Safe As Houses: 232 Morgan Lane, Broken Hill

Adam Smith 5 June 2017 NEWS

Safe as houses 232 Morgan Lane Broken Hill

A Broken Hill man finds his position usurped, and meets a pitiful end.

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

If George Datson actually did poison himself deliberately, as the New South Wales Attorney General seemed to eventually conclude, he chose a bizarre way to go about it.

If he did poison himself, it also proved to be a bizarrely convenient turn of events for both his wife Pearl and the couple’s long-time boarder, William Henry Warren.

Warren had lived with George and Pearl at 232 Morgan Lane in Broken Hill for about five years. While George may have technically been the Datsons’ breadwinner and patriarch, it seems to have been Warren who was the true head of the household.

232 Morgan Lane Broken Hill

232 Morgan Lane in 2010. Source: Google Maps.

At only 51, George was described as elderly and frail by the doctors who attended him the morning he died. His neighbours, friends and children described him as quiet and peaceful, and insisted he was never quarrelsome.

This isn’t to suggest that all was well in the Datson household. A neighbour would testify at the inquest into George’s death that she’d heard Pearl loudly berating George, and that Warren had joined in. Rather than engage the two, George left the house and went for a walk up the street.

Meanwhile, it was 33-year-old Warren, an invalid pensioner and day labourer, who spent time with the couple’s children; Warren who accompanied Pearl on her errands and on visits to friends’ homes; Warren who commanded respect in the Datson household.

The Datsons had children ranging in age from adulthood to infancy, with the youngest born just days before George’s death. The newspaper accounts from the time are full of subtle innuendo, but it doesn’t take a huge leap in logic to figure out why George, according to one of his adult sons, seemed utterly disinterested in the birth of his youngest daughter, or the daughter born some two years prior.

The picture also becomes clearer when taking into account the testimony of a maternity ward nurse, who said it wasn’t George who visited Pearl after she gave birth, but Warren. A fellow patient said Warren visited frequently, going so far as to say she’d been introduced to him as “Mr. Datson”.

The day Pearl brought her baby home to 232 Morgan Lane, she’d waited until George had left for his job as a night watchman. He didn’t return.

A pair of passing children would find him collapsed at the mine where he worked, clutching his stomach and groaning. He was rushed to hospital, where he told doctors he’d eaten one of the two apricots he’d brought for lunch before falling ill. George’s condition rapidly deteriorated, and he died that morning, 13 January, 1934.

An autopsy retrieved the apricot from George’s stomach and sent it to Sydney for testing, where results showed it had been loaded with strychnine. An exhumation of George’s body also showed the presence of massive amounts of strychnine.

The initial working theory was that George had committed suicide due to the stress of his accumulated debts. That theory was odd for two reasons: First, why would George go to the trouble of injecting the strychnine into apricots? Second, according to the Datsons’ neighbour, Pearl had told her that she was responsible for the couples’ debt, and that George was completely unaware that they owed money. She went so far as to ask her neighbour to serve as a go-between with a local debt collector so George wouldn’t find out.

Yet, at the inquest that saw Warren held on suspicion of murder, George’s family seemed to go out of their way to exonerate their boarder. George’s 14-year-old son claimed he had been in the next room reading a comic book when George packed his lunch of apricots, and that Warren could not possibly have interfered with the food without being heard. One of the Datsons’ adult sons argued that he had never heard Warren and George quarrel, and proclaimed, seemingly apropos of nothing, that his father had no life insurance and no substantial sums of money from which anyone could benefit.

Evidence creates stir

Source: Trove

There was one odd detail of the case that seemed a bit too coincidental. In the days leading up to George’s death, the family’s cat and pet parrot had both mysteriously perished, and had quickly been buried by Warren.

The Datsons’ neighbour also said that Pearl had confided in her that George had demanded that Warren leave, and that Pearl had threatened to leave with him.

The inquest eventually committed William Warren to stand trial for the murder of George Datson, but after sitting in custody for seven weeks, he was suddenly released. It seems the Attorney General didn’t believe there was enough evidence to take the case to trial.

It’s hard to say if the structure currently sitting at 232 Morgan Lane in Broken Hill is the same one where the Datsons and their meddlesome boarder lived, but it seems highly unlikely. Sales data on the property is scarce, with the last sale recorded in 2007 for only $45,000. CoreLogic puts the current median house price for the outback town at $108,000.

As for George Datson, it is entirely possible, of course, that he did take his own life. It’s possible that he was aware of the family’s debt, and that this, coupled with his shrinking role in the family unit, drove him to his decidedly roundabout method. Sadly, if George Datson was murdered, it seems no-one was in too much of a rush to avenge his death.

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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