Safe as Houses Melbourne Cup special: 56 Shiel Street, North Melbourne
A horse race, a murdered bookmaker, an ailing mother - and a million-dollar property.
The annual Spring Racing Carnival is the high point of the Flemington Racecourse calendar. Undoubtedly the low point for Flemington was the time a bookmaker was kicked to death in full view of a large crowd.
It was 14 July 1906. A horse called Decoration was winning the Grand National Steeplechase. Suddenly, bookmarker Donald McLeod left his betting box. "Welsher!" somebody cried. Mob psychology quickly kicked in at the thought McLeod might not pay out successful bets.
The crowd went mad, chasing McLeod across the field. "I can't pay you, for I have not the money; give me a chance, boys," McLeod begged. No mercy was forthcoming. "Kill him!" yelled someone in the crowd. The newspaper reports from the time are bleak:
Here he was kicked and beaten while the crowds fought over him like dogs. The end came soon. Insensibility relieved him, and death mercifully followed quickly.
Accounts suggest that anywhere up to 300 people were involved. As a contemporary editorial dryly commented: "The spectacle of three or four hundred ruffians deliberately kicking a man to death while several thousands, with one or two exceptions, looked on without attempting to rescue the victim, is not one calculated to give the world a high opinion of our humanity."
Despite the difficulties involved in trying to convict a mob of murder, the police honed in on two people they believed could be effectively charged with the crime: butcher Thomas Fletcher and labourer Bert Hewett. A man named Robert Henderson claimed to have seen Fletcher deliver a particularly fatal blow, but it soon became evident that Henderson and Fletcher had previously argued, and the claim might have been made purely out of spite.
Thomas Fletcher resided at 56 Shiel Street, North Melbourne with his mother. "He sobbed and appeared much distressed" when in court, according to contemporary newspaper reports, and his colleagues were so convinced of his innocence that they launched a fighting fund to help cover his legal costs. He was variously described as "of weak intellect", "shabbily dressed" and "very peculiar". Even his solicitor couldn't hold back on the insults, telling the bail court:
The unfortunate man is his mother's only means of support. A subscription is being taken up for her. Fletcher moves in the lowest circle of society, and I cannot get bondsmen of more than £100 each. If Fletcher did attempt to escape he could be easily identified by a peculiar scar on his face, near the left eye.
Parents played a prominent role throughout the case. Hewett's mother was allowed to stand in full surety for the £200 bail sought on his behalf, an option that apparently wasn't open to Fletcher. Meanwhile, McLeod's mother was so distraught by his murder she ended up committed to Sunbury Asylum. "Her son's death affected her so much that her mind became deranged," the papers reported.
56 Shiel Street, North Melbourne. Source: Google Maps.
Ultimately, however, the case amounted to nothing. Coroner RH Cole rejected the argument that either man could be charged with McLeod's death, noting that there were no credible eye witnesses connecting them to the crime and that the investigation had not been carried out satisfactorily. "There is no evidence to warrant commitment of either of these persons in this case," Cole concluded. Fletcher was free to return to his mother in Shiel Street.
Today, 56 Shiel Street is a highly desirable 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house, less than 10 minutes drive from Flemington Racecourse. It last sold in March 2015 for an undisclosed sum. Were it to go on sale today, it would easily command more than $1.1 million. You'd be very lucky to score a house in this neighbourhood for under a million - luckier even than Thomas Fletcher.
Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders, and the effect those killings had on real estate values.