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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chasing a BLACK sheep

Family legend has it that James BLACK (c1836 to 1895) was a cad. The story goes that he met Frances (Fanny) Gertude LEWIS en route from their birthplace, Ireland, to Australia, and persuaded her to stay with him rather than go on to America, as she had intended. They married, condemning her to a life of bearing child after child. This took a terrible toll on her physically and sent her to an early grave. Her daughter, May, would later speak of "my poor little mother". They were not his only children. Family legend says that he had many more offspring out of wedlock around the goldfields of Victoria. I've often wondered how many people out there who run into a dead end "illegitimate" on a birth certificate are actually my long lost cousins!

Nice story, but... The couple did have a very large family, and Fanny did die suddenly aged about 55, but I have little evidence to support the rest of the story. Although I think I have found Fanny on a passenger list to Australia, I haven't found James and the years don't quite tie up. The pair did not marry until a few years after I believe Fanny arrived in Australia, and by then Fanny had an illegitimate child. Whether by James or someone else I could only speculate, and would like to find out more before trying to do so. I suppose that genetic studies might yield information on whether James was quite the cad he is supposed to have been, but it's a long shot and it takes my research in a direction that I am not yet ready to go.

Part of the story of this family is ready to be told, however. When I obtained James' death certificate I found that the circumstances of his death was a tragic story in itself, whatever his character. It could explain some of the bitterness about him that the family legend attributes to his daughter, May, who was just 14 when her father died.

Not such a merry Christmas
On 19 December 1895 James was in his usual health. He ate a good lunch, and at around 2pm set out to go fishing. He was in a jocular mood and said to his wife, Fanny, "you won't laugh if I don't bring any fish home".

By 7:30 that night he hadn't returned so Fanny, feeling uneasy, sent out 20 year old Alexander to get his father. Alexander headed to one of his father's favourite fishing spots on Birches Creek only to find the terrible sight of his father dead in the water. Alexander ran to a neighbour, John KENNEDY, for help. John set about trying to get James from the water with Alexander's help - but Alexander said "he is my father and I am not able to do it" (or words to that effect).

Instead, John sent Alexander to fetch the police, while he sought further assistance in removing the body from the water. At this point it appears that there was quite some confusion. There were people running about, calling for help and debating if the body should be moved from among the reeds or left for the police. Finally someone waded into the creek and retrieved the body, and shortly after that the police arrived. John KENNEDY, Thomas KERSHAW, Mr DAWSON and Mr PURCELL, at least, were on the scene at some point.

The police found no signs of injury on the body, or any indication that a struggle had taken place and so arranged for an autopsy by medical practitioner Arthur Henry GORDON to determine the cause of death. Although the body had been found in water, the signs of drowning were "not strongly marked". The doctor concluded that James had been unconscious before entering the water. With no signs of injury or a struggle, and healthy internal organs (aside from some frothy mucous in the throat), there was no physically obvious cause for his death.

By this stage, the police had learned of another relevant fact. A week previously, James BLACK had complained to Thomas COCKING that a lot of people had left North Clunes, leaving their cats behind. These cats, he said, were a nuisance to him and he was having trouble sleeping due to the noise they made. He was going to visit the chemist for some strychnine to destroy the cats and asked Thomas to be a witness for the purchase. Just before entering the chemist James excused himself to speak to Tom HAWKES instead, who he saw across the street. James did go to the chemist a little over a week later, on the morning of the 19th December, and repeated his complaint about the cats. The chemist, having known James for 20 years, agreed to sell him some strychnine and witnessed James signing the register himself. James paid ninepence for 40 grains of strychnine in total.

With strychnine poisoning suspected, James' stomach was sent to Melbourne for analysis. Only half of his stomach was analysed, and it was found to contain 2.9 grains of strychnine, "much more than a poisonous dose". The inquiry concluded that his death was due to strychnine poisoning, by his own hand.

There was no obvious reason for the suicide. The family claimed not to be in any financial difficulty, with a sum of 130 pound due to mature on a life policy in the following year. James had planned to use the funds to take his two sons to Western Australia. Fanny was able to claim 130 pounds through the administration process (James died intestate), presumably the proceeds of the insurance policy.

Inquiry and Probate Sources
Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 28/P2
Probate and Administration Files, Unit 423, 59/794
, letters of administration (digital copy available here)
Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 28/P Probate and Administration Files, Unit 653, 1895/1566, inquiry proceedings (I obtained the file through an agent who told me that the published index for this item is incorrect. The reference given here is where the file can be found.)

I must add to my todo list to find out who Tom HAWKES was. I wonder what James had to discuss with him that was so important it possibly delayed his suicide attempt?

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