On this date in 1922, Colin Campbell Ross was hanged for the rape-murder of a little girl, still on the scaffold vainly protesting his innocence.
I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.
Ninety-odd years later, folks finally believe him.
Ross had a couple of brushes with the law already to his rap sheet when 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke went missing in the vicinity of Ross’s Melbourne dive bar on December 30, 1921.
In a classic instance of police tunnel vision, the proximity of a violent felon to the murdered girl — for Alma’s body was found the next morning in nearby Gun Alley, which bestowed a popular moniker upon the case — soon formed the theory of the crime, the predetermined conclusion into which incoming evidence was read.
(It certainly catalyzed the investigation that the case became a media sensation. Rupert Murdoch’s father through the Melbourne Herald shamelessly hounded the Crown for each day’s delay, and jacked up the reward purse.)
Witnesses established that Ross had been tending bar all that afternoon; to account for that, it was necessary to posit that Ross had plied his prey with wine for several hours until he could finish her off after his shift.
Once arrested, despite continuing to assert his innocence to all and sundry, Ross proved to suffer from that universal tendency accused men have to senselessly unburden themselves to a random cellmate. The Crown could scarce shirk its public duty by omitting the incriminating evidence merely because it was related by a convicted perjurer. Ross, his accuser claimed, “said he was simply burning to tell someone.”
Still more damningly, a blanket from Ross’s home proved to have some strands of auburn hair glancingly similar to Alma Tirtschke’s — or possibly Ross’s girlfriend.
A Crown analyst from ventured to compare these under a microscope, and would later put it to the court that they looked like Alma’s. This would be the first time hair forensics were deployed in an Australian courtroom.
Was it not possible, asked Ross’s counsel — who genuinely believed his client’s innocence and fought the corner until the very last — that it might be almost literally anyone else’s auburn hair?
“Yes; quite possible, but not probable,” was the reply from the witness. “Because of the general similarity of hair.” Oh.
But they didn’t correspond.
“The day is coming when my innocence will be proved,” Ross wrote in a farewell letter to his family.
That day took 85 years in coming.
In the 1990s, author Kevin Morgan stumbled somewhat miraculously upon preserved hair samples from the case and began an odyssey that would see him to officially exonerating Colin Campbell Ross.
Tests Morgan was able to arrange with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and then with police both agreed that under modern microscopic examination the hairs in question did not bear even a surface resemblance. With the support of the Victorian Attorney General and the Australian Supreme Court, Ross was granted a posthumous pardon on May 27, 2008 — the first person ever so distinguished in Victoria’s history.
Tirtschke’s own family, too, supported this result: they had long harbored their own doubts about the verdict. “She didn’t say who was the right man but she said the wrong man was hung,”* one descendant said of her grandmother’s recollections.
* Though a lesser horror compared to being railroaded in the first place, Ross’s hanging was also badly botched. An experimental four-strand rope failed to sever his spinal cord, leaving his dangling body to convulse as Ross wheezed his last breaths through a torn windpipe.
On this day..
- 1935: Three Venizelist officers - 2020
- 1821: Athanasios Diakos, Greek War of Independence hero - 2019
- 1752: Nicholas Mooney, penitent thief - 2018
- 1852: Nathaniel Bowman, William Ide inspiration - 2017
- 1889: William Henry Bury, Jack the Ripper suspect - 2016
- 1751: Anna Schnidenwind, the last witch in Baden-Württemberg - 2015
- 1998: 22 for the Rwanda genocide - 2013
- 1945: A day in the death penalty around the Reich - 2012
- 1655: Massacre of Waldensians - 2011
- 1723: Major Jean Abram Davel - 2010
- 1521: The Comuneros of Castile - 2009
- 1868: John Millian, who martyred a madam - 2008