State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 88 December 2011

84

Christine Bell
Death in the Picture Collection: four inquests, three suicides and a drowning

The Spectre of Death hovers in special collections in libraries – manuscripts written in skeletal hands, photographs of forgotten actors in costume, whiskered worthies in mayoral robes whom no-one remembers, brides in their wedding finery and children posed stiffly in photographers' studios. The subjects and creators of these records, once living, are now preserved for posterity in a kind of institutional formalin. Behind these images and their creators are stories which remind us that life is transitory and full of disappointments and often ends in mishap and tragedy. Four stories from many hundreds in the Picture Collection of the State Library of Victoria have been exhumed and subjected to a kind of forensic examination.

The Unfortunate Doctor: Enoch Nasmyth Houston

In 1992, the late Dr Joseph Brown gave a watercolour of Enoch Nasmyth Houston, to the Picture Collection. It depicts an elegant young man in a formal tailcoat and bow tie, drawn in Edinburgh by his uncle, John Adam Plimmer Houston (1813-1884).1 Enoch Houston received his MD qualification in Edinburgh on 2 August 1841, following his MRCS in 1840. This 1840s portrait may have recorded his graduation.
Following his marriage to Helen Baxter, four children were born in Scotland before Dr Houston and his family arrived at Port Phillip on the Velocity in May 1854. Two more children were born by 1856, and in 1861 when the family was living at 14 Back Street west, Emerald Hill. Houston was listed as medical practitioner no. 334 by the Medical Board of Victoria from 1854 to 1861 after presenting his qualifications.2 Houston however, appeared to have a drinking problem, for on 2 January 1862, he was found dead, face down in two feet of water on the north side of the Sandridge Railway opposite the Emerald Hill.3
At the inquest,4 evidence emerged of the doctor's reaction to alcohol. Daniel P. McLean, a surgeon who had known Houston for many years, recounted that 'He has been in the habit of occasionally drinking. On that account, no drink was given him in the house. For some time a very small quantity had injurious effect on him'. According to Dr McLean, since arriving in the colony, Houston had several attacks of what was described as 'congestion of the brain'. However, he did not appear to suffer from mental depression, according to another surgeon, Dr William Herbert Clancy, who gave evidence.
Dr Clancy was called to see Houston on Saturday 28 December 1861, and found suffering from 'preliminary symptoms of apoplexy', for which he was cupped. Clancy had seen him the previous evening, the 27th, quite recovered, at a gathering at Miss Click's, when 'he was quite sensible'. Janet Lumsden, a servant who worked in the house,
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recounted that she had been up all night with a sick child, and that Houston, quite excited, had risen before daylight, saying that he had to go to Melbourne, but without giving any reason. He asked her to follow him, and wait until he called her. But she lost sight of him and went home after waiting some time. Houston had fallen into a waterhole and drowned. Neither McLean nor Clancy thought he suffered from depression, and there were no marks of violence on the body.
Nor had he been robbed, as Constable John Prior found his watch and chain as well as a leather purse containing 18 shillings. The Scots traditionally make much of Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) but there is no evidence in the inquest report of Houston's excessive drinking at a party. The verdict was accidental death. As Houston had made his only will in Edinburgh before leaving for Port Phillip, his wife had to apply for probate to be granted to her as sole executor. '. . . it is of importance to the Widow that probate should issue immediately as she is waiting to recover sundry debts due to her husband . . .'.5 This seems to indicate that she needed money urgently in order to feed, clothe and educate her children. As would anyone left alone to fend for her family in such tragic circumstances.
The elegant young man in the portrait, handsome, confident and well-dressed finished life as an alcoholic, dead in shallow water, leaving behind a wife and six children, one of whom was only ten months old. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery, and the Emerald Hill Rifles, to whom he had been Assistant-Surgeon, were invited to be at Princes Bridge at 3.30 p.m. on Saturday January, with side arms,6 as a mark of respect.

The Pharmacist Who Cried Wolf: William O'Dell Burrowes

Many know of the sad death of the amiable, red-headed, Ludwig Becker,7 official artist on the Burke and Wills expedition. He died at Menindee in western New South Wales in 1861. But what of William O'Dell Burrowes, whose portrait Becker painted in 1853 while on the Bendigo goldfields? Apart from the drama of his death in 1891, Burrowes was a person of little interest to anyone except his family, in whose possession this portrait remained until purchased by the State Library in 1988 to mark Australia's Bi-centennial.
Burrowes was one of eleven children of a non-conformist clergyman who preached in Tasmania. As Becker too had lived in Tasmania for some time, there is a slight chance that he might possibly have encountered Burrowes as a young man. Becker's portrait shows Burrowes in profile as rather a romantic young figure with a dark beard, wearing a straw hat and puggaree on his long ringlets. Burrowes was at times a digger, a surgeon (but he missed the closing date for registration) and a pharmacist. He did, however, register with the Pharmaceutical Board as required, and records state that he had been in business as a pharmacist before 1 October 1876.8 He spent most of his life in the Bendigo area until 1880.
When Burrows' name first appeared on the Pharmaceutical Register, he lived at 24
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Dr Enoch Nasmyth Houston, c. 1840-45

Watercolour, pencil, charcoal and gouache by John Adam Houston.

Main Street, Ballarat, but by 1881, his address was given as the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum. He returned to Ballarat in 1886 after 2 years in Euroa, and then moved to Richmond where he mainly lived until his death in 1891.9 He spent occasional periods in hospital, suffering from melancholia which was probably alcohol-induced. He married Georgiana Mary Emmett in December 186410 according to evidence presented at his inquest,11 and they had at least six children between 1868 and 1882.
In 1891 Burrowes was employed for five months at the Maryborough Hospital. Upon his return to Melbourne in November,12 his spirits were low: . . . he was very despondent ate very little, and had very little to say . . .'13
Burrowes had a serious drinking problem, which was noted by all who gave evidence at the inquest following his death. On 3 November, he left his rented house at 52 Howe Crescent, South Melbourne, saying that he was going to look for a position. He returned about 3.30 p.m., very much the worse for wear. He then told his wife and two daughters that he was going to the park to commit suicide, and would they take away
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L. Becker, c. 1855

Pencil and watercolour by William O'Dell Burrowes.

his pocket book so that when he did kill himself, no-one would be able to identify him. His daughter Gertrude said in evidence that as 'he was in the habit of pretending to take poison that I took no notice of what he said' and his other daughter Minnie persuaded him to go and lie down.
Burrowes was in such an agitated state that he went into the back garden, and looking in through the kitchen window, said that this time he really did intend to kill himself. Taking a bottle from his pocket, he then said goodbye and God bless you. The family took no notice, and left him in the back yard, but even in the front room they could hear what they thought was heavy snoring. Gertrude went out but was unable to rouse her father, and when Dr Foster finally arrived at 5.15 p.m., he was dead. Having threatened suicide so often that his family thought he was joking, William Odell Burrowes, pharmacist and alcoholic, swallowed prussic acid and died. The Coroner's jury of five men returned the verdict: 'the deceased William O'Dell Burrowes poisoned himself when suffering from the effects of drinking to excess'.14
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The Orderly Registrar: William Edward Barnes

William Edward Barnes born in Rochdale in England in 1841, was first a photographer, then local registrar of births, death and marriages, who worked for most of his life in and around Wangaratta. He married Mary Floyd in Beechworth, and they had five children. Like most photographers in small towns, his practice consisted of portraits of local worthies and their families, commissions from graziers recording their new houses and woolsheds, and the recording of important local buildings and events. The Picture Collection holds over twenty photographs taken by Barnes. In addition to the Kelly Gang related images discussed below, these include one of the newly built bridge over the Broken River in Benalla in 1874, and a photograph he took in the mid-1880s of Bontherambo homestead, built for the Rev. Joseph Docker in 1858. There is also a set of three hand-coloured photographs of the house, garden and woolshed at Emu Plains, a property on the Broken River about 8 miles northwest of Benalla.
His fame, however, rests with the photograph he took of a cocky young Steve Hart and the ones he took of the police sent to hunt down the (in)famous Kelly gang in June 1880,15 including one of Sergeant Steele, who took down Ned Kelly. His carte-de-visite of Steve Hart,16 nonchalantly posed against a table in the studio, shows a louche and confident young man, a bit of a larrikin. There is no indication in this swagger portrait of his violent end at the siege of Glenrowan. Comparing this image with the horrible photograph of his body, burnt almost to a crisp – a grisly before and after – reminds viewers that although the mythic status of the Kelly gang endures, Steve Hart died a violent death, probably in fear and great pain.
Barnes continued to work as a photographer in Wangaratta,17 and sometime after that became the local registrar of births and deaths. In 1916, the year of his own dramatic death, Barnes was living in rented accommodation at the back of the Free Library in Murphy Street. He was widowed, with three surviving children. He was friendly with the storekeeper, George Veitch Steele (not related to the policeman of the same name). Steele became alarmed when he received a letter by post from Barnes on 19 June, which so disturbed him that he immediately telephoned the police.
Constables Hennessy and Gray hurried to the Free Library, rang the bell but received no answer. When they entered the premises and went to Barnes's workroom,
we saw there the body of the deceased lying full length on his back [and] on the floor a Remington pea rifle was lying across his chest grasped in the left hand about the centre of the barrel the right hand was close to the trigger . . .18
Barnes had shot himself through the roof of his mouth, and the body was still warm.
The most bizarre aspect of the suicide, Constable Hennessy said, was that, 'On examining his office I found he had filled up a registration form giving particulars of his death'. Barnes was dressed in an old singlet, and pants, and had left notes on several things, inscribed with the names of those he wanted to have them after his death. Meticulous to the last, he had written a letter to Mr Steele asking that he do his best for
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Buttons Pool and Waterfall

Photograph by William Edward Barmes, 1900.

his son Ted when dealing with his intestate estate. Having had second thoughts on the problems of leaving an intestate estate, he had drawn up a will, written in pencil, and taken it Richard Manley, a storekeeper, and Joseph Veding to witness. He left everything to his son Edward (Ted) Barnes, a telegraphist who lived in Caulfield.
Things appeared to have been difficult between Barnes and Ted in the past. Barnes wrote
Forgive if you can an erring brother in spirit. This is almost the close of my earthly career & I am sorry it is not ending more creditably, especially when the future was looking brighter for me with my son Ted, but I cannot stand it any longer, my head near drives me mad at times and I am suffering now for the sins of the past . . .'19.
The probate records reveal that Barnes had little to leave to his son, for the total of assets only came to £28. He had no real estate, one pound in a savings account, and furniture worth fifteen pounds. He was owed five pounds in wages, and four shillings and sixpence for the old age pension. None of the men who gave evidence at the inquest thought that there was anything in his behaviour to indicate that he might kill himself. The Coroner's verdict handed down on 20 June 1916 was that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but there was no indication of his state of mind when he took his own life.
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The Arthritic Photographer: Charles Rudd

In 1977, the State Library purchased a large collection of photographs by Charles Rudd.20 The subjects included Melbourne city and Victorian country views, important buildings, events and people. They date from 1881 onwards, when Rudd, who had previously worked in South Yarra from 1872, and then spent a year working in Sydney in 1880, settled into studios, firstly in Little Collins Street (1882-1886) and finally in Bourke street from 1886 until his death in 1901.
At the time of their acquisition the subject matter of photographs was deemed to be much more important that the person who made them, and the writing on Australian photography was in its infancy. The geographic range of subjects in Rudd's portfolio was evidence that he had travelled extensively around Victoria, armed with his large format view camera, glass plates, and probably a type of portable laboratory. Mobility was essential for a view photographer, and views had to be current to please customers old and new. The Melbourne Public Library, and the National Gallery within the Library were also photographed extensively by Rudd.
Rudd was, according to his brother-in-law William Edward Mann, a hard-working man, but plagued by ill-health. 'He could not get about freely'21 and probably had rheumatoid arthritis, described in the inquest record as rheumatic gout. Unable to travel around to photograph views, his professional skills had to be directed towards other, less taxing work and he began to work for the police.
On 4 March 1892, he was summoned to photograph the excavation in the bedroom at 57 Andrew Street, Windsor, which had been rented in December 1891 to Frederick Bailey Deeming and his wife Emily Mather. Emily was not expecting the kind of Christmas present which her husband had in mind – he battered her head in, cut her throat and buried her under the bedroom hearthstone, cementing her in. Bad smells from the decomposing body led to a police investigation, and Rudd was employed to take forensic photographs of the site.22
On 1 October 1901 Rudd wrote to Sergeant William Robert Davidson who was stationed at the morgue, and for whom he had photographed many bodies, telling him that he would be unable to continue to work for the police.
Sir – I regret to tell you that I cannot undertake to Photograph the subjects (if any) at the Morgue – I am in a very weak and nervous state and some days cannot get to the business at all – I very much regret to tell you this but I don't want to leave you to think that I can do the work when I feel unable to do so – Hoping you will be able to come to some arrangement. . . .23
On 16 October, Rudd sent his young messenger boy, Michael Kelly to lunch at midday. When he returned to the studio at 257 Bourke Street, he found Rudd lying dead on the floor beside a chair, and immediately called the police. Sergeant Davidson testified at the inquest that he had moved Rudd's body to the morgue, and searched it. Rudd's pockets contained about one pound, and a silver watch and chain. The results of the post-mortem showed that he had drunk about half a pint of 'reddish dark fluid
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Lynch's Bridge on the Maribyrnong River

Photograph by Charles Rudd, c. 1900.

which had an odour of almonds. The feet were deformed or very flat & the hands were also deformed from chronic disease . . . '. He was 53, and had arrived in Victoria as a child of two. His widow, Isabella, was left with six children, ranging in age from 16 to one year.
Rudd had been quite provident, and his estate, although not large, included a fully paid up house in Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell (valued at £610/10/-), and ten parcels of vacant land in what are now Carnegie, Newport, Spottswood, Surrey Hills, Maribyrnong, Camberwell and Mornington. His life insurance with the New York Life Assurance, worth £125, which was paid out despite the Coroner's saying: 'On 16th October at Melbourne he died from the poisonous effect of Cyanide of Potassium. We find that he took poison during a temporary fit of insanity.'24 His brother-in-law told the inquest that Rudd had threatened suicide some weeks before, and although his doctor said that his patient should not be left alone, neither Rudd's wife nor her sister thought that he should be placed under restraint. Mrs Rudd's affairs fell into the hands of a trustee company, which generously decided that she could feed, clothe and educate six children on £6.10.0 per month, paid somewhat irregularly.
Four deaths, four inquests, four personal tragedies. Four widows, numerous children, and financial difficulties for at least two women. The deaths of these men resulted in distress for their families and friends. Might there be some comfort in retrospect that their personalities and creative work live on in the State Library of Victoria preserved, one hopes, forever?

1

Daniel Thomas, Outlines of Australian Art: the Joseph Brown Collection, 3rd ed., Melbourne: Macmillan, 1989, pp. 30, 58. Thomas assumed that the artist was the subject's brother.

2

Medical Board of Victoria. Old register 1845-1862. VPRS 16394/P0001/1

3

Argus, 3 January 1862, p. 4, col. 7

4

VPRS 24, box 108/41. Inquest record 1861/41, Public Record Office Victoria.

5

VPRS 29/P/0000, units 7 and 37. No copy of the will was found in these records, and a probate advertisement placed in the Age. A search for any caveat on the will also proved negative.

6

Argus, 4 January 1862, p. 8.

7

Ludwig Becker (1808-1861). See his entry in ADB at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beckerludwig-2961.

8

Victoria. Pharmacy Board. Register 1877-1894. IN 95, State Library of Victoria microfilm.

9

His address was given as 3 Amsterdam Street, East Richmond.

10

http:/search.ancestrylibrary.com/ accessed 5 July 2011.

11

VPRS 24/P/0000. Inquest report 1891/1513, PRO, Melbourne: Constable Plowright's deposition.

12

Employment records for the Maryborough Hospital at this time do not seem to be held in the Public Record Office, although some patient records are held at the Genealogical Centre.

13

VPRS 24/P/0000. Inquest report 1891/1513.

14

No record for probate has been found, so it is likely that Burrowes had nothing of worth to be divided amongst his family except bad memories and regrets.

15

These photographs were registered with the Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection (VPOCC) are known as the Kelly Gang photographs.

16

The photograph can be viewed on-line at http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/primo_library/libweb/action/display.do?ct=display&doc=SLV_VOYAGER1708225&indx=11&vid=MAIN&vl(freeText0)=william%20edward%20barnes&ct=Next%20Page&fn=search&indx=11&frbg=&srt=rank&tab=defau lt_tab&mode=Basic&dum=true.

17

Photographers' index 1901-1920, compiled by Christine Downer, 1995. Sources used are the Wise's Post Office Directories and the Sands & MacDougall's Directory series. Recently donated to the Pictures Collection.

18

VPRS 28/P/0003. Inquest record 1916/545.

19

Ibid.

20

Accession no: H 39357/1-.

21

VPRS 28/P/Inquest record 1901/1230.

22

VPRS 515/P000. Central Register of Male Prisoners. Unit 46, folio 66. These photographs are currently unavailable for consultation owing to their fragility, and are to be digitised. The reference to Rudd as photographer in the Deeming case is taken from Maurice Guvitch and Christopher Wray, The scarlet Thread: Australia's Jack the Ripper, Sydney: Fairfax Books, 2007.

23

VPRS 28/P/Inquest record 1901/1230.

24

Ibid.