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.’

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.’

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.

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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.

 

Thomas Griffin’s Fall

This is the true story of one of Australia’s most incredible murders––the first Queensland police officers killed while on duty, drugged and shot by their commander, Gold Commissioner and Police Magistrate Thomas Griffin––and the sensational trial that led to his execution in 1868.

The motivation for the murders was common and quite ordinary, but Thomas Griffin’s crime and punishment––and what happened to him after he was hanged––make this story unique in the annals of Australia’s dark past.

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Behold the man, standing tall in a magisterial pose.

Facing the camera with a straight gaze, his body slightly turned to suggest a confident bearing rather than an arrogant air.

The uniform conveys the sense of his power––the purpose of this studio portrait. His magistrate’s frock coat, buttoned only at the top in 1860s fashion, is decorated with his campaign medals from the Crimea. Braided stripes on his trouser legs, his cap adorning the small table next to him, and his sword held casually in his left hand.

Thomas Griffin is, in 1867, a man climbing towards the peak of Queensland’s power elite––Police Magistrate, Gold Commissioner, and one of the most formidable men on the colonial frontier––he is charming, clever, strong, and carefully proud of his whiskers.

He is also a chronic gambler, and on a short path to ruin.

By the end of that year he has been committed to stand trial for the murder of two police troopers––one of them his closest friend. They are the first Queensland police killed in the line of duty.

Griffin is tried for robbery and murder. His sensational trial ends in a verdict of guilty and a sentence of hanging.

A week after his execution in June 1868, his head is stolen from the grave by three men––a doctor, a bank manager, and a newspaper editor.

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Thomas Griffin’s Fall is a serial story of creative nonfiction, using meticulous research to unfold this uniquely dramatic story from Queensland’s violent colonial frontier.

AndAlso Books will unveil this story, our first serial, over the next 12 months using original historical documents, reports, and images, as well as short stories taken from the wider narrative, to mark the 150th anniversary of the story’s events.