Spotlight: Suicide of this notorious Captain Melville (29/08/1857)

Note: The following article discusses suicide in a frank and forensic manner. Some readers may wish to avoid reading further if they are sensitive to such topics. – AP

Moreton Bay Courier (Brisbane, Qld. : 1846 – 1861), Saturday 29 August 1857, page 4


This notorious criminal committed suicide on Wednesday morning last by strangling himself in his cell with a handkerchief. We quote from the Herald of the following day :—

“There can be very little doubt that Melville was Francis McCullum, though he always disputed the identity, who was transported to Van Dieman’s Land by the Minerva, in 1838, having been convicted at Perth on 3rd October, 1836, of house breaking, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. He had been previously convicted. On the 3rd February, 1853, Melville was found guilty at Geelong before Mr. Justice Barry of highway robbery, and sentenced to twelve years’ hard labor upon the roads, the first three in irons. At the same time he was found guilty of a second and third offence of a similar character, and for the second was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor on the roads, to take effect from the expiration of the former sentence; for the 3rd offence he was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour on the roads, the first two in irons to date from the expiration of the previous sentence. Upon entering the cell in which Melville had been confined, we discovered some writing in pencil upon the white-washed wall, and there is every reason to believe this was written by the unhappy man shortly prior to committing suicide. It was as follows :—

“I am to suffer nothing. My name is not T. Smith, but McCullum. I intend to defeat their purpose and to die in my bed with a smile by my own hand, and thus by my keeneys to defeat their most secret intentions, and these steps were 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.—F. MELVILLE.”

Nothing extraordinary was observable in Melville’s manner on Tuesday night when he was locked up. Dr. Youl, coroner of the city, held an inquest upon the body. We abridge the evidence :—

Dr. Maund stated: I have made a post-mortem examination of the body of the man known as Captain Melville. There are externally some slight scratches in the shape of a cross upon the left arm, apparently made with some blunt instrument. Frothy blood was oozing from the mouth. There was a handkerchief about two yards in length twisted very tightly round his neck, the first turn being made as a slipknot. It was afterwards turned round very tightly, and the end tucked in under the folds. The cause of death was suffocation caused by the handkerchief round the neck. There is very little doubt that the handkerchief was applied by the deceased himself.

By a Juror: Strangulation would not cause greater distortion of the features than was perceptible. There is no indication of insanity, but it would be difficult to detect.

Mr. George Wintle, governor of the gaol, stated :— I held the deceased under a warrant, dated 5th May, 1857. His name was Captain Melville, alias Thomas Smith. He was convicted as Captain Melville. I should think he was about 35 years of age. He has not suffered any punishment since he has been in gaol. He was confined in a cell by himself after he made an attack upon me on the 28th of last month. About a quarter past seven this morning, I was called by a turnkey who said he wanted to speak to me. I found the deceased lying on his left side. I though he was asleep. The handkerchief was round his neck. I touched his forehead and found he was dead. I should think he had been dead 3 or 3½ hours. I desired that the body should be left as it was. The key of the deceased’s cell was in my possession last night, and remained so till about half-past six this morning.

By a Juror: He was put under medical observation to ascertain whether he was insane or not. There was no extra punishment for his attack upon me.

Dr. McCrae, the medical officer of the gaol, stated: I have had the deceased under my charge since 28th July. He was kept in a cell by himself by my directions. He was not ill, and nothing was the matter with him. I think he was feigning excitement peculiar to madness. On the occasion after he had refused to eat his food for three days, I had a long conversation with him. I pointed out to him forcibly that he had been all his life fighting against the world, with little success on his part, and that it was nearly time for him to bear his punishment quietly, as all his violent ebullitions had only increased the extent of it. At first he was very sulky and would not speak, but after a little, he conversed with me, and seemed impressed with the truth of what I stated. He said he would eat whatever food was given to him, and bear his punishment like a man. The next time I saw him, two or three days afterwards, I found he had been eating his food, and he said he had been guilty of every crime that could be named; that he had brought his punishment on himself, and would in future bear it quietly. He said he was convinced what I told him was true, and that it was for his good. On Tuesday last, 11th instant, I was entirely convinced of his entire sanity. I have no doubt the handkerchief round his neck was put on by himself. He was cold and had been dead some hours when I saw him.

By a juror: I have not seen the brain since death. I could not get the point of my finger between the handkerchief and his neck. I saw him about a quarter past eight this morning.

James Rowley, chief turnkey at the gaol, stated: I locked the deceased up last night, between eight and nine o’clock. He had his supper at five o’clock, and answered his name as usual at mustering. That was the last time I heard him speak. The turnkey on duty during the night did not report any noise in his cell. I was called this morning to his cell by one of the turnkeys. The deceased’s head was a little to the left side. He was lying calmly with his arms across his chest. There was no appearance of a struggle, and the clothes were over him.

One of the jurors asked if it was not singular that the hands of the deceased should have been placed across his breast after strangulation?

Dr. Youl said it was not singular, as the process of strangulation would be slow. It was, in fact, a portion of the vanity of his life. There was no doubt upon his mind that the deceased was perfectly sane. His whole life had been devoted to crime; he envied notoriety: whilst amongst prisoners he was regarded as their captain, but when confined to his cell his vanity was ungratified.

The jury, after a short consultation, expressed an opinion that the deceased strangled himself, being perfectly sane at the time; in other words, the verdict was felo de se.

One thought on “Spotlight: Suicide of this notorious Captain Melville (29/08/1857)

  1. It’s quite a detailed analysis for its time, bearing in mind the much simpler techniques of forensic examination available to examiners of the day.

    Fascinating piece.

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