Safe as Houses: 9 Harold Street, Middle Park

Adam Smith 20 July 2017

Police tape in front of house

When a lovelorn man takes his own life, newspapers lay the blame on an accused killer’s curse.

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

There’s absolutely no evidence that Stewart Patrick was murdered.

That is, of course, unless you believe in curses.

Patrick was a star witness at a trial that gripped Melbourne like none before it, potentially condemning an innocent man to death and ultimately seeing two other witnesses die under bizarre circumstances. And according to newspapers at the time, it was all because of the curse of John Bryan Kerr.

Kerr was tried three times before finally being found guilty of murdering 20-year-old Beth Williams. In those days, capital cases required a unanimous jury decision. In Kerr’s first trial, the jury voted 10-2 to acquit. At his second trial, it was 8-4 for acquittal. But his final trial seemed moved by an unsigned confession Kerr would always contend hadn’t come from him.

The house at 9 Harold Street

The house at number 9 Harold Street. Source: Google Maps

Handsome and erudite, 24-year-old John Bryan Kerr was an up-and-coming Melbourne radio personality. He was charming and intelligent, and carried himself with a cool self-confidence. The circumstances surrounding his connection to Beth Williams merely reinforced this.

In late December of 1949, Beth had been waiting beneath the clock at Flinders Street Station for her beau, sailor James Stevens, The Sydney Morning Herald tells us. Stevens was running late when Beth happened to glimpse John Kerr strolling around the corner.

Beth had met John a time or two before, the SMH says, and she called out to him to stop and chat. So self-confident and suave was John that, in spite of the fact that he didn’t remember her, he asked Beth out then and there.

Beth Williams made the decision that night to ditch her date with James Stevens in favour of spending the evening with John Kerr. As a result, he would be the last person to see her alive.

The next morning, passers-by would stumble upon her body at Albert Park Beach.

There was absolutely no physical evidence tying John to the crime, nor was there any clear motive. Yet police claimed to have an unsigned confession in which John had admitted “a turn” having overcome him and having strangled Beth in a fit of passion. John would scoff at the confession at his trial, claiming he would never use language so base and vulgar as that the police had ascribed to him.

In spite of this, witnesses testified against John, some of them helping the Crown to build a case of a history of violent aggression. In reality, this amounted to some minor youthful altercations, but it was enough to seal John’s fate. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

That’s when the curse of John Bryan Kerr began to claim its victims.

Newspaper clipping from the "Kerr Curse"

Contemporary news clipping about the "Kerr Curse". Source: Trove

First was James Stevens, the young sailor Beth was meant to have spent the evening with the night of her murder. Stevens was killed in a freak motorcycle accident when he crashed into a light pole in Regent Street, Elsternwick.

Next came Victoria’s chief medical officer Dr. Raymond Tennyson Allan. The seemingly healthy 58-year-old suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at his home in Caulfield.

In addition to the deaths, two members of the jury had taken seriously ill, while a witness narrowly escaped dying of a sleeping tablet overdose and a barrister in the case suffered a serious heart attack. With this confluence of events, one can almost forgive newspapers at the time for fostering talk of a curse on the proceedings.

The final victim of the “Kerr Curse” was 35-year-old Stewart Patrick. Stewart was a corporal in the Army, and he had apparently been smitten with Beth. On 25 February 1951, Stewart walked into the kitchen of his house at 9 Harold Street, Middle Park, and announced to his aunt that he had just drunk poison. At first his aunt dismissed him, but as his condition worsened she began to panic. Stewart would die in hospital the following day.

According to his friends, the culprit behind Stewart’s death wasn’t a curse, but heartbreak.

“Stewie was a strange person. He never really had a sweetheart but he considered Beth his girl,” one of his friends told newspapers.

Apparently Stewart had become particularly despondent after the marriage of his brother. The nuptials must have merely reinforced the fact that “his girl” was gone, and it became too much for Stewart to bear.

As for John Bryan Kerr, his death sentence was eventually commuted, and jail saw him become not only a model prisoner but a minor celebrity. He led the prison debate team to several championships, performed to acclaim in prison plays and studied several subjects. Mostly, he wrote. Newspapers published dozens of John’s letters on subjects as varied as politics, arts, culture, current events and, of course, his innocence.

John would later be released, change his name and live the rest of his life in relative peace after marrying and having a daughter. The High Court would eventually condemn and discredit the unsigned confession attributed to John, saying that many such confessions from the time were fabricated.

The house at 9 Harold Street where Stewart took his own life still stands. It last sold in February of this year for $458,333. Whether its walls saw the devastating effects of a curse or merely the sad end of a brokenhearted man all depends on what you believe.

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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