The Death of Captain Melville

Many bushrangers met grisly ends over the course of history, and a considerable portion of them met their end within prison walls. Yet very few can lay claim to such a gruesome end as Francis MacNeish McCallum, alias Captain Melville.

Extract from Captain Melville’s prison record [Source: PROV]

Melville was incarcerated at Melbourne Gaol after receiving multiple sentences for highway robbery, totalling thirty-five years to be served; the first three of which were to be in irons. Questions had been raised about Melville’s sanity not long after his imprisonment due to his erratic behaviour. On 28 July, 1857, things came to a head when Melville refused to allow the night tub (the bucket used as a toilet) to be removed from his cell, threatening to kill anyone that tried to take it. His lack of cooperation soon saw the gaol governor, George Wintle, order James Rowley, the chief turnkey, to take two warders into the cell and forcibly remove the night tub. As the men entered, Melville brandished in one hand an iron spoon that he had made into a makeshift knife by sharpening the handle, and in the other he held the lid of the night tub as a shield. As he stared down the gaolers, he declared “I’ll make a corpse of any man that tries to take that tub!”

Rowley carried a stepladder into the cell in order to put some distance between himself and the former bushranger, keeping Melville distracted with it while a warder rushed in and tried to pin the offender down. A scuffle broke out with the gaolers attempting to disarm Melville who fought like a tiger. Seeing things getting out of hand, the governor intervened. 48 year-old Wintle had experience dealing with the worst the penal system had to offer, having worked in Sydney on the prison hulks before being appointed governor of Melbourne Gaol, so was unfazed by the prospect of dealing with this renegade inmate. At that moment, Melville broke free of his captors and lunged at Wintle, slashing him behind the right ear with the sharpened spoon. The wound was severe and bled freely. Rowley leapt upon Melville to wrench the spoon away, to which Melville replied by trying to drive the sharpened end through Rowley’s hand. The move was a failure though as it merely cut across the hand and glanced off Rowley’s ring. In the scuffle, the spoon was broken, disarming Melville. The night tub was then successfully removed and Melville handcuffed. Dr. McCrea, the prison medical officer, was sent for. He treated the injured men as well as recommending that Melville be kept in handcuffs and put in a straightjacket if he played up again. McCrea then directed the gaolers to keep Melville isolated in a solitary cell, where he was to be kept on a restricted diet and monitored.

Dr. McCrea, visited with Melville over the next few days to make an assessment of him. It had been supposed that Melville was feigning madness in an attempt to be relocated to the Yarra Bend Asylum, which was low security, and from thence effect his escape from incarceration. Initially, Melville presented as insolent and sulky, refusing to take food, but as time went on he began to accept his situation. On one occasion, Melville expressed to McCrea that he had been fighting a losing battle against the world all his life and the time had come to take his punishment quietly. McCrae determined that the apparent mental instability was an act intended to gain sympathy and render him unaccountable for the attack on Wintle and Rowley. It was expected, based on this assessment, that Melville would be tried for the attack on Wintle. During the assessment period, Wintle himself would visit Melville two or three times a day in order to check on the prisoner’s mental state, also concluding he was sane.

Melbourne Gaol, circa 1859 [Source: Libraries Tasmania, Launceston]

On August 11, 1857, Melville met with McCrae and was discharged from medical treatment. He passed the day away without incident. He ate his dinner at around 6:00pm and went quietly to bed. On the following day at 7:15am, James Rowley checked in on Melville and discovered his lifeless body on the bed. He was on his left side, the bedclothes were over him and his hands were clasped over his breast. The bushranger had rolled a large handkerchief that he usually wore as a neckerchief into a rope and created a slipknot that he tightened around his neck. The handkerchief was around two yards long and he coiled the end around his throat three more times to compound the effects of the noose, before inclining his head down to the left until the ligature slowly choked him to death. The makeshift noose was so tight that it was impossible to get a finger between it and the throat.

Dr. Maund performed the post mortem examination immediately after the body was found. He noted a bloody froth at Melville’s mouth and ears, as well as several scratches in his arm in the shape of a cross that were apparently made with a nail. There were various signs in the body that correlated with the strangulation, including the presence of blood in the lungs and the scalp being engorged with blood. There were no signs of struggle, the body and organs appeared perfectly healthy apart from the effects of the strangulation, and there were no visible signs of disease of the brain. It was estimated that he had committed suicide at around midnight.

At midday, the city coroner, Dr. Youl, performed an inquest before a jury. Dr. Maund, Governor Wintle, Dr. McCrea, and James Rowley testified at the inquest. Wintle explained that from 8:00pm to 6:00am the only key to Melville’s cell was in his possession, meaning that only Wintle had the ability to enter the cell during the night, ruling out foul play by others in the prison.

The jury came to the verdict that Melville met his end by felo de se, which was the legal term for a felonious suicide. He was deemed to have been perfectly sane when he undertook the action. Under British law, suicide was illegal and those who died by their own hand were to be buried in unconsecrated ground.

Curiously, in Melville’s cell, the deceased had seemingly scrawled a message onto the wall in lead pencil before his death, which read:

I am to suffer nothing. My name is not T. Smith but — Macullum. I intend to defeat their purpose and to die in my bed with a smile by my own hand ; and thus by my keenneys to defeat their most secret intentions and these steps are taken to give me an opportunity of doing so, as it is in my power to prove that I am not the man I am taken for.

Supreme Court & gaol, Melbourne, lithographed by Stringer, Mason & Co, 1859 [Source: NLA]

According to contemporary reports, a death mask was made by Professor Schier. There has been some confusion as to whether the death mask labelled “Melville” on display in Melbourne Gaol is that of Captain Melville or of George Melville, one of the McIvor Escort robbers who was executed in the gaol, though it is generally accepted to be the latter.

It has been insinuated that there was foul play involved in Melville’s death. None of the information provided during the inquest raises questions about whether Melville took his own life, and the message found on his cell wall not only corroborates this, but gives motive. It is very unlikely that Wintle would have used the downtime during the night, when he was the only one with keys to Melville’s cell, to go into the cell and choke Melville to death, even as revenge for the attack in July. Rather, it seems that Melville was determined to end his life rather than endure incarceration for decades or even face execution for his attack on Wintle, and waited until he was no longer on medical watch to do so. In the end, it seems that Melville got the last laugh by ending things on his own terms, but it seems unlikely that there were many tears shed at his passing.

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