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1819: MURDER NEXT DOOR

CATHERINE WILLIAMS #06

 

Catherine and Matthew Wood were leading lives of quiet seclusion up in Back River. Every day was much the same, just hotter or colder than the one before. A gentle rhythm flowed over everyone in the valley, the seasons changed, crops grew, were harvested, nothing changed. Matt was well liked but getting past it. By the beginning of 1819 he was in his seventies, a natty old guy with a natty not quite so old gal by his side. They were content and settled, happy as clams, satisfied to live out the rest of their days in the valley surrounded by friends, watching the grass grow.

On January 19th their next door neighbour Betsy King was sitting taking tea, casting her thoughts around the property, planning her day. Her husband Sam was thumping around in the parlour, cursing and clearing his throat. He was best left alone in the mornings. On the very edge of her hearing came a faint cry. For a moment she wasn’t sure whether she imagined it or if it was the bleating of a lamb; she stood up slowly, put her mug on the table and silently edged toward the door. This wounded, wretched sound continued. She stepped out on to the porch and sniffed the air. Something was wrong.

She looked down toward the stream, trying to separate the sounds on the air, trying to find that cry on her sights, then one more moan led her eyes across the clearing to a bundle of clothes on the ground.

‘Samuel!’ she shrieked and began to run towards the clothes, ‘Samuel!’

Her shriek rose in intensity as she drew closer and saw old Catherine Woods covered in blood on the ground. The old woman’s lips were caked with vomit, her face a puffy, smashed remnant of the gentle elderly neighbour Betsy knew.

‘Mother of God,’ Betsy said as she knelt down by the old woman’s side. ‘Who’s done this to you?’

Catherine’s pleading eyes shone thought all the blood and muck.

‘Matt’s dead,’ she whispered. ‘Matt’s dead.’

*

He was so still, that’s what Constable James Triffitt recalled, so very still. Lying there on his side, stark naked, one leg bent in front of him, the body of Matthew Wood was just a bundle of skin tied up with string. His hands were bound behind him, drawn up tight by the rope that stretched from his wrists to his neck, the rope that curled around his neck and face, that held the trousers tied around his head, the rope that choked poor Matthew to death.

Sam King leant over gently and, with an effort, released the grubby clothing from the old man’s face. Matt Wood’s eyes were wide open, his mouth frozen in a scream, tongue protruding, swollen pink and fat from a toothless mouth. His face was a perfect white, the rope around his neck still bow-string tight. Every move he must have made with his hands served to strangle him more.

‘They’ve choked him,’ said Sam.

‘Nah, Sammy, he’s choked himself. Look at that rope.’

Sam was untying the rope at his wrists. He couldn’t bring himself to touch that terrifying face. His hands brushed against the dead flesh. Cold. Stiff. They rolled the body on its back and stared into Matt’s face, trying to read his last moments. He was certainly very dead indeed.

‘He’s died hard, Sam.’

*

The bandits had made off with more than Matt’s life; a notice from the Police Office dated 9th January 1819 listed the items they stole; ‘4 white calico shirts, 4 check cotton ditto, 2 pair of grey woollen cloth Trowsers (the cloth made in Sydney), 4 white double-breasted waistcoat, 5 calico women’s Caps, 1 woman’s cotton Bed-gown with red spots, 1 Peticoat of the same, 2 brown linen sheets that were issued from the King’s Stores, a pair of cotton sheets, 1 new tin Baking-dish about a foot across and 5 0r 6 inches deep, 1 Dutch-made Gun with brass bands around the stock and barrell, 1/1 lb. of Gunpowder in a bottle, about 20lb. of moist sugar, 2 ½ lb. of Tea, a Promissory Note of Hand drawn by Thomas Murphy for $5, payable in June next, a Store Receipt for $25, signed by Mr. Commissary Broughton, 2 new calico Shirts, 1 bank of fine white Thread and a quantity of red and brown Thread.’

Word was already rolling through the district. Messengers were sent direct to town to inform everybody who needed to know; there was proper proceedure to be followed, an inquest to be held. Within a day the Hobart Town Gazette had published the dreadful news. Mary held a copy in her hands that evening, staring blankly at words she couldn’t read.

SHOCKING MURDER; – We have just been informed of a horrid murder committed at New Norfolk; the particulars as far as we can learn are as follow: – On Wednesday evening last two men entered the residence of Matthew Wood, a settler much advanced in years, and after binding his hands behind his back, they beat him with some weapon in a most barbarous manner on every part of the body till he died; they also put a cloth of the eyes of his wife, an aged woman, whom they beat nearly in a similar manner; afterwards one of the ruffians put his hand on her mouth to discover if she was dead, they then robbed the house of several articles. From the blows inflicted on the poor old woman, she was unable to give any alarm till Friday morning, when she made shift to crawl to her nearest neighbour. Upon the neighbours proceeding to the house, they found the body of the unfortunate man in the passage dreadfully mangled and entirely naked, having only a jacket wrapped round the head. The deceased was person generally respected; and we hear was reported to have had some money in his house, to get possession of which, probably the murderers had in their view when they perpetrated this horrid deed. The Chief Constable and proper assistants were sent off immediately on this murder being reported; and every exertion is making to discover the perpetrators; which we trust will be attended by success.

Hobart Town Gazette, January **, 1819

*

Matt Wood’s body assumed the status of sacred icon by the time it was placed in the ground. He became a universal symbol; the sacrificial settler martyred for all of them. Poor Matt and Catherine were a most unremarkable couple, living out their allotted span, like all the other elderly couples, quietly, calmly, content to let the years slip away, hardly worth robbing, let alone murdering. Like the men of the Falls they weren’t going anywhere, nor were they ever going to get ahead. They survived but they survived with each other, perhaps even with humour, or grace or love.

What happened to Matt, a harmless man, the callous brutality of it, the extremity of the  violence sent a chill into everyone, but particularly the elderly. He was old and, even in these days, that seemed to guard against horrible murder. A greater pall than usual hung over the Falls. The district already reeked of disillusioned, aging men. They were the lost souls of Happy Valley, a whole regiment of them, unhappy single men with a losing battle behind them and a whole future of fuck-all to look forward to.

These were the ones who got away, sentenced to a solitary life on a thirty acre block, too small to make a profit, too large to work on their own. Their names were destined to disappear and the snarl on their face, their bitter resignation made it clear they were very aware of that fact. They were trapped on their land, eking out an existence with a small flock of sheep, an acre of two of wheat or barley, a deal here, a deal there; just enough to get them through. They had never been able to get ahead and now, in their sixties, had long since given up trying.

They all lived in conditions of varying decay. Most had given up bathing, knowing that no one was ever going to get close enough to them to notice, their personal habits run amok with no-one round to check them. These men lived in a frenzy of farts and nose-picking, scratched their scrotum without care. Free of the civilizing influence of women with no prospect of one on their horizon, all of them lived in a world completely free of feminine restraint. As the years wore on and their habits became increasingly more filthy the single men grew to bicker amongst themselves, waging internecine warfare over the years, never forgetting, above all, never forgiving. Revenge for these men was a dish best savoured cold.

They all stood together, though, at Matthew’s funeral, a flank of failure at the rear, freshly washed and shaved, shuffling up, one by one, to shake Catherine’s hand and murmur condolences, muttered grunts of grief before setting out to drink themselves stupid at the wake. This was the first great death of the district and the profundity of the moment was not lost on men who had much too much time to brood. Me next, they thought. It’ll be me next. The eulogies flowed. Matt Wood’s service was attended by everyone from the district. The funeral became a wake, and, as the hours wore on the house became filled with song. Laughter too as they all drew strength from each other, took stock and came alive. Some sang, some danced, some fell over, more than a few found their bed on the floor; the ghost of Matt Wood was set free to wander in the vain and arrogant hope he would find his own way home.

*

Billy Trimm’s last gasp appeared, in the form of a lively baby boy, predictably called William, 9th March 1819 and, for a few hours, Catherine was able to forget her private sorrow as she gazed into the unworried face of her grandson and saw the future and her past, all in one.

Her ordeal wasn’t quite over yet. Matt hadn’t made a will. Now she was at the mercy of every conman and shark in the colony – and there were a great many of them. Out of the blue, on May 15th 1819 came a most peculiar notice in the Gazette.

NOTICE: – CATHERINE WOOD, Widow of the late MATTHEW WOOD, settler, deceased, having renounced all claim to administering to the Effects of her deceased Husband in favor of WILLIAM HARRY, of Hobart Town; hereby gives notice of his intention of applying to the Honorable the Supreme Court of Civil Judicature at Sydney [through his commissioner at this Settlement] for Letters of Administration to the Goods, Chattels and Effects which were of the said Deceased. All Persons having Claims and Demands against the said Effects are therefore desired to send in the same immediately for Liquidation; and all those who stood indebted to the Deceased at the time of his Death, are requested to make payment to the said William Harry.

This was the same William Harry, jailer at the Hobart Jail, who had ushered Billy Trimm through the last days of his life; the same man who must have allowed her daughter one last hour of privacy with her condemned husband. Quite what he has to do with it all eludes me. His notice reappeared the following week, on May 22nd, but in the same paper, on the following page is Catherine’s reply. She was having none of it.

An Advertisement having appeared in the Hobart Town Gazette of Saturday last signed ‘WILLIAM HARRY,’ stating that I had renounced all claim of administering to the Effects of my deceased Husband, the Public are requested to take notice, that I never did, nor had, and Intention of renouncing my Claims aforesaid; and that I mean by the earliest opportunity to apply to the Supreme Court [through its commissioner here] the Letters of Administration to the said Effects and therefore request Claims, [should there be any] may be presented, and all Debts to be paid to me only.                                                                                         CATHERINE WOOD 

Having sorted that out she must have been surprised when Matt’s son turned up. By the time of his death Matt had been in the colony for 28 years. From his shadowy past life a long-lost son appeared, one David Wood Esq. who, on finally hearing of his disgraced father’s death in June had made a beeline for Van Diemen’s Land on the Regalia, ready and eager to claim his inheritance. He hit the ground running with an agenda that featured David Wood and David Wood only; of Catherine and her problems he couldn’t give a toss.

NOTICE: – DAVID WOOD, Son of the late MATTHEW WOOD, Settler, deceased, having applied for Letters of Administration to the Judge of the Supreme Court [through the medium of the Commissioner at this Place], gives Notice that all Debts due to the said Matthew Wood are to be paid to him only; and all persons whatsoever are cautioned from, in any Manner intermeddling with the said Estate, effects or Debts, which were belonging to his late Father.

[signed] DAVID WOOD

Hobart Town, Dec. 25, 1819.

Matt Wood wouldn’t have been the first convict to exaggerate his holdings and status in letters home; Master David must have been severely disappointed when he arrived as a free settler on November 28th 1819 to find his father’s grand property was just 30 run down acres at Back River.  That didn’t stop him claiming every last blade of grass of his inheritance; now both mother and daughter were dispossessed. Catherine was, despite her description as ‘an aged woman’ still only 59. By the time of the muster 6 months later she had no land and 80 sheep. 

Zach Sponsford permitted himself a wry smile at his ex-wife’s predicament then, at the ripe old age of 78, married 65-year-old Catherine Loftus. One can only admire his persistence. On 18 May 1820 these two wily old settlers tied the knot and stayed together for nearly 12 years until Catherine died on 16 February 1832 at Coal River. Zach died eight months later, 97 years old, on 8 October that year.

Of Jane Davies, Eliza and William nothing more is known. Let’s hope they grew and had children, set the blood of Ed Lewis free through their unborn sons and daughters. They dissolve into a new Tasmania, a different world than the one Catherine Wood left behind. She died penniless and broken in *** and joined Matt in his grave at St. David’s Cemetery.

Both of them, and hundreds more are still lying under the unsuspecting feet of the good citizens of Hobart as they wander from Sandy Bay on their way through to town through St. David’s Park, as they sit for a sandwich on a brisk sunny afternoon or as they sing their songs at Carols By Candlelight at Christmas – all of them lying there just like the dead monks of Llangendeirne, all bones, all dust – all gone.

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