June 21, 2024

Who Killed Alma Tirtschke?

In December 1921, a shocking crime stunned Melbourne. A hundred years later the question remains: who killed Alma Tirtschke?

Melbourne's Eastern Markets
Melbourne's Eastern Markets

At dawn on December 31, 1921, a man named Errington was looking for empty bottles, around the streets at the east end of Melbourne. This part of the city was awash with bars, and a decent income could be made by rounding up the empties.

Errington found good pickings near the Eastern Market, a flower and retail centre 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 warren of laneways and cul-de-sacs, small bars, betting shops and brothels.

But early in the morning, 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. As he explored the alley, Errington was stunned to find the body of a dead, naked girl.

She had red hair and lay on her back, with her legs bent under her.

Errington ran to get help; he returned with the police, who shortly cordoned off the area. The body was removed for examination, and later identified as Alma Tirtschke, a 12-year-old reported missing the day before.

This was the beginning of one of the city's most famous criminal investigations.

Alma Tirtschke
Alma Tirtschke

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 largely raised by her grandmother, an elderly lady who had a home 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.

Swanston Street, 1920s
Swanston Street, 1920s

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 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. When Alma did not return, her grandmother contacted the police, who registered her as a missing person.

Senior Detective Fred Piggott, lead investigator of the Alma Tirtschke murder
Senior Detective Fred Piggott

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 a public profile, having been involved in several prominent cases already.  He was sometimes referred to as, Melbourne's Sherlock Holmes.

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 she had not been murdered in Gun Alley. There was no sign of any disturbance there, the victim had likely been moved post-mortem and then dumped.

Alma's clothes were not found and her body appeared to have been washed, removing any trace evidence. This indicated the killer probably had privacy; a thorough search was conducted of all the buildings in the surrounding streets, but turned up nothing.

Complicating the investigation was the location of the crime scene.

Gun Alley, where the body of Alma Tirtschke was found
The entrance to Gun Alley

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, 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 press report the murder of Alma Tirtschke
The local press report the story

The local press covered the story exhaustively, with the murder dominating the headlines for weeks on end. Pressure began to mount on Piggott and Brophy.

The two detectives tried to piece together Alma’s final movements, on the day she disappeared. And here they uncovered something unusual.

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. For some reason she did not, and what she did instead is one of the great mysteries of the case.

The Eastern Arcade, Melbourne
The Eastern Arcade

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 be on her way back to her grandmother’s house.

Instead, she appeared to be aimlessly wandering.

Witnesses came forward to describe her movements. Her striking red hair stuck in people's minds, and it was unusual to see such a young girl alone in the city.

A number of these witnesses said that Alma looked 'agitated,' 'nervous' or even 'scared'.

She was next seen turning onto Russell Street, then Bourke Street, and entered 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, then exit the arcade. This would put her back on Little Collins Street, a few hundred metres from where she started.

She had just spent 90 minutes walking in a circle.

What was she doing? Why was she anxious? Some would later speculate she was being followed, or that she had seen someone she was trying to avoid.

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, accused of murdering Alma Tirtschke
Colin Campbell Ross

Colin Campbell Ross was 29 years old: a burly, strongly built man whose life had taken him in various directions.

He had left school at 11 and worked as a labourer, 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 establishment quickly developed a reputation.

Melbourne's Eastern arcade
The Eastern Arcade, interior

It was successful but rowdy, a place where people drank until they became heavily intoxicated. It was also suspected that the Ross brothers regularly served people they knew to be underage.

Stories circulated that they were not above liberating the contents of their patrons’ wallets, and then turning them out, if they got drunk enough.

Complaints were soon registered about drunks passed out in the arcade, and loud noise, late at night. The police were soon agitating for Ross' liquor license to be revoked, which was done after only a few months.

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, in May 1920, he had been arrested after he pulled a revolver on his girlfriend, when she refused his proposal of marriage.

Ross explained his behaviour as the rash act of a heartbroken man. This was accepted and his punishment was light: a small fine, a suspended sentence and a good behaviour bond.

Nevertheless, he had a criminal record.

Arrest made in the Alma Tirtschke case
Ross' arrest is reported

Detective Piggott became convinced Ross was involved in Alma's death, and concentrated his investigation on him.

He had first been 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 lacking other leads, 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.

The detective 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 also 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

In an era before the development of modern scientific techniques, Price's opinion was based solely on his viewing of the different samples. If his opinion was accepted, this now placed Alma Tirtschke inside Ross' saloon, something that he had denied.

Piggott thought he had caught his main suspect in a lie.

This break in the case was heavily discussed in the press, who now began to depict Ross as the likely perpetrator. As this narrative advanced, other witnesses suddenly came forward.

Ivy Matthews testifies in the Alma Tirtschke case
Ivy Matthews' testimony reported by the press

Chief among these was Ivy Matthews, who had been a barmaid at the Australian Wine Saloon.

Matthews had originally been interviewed on January 5 and told police she had not seen Alma on the day she disappeared. Now she came back to Piggott with a different story.

Matthews claimed she had seen Alma on December 30, not in the arcade or on the street, but inside the saloon itself. She 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

When asked why she had lied to police in the first instance, saying she knew nothing, Matthews explained 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 had come straight to police.

Matthews' testimony was corroborated by other witnesses, customers at the saloon, who also came forward. A young woman named Olive May Maddox told police that she had seen a young girl in the private room next to the bar, when she stopped for a drink on December 30.

This explosive allegation seemed to seal the case against Ross. The police, media and public all assumed now that he was guilty.

Defence lawyer in the Alma Tirtschke murder, Thomas Brennan
Defence attorney Thomas Brennan

Ross was to be defended by George Maxwell and Thomas Brennan, experienced criminal attorneys with strong reputations. They immediately felt that the evidence against their client was flawed.

Examining the crucial hair samples themselves, their opinion was that they simply did not look-alike; they were of different lengths, thicknesses and even colours. Further, they soon discovered that Charles Price, the government's supposed expert, had not previously analysed hair samples.

There were also problems with the prosecution's witnesses.

Ivy Matthews’ sworn statements had changed several times and specific details from her later testimony had only been added 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.

Even more telling, Matthews had a long-standing beef with the Ross family. Prior to the murder, she had claimed that she and Ross were actually business partners, and that he owed her money from the running of the saloon.

Ross had previously rejected these claims.

Ross arrives in court for the Alma Tirtschke trial
Ross arrives at court

Ross and his lawyers tried to present him as an innocent man, railroaded by an investigation desperate for a culprit.

His own version of events had him at the bar on December 30; after seeing Alma pass by mid afternoon, he continued working until mid evening.  Then he caught a tram home, where he was seen by several witnesses, before returning to the city later for a drink.

He arrived home from this second trip around 11.30 pm. From the beginning of the investigation he never changed his story, and always maintained his innocence.

Ross' trial began on February 7, 1922, a sweltering hot day in Melbourne. Hundreds of people flocked to the court to catch a glimpse of the suspect; the court room gallery full, the crowd overflowed into the streets outside.

The prosecution, lead by Hugh Macindoe, laid out the Crown's evidence: Ross' criminal past, his seedy reputation, 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, the jury only one to deliberate. Ross was found guilty and sentenced to death, then still a legal punishment in Victoria.

Approximate location of Gun Alley, where Alma Tirtschke was found
Approximate location of Gun Alley, present day

Ross' lawyers appealed, but their legal options were limited; the appeal could not be based on a re-evaluation of the evidence already presented. Instead they conducted their own investigation, and 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. Customers from the saloon on the night of the murder testified they did not see a young girl, and that Ross was serving behind the bar the entire time.

Other evidence also came to light. 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; shortly after Ross had seen Alma in the arcade.

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 for rent, a perfect place to commit a crime.

When asked why he had not reported what he had heard to police, Graham said he had: he had attended a police station on January 9 to tell his story, but had been dismissed without explanation.

Colin Ross executed for the murder of Alma Tirtschke
Last words

Despite this evidence, and the doubts cast over the first trial, Ross' appeal to the Victorian High Court was not successful. His lawyers then took the case to the High Court of Australia, who heard arguments in Sydney on 29 - 31 March.

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. None of these efforts were successful.

Colin Ross was hung on April 24, 1922; his last words were, 'I am an innocent man.' The entire process, from the discovery of the body to the execution, had taken only four months.

Brennan subsequently 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 still guilty, time moved on.

The case, and Ross, were largely forgotten.

Colin Ross pardoned for the murder of Alma Tirtschke
History revised

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. His family expressed their relief; some justice had finally been served.

But this does not solve the underlying mystery of the case. We still do not know, who killed Alma Tirtschke?

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One thought on “Who Killed Alma Tirtschke?

  1. This gives you very relevant information about the case, and what happened on the night, and a great description of Alama

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