Maryborough, Victoria, Australia | 1937
On the last day of his life, John Woods pitched camp at the old gold diggings known as Mountain Hut. Woods had been prospecting around the Victorian goldfields for most of his life and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about the game. Plenty of gold had been found near The Hut at the turn of the 20th century nearly forty years before and, with the eternal gambler’s optimism of the life-long prospector, he figured it was time to give the area another go.
The 56-year-old wasn’t doing too badly now, at the back end of the 1930s. Pushing a homemade wooden barrow through the bush was a labour of the past. These days his prospector’s outfit boasted a horse-drawn wagon with a canvas hood to keep out the early June weather.
Woods was getting ready to boil the billy when he spotted the young bloke cycling towards his camp. A gold man is always wary of strangers, but the boy looked hungry, it was a cold day and he didn’t mind sharing his rations. They were munching a meal in front of the campfire as evening drew in when the youngster made a startling statement: “I’m going to take your horse and wagon.”
Woods arced up. This was no way to repay his hospitality. “It’ll take a better man than you,” he bellowed, taking a swing at his guest and knocking him off his perch. The young man, whose name was later to be read out in court during his murder trial as Reginald James Kilpatrick, grabbed Woods’ axe lying near the campfire and bashed the older man in the head. Woods reeled, stunned but still alive. Kilpatrick swung the axe again and again in a violent frenzy before throwing the prospector’s lifeless body into an old mineshaft nearby.
He then calmly loaded his bike into the wagon, hitched up the horse and drove away. He’d be long gone by the time the body was found. If it was ever found. Who’d miss a lonely old prospector? It was Thursday, 3 June 1937 and Reginald James Kilpatrick, aged 21, one-time buckjumper who’d made his living in a daily dare with danger, was young, fearless and smarter than any cop. Or so he thought.
Kilpatrick was not only too young to have honed what brains he had, he was also not very richly endowed with them in the first place. It seems not to have occurred to him to try to cover his tracks or change his eye-catching clothes. Three days after the murder, Woods’ horse was found wandering in the bush. It was quickly recognised by the dealer who had sold it to him the previous January. A search of the abandoned camp soon turned up the prospector’s battered remains in the shallow shaft – he’d been bashed at least ten times and one newspaper report said the body was partly burned.
A bicycle’s tyre tracks were spotted leading to the camp and word went out that the forces of law and order were very keen to interview a cyclist. Someone in nearby Avoca reported seeing a man peddling past wearing a bright green and orange football jersey and matching socks. The conspicuously clad cyclist was spotted in Stawell, St Arnaud, Bealiba and Wedderburn before he was detained by police in Cobden three days after the body of John Woods was found.
It all happened very quickly after that. Remorse may have overtaken Kilpatrick, maybe he knew the game was up or perhaps he was simply a bad liar. His full confession was read out to a startled courtroom during the inquest into the death of John Woods. The coroner lost no time in handing down a finding of murder and committing Kilpatrick to stand trial.
The trial was all over within a few days. Pleading not guilty to the murder charge, Kilpatrick took the stand in a smart blue coat, but was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. Disagreeing that the biblical adage “an eye for an eye” should apply to him, Kilpatrick trotted out the lame excuses that his parents had been awful people, he couldn’t read or write, he hadn’t really meant to steal Woods’ horse and wagon (he was only “testing” the old bloke), he’d just lost control and, anyway, Woods had hit him first.
His clean-cut youthful good looks swayed the jury to recommend mercy and the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Reginald James Kilpatrick survived the hard years in Victoria’s notorious Pentridge Prison and seems to have enjoyed a crime-free life from his release to his death on 1 November 1977. It is not known if he retained his taste in cycling gear.
Sources: trove.nla.gov.au, ancestry.com.au
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This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Anne is forever fascinated by the amazing stories and incredible characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at email@example.com