The Ghost of Death row
SET IN: Perth, 11 December 1946
Leading Lady - Stella Farnworth; also known as Sadie King and Stella Wilton.
Born in Gloucestershire, Stella (53) is the daughter of a Bristol publican and comes to WA’s Goldfields as the bride of her first husband, Harry Wilton, in 1919. Widowed in 1941, she marries William Farnworth in 1946, but in September 1946 she moves in with a new lover and petty criminal, Bob Hobson. They take a room at the Alexandra Hostel at 932 Hay Street, a few doors down from the Melbourne Hotel, under the name ‘Mr and Mrs King’.
Stella is financially independent, well-groomed and elegantly clothed. She usually wears a man’s wristwatch and both sets of her wedding and engagement rings. She likes a drink and should not, probably, be considering investing in hotels.
Her Lover - Robert ‘Bob’ Hobson
Bob (41) is a violent, self-confessed habitual criminal with a drinking problem. He is no stranger to gaol, having spent most of his adult years there. He has even been held at the Governor’s Pleasure, once, and is still on parole. His relationship with Stella is volatile, fueled by booze and jealousy. Witnesses have heard him threaten to hit her over the head with a bottle. He is suavely good looking, has a lean swagger, and uses his dark blue eyes to disarm his victims.
Her Business Partner - Leonard ‘Len’ Jackson
Len (48) is a gentle giant - well over six-feet tall and very powerfully built. He has been married to May for four years. It is a happy marriage and he is a good stepfather to her son. He met Stella in the Goldfields where he and May run ‘The Bright Spot’ delicatessen.
In December 1946 he is selling his deli and plans to invest £2000 in a Perth hotel, in partnership with Stella. On 8 December he arrives in Perth, and is staying at the Globe Hotel on Wellington Street. Witnesses who see him with Stella say he is very polite.
Stella spends the day with Len visiting a few hotels and a home open in Mount Lawley. Stella is keen to buy the house and they spend about an hour there, joining the party that is underway. They’ve had a couple of drinks but Len is not a drinker. Witnesses say Stella is quite drunk.
Len drops Stella off at the Alexandra Hostel and heads to the Globe for the night.
At 8pm Stella arrives at the Globe and tells Len she’s had a row with Bob. Stella and Len go to the Melbourne Hotel for two light shandies. (Again, Len is not a drinker.) On the way out Stella buys a bottle of wine, and they run into Bob over the road, on the corner of Hay and Milligan Streets.
Bob says “Hello Jacko,” and to Stella, “You’ve been on the booze again.”
Stella replies “I don’t have to answer to you for anything I do, and if I want a ____ drink, I’ll have it!”
She hits Bob. Bob knocks her down. Len knocks Bob down. No one knocks Len down, the man is a giant. But Bob is simmering with jealousy.
They continue the short distance to Alexandra Hostel where Stella pours another drink. Bob says she has had enough for the night. He hits the drink out of her hand, smashing the glass. He then smacks Stella to the floor.
Len helps her up and hits Bob. Bob hits the wall and, on the rebound, picks up the wine bottle. Len, figuring Bob’s going to hit him over the head, puts his hands over his head just before the bottle comes down and smashes into Len’s hand. Len grabs Bob’s flailing left arm, with the bottle in it, and pins him to the wall. When Bob lets go of the bottle, Len lets go of Bob.
Len, saying, “this is no place for me,” leaves. Stella says she’s coming with him, but the door slams before she can follow.
Len is about to get into his car when Stella calls from the balcony, asking him to wait. She is more than halfway over when Bob punches her so hard she falls, landing on the kerb head first. Len picks her up, sees blood gushing from her right temple, and puts her carefully on the back seat of his car. He then goes back upstairs for a rug and a towel.
Bob is on the balcony, his head in his hands. Len gets him in the car, then drives to the Globe Hotel where he alights, telling Bob to take Stella to hospital. Bob refuses. Len insists, “you either drive her to hospital or I will take you to the police station.”
Bob drives away in Len’s car with Stella in the back. Len goes to bed. It is the last he sees of her.
The next morning Bob comes to the Globe and tells him Stella will be fine in a week or so, but he has left Len’s car near UWA as it has broken down. Len asks what he was doing so far away from the hospital, and Bob says he went down to Fremantle to let Stella’s family know she’d been in an accident. Len didn’t know the only ‘family’ Stella has in Fremantle is her estranged husband, and accepts the explanation.
Bob then holds out Stella’s watch and rings and asks Len to pawn them for him. Len refuses - he knows they are Stella’s. Bob swears they are actually his, but Stella often wore them. He insists Len take them, and Len’s hotel room-mate sees him put the jewellery in his cupboard.
Len then picks up his abandoned car and washes the blood off the back seat. There is more there than he thought, and glass is now embedded in the upholstery.
16 December, 4:15pm.
A woman’s body is found floating in the Swan River about 90m off the Como jetty. Wire holds a 25kg cement paver to her body which weighed it down until decomposition gasses brought her to the surface. She has been dead for five or six days.
She is soon identified, and Len is worried as he knows he was with her on what he now knows was her last day. But he is confident. He believes once he explains, everyone will know it was Bob who committed this foul deed.
Bob, however, has used his time to prepare. Time during which he has been charged twice, with being idle and disorderly and for drunkenness. He has already set Len up with Stella’s jewellery and, in the face of Len’s testimony, he denies the row Len recounts, denies his assault of Stella, denies the balcony incident - denies everything, with his wide blue eyes.
Sweating heavily, he swears he last saw his love at 7am on 11 December. She was sitting up in bed and reading the newspaper, gloriously happy and perfectly healthy. She told him, Bob says, she was going to Fremantle for business for a day or two and he didn’t worry when she did not come home that first night.
The next night, he says, he receives a telegram from Stella, sent from Fremantle, saying “Staying with good friends in]Fremantle. Best luck, see you soon, Stella.” This is followed by another telegram the next night, explaining her absence for another couple of weeks as she’s taken a job in Geraldton. Again, he explains, he’s not concerned by this at all.
The original telegram forms are retrieved, and a handwriting expert identifies they were written by a left-hander. Lawyers ask Len to write out the text, but his handwriting is loose, easy, confident... and right-handed. No match. Bob is left-handed, but this line of questioning is dropped.
Twice, over coming days, Bob says he called Albert Wilton, Stella’s son from her first marriage. Today we understand this is what a psychopath might do.
In stark contrast to Bob’s sweaty testimony, Len is cool, calm and confident. He never refers to any written notes, but relies on his memory of actual events, recounting them as they happened. He believes, poor fool, the truth will out, and the true villain will be revealed.
Of course he is not...
Blood experts have found spatter which indicates someone struck Stella 17 times in the forehead with a bottle, the top of her head pulped into a V-shape, before the bottle broke in the back seat of the car... Len’s car, in which Bob had supposedly driven her to hospital. Blood patterns also indicated a blood-soaked body had been dragged out of the car, afterwards.
Incredibly, the jury believes Bob and Len is found guilty. He is sentenced to hang on Monday, 21 April 1947. From Death Row on 16 April he writes to his wife, May:
“In my position I have nothing to fear and now nothing to gain in telling you lies. I did not kill or injure Mrs Farnworth in any way. Please God, let that truth penetrate your present decision. That is my dying prayer to you.
Please dear, don’t think any evil of what you may hear. It is your humiliation I want to mitigate in all matters ... God forever bless you, my poor darling, for what I have caused you to suffer. With love, forever yours, Len.”
“While a warder sat outside the grille door of the condemned cell, his eyes glued on the apparently sleeping form of the prisoner ... Jackson hacked at his neck with a razor blade ... until his life ebbed away.”
“And all the time he took to perform this grisly operation to cheat the hangman he was apparently motionless. Apart from a few whining noises not unfamiliar to a person in a disturbed sleep, Jackson was silent as he wrote, with his life’s blood, the grim epilogue to one of the ghastliest chapters in the State’s criminal history.”
The Mirror, 19 April 1947
Roebourne, 14 June 1947
Having gotten away with murder, Bob Hobson is refuelling a petrol engine. He spills some on himself, so he cleans his hands and, reflexively, lights a cigarette.
He incinerates and dies, in agony, soon after.