Path to Ruin

There were many steps on Griffin’s path to ruin––many moments when his choices led him to his final steps: up the gallows to his death. Griffin was a gambler, not only with cards and dice in hotel backrooms, but with the calculations he made in his career and the ways in which he dealt with the people around him.

Engraved portrait of Thomas Griffin, Illustrated Sydney News 16 May 1868. Sourced from National Library’s Trove site. Image problems due to original scanning of printed source.

Engraved portrait of Thomas Griffin, Illustrated Sydney News 16 May 1868. Sourced from National Library’s Trove site. Image problems due to original scanning of printed source.

Thomas Griffin was born in Ireland. He was 35 years old when he shot John Power and Patrick Cahill dead in November 1867, and 36 when he was executed in June 1868.

He came to Australia a couple of years after he served with the British Army in the Crimean War. On the ship he met a widow, who had adult children and a small fortune, and they wed in Victoria in 1857. When she and Griffin separated soon after the marriage she gave him half the money. He went to Brisbane in 1858––before Queensland separated from NSW––and arranged for people to circulate reports that he had died, but she later heard of him living in Queensland.

He joined the newly formed Queensland Police, becoming Chief Constable at Rockhampton before promotion to the same position in Brisbane, the colony’s capital. At the beginning of 1863 he was elevated to Clerk of Petty Sessions in Brisbane, and later that year was appointed Police Magistrate at the new mining district of Clermont. His wife saw his rise through the ranks, and hinted at her power to end his career with a scandal. Griffin had to go to Melbourne in 1864, and stayed with his wife, agreeing to pay her £100 per year to avoid scandal––which he regularly paid through a solicitor up to the middle of 1867.

When he made his Last Will and Testament at Rockhampton in 1865, he left his wordly possessions to his sister in Ireland––Elizabeth Griffin had never married, but looked after their elderly mother. By the time he was transferred to be Gold Commissioner at Rockhampton in October 1867, his gambling losses were beyond his capacity to pay. He ‘borrowed’ money from the government salary accounts, and the local miners’ gold deposits, which were under his control and locked in the safe in his office at Clermont.

A lot of the gold he had stolen was put in his safe keeping by Chinese miners, who were preparing to return to China following anti-Chinese riots on the goldfields at Crocodile Creek. It was this group of determined men demanding their gold that caused Griffin to commit his biggest crime yet––the robbery of banknotes from the Gold Escort––that led to murder.

Exceedingly confident, sometimes arrogant, clever and manipulative––he was tall, strong, handsome, with a generous beard and thick flowing hair. Griffin was also a gifted swordsman, expert with a pistol, an avid hunter (on foot with dogs), and a skilled bushman who was tolerant of physical hardship and exhaustion. He was proud of his position in society, and could barely conceal his bitterness for anyone who in any way challenged him.

Bank manager Thomas Hall had known Griffin for six years––including two years sharing a house––when he testified at the trial in 1868, he said: ‘I did not consider him particularly eccentric, not more than any one else; sometimes he let out like other people do’.

From the beginnings of his life in Australia to the end, Griffin contrived an impervious demeanour––he wanted to be known as a formidable character, and he retained this façade until the moment the hemp collar snapped his neck, sending him to oblivion.

Oscar De Satge, who knew Griffin well in his last years:

‘He certainly was very plausible, had a winning manner and a good deal of Irish wit; moreover he was tall, symmetrical in build, and extraordinarily active. ... We could see that he had led a hard life, and he made no pretence to the refinements of a gentleman.’

The Rockhampton Bulletin’s Editorial on Griffin's execution read:

‘What kept him up and made him despise the terrors of the gallows and the punishment awarded to murder both here and hereafter, was an insatiable vanity, a thirst for the applause of men, to be admired as a man of indomitable pluck and nerve, who, though he might perpetrate a crime, would think it unmanly to confess it.’

Rockhampton Bulletin, 2 June 1868, article reporting the execution:

‘Griffin had repeatedly told Dr Salmond that he would meet his death with composure and firmness, and he kept his word. … As he lived so has he died––hard, callous, and impenitent.’

Thomas Griffin on himself, after his death sentence was passed:

‘... there are few men who care less for danger than I do.’

The Troopers

There were several goldfields in Queensland before James Nash’s 1867 discovery of the rich field that became Gympie. Between Rockhampton and Clermont were the Crocodile Creek, Morinish, and Rosewood diggings, drawing hundreds of hopeful prospectors from the southern colonies and as far away as California and China. While most hard-luck miners were left desperate and destitute, a lot of gold was pulled from the ground.

The Clermont Gold Escort was one of the elite police units in the 1860s tasked with carrying gold and cash safely between the remote goldfields and distant banks. Gold Escort troopers rode better horses, carried more and newer weapons––Colt revolvers and Terry’s breech-loading rifles––than the ordinary town police, and wore special uniforms to distinguish themselves from the common constabulary.

Clermont Gold Escort, 1867.  (Sitting, L-R) Constables John Power, Patrick Cahill, George Gildea, Sergeant James Julian.  (Standing) Unidentified troopers, Native Mounted Police.  Courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum (Cat. No. PM0680a).

Clermont Gold Escort, 1867.

(Sitting, L-R) Constables John Power, Patrick Cahill, George Gildea, Sergeant James Julian.

(Standing) Unidentified troopers, Native Mounted Police.

Courtesy of the Queensland Police Museum (Cat. No. PM0680a).

As Gold Commissioner for the region Thomas Griffin commanded the Clermont Gold Escort, comprising Sergeant James Julian and troopers John Power, Patrick Cahill, and George Gildea. Like Griffin––and so many other colonial police––these men were all Irish-born. Power and Cahill joined the escort in early 1866. Cahill was a bit older than his mate Power, but Power was reckoned the ‘senior partner’ of the inseparable pair.

Julian and his troopers arrived in Rockhampton in late October 1867, after another long ride through the bush from Clermont bringing a shipment of gold for deposit in the Australian Joint Stock Bank and the Union Bank. Griffin arrived in town a few days later, and told the escort they’d soon return to Clermont with a huge parcel of cash––£8,000 in banknotes and coins for the AJS Bank.

During the few days’ rest the men and horses needed before setting out again, Griffin began to behave strangely. He took an unusually direct interest in the bank’s money and appeared hostile towards Sergeant Julian. When Griffin demanded that he take personal custody of the money, Julian resigned from the Escort. This left the escort short of experience and firepower, so the bank decided to send only £4,000 to its Clermont branch––all paper, no gold or silver coins. Power, anxious about suddenly shouldering this extra responsibility, asked Griffin to place his wax seal (as Commissioner) upon the packages of banknotes to prove they had not been meddled with while under his care.

That request by Power sealed the fate of three men.

‘Power was shot in the back of the head, apparently from a pistol, the bullet, which was of ordinary size, having passed out over the right eye. He was found lying apparently as he had gone to rest. Cahill had a wound on the top of the head, the orifice of the wound being large enough for a ball from a rifle or a carbine. The bullet came out behind the left ear. Cahill had turned over on his side; his body was slightly bent from mere spasmodic effort.’

Dr David Salmond (Medical Officer, Rockhampton) testifying at Thomas Griffin’s committal hearing.

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Following Thomas Griffin’s execution in 1868, the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin described the murdered troopers with typically florid literary prose: ‘Taken all in all, probably, the Emerald Isle never sent forth two nobler specimens, and few could see the pair of friends without admiration.’

On John Power: ‘…for high spirit, indomitable courage, love of adventure, open-handed generosity, energy, and chivalrous honour, joined to an exquisitely proportioned frame, uniting strength and activity in their fullest perfection, John Power was the very type of the ideal young Norman noble of the middle ages.’

On Patrick Cahill: ‘Those who knew him speak of him as a model of manly beauty––nearly six feet high, and made in full proportion, with a superb head, regular features, dark hair, and lustrous dark-hazel eyes, soft, brilliant, and expressive, a fair noble brow, rich complexion, and countenance as open, guileless, and winning as that of a child––a true index to his stainless integrity of character.’