Safe as Houses: 187 Hovell Street, Cootamundra

Adam Smith 30 November 2017 NEWS

Police tape and house

A woman accused of murdering her husband returns home to the open arms of her community.

  • WARNING: The following article contains descriptions of violent crimes that some may find disturbing.

It’s hard to decipher whether the community of Cootamundra really, really loved Rita Condron, or just vehemently disliked her husband Robert, who she was accused of murdering.

Either way, she returned from Long Bay Jail a conquering hero. After the Attorney General declined to file a bill in spite of a coronial inquest recommending murder charges, Rita returned home to her country community, and her house at 187 Hovell Street. She received a jubilant welcome.

Newspaper accounts at the time made much of the fact that Rita showed no emotion throughout the ordeal. Not when her husband died suddenly on 2 March 1948. Not when police revealed to her that Robert had succumbed to arsenic poisoning. Not even when she was committed by the coroner to stand trial for his murder.

Indeed, when her adopted son broke down in tears in court, she calmly turned to reassure him.

“It will be alright. It is nothing to worry about,” she said.

Contemporary news article

Source: Trove

The drama that swirled around Rita, and by which she seemed wholly unaffected, started when her husband left home to go to his job as a railway guard. Robert seemed in good spirits, humming and singing to himself as he ended his shift late on 1 March. But a few minutes after signing out for the day, Robert returned and asked for a doctor, and then an ambulance. Then he collapsed in agony on the platform at Temora Station.

He suffered through the night in hospital before dying on 2 March.

The agonising pain that Robert felt that night was nothing new to him. He suffered from terrible ulcers, leading to intermittent “attacks”, his wife said. What was new was the traces of arsenic found in his ulcer medication.

When police called upon Rita at 187 Hovell Street, they found her surprisingly composed for someone so newly and suddenly widowed. And when they confronted her with the fact that Robert had died from acute arsenic poisoning, she was calm.

“Isn’t that terrible?” she said. “I thought the ulcers might have killed him.”

Rita answered every question without hesitation and, police noted, without emotion. She was more than happy to allow her home to be searched for traces of arsenic. None were found.

In fairness, it would be hard to ascribe a motive for homicide to Robert’s death. By all accounts, he and Rita were happily married. It would be equally hard to ascribe a motive for suicide. Again, by all accounts, Robert seemed carefree and cheerful.

There were a couple of odd details in the case, though – minor, offhand remarks that seemed to gain significance in retrospect. Unfortunately, they were at odds with one another in drawing any conclusions about Robert’s death.

First, Robert and Rita’s adopted son Jeffrey testified that his father had tried to share some of his ulcer medicine with him, only to be passionately dissuaded by his mother.

Then there was the fact that when Robert left for work on 1 March, he implied to Rita that he would not see her again.

Though the coroner would ultimately recommend murder charges, the Attorney General clearly saw any evidence in the case as circumstantial. No bill was filed and Rita was free to return home to Cootamundra.

Her standing in the community is made clear by a newspaper account from the time, which says the trains in the town sounded their horns in celebration when news came that Rita would be freed. They jubilantly sounded them again to welcome her home as she returned to Cootamundra in May.

The location (though not the house) of the alleged murder

The location of the murder, though not the original house. Source: finder

The house that currently sits at 187 Hovell Street in Cootamundra was built in 1950, so it’s unlikely any part of the structure dates to when Robert and Rita shared their home there. It sold in July of this year for $138,000.

Robert and Rita’s home, meanwhile, must have been razed not long after Rita returned from her ordeal. With it was lost any trace of what must have happened to Robert Condron.

Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders and the effect those killings have had on real estate values.

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