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Colin Campbell Ross (1892–1922)

by John Lack and Kevin Morgan

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Colin Campbell Eadie Ross (1892-1922), convicted murderer, was born on 11 October 1892 at North Fitzroy, Melbourne, third of five children of Thomas Ross, groom, and his wife Elizabeth Campbell, née Eadie. By the late 1890s the Ross family was living at Maidstone. After Thomas left for Western Australia, never to return, Elizabeth struggled to raise her children.

Reputedly a quiet, even docile, child, Colin was educated at Braybrook State School, then was employed in a local quarry where he became a diligent and thrifty worker and one of the best jumper-men. He was forced by an appendectomy to abandon quarrying and was a general labourer from 1915 until 1920, when he joined his family in running the Donnybrook Hotel. Crossed in love in March 1920, Ross attempted to persuade the woman in question to marry him, and was fined for carrying an unlicensed firearm and placed on a good behaviour bond for using threatening words. In April 1921 he became licensee of the Australian Wine Café in the Eastern Arcade, Melbourne, and the saloon soon acquired an unsavoury reputation as a haunt of criminals and prostitutes. In October he was charged with involvement in robbing and shooting a customer. He was acquitted, but allowed his saloon licence to expire on 31 December 1921.

Early that morning the raped, strangled and naked body of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke was found in a right-of-way off nearby Gun Alley. The press, notably the Herald under (Sir) Keith Murdoch, fanned public outrage, pressured police for an arrest and matched the government's initial reward, which was quickly raised from £250 to £1000.  Ross, one of many people routinely interviewed, was arrested and remanded. The police, relying on the information of dubious characters, including the fortune-teller 'Madame Ghurka', claimed that Ross had confessed to violating and choking the girl. The Herald prejudiced his trial by publishing his photograph and printing the names and addresses of the jury. George Maxwell, appearing for Ross with T. C. Brennan, described the Crown witnesses as 'disreputables', mercenaries whose evidence was contradictory and untrustworthy. But a government analyst matched the auburn hair of the victim with hairs on blankets from the wine saloon. Ross had an alibi, but his courtroom behaviour, at first nonchalant, then truculent and finally angry, weakened the defence case. After a five-day trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Justice W. J. Schutt sentenced Ross to death. 'My life', Ross averred, 'has been sworn away by desperate people'. 

Appeals to the Victorian Full Court and to the High Court of Australia failed. The Executive Council confirmed the death penalty and, notwithstanding deputations and petitions, leave to appeal to the Privy Council was refused. Ross composed himself with dignity for his quiet but resolute statement from the scaffold:

I am now face to face with my Maker, and I swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the child. I never committed the crime, and I don't know who did. I never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling mother, and my family.

He was hanged on 24 April 1922 at Melbourne Gaol.

The Ross family and their sympathizers formed the Colin Ross Vindication Committee, and Brennan published a measured rebuttal of the Crown case. Murdoch and the Herald never lived down their shameless exploitation of the crime: opposition journalists dubbed the new Herald & Weekly Times headquarters on Flinders Street 'the Colin Ross Memorial'. The case has divided crime writers. Some have presented Ross as a monster who got his deserts, others as a scapegoat who fell victim to press hysteria, police chicanery and public outrage. His trial, the first in which scientific comparisons of human hair produced a conviction, led to anonymity for jurors. In his farewell letter to his family, Ross wrote that 'the day is coming when my innocence will be proved'. After experts re-examined the hair samples in 1998 and concluded that they did not match, a case began to quash Ross's conviction.  Ten years later Ross was granted a posthumous pardon by the Victorian Governor.

Select Bibliography

  • T. C. Brennan, The Gun Alley Tragedy (Melb, 1923)
  • A. Downer, Crime Chemist (Lond, 1965)
  • InForMed, 5, no 3, Sept 2000, p 11
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Mar 1920, p 6, 13 Jan 1922, p 7, 14 Jan 1922, p 11, 25 Apr 1922, p 6, 5 Mar 2000, p 1, 7 Mar 2000, p 16, 12 Mar 2000, ‘News’, p 3
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 Oct 1921, p 6, 10 Apr 1922, p 1, 13 Apr 1922, p 1, 20 Apr 1922, p 7, 21 Apr 1922, p 8, 24 Apr 1922, p 1
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Oct 1921, p 10, 1 Nov 1921, p 5, 24 Nov 1921, p 10, 13 Jan 1922, p 7, 14 Jan 1922, p 21
  • Independent (Footscray), 14 Jan 1922, p 2
  • Truth (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1921, p 3, 19 Nov 1921, p 2, 26 Nov 1921, p 7, 7 Jan 1922, p 3, 14 Jan 1922, p 6, 28 Jan 1922, p 5, 25 Feb 1922, p 5, 4 Mar 1922, p 6, 11 Mar 1922, p 5, 18 Mar 1922, p 5, 25 Mar 1922, p 5, 1 Apr 1922, p 6, 8 Apr 1922, p 6, 15 Apr 1922, p 3, 22 Apr 1922, p 5, 29 Apr 1922, p 5
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 4 Mar 1922, p 3
  • People (Sydney), 15 Mar 1950, p 38
  • VPRS 30/P, unit 1953 (Public Record Office Victoria).

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Citation details

John Lack and Kevin Morgan, 'Ross, Colin Campbell (1892–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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