Mishap or Murder?

On 23 November 1932, Walter William Henry James Henderson was facing the verdict of the Criminal Court jury before Mr Justice (Sir James) Macfarlan (1872-1955) on the charge of murdering his mother, Sarah Jane Henderson née Bradbury aged 64 of fashionable St. Vincent’s Place, Albert Park. But Walter had every reason to be confident; he had been acquitted previously on the same charge.

From the onset, the case against the 47-year old former farmer from Lake Boga near Swan Hill, Victoria lacked a vital inconclusive piece of irrefutable evidence that would enable the Crown to sustain the charge of murder. On the afternoon of 27 July 1932, Mrs Henderson was found by her son at the foot of one-flight stairs leading from the passageway into the kitchen. Between 2:15pm and 2:30pm, Walter rushed to his neighbours – Mrs Elizabeth Meurillian (c1869-1952) and Mr J Fogarty – for assistance and she was admitted to the Homeopathic Hospital only to die around 6:00pm having suffered horrific head injuries; five lacerations were found on the left side of her head. She was laid to rest the following day in the Church of England portion of the Brighton General Cemetery (CofE*Z*630) at 4:15pm; friends described her as “a pleasant, amiable women”.

(above) Gravesite of Sarah Jane Henderson

Blood was found everywhere in the house leading police to suspect murder; some thirty items were found to be bloodstained including the overalls Henderson was wearing on the afternoon. Blood was found on the carpet in the hall at the foot of the stairs; in the passage leading to the kitchen; in the scullery at the rear of the house; as well as blood finger prints on a table used for sewing. Significantly, police found a broken, bloodstained hammer and handle containing hairs at the house.

What should have been a straight-forward homicide soon became a puzzle of contradictory pieces. Dr Crawford Mollison (1863-1949) the respected government pathologist stated before the coroner Mr D Grant on 15 August that “the injuries could not possibly have been caused by a fall down a flight of stairs, but they could have been caused by a hammer” only to change his evidence at the first criminal trial before Mr Justice (Sir Frederick) Mann (1869-1958) on 19 September stating that “he did not believe that the hammer produced in court could have killed Mrs Henderson” as her skull was not fractured and would not have been able to “resist a blow from such a heavy instrument”. At the same trial, Dr John Kennedy of Collins Street told Justice Mann that the “injuries could have been caused by her falling over the banister of the stairs”. As for the hairs found on the bloodstained hammer and broken handle, Henderson could not explain the appearance of blood. The defence speculated that the hairs found on both the hammer and handle may have come from a Persian cat which evidence showed had came into contact with both items; the government analyst Mr Harold Wignell admitted he had not examined this possibility. Nor could the prosecution suggest a motive necessary to sustain the charge; while Mrs Henderson had two life insurance policies, they were of small amounts. Was it murder or mishap? After deliberating for three hours, the verdict of “Not guilty” was returned and Henderson walked a free man having been acquitted for a third time.

But his freedom was short-lived. On the day of his third acquittal he was charged at Brunswick Court with bigamy having married Ethel Emma née Daldry on 12 April 1913 and Daisy Nell née Nichol on 31 July 1930; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Justice Love said “the crime to which you have pleaded guilty affronts public morality and the evidence shows that you have done a great wrong to two women”. It was revealed that Henderson had twelve convictions, three of which were for larceny and nine for false pretences.

Main, J., “Murder in the First Degree. True Australian Cases” (1992).
The Herald 28 July 1932.
The Argus 28 & 30 July 1932, 16 August 1932, 20, 21, 22 & 24 November 1932, 1, 13 & 14 December 1932.