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A Bush Murder

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The Armidale Chronicle (NSW), Wednesday, January 31, 1912

THE HILLGROVE TRAGEDY.

(By our Special Reporter).

The inquest concerning the death of Samuel Watson, who was found murdered near his home in the vicinity of Hillgrove on Monday, January 22, was held at the Hillgrove Police Court on Monday last, before the Coroner (Mr. Wm. Morgan).

Herbert Skinner, aged 19, was present in custody, and Mr. D. P. Claverie, of Armidale, watched the case in his interests.

Detective John Fullerton conducted the inquiry on behalf of the police.

Esther Amelia Watson, daughter of deceased, residing at Curran’s, in Brackin-street, stated that on the day of the murder she saw her father —he came before dusk and left between 7 p.m. and 7.50. Bert Skinner was sitting under the verandah when her father left, but she did not notice him leave. After the case, Purcell v. Skinner, her father came to Curran’s and said, “What does Bertie want?” and witness replied, “He has a glove of Eva’s.” When her father passed into the shop she heard Skinner say, “I’ll do for you yet, you old —— ” A few days before that case she had had a conversation with Skinner, who admitted hitting Purcell, and added, “Old Sam (meaning father) thought he was pretty clever. Jack and Sam raced into Hillgrove on their horses, and yet I was there before them.” He also said that when they came to his house he was in bed, and “gammoned” to be asleep. Her father looked upon young Skinner as an enemy.

To Mr. Claverie: Skinner was “courting” her sister. Witness was friendly with him, and liked him. She had frequently heard Skinner and her father wrangling.

Annie Show Yin, wife of a local storekeeper, deposed that she had known Skinner for 2½ years. On the fatal day Watson called at the store between 5 and 5.30 and bought a bag of chaff. On the way down town, at about 7.45 p.m., she noticed Sam Watson going in the direction of his home, and a little further on she saw Skinner walking in the same direction. Skinner bought about 800 cartridges in November last—his sister had since returned half of them.

To Mr. Claverie: Skinner was not carrying any firearms at the time she saw him.

Show Yin, storekeeper, stated that deceased Watson was at his shop on the night of the murder at about eight o’clock, when he took delivery of a bag of chaff he had ordered earlier in the day. In the course of a conversation, witness said to deceased, “You are getting too old to work, Sam—you ought to get the pension,” and Watson replied, “Bertie Skinner is going to shoot me some day.” Witness had never seen Skinner with a rifle, though he had frequently bought cartridges.

To the Coroner: It was after the Court case with Purcell that Watson told him about Skinner going to shoot him.

Debora Maria Cross, residing in Ryan-street, off Brackin-street, said that on the night of the murder she saw Bertie Skinner pass along Ryan-street at about a quarter past eight.

Patrick Doyle, laborer, residing at Swamp Creek, deposed that on Monday, 22nd January, he came to Hillgrove just after dark, and met deceased in Curran’s store. About 10 minutes later deceased was in his cart, and witness said to him, “Hold on, Sam ; I’ll be going out with you.” Witness thereupon got in the cart and went as far as Show Yin’s store. Subsequently witness went with deceased to his camp. Upon arrival there, witness heard deceased call out to a man named Walsh, ‘”Who’s carting wood down the paddock?” and the reply came, “Joe Prisk.” Deceased was perfectly sober. Witness then went to bed, but not to sleep. He heard no reports of firearms, nor did he hear anyone scream. Some time after he had been in bed, Jack Watson (a son of deceased) came running to the camp, calling out, “Paddy! Bill! Come quick!” Witness replied, “Bill’s not here.” Young Watson said, “Never mind about Bill; come quick; father’s shot along the road.” Witness said, “Never—I just left him.” Witness said, “I will not go on my own, but if you call back I’ll go with you.” Witness was a bit nervous, and did not like going. Young Watson then said he would go for the police and the doctor, and call back later. Witness then heard Watson ride away. Soon afterwards witness got up and saw a man named Walsh with a lantern, trying to catch a horse, and, together, they went to where the body was lying, and Senior-Constable Dobbie rode up almost immediately. About six weeks before the tragedy, witness had gone home with deceased, and on the way, deceased said, “I am afraid to-night; I think I’ll borrow Bill Vauple’s gun.” Witness replied, “No one would touch you, Sam,” to which deceased replied, “You never know, Paddy, the way Bert Skinner has threatened me.” Deceased got Vauple’s gun that night. Deceased kept the gun between four and five days. After a Court case in November, Bert Skinner said to deceased, “I’ll soon get you, ‘doggy.’ ” Deceased was known by the name of ”Doggy .” Deceased was well liked, and had no enemies other than Bert Skinner.

Amelia Watson, wife of deceased, stated that on the evening of the tragedy she was at home. Mrs. Mowle, three children, and a man named Wm. Doyle were also in the house. After tea, when she was waiting for deceased to return from town, Doyle called out, “Here’s the dray coming.” Suddenly the sound of the cart stopped, and almost immediately Mrs. Mowle said, “What’s that rumbling noise?” The dogs commenced to bark, and run in the direction of the sounds. The noise she referred to resembled someone quarrelling. They all ran outside, and just as they did so, a terrible scream rent the air—it was a long piercing scream, as of a man in great pain. Witness recognised the voice as that of her husband. Before the scream had died away, a rifle shot rang out. On hearing these reports, Mrs. Mowle called out, “That’s poor dad—I know it’s poor dad.”. Witness and Doyle then went to the spot where the scream came from, and found her husband lying on the roadside, quite dead, with the horse and cart standing close by. Blood was flowing from a wound in the face. Witness lifted up one arm, and said, “Sam! Sam!” but received no answer. The whip was between his arms. They returned to the house to get a light, and, on returning, met the horse galloping with the cart towards home. Witness then went to her son Nathan’s house, and on meeting her son, informed him of the tragedy. Subsequently her son went for the police. Bert Skinner had visited her house for a number of years—he used to keep company with one of her daughters. She objected to his visitation, which led to several quarrels. She had an idea that Bertie Skinner was an enemy of her husband’s. In December, witness, her husband, and two daughters went to Sydney, and while in Sydney her husband purchased two revolvers. Skinner was constantly prowling about their house by night, and she and her husband had often tried to prevent him from coming near the place. Witness had never seen Skinner carrying firearms.

Wm. John Doyle, laborer, residing in the vicinity of deceased’s home, stated that he was with Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Mowle, and other members of the family on the night of the tragedy. Witness corroborated the evidence of Mrs. Watson in regard to hearing the “row,” the scream, and the report of the rifle. After sending Jack Watson for the police, and returning to the body, witness picked up the two pieces of rifle stock (produced). Bertie Skinner was an enemy of the murdered man. Watson had once told witness that he was frightened of Skinner, and carried a gun in case of meeting him.

To Mr. Claverie: Witness worked for deceased at one time, and lived with him in the house. He denied ever having had a “rough-and-tumble” with Watson, but admitted having a few “words” with him. The result of those “words” was that he left deceased’s employ. Witness denied ever having a rifle. He started to work for Watson the second time on January 9th. When witness first saw the body, it was about 8.40 p.m. From the time that he heard the rumbling of the cart until the shots were fired, would be about two minutes.

Nathan John Watson, laborer, residing on Bora farm, deposed that on Monday, 22nd inst., after tea, Doyle and Mrs. Watson came over, and informed him of the murder, whereupon he saddled a horse and proceeded to Hillgrove. He first called at accused Skinner’s place, and sang out, “Is anybody at home?” Mrs. Skinner replied, “Is that you, Jack Watson?” Mrs. Skinner then came out, and witness said, “Is Bertie at home?” to which she replied, “No; I don’t know where he is.” Witness said, “Do you think he’s down town?” and she replied, “I don’t know.” Witness then asked her when she had seen him last, but could not remember what reply was made. Mrs. Skinner then said, “What do you want Bertie, for?” to which witness replied, “My father’s been shot dead.” Witness then went to look for the police and the doctor. Outside William’s hotel he met a number of young fellows, whom he also asked if they had seen Skinner, to which they answered in the negative. He afterwards saw Mr. Witherdin, and asked him the same question, and he said, “Yes ; there he is, standing under Williams.” Accused Skinner was standing under the hotel verandah. Witness then said, “Is this the first time you have seen Skinner to-night?” to which witness replied, “No; I saw him about half past nine.” After informing the police, witness rode out to the scene of the tragedy. On the way he called at Matson’s residence, and asked for a loan of some cartridges or a revolver. Matson, however, declined to accede to the request. Just before having tea, witness heard a loud scream, which he took to be his father’s voice. Witness said to his wife,” “I wonder if the house is on fire?” Seeing no glow in the sky, witness cooeed, but received no answer. Skinner was an acknowledged enemy of his father. Witness made his inquiries concerning Skinner, because he had his suspicion as to who did the deed.

Eva Winnifred Watson, daughter of deceased, stated that the night before her father went to Sydney (December 15th), she heard two persons prowling about the house—one of them was Bertie Skinner. Her mother went out with the candle, but she said to her, “Come inside, mother, or you’ll get hit.” While her mother was outside, a stone was thrown, which came into the house—a paling also followed. On the way in, when going to Sydney, they met Skinner and another boy at Cooney Creek. Skinner had either a gun or a rifle with him. While in Sydney her father purchased a small revolver, giving as his reason that he was frightened of his life of Bertie Skinner. Skinner was an enemy of her father’s. She was at the house when Skinner assaulted Purcell. He sprang out of the darkness, without warning, and knocked Purcell down. As a result of the punch, Purcell was taken ill, and witness’s father went to town, on horseback, for the police. Skinner was in town before her father. Witness and Skinner had previous to this assault been on friendly terms, but her father did not approve of the match. This was what she attributed the bitter feeling between Skinner and her father, too.

To Mr. Claverie: She considered Skinner as her “boy,” and, although he had a row with her father, she did not think he would do him any harm. Skinner never made any threat to her about shooting her father.

To the Coroner : She did not “stick” to Bertie Skinner after he assaulted Purcell. Skinner had said, “If I don’t get you, nobody else will.”

Mr. Claverie: That was a compliment to you.

Annie Emily Ellenden, residing with her husband, about 1½ miles from Hillgrove, deposed that on the night in question she heard a loud scream, which appeared to come from the direction of Watsons. Did not hear any report. Witness had seen Skinner once before in her paddock, not far from Watsons. It was some months ago, in the daytime. She asked him what he was doing, and he said he was doing a bit of detective work. Witness told him he’d better leave the paddock, and he said he wasn’t doing any harm.

Edith Watson, wife of Nathan Watson, stated that on the night of 22nd January she was preparing tea, just at dark when she heard a long scream from the direction of Sam Watson’s. Recognised the voice, and said to Jack (her husband), “What’s your father calling out like that for?” Her husband said, “That’s somebody screaming,” and added, ” I will jump on the pony and have a look—there might be a fire. Did not hear any report of firearms, and then went into tea. Mrs. Watson, sen., and Jack Doyle came up, and said, “Sam’s shot.” Her husband immediately got his horse and went to town for the doctor and police, and witness went back with her mother-in-law and Jack Doyle to where deceased was lying. There was blood all over deceased’s breast and down to his boot tops. The bridge of his nose was shot away. Before tea, witness heard voices—it was some time before the scream—about 10 minutes or a quarter of an-hour. Had seen Bert Skinner with a magazine rifle. Deceased was afraid of Bertie Skinner —witness had heard him say so. Had never heard Skinner threaten deceased.

Henry William Witherdin, baker, residing at Hillgrove, stated that on Monday, 22nd January, he attended the Municipal Council meeting, leaving at about 9 p.m. Was at Sullings’ hotel for about 20 minutes with Messrs. Teague, Snow, Morrow, and others. Witness afterwards sat on the stool. Mr. Sullings and Bert Skinner were also there. This was about 9.30 p.m. Skinner said “Good night, Harry,” and witness returned the compliment. Witness then crossed over to Robinson’s where an argument was going on, and remained there about half an hour. He looked at the time in Robinson’s hotel—it was a quarter to ten. After looking at the time, he stayed another ten minutes, and just after starting for home met Mr. Packer, who asked him if he had heard of Watson being shot. Witness had borrowed a pea-rifle from Mr. J. Baker on several occasions—it was a 22 Colt’s repeater. [The broken pieces of rifle were handed to witness, who said they were similar to those in Mr. Baker’s rifle]. Witness said he had never seen a similar rifle to this one in the town. He seen a Colt’s rifle at Boundy’s shooting gallery. It was different to Baker’s. Was sure Baker’s was a Colt’s.

To Mr. Claverie: Did not notice on Sullings’ seat anything peculiar about Skinner.

To the Police: Saw Jack Watson at about ten minutes past ten o’clock. He made reference to Bert Skinner, but did not ask straight out if anyone had seen Skinner. Witness said to him, “Why I saw him at 9.30 under Sullings’ verandah. When Watson spoke, Skinner was about twenty yards away.

John Thomas Baker, storekeeper, of Brackin-street, Hillgrove, stated that he remembered some 12 years ago buying a pea-rifle in Sydney—a Colt’s repeater. Had handled it continuously, and had a good knowledge of its appearance or any part of it. Recently sold the rifle to Bert Skinner, between the 1st and 20th of November last year—he gave 25/-for it. [The pieces of wood off the rifle were then shown to witness. One piece was the block for the ejector]. Witness said he honestly believed the pieces were off the rifle he sold to Skinner. There was a little bolt through it, which, as well as another smaller piece of wood, were missing. The only thing he saw wrong was that the constant use had worn the retractor, and it wouldn’t always act.

To Mr. Claverie: He would not swear positively that the pieces were off the rifle, but believed they were. Only the proper cartridges could be used in the magazine of the rifle, as long cartridges would have to be pushed in from top. Did not know the difference between Colt’s and Winchester rifle.

Detective Fullerton at this stage asked for an adjournment till Wednesday morning. The medical officer was not yet home. He had also sent some exhibits to Sydney, and had received no information re same yet. He had several other witnesses to call.

Mr. Claverie didn’t think it fair to his client, but afterwards agreed, and the Coroner adjourned the Court till 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning.

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Written by macalba

August 20, 2017 at 7:51 pm

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  1. The sad part about this case is it went to trial twice and the accused was found “not guilty”. The Crown failed and the attorney for the accused was a very smart man who was able to cast many doubts as well as suggested others may have had a hand in the murder. The murdered victim’s family for over 6 years placed a tribute to the deceased in the local papers. This was a very interesting read via reading old newspapers.

    Sarah Bardenwerper

    September 18, 2017 at 8:25 am


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