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Gun Alley Murder

Just before dawn on 31 December 1921 the naked body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found by a bottle-oh in a right-of-way off Gun Alley (now occupied by Nauru House), Little Collins Street. Alma, who had disappeared during an errand the previous afternoon, had been raped and strangled. Police concluded that she had been murdered elsewhere and stripped, washed and dried to expunge any evidence before being dumped.

Press sensationalism fed the public hysteria. Stung by criticism of police incompetence and of penny-pinching economy, and the Herald newspaper's matching the reward of £250, the government quickly raised the amount to £1000. Under intense pressure to make an arrest, police charged Maidstone man Colin Ross, the proprietor of a seedy wine saloon in an arcade of the nearby Eastern Market. The Herald published his photograph and announced that the victim's clothes were being sought in the Footscray district. The Crown case - that Ross had plied the girl with wine and violated and choked her in his saloon before returning to dispose of the body at dead of night - relied on the suspect and conflicting testimonies of a disaffected former wineshop employee, a prostitute and a prisoner on remand. The jury, whose names and addresses had been published by the Herald, accepted this evidence despite the Ross family's alibi and the failure to produce more credible testimony from passers-by or customers that the victim had indeed entered Ross' premises.

Of critical importance was 'expert' evidence matching the auburn hair of the murdered girl with hairs taken from a saloon rug. Protesting his innocence to the last, Colin Ross was hanged on 24 April 1922, deputations and petitions for a retrial or for clemency notwithstanding. Rather than settling the public controversy, and rescuing Melbourne's sullied reputation, the hanging of Colin Ross increased public disquiet. T.C. Brennan's repudiation of the Crown case (The Gun Alley tragedy, 1922) provoked a rejoinder from a prosecution witness, the phrenologist and fortune-teller 'Madam Ghurka' (Julia Gibson) (The murder of Alma Tirtschke, 1923).

The so-called 'Gun Alley Murder' has come to be regarded as an example of, variously, trial by the press, lynch law, police chicanery, judicial incompetence, and cynical 'law and order' politics. There were also class overtones to the manner in which a venereal-diseased Footscray tough became a scapegoat for the violation and murder of an innocent and virginal Hawthorn schoolchild. Herald editor Keith Murdoch sold a lot of newspapers but the Herald & Weekly Times headquarters were known thereafter as 'the Gun Alley Memorial' and 'the house that Ross built'. In 1998 the forensic evidence of 1922 was discredited when two independent experts declared that the rediscovered hair samples did not match. By identifying the actual murderer, researcher Kevin Morgan argued that Ross had been wrongly convicted.

John Lack

See also

Gun Alley