flocked to Gun Alley to examine the spot where Alma's body had been found, and many wreaths and other small tributes were laid.
The local press covered the story exhaustively, with the murder dominating the headlines for weeks on end.
But as the investigation stalled in the days following Alma's death, pressure began to mount on Piggott and Brophy. The public demanded the perpetrator be caught.
And in this trying atmosphere, the detectives began to make progress.
Witnesses to Alma’s last movements finally began to come forward. Her striking red hair stuck in people's minds, and it was unusual to see such a young girl alone in the city, making her easier to recall.
Piggott and Brophy began to piece together Alma’s final movements, on the day she disappeared.
Alma’s grandmother set her departure at around 12.30pm, and she was seen shortly afterward walking through the Treasury Gardens. She reached her first destination, Bennett and Woolcock's Butcher Shop on Swanston Street, shortly after 1pm.
She collected her parcel and left again, around 1.30.
She was now meant to head to her Aunt's house on Collins Street, which was only a short distance from the shop. But, for unknown reasons, Alma did not go directly to her Aunt's house.
What she did instead, is one of the great mysteries of the case.
Alma was next seen at 2pm walking slowly along the south side of Little Collins Street.
By this time she was meant to have delivered her package, and to be heading back to her grandmother’s. Instead, she appeared to be aimlessly wandering.
She was then seen turning onto Russell Street, then Bourke Street, and entering the Eastern Arcade about 2.30pm. The arcade was a retail thoroughfare of small shops that ran between Bourke and Little Collins Streets, and also had something of a seedy reputation.
At one end of the arcade was a bar, ‘The Australian Wine Saloon’, operated by Colin Campbell Ross.
Ross told police he had seen Alma pass his establishment shortly before 3pm, and then exit the arcade. She was now back on Little Collins Street a few hundred metres from where she started, having spent 90 minutes walking in a circle.
A number of witnesses indicated that Alma looked 'agitated,' 'nervous' or even 'scared'.
What was she doing? If she was anxious, why? Some would later speculate she was being followed, or that something must have happened to disrupt her original plans.
But as Piggott and Brophy weighed these eye-witness accounts, and Alma's odd behaviour, they suddenly realised that they had a suspect; a man with a criminal record, and a known violent temper.
Colin Campbell Ross was a burly, strongly built man of 29 who was something of a jack of all trades.
He had left school at 11 and had worked in labouring jobs, until a bout of appendicitis in his teens left him weakened and unable to perform manual work. He then took a series of unskilled jobs, drifting between Melbourne and Sydney, and spent the war years as a hospital wards man.
In April 1921, he entered into a business partnership with his mother and brother, and they opened ‘The Australian Wine Saloon’ in the Eastern Arcade.
The saloon quickly developed a reputation.
It was successful but also known as a place where anyone would be served, regardless of how intoxicated, or their age. And the Ross brothers were not above liberating the contents of their patrons’ wallets, and then turning them out, if they got drunk enough.
Ross' business neighbours soon began to complain about drunks passed out in the arcade, and rowdy, late night behaviour.
The police kept a close eye on the saloon and were soon agitating for Ross' liquor license to be revoked. This was done after only a few months, and the saloon was scheduled to shut down at close of business on New Years Eve, 1921.
Ross was also known to police in a different capacity.
The year before, May 1920, Ross had been arrested after he pulled a revolver on his girlfriend, when she refused his proposal of marriage.
Explained as the rash act of a heartbroken man, Ross had only been punished lightly; a small fine, a suspended sentence and a good behaviour bond. Nevertheless, he had a record.
Detective Piggott became aware of Ross' record, and subsequently concentrated his investigation on him.
Ross was interviewed by police on January 5 and 6, but the questions were of a routine nature. A week later, with public opinion inflamed and the investigation stymied, Ross was elevated to chief suspect.
He was arrested at his family home in Footscray, on January 12, 1922.
The police conducted a search of the property and found, among other items, two blankets. When Piggott opened one of these, he saw several strands of long, brightly coloured hair. As Alma Tirtschke had striking red hair, Piggott thought he had found his smoking gun.
The blankets and hair samples were sent for analysis at a Government laboratory, where they were assessed by Charles Price.
Price detected twenty-two hairs on one of the blankets, which he described as 'auburn' coloured. Hair had been taken from Alma Tirtshcke's body and this was now given to Price for comparison.
He would testify in court:
'I am of the opinion that although there are slight variations in colour, length and diameter with the hair removed from the head of the deceased, the two specimens of hair were derived from the scalp of the same person.'
- Charles Price, Chief Government Scientist
If Price was right then this now placed Alma Tirtschke inside Ross' saloon, something that he had denied. It appeared Piggott's suspicions had been correct.
Forensic science was a new concept in 1922, and viewed as something of a novelty. This would be the first time that scientific evidence involving hair samples had been used as part of a murder trial.
So despite the positive match of the hair, Piggott was keen to have more traditional evidence to back his case. And he was now able to secure several prosecution witnesses, who would provide damning evidence against Ross.
Chief among these was Ivy Matthews, who had been a barmaid at the Australian Wine Saloon and occasionally Ross' business partner (although opinion on their business involvement varied).
She had been interviewed on January 5 and told police that she had not seen Alma on the day she disappeared, and knew nothing about what had happened. Several weeks later, she came back to Piggott with a different story.
She now claimed that she had seen Alma on December 30, not in the arcade or on the street, but inside the saloon itself.
Matthews said she saw Alma sitting in a private room off to one side of the bar, and that Ross had given her an alcoholic drink. Even more sensationally, Matthews claimed that Ross had confessed the murder to her afterwards:
'He said that the child had been tampered with by men before. He said that he ravaged her, but did not intend to kill her.'
- From Ivy Matthews' testimony
This was explosive testimony and seemed to seal the case against Ross.
When asked why she had lied to police in the first instance, saying she knew nothing, Matthews explained that she did not know at that time that Ross had killed Alma, only been with her, and she felt loyal to her employer.
When Ross did finally confess to her, Matthews said she had come straight to the police.
Matthews' testimony was corroborated by other witnesses, customers at the saloon, who then came forward. A young woman named Olive May Maddox told police that she had also seen a young girl in the private room next to the bar, when she stopped for a drink on December 30.
The Crown case against Ross now seemed iron clad. The press rounded on the accused man and took it as read that he was guilty, even before his trial had begun.
But Ross' lawyers had serious doubts about the case against him.
He was to be defended by George Maxwell and Thomas Brennan, experienced criminal attorneys with formidable reputations.
They saw immediately that the forensic evidence against Ross was deeply flawed.
Even a casual, visual examination of the hairs from the blanket, and from Alma, caused concern. They simply did not look-alike, being of different length, thickness and colour. Furthermore, they soon discovered that the forensic expert, Charles Price, had not previously analysed hair samples.
There were also inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecution's witnesses.
Ivy Matthews’ sworn statements had changed several times and, even more compelling, specific details she had added at a later date had come only after the same information was reported in the press.
Matthews and Olive Maddox also admitted that they were friends and that they had met and discussed the case a number of times, both before and after Ross' arrest. This gave them ample opportunity to devise a common story that they could both take to the police.
Finally, Matthews had a long-standing issue with the Ross family. She claimed that she was owed money from the saloon, and had been demanding payment.
In his defence, Ross always maintained his innocence.
On the night of December 30, Ross said that he finished up at the bar mid evening, and then caught a tram home, where he was seen by several witnesses. He subsequently returned to the city for a drink, before going home again, around 11.30 pm.
From the beginning of the investigation he never changed his story. He had seen Alma Tirtschke walk past his saloon on the day she disappeared, that was the only time he had ever seen her.
His murder trial began on February 7, 1922, a sweltering hot day in Melbourne. Primed by the press, hundreds of people flocked to the court to catch a glimpse of the suspect, already widely assumed to be guilty.
The prosecution, lead by Hugh Macindoe, laid out the Crown's evidence; Ross' past, the proximity of his bar to the location of the body, the forensic evidence and the testimony of the witnesses.
In their turn, Ross' lawyers pointed out the flaws and inconsistencies in each element.
When Ross was called to the stand his gruff, coarse speech and manner almost certainly harmed his case. He looked, and sounded, as the prosecution had described him; a rough, angry thug.
The arguments from the two lawyers took five days, and the jury only one day to find Colin Ross guilty.
He was sentenced to death, then still a legal punishment in Victoria. Ross was taken away in shock, while his lawyers turned their attention to an appeal.
The appeal could not be based on a re-evaluation of the evidence already presented, but Ross' lawyers were able to find a remarkable amount of new evidence to support their client.
This included witnesses who could corroborate Ross' movements on the night of December 30, as well as testimony that debunked the crucial evidence of Matthews and Maddox. New defence witnesses who stated they were in Ross' saloon all night and did not see a young girl.
Perhaps most stunning was the statement of Joseph Graham, a middle-aged taxi driver who had been walking up Little Collins Street on December 30, between 3.15 and 3.30pm.
As he walked past the Adam and Eve Hotel, Graham said he heard several high-pitched screams, like those of a young girl, which were quickly muffled.
The alleyway that ran alongside the Adam and Eve was lined with cheap rooms, many of them vacant, that could have supplied cover to a murderer. Ross was serving drinks in front of many witnesses at the time the screams were heard.
Graham said he had reported to the police to tell his story on January 9, but had been dismissed without explanation.
Despite this evidence, and the doubts cast over the first trial, Ross' appeal to the Victorian High Court was not successful.
His lawyers sought leave to take the case to the High Court of Australia, and this was heard in Sydney on 29 - 31 March 1922. This appeal was not successful either.
Thomas Brennan continued to do what he could to lobby for a retrial. A petition was circulated that received several thousand signatures, and Ross' mother made an appeal directly to the Premier of Victoria. All to no avail.
Colin Ross was executed on April 24, 1922. His last words were, 'I am an innocent man.'
While Ross' execution seemed to put an end to the Gun Alley saga, the doubts raised about the case remained.
Brennan wrote a book about the trial - 'The Gun Alley Tragedy' - which he used to reiterate his objections to the case. But with Ross executed, and in many people’s eyes guilty, time moved on, and the case was largely forgotten.
In the 1990s, at the behest of Ross’ family, it was re-examined.
All of the evidence had been retained, and so the hair samples that had so damaged Ross in 1922 could now be probed by modern forensic techniques. DNA analysis showed that the hair samples from the blanket, and from Alma Tirtschke, were from different people.
Legal experts re-examined the trial transcripts and concluded that Ross had not had a fair trial. The evidence against him was insubstantial, and the testimony of witnesses’ contradictory.
In light of this new information, Colin Ross was granted a posthumous pardon by the Attorney General of Victoria in 2008.
While Ross' reputation had, eventually, been restored, the underlying mystery of the case remains; who killed Alma Tirtschke?