A cautionary tale from the South Australian Supreme Court criminal sittings, reported in the South Australian Register of Saturday 12 May 1866 under the headline Burglary.
In summary – a man called John Lenane was charged with stealing 16 shillings from the dwelling of Mary Anne Russell at Baker’s Flat.
The report describes her house as ‘consisting of but one small room, and composed of bags and a little mud’. Mary Anne Russell was a widow, living with her three children, and ‘on Sunday evening, … she sought the repose of her pillow “to dream she dwelt in marble halls” when her slumbers were disturbed by the sudden intrusion of the prisoner through the back part of the premises. Having thus burglariously entered her dwelling he abstracted from her box the amount he was charged with having stolen’.
Mary Anne Russell explained how she had gone to bed at 10pm, having bolted the door, but woke at 11pm, when she ‘saw the prisoner entering the back of the room by tearing down the bags. He had a hammer in his hand, and he at once went to her box and took out of it the 16s, which was wrapped in a piece of paper’. She did not speak to him, but as soon as he’d left, she got a light and checked what she had lost.
According to the newspaper report, the prisoner was her nearest neighbour, and had given her permission to live in the hut. ‘It was on land occupied by him, and was formerly, she believed, a cow-house. She repaired it with some bags and mud to make it habitable for herself and her three children. The light was admitted through the doorway’.
Three witnesses were called for the defence. Michael Gould stated that Mrs Russell was at his house until 11pm on that evening. He also stated that he had known John Lenane for years, and that his character was very good. Jane Gould, Michael’s wife, also stated that Mrs Russell was at her house at the time when the robbery was said to have been committed. Another witness, Ellen Flannary, gave similar evidence.
The judge ‘did not think it necessary to proceed further in the case, inasmuch as it was evidently impossible for [Mrs Russell] to identify the prisoner in the darkness of her room and at a late hour of night. The Jury under direction acquitted the prisoner’.
Aside from introducing an adverb I have never seen before – burglariously – there are a number of other interesting features of this story:
- The reference to the song ‘I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls’ – which was from a popular opera called The Bohemian Girl by Irish composer Michael W Balfe, first performed in 1843 in London. It remained popular throughout the nineteenth century both in England and abroad
- Mary Anne Russell’s living conditions, which appear fairly grim. She had renovated a cow shed with bags and mud, and there was no natural light except through the doorway
- The significance of community relationships – the testimony of Michael Gould, Jane Gould and Ellen Flannary all favoured the defendant, John Lenane. It appears that there were no witnesses for Mary Anne Russell. Perhaps the defendant had greater access to legal services, or had more resources at his disposal
- Mary Anne’s vulnerability – a woman, widowed, responsible for three children, and living in what was still essentially a cow shed. A man with a hammer could easily tear down the walls and break in
- The unknowns – the newspaper report presents the facts of the court case, but we are still unaware of the full circumstances of the incident. Was John Lenane taking advantage of a vulnerable woman? Was he trying to retrieve rent that he was owed? Was there bad feeling between them? If it wasn’t John Lenane, who else could it have been? The case centred on the timing – if Mary Anne Russell was just guessing the time as 11pm, perhaps everything else was true, and she was stymied by the lack of a clock