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Eric Edgar Cooke (1931–1964)

by Hugh Collins

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Eric Edgar Cooke (1931-1964), murderer, was born on 25 February 1931 at Victoria Park, Perth, eldest of three children of Vivian Thomas Cooke, a native-born shop-assistant, and his wife Christian, née Edgar, from Scotland. He was known as Eric Edgar Cooke.  Educated at five different schools, including Perth Junior Technical and Forrest High, from the age of 14 Eric took a succession of semi-skilled jobs. Having served in the Citizen Military Forces, he joined the Permanent Military Forces on 27 May 1952, but was discharged on 28 August when it was discovered that—before enlistment—he had a series of convictions for theft, breaking and entering, and arson. On 14 October 1953 at the Methodist Church, Cannington, he married Sarah (Sally) Lavin, a 19-year-old waitress; they were to have seven children.

In the early hours of 27 January 1963 a series of random shootings with a .22 inch (.55 cm) rifle occurred in the suburbs of Perth. The victims were a couple who were wounded in a parked car at Cottesloe, a male accountant, fatally wounded by a single shot to the head while asleep in a flat nearby, an 18-year-old student (John Sturkey), killed by a single bullet to the head while sleeping on the verandah of a boarding house at Nedlands, and a retired grocer who was similarly murdered when answering the bell of his front door in the next street. Public anxiety was exacerbated by two murders a fortnight later, for which Brian William Robinson was charged with both, tried for one and hanged.

January's pattern and fears returned in August when an 18-year-old female student was killed by a single shot to the head while babysitting at Dalkeith. It was for this murder that Cooke was captured by police on 1 September when he attempted to retrieve the hidden weapon. In addition to the four who died by Cooke's marksmanship, he was acknowledged by the state to be responsible for the murders of a South Perth beautician, stabbed on 30 January 1959, and of a female social worker, strangled in West Perth on 16 February 1963.

Brought to trial on 25 November 1963 for the murder of Sturkey, through his counsel Cooke sought a verdict of not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Evidence revealed that this short, dark-haired man with a quick temper and a retentive memory had been brutalized by a father for whom he had never formed affection; he had further been tormented at school for the impediments of a cleft palate and hare lip, hospitalized frequently for head injuries, suspected brain damage and recurrent headaches, and admitted to an asylum. Life's blows extended to the next generation: the eldest of his children was mentally retarded, while another was born with a deformed arm. Dr A. S. Ellis, director of mental health services, rejected the defence's claim that Cooke suffered from schizophrenia. The state permitted no other psychiatric specialist to examine him. The death sentence was pronounced on 27 November.

With six convictions for minor crimes at the time of his arrest for murder, Cooke later claimed to have committed more than two hundred thefts, five hit-and-run offences against young women, and the two murders for each of which Darryl Raymond Beamish and John Button were already imprisoned. These confessions led to unsuccessful appeals. Little credence was placed in Cooke's testimony by the court: the chief justice Sir Albert Wolff called him a 'villainous unscrupulous liar'. There were inconsistencies in Cooke's testimony, but in confessions to his chaplain and in sworn statements he reaffirmed his guilt in each case. The circumstances in which confessions were originally obtained from Beamish and Button, together with arguable flaws in judicial procedure and judicial reasoning in their appeals, left open the possibility that each suffered a miscarriage of justice which Cooke sought to overturn. In 2002, the Court of Criminal Appeal upheld an appeal by Button, who was freed; in 2005, Beamish was also successful in having his conviction overturned.

Although opponents of capital punishment had organized protest in several previous cases, there was little public dissent from the sentence imposed on Cooke. Only one woman kept vigil outside Fremantle Prison on the morning of his execution, 26 October 1964. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Fremantle cemetery; his wife, three daughters and three of his four sons survived him. Cooke was the last person to be hanged in Western Australia for wilful murder before the State abolished capital punishment in 1984.

In the period when his crimes had remained unsolved there was a discernible change in Perth's attitude towards personal and household security. Police and politicians were widely criticized; gunsmiths, locksmiths and the dogs' refuge did a brisk trade; and the breezy habits of an informal town in a hot climate were no longer innocently enjoyed. The social impact of Cooke's crimes and the atmosphere in which he was tried are imaginatively but faithfully reflected in Tim Winton's novel, Cloudstreet (Melbourne, 1991).

Select Bibliography

  • E. Blackburn, Broken Lives (Melb, 2002)
  • P. Brett, The Beamish Case (Melb, 1966)
  • M. Hervey, Violent Australian Crimes (Melb, 1978)
  • J. Coulter, With Malice Aforethought (Perth, 1982)
  • West Australian, Jan, Feb, Aug, Sept, 26-28 Nov 1963, 16, 17 Jan, 27 Oct 1964
  • Daily News (Perth), Jan, Aug, Sept, Nov 1963, Oct 1964
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct 1964
  • Living Today (Perth), June 1977
  • N. Mattingley, The Abolition of Capital Punishment in Western Australia, 1960-1984 (B.A. Hons thesis, Murdoch University, 1990)
  • Supreme Court of Western Australia, R v Cooke, no 280, 25-27 Nov 1963 (unpublished transcript)
  • Department of Corrective Services (formerly Prisons Department) files (State Records Office of Western Australia).

Citation details

Hugh Collins, 'Cooke, Eric Edgar (1931–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 February, 1931
Victoria Park, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


26 October, 1964 (aged 33)
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia

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