Hillgrove, New South Wales | 1888
One fine evening late in January 1888, John Grace strode into Faint’s Hotel in the small gold-mining town of Hillgrove, slapped a handful of silver coins onto the bar and ordered a drink. Such a common sight in an Aussie pub shouldn’t have raised any eyebrows – except the drinker in question had been bumming beers and smokes from just about everyone in that bar ever since he’d blown into town after Christmas.
Even more amazing, Grace – who now sported an uncharacteristically smart pair of new boots – proceeded to join a poker game and spent the rest of the night gambling away a startling quantity of folding money. More remarkably still, he paid his bar and room tab up to date.
Some of the onlookers may have recalled that Grace had been seen in the company of a prospector in the same bar the evening before. Maybe the pair had struck it lucky? One or two of the other drinkers might even have looked around the room to see if the prospector was also there, celebrating a new gold find.
But he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.....
John Stapleton wasn’t as well-known about town as Grace. He’d arrived in Hillgrove only a few days earlier, armed with a swag, a miner’s right and an air of purpose. Respectable and well-dressed, from his smart hat down to his polished boots, Stapleton paid up front for a room and board in Faint’s Hotel and strolled out to inspect the mine workings scattered outside town.
That evening, Grace was in the pub, bumming booze as usual, when he spotted Stapleton at the bar and sidled over. The pair spent the evening drinking and talking hard. The next morning they were seen breakfasting together in the dining room, and Stapleton was overheard to say he was on the lookout for a mine in the area. The pair left the hotel, Stapleton hefting a pick over his shoulder.
The date was Wednesday, 31 January, 1888, and it was John Stapleton’s last day on earth. His battered body was found a week later by possum hunters in rugged country overlooking the spectacular Baker’s Creek waterfall, near a mining lease just outside Hillgrove. His throat had been slit from ear to ear and his skull was crushed.
The Armidale Chronicle reported the murdered man, believed to be about 50 years old, was clad in “colonial tweed trousers, a print shirt, flannel drawers and undershirt and a diagonal coat”, adding the incongruent but crucial detail that his blucher boots were “half worn out”. His smart new hat, neatly fitted out with money pockets inside the crown, was smeared with bloody fingerprints and devoid of any cash that may have once resided there. The miner’s right in his pocket was the only means of identification.
Meanwhile, Grace had vanished from his room at Faint’s Hotel, leaving behind a bloodstained shirt and jacket. The police took just a few days to arrest him at the International Hotel in nearby Armidale, where he’d been holed up, drinking away much of his stolen booty. An excited, noisy crowd lined the street to the police station as Grace, wearing his new boots and staggering a little under the influence of the last drink he was ever to imbibe, was walked by two police constables to the lockup. The crowd booed and catcalled, and someone was heard to ask where he’d left his old boots. Grace did not reply.
It all happened quite quickly after that. The rules of evidence were refreshingly simple in the days before forensic science introduced tedious testing and lengthy court delays. Grace was charged with murder, committed for trial at the Armidale District Court, convicted and sentenced to death – all without either confessing to the crime or uttering a word in his defence. Circumstantial the evidence may have been, but it was sufficient to hang him.
The Armidale populace scrambled to get tickets to the execution and John Grace, alias John Cregan (occasionally also spelled Creighan) was publicly hanged in the Armidale Gaol on 29 May, 1888.
As a criminal, Grace was scarcely amazing. Although possessing the usual brutal, cold-blooded traits that are clear advantages for killers, his skill at planning the key sequel to a crime – how to get away with it – fell well short of satisfactory.
It is hard to see how he could have made more fatal mistakes in his short career as a robber and murderer. He didn’t try to avoid being seen leaving the hotel with Stapleton; he splashed the stolen money around in the very hostelry occupied by his victim, in front of people who knew how skint he’d been before; he fled less than 50 kilometres from the site of the murder and he left bloodstained evidence behind. Finally, he failed to get rid of the new boots he’d swapped for his old ones.
Made for walking, those stolen boots literally took him all the way to the gallows.
Sources: Armidale Express & Armidale Chronicle (via Trove); www.capitalpunishmentuk.org; www.aussietowns.com.au
This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Queensland. Anne is forever fascinated by the amazing stories and often unbelievable characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org