Two Shots in the Night

Constables John Power and Patrick Cahill––troopers of the Clermont Gold Escort––lie in a drugged stupor near the remnants of their campfire. These are their final moments.

Murder scene.jpg

They have been riding for three days to get here, before spending the day drinking and bathing, letting their horses rest. The camp is down by the Mackenzie River, about a hundred yards from Bedford’s bush hotel. As the night closes in, their last drinks carry an opium tincture through their bodies––assuring their final rest is complete, while the murderer waits to carry his plan forward.

He watches them, his head quite still but his eyes shifting to and fro between the sleeping men. There are tears in those eyes, but not many. He wipes them with slow fingers, while his other hand quietly draws the revolver from its holster.

Griffin stands, still watching Power and Cahill as he adjusts his back and shakes the ache from each leg in turn. He walks a few yards in the direction of the hotel, stopping when a stick cracks loudly beneath his heel. He checks the men again––undisturbed, unmoving––and turns his head back towards the deep darkness between the camp and Bedford’s pub, waiting more than a full minute without any movement, the pistol pointed to the ground. He returns to the campfire, and squats beside the fading coals, peering at each man in turn as he holds the pistol in his left hand and wipes his right palm on his shirtfront.

He stands decisively and steps forward, taking the weapon in his gun-hand and bringing it down to an inch from Power’s skull. The thunderous percussion of Power’s death rouses Cahill, who groggily attempts to sit up before Griffin’s boot knocks him down. Griffin places the muzzle close to Cahill’s temple and fires again.

He steps back, surveying the dreadful scene, and then stumbles away from the camp into the bush for maybe twenty or thirty yards before the retching brings him to his knees. He coughs and vomits, spitting out bile before standing again and taking a few steps to sit on the trunk of a felled ironbark tree. Griffin wipes his sleeve across his mouth. His hand is shaking too much to re-holster his gun, so he sits with it laid across his lap––alone in the night while he listens for anyone who might be approaching.

Witnesses could not agree as to how many shots they heard, nor when they heard them. Sleeping minds are prone to additions as much as they are omissions, but two shots at least were fired between midnight and the dawn. Two good men, gone to that far forever place so that another could try to avoid admitting his errors and losses.

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.’

Voices in Ink

Thomas Griffin’s Fall is the story, told in serial, of one of Australia’s most sensational murders––that of the first Queensland police officers killed on duty.

Gold Escort troopers Patrick Cahill and John Power were drugged, robbed, and shot dead by their commanding officer, Police Magistrate and Gold Commissioner Thomas Griffin, in the bush between Rockhampton and Clermont in November 1867.

We are retelling this dramatic story in the 150th anniversary, using intricate research to unfold the narrative with creative non-fiction and archival documents.

+ + +

Two key characters in Thomas Griffin’s Fall were only a few years old when the events took place––Rockhampton’s local newspapers, the ‘Morning Bulletin’ (1861) and the ‘Northern Argus’ (1865).

Like the other characters, they had different personalities and distinctive voices. Their manners of speech will seem quaint to readers 150 years later, because they both spoke the journalistic language typical to their own era––literary, pretentious, and verbose––but they each saw the world from their own unique perspective.

Also in common with some of the story’s other characters, they hated each other with vehement passion. The continuing bitterness between their proprietors––Arthur Bourcicault and William Buzacott––was expressed in high-flown language and sharpened insults rather than with fists or weapons. These personal animosities and professional antagonisms resulted in local events and people being written about in dramatically diverse ways.

Readers will come to recognise the individual styles with which the ‘Argus’ and the ‘Bulletin’ reported and editorialised the story of Thomas Griffin’s Fall, and come to learn which of them became intimately involved in one of the most dramatic episodes in the whole narrative.