WA’s First Case of Highway Robbery

James Malcolm was a convict who had served his 14 year sentence in Van Diemen’s Land before coming to Western Australia in about 1846. He spent a few months in Albany then found work as a labourer for newly-arrived Benedictine monk Bishop Dom Joseph Serra who, with Bishop Rosendo Salvado, was working in the Victoria Plains to establish the mission we now know as New Norcia.

On 4 January 1847, blanket and basket seller Clark Gordon began his regular journey from Perth to the Victoria Plains, selling his wares and collecting several debts along the way. He called in to Dom Serra’s and his manager, Byrne, gave Gordon the money owed. Malcolm, who was nearby, watched Gordon put his money away. He saw Gordon had a fair amount of cash on him and hatched his deadly plan.

Gordon left, heading towards Guildford and Perth. Malcolm ate lunch with Byrne, then said he was going to Guildford on the excuse he was looking for Dom Serra, and rode off in the direction Gordon had taken.

Gordon meanwhile, collected a few more debts, ate his lunch in Guildford and washed it down with a glass of beer.

He collected 13 more shillings from Mr Waters’ pub and ran into Malcolm as he was leaving. Malcolm said he was placing an order for two casks of wine, for the bishop.

Malcolm hung back at the pub for an hour, making awkward small talk, before setting off to stalk Gordon. As sunset approached, Mrs Steel, who was returning from Perth on foot, saw Gordon at the halfway point, later testifying to his good health and high spirits. A mile and a half on, she met Malcolm, walking his horse.

Just before dark James Whitington, also walking from Perth, saw Gordon. He was followed by Malcolm, now only 100 yards behind. Malcolm ignored Whitington’s greeting and continued walking his horse, his gaze firmly fixed on Gordon, in front.

People who saw him two hours later, at 9pm, noted his manner was “altered and fidgety.”

The next morning an aboriginal post-boy walked past Gordon lying by the side of the road, near the Victoria Park end of the causeway, in the hot summer sun. He presumed him drunk and walked on. Around noon, two aboriginal men and a woman knocked on Maria Butterworth’s door and told her an old man was lying, dead or dying, out on the road nearby.

She found Gordon face down in the dirt, the marks of a scuffle evident around him. His hat was some distance away, and a 30cm bludgeon, one end spattered with blood, was near his body.

“...she turned him over and was shocked; his face was purple, clots of blood over the left cheek; nostrils and mouth, full of clotted blood and sand, the right eye swollen and black, and a small scratch about the size of a four-penny piece on the right side of the head, behind the temple; fists clenched, the body stiff and apparently dead.”

The Inquirer, 14 April 1847

Mrs Butterworth washed the blood and sand from his face, and was amazed when he began to breathe, slowly and painfully, and his purple tone receded.

She gave him a few teaspoons of watered-down gin and brought him inside. He realised he’d been robbed and cried “My money! He’s taken my money!” He tried to walk, but couldn’t, muttering “Oh dear.” They all assumed he had been drunk and gotten into a fight.

None the wiser, by the next day, Friday 6 January, Gordon had lost the power of speech.

On the Saturday they called Colonial Surgeon John Ferguson, who noted a strong smell of liquor on Gordon’s breath and an abrasion on his right temple. Ferguson mistakenly pronounced him dying from alcoholism and took him to hospital where he was bled. Gordon then lapsed into unconsciousness and died a few hours later.

Dr Ferguson’s postmortem revealed bruising under his right temple from a violent blow, and a fatal amount of blood pooled in the right hemisphere of his brain.

Malcolm was charged with WA’s first case of highway robbery and the wilful murder of Gordon Clark. Malcolm admitted the assault but as murder had not been his intent, pleaded not guilty to that charge. His trial began on 7 April 1847. At the end of the trial the jury returned after deliberating for just five minutes, with a finding of guilty.

Malcolm was sentenced to a public execution - to hang on the same ground on which he had committed his crime.

As the rope was placed around his neck he shouted to the enormous crowd: “I am not a bad man. My life has been hardened and my mind warped from living 14 years with convicts.”

He then turned to the nearby Government officials and said, quietly, “Don't ever bring convicts here to work. Until now, your colony has been free of them. Keep it that way. You will save this colony from pollution.”

He was hanged, his body then buried less than a metre from the scaffold; the earth said to still bear the stain of his victim’s blood.

Three years later the first convict ship arrived in Fremantle.