The Execution of Robert Campbell alias Palmer 1871

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The Execution of Robert Campbell alias Palmer 1871

There is often a lag time in between the sentencing someone to death and the enactment of that sentence. That lag time grew as capital punishment became less acceptable.

It is said that a man on death row has nothing to lose and may as well tell the truth, from the point of the sentence coming down and the noose going on, one of the unofficial roles of the prison guards and the clergy is to winkle a confession out of the condemned man.

The condemned is told the confession is for their spiritual benefit but it is mainly to rid the legal system of any residual doubt about the guilty finding and the resulting sentence.

There is no better way of disarming the argument about the hanging of an innocent man, often put forward from the anti capital punishment movement than a confession from the condemned man himself.

Robert Campbell at his trial pleaded not guilty to the charge of Murder, the evidence was circumstantial and he did not confess in the face of the gallows. He was guilty of something, but was it the capital offence of Murder is the question.

(Spelling as per the era in which it was written)

Sydney Morning Herald

14/ 1/1871 


Respecting the shocking murder of two Sydney hawkers on the Murrumbidgee-re-ported by telegraph from Sydney some days ago—the Deniliquin Chronicle says:—”During the last few days information has reached Deniliquin that two hawkers have been murdered about four miles from Narandera, on the Murrumbidgee. The particulars hitherto received, through both private and public sources, are exceedingly scanty, and no more than acquaint its with the fact that two Sydney hawkers of the name of Pohlman, travelling in a tilted cart with goods in that neighbourhood, and supposed to have in their possession about £40, have been foully murdered, and the bodies attempted to be burned, in order to destroy all traces of the crime. It appears that a fire was seen burning, that this led to examination, and portions of the charred bones of two men found in the heap. Small coins were also found, and portions of clothing, as also, at a distance of 300 yards, a cart, since identified as belonging to Pohlman Brothers, upset and covered over with boughs. The murders are supposed to have occurred about eighteen days since ; and as a certain cheque is known to have been in the possession of the men, we give its description, hoping that it may in some way help in the detection of the murderers. It was for £20, and drawn by McNeil Brothers, in favour of Mr. Graham, of the Yanko.”

 wagga court



(Abridged from the Wagga Wagga Express, Oct. 5)

At the Wagga Wagga Circuit Court, Robert Camp-bell, alias Palmer was charged with the wilful murder, at Yanco, near Narandera of John Pohlman, on or about the 12th March, 1868.

The prisoner, who pleaded “not guilty “.

A postponement of the trial on the ground  a material witness for the defence was not present,  His Honour, refused the application.

The Crown Prosecutor opened the case at considerable length, and asked the jury to fully and thoroughly disabuse their minds of every feeling caused by anything they had heard or observed, or from the perusal of newspaper paragraphs in reference to the case before them, and then clearly recapitulated the facts as they bore against the prisoner.

The Crown Prosecutor called John Chisholm,  I am a Constable, I arrested the prisoner, who said his name was Robert Palmer, at the Sheepwash Hotel, Oxley, on the 13th of July last, for the murder of the Pohlman brothers, prisoner said that he knew nothing about it, and laughed, he afterwards said that, had the rivers not been up, he would have given me some trouble to catch him, and afterwards, whilst travelling with me in a coach, asked me why he was not arrested at the time some other men were arrested for the murder. I do not know whether I said on either of these occasions that the prisoner laughed when I told him the charge, I swear positively that he did laugh.

The Crown Prosecutor put in as evidence the Gazette descriptions of the supposed murderers of the Pohlman brothers. Cross-examination continued : I arrested the prisoner because I believed that be fully answered the description now read, which states that the supposed murderer had a large wart or lump on his forehead, and the prisoner, in this respect, fully answers the description.

Thomas Woods deposed I am a driver in the employ of Mr M’Echern, of Coonong, and in March, 1868, was in the employ of Mr Jenkins, of Buckenbong, on the 13th of March, 1868, I saw the prisoner at a waterhole near a sand hill on the Yanco run below Narandera , there was another man with him, and both had swags rolled up in blue blankets, I had some conversation with them, and told them that I was going to Booligal, they asked me to take them with me, as they wished to go to Booligal, and said they had a sick companion lying under a tree close by, I said that I would take one of them, but could not take them all, they said they were hard up, and had been drinking, I gave them some dinner, and stayed with them for about an hour, and then proceeded on my way, leaving the whole of them behind me, shortly afterwards I met a person in the employment of Mr Flood, to whom I spoke, and passed on, I met two other persons in a covered dray, who appeared to be hawkers, I have never seen either of these persons since, I could not describe them, but they were both small men, I swear positively that the prisoner is one of the men to whom I gave a dinner on the 13th March, 1868.

Cross-examined : I would not be able to swear so positively to the other men, I am positive that I noticed the wart upon the fore-head of the prisoner, and that he is the same person, he is slightly altered, he is thinner than at that time, I do not think prisoner is  six feet high, I think he is about five feet ten inches, I think the description now read is the one I gave to the police, I said he was five feet ten inches to six feet high.

John Clynes deposed : I am in the employ of Messrs. McNeill brothers, of Yanco, and was so in March, 1868 ; I remember at that time hearing of the murder of two hawkers ; I re-member two hawkers being at the head station, and I had a conversation with them ; they left on the 13th March, and had a covered dray, drawn by two horses, a bay and a grey ; (photographs of the hawkers produced) ; I swear one of the photographs produced is a likeness of one of the men who left Yanco on the day named ; I have never seen either of the hawkers since ; I have seen the same horses they drove away in a large paddock at Yanco; one had hobbles on, the other winkers ; I have seen the prisoner before ; I saw him the day after the hawkers left at the Yanco station, in company with two other men ; they were in a large sheep paddock on the Yanco station, near a spot called the “Round Waterhole ;” they came up to me where I was at work, and we all conversed together for some time ; they told me that they were going to the Tubbo station, for employment, and that they had come from the Merool ; I asked them many questions about the way they had come, and they seemed annoyed, and said that it was no matter which way they had come, that they had come across the bush ; I observed that one of the men had a new pair of elastic-side boots and new socks or stockings on ; they all had large swags ; that of the prisoner’s was the largest ; I asked them if they had seen two German hawkers, and they said they had, and seemed so huffed that I did not ask them any more ; the three men were fully half-an-hour in my company ; I swear positively that the prisoner is one of the men ;I heard nothing of the murder for fully a fort-night afterwards.

William Garrow Elwin deposed : I am superintendent at Yanco Station, and was so in March, 1868 ; I remember two hawkers at the station some time during that month ; I heard of the murder about a fortnight after they left the station ; (photographs again produced) ; the photographs I now look at are the photographs of the two hawkers whom I knew as John and Louis  Pohlman ; they had, when at Yanco, a large assortment of general goods, consisting of drapery, pipes, and many kinds of fancy goods, and boots and shoes ; I did not see them leave the head station, but about a fortnight after-wards heard of a cart resembling theirs at a sand hill near the ” round waterhole,” and found it there covered from view from the road by some saplings which had been half cut through and bent over in such a way as to keep them growing and effectually screen the cart from view from the road ; I sent in-formation to the police at Narandera, and the next day accompanied Constable Foley to the spot and made accurate search ;the goods in the cart were much upset, and there was the appearance of a large fire having been made about 150 yards from the cart, there mains of which we together closely examined, and found a quantity of buttons and pieces of bone, four half crowns, some hinges, and a portion of a cash-box.

Senior-constable Timothy Foley deposed that he examined the remains of the fire in company with Mr. Elwin and found certain articles which he handed over to Sergeant Carroll.

Sergeant John Carroll deposed that he received the articles produced from Constable Timothy Foley.

Francis Woodcock deposed : I am a labourer, and was in the employ of Messrs McNeill in1868; remember two German hawkers being there in that month ; of the photographs produced I recognise one as the likeness of one of the hawkers ; they had, when at Yanco, a large quantity of goods on a tilted dray ; saw them last about noon on the 13th March, 1868 ; they were then near a sand hill ; I had some conversation with them ; I know nothing whatever about the prisoner, and did not see him at anytime at the Yanco Station.

Carl Muller deposed : I am a German, residing in Wagga Wagga ; I knew the brothers Pohlman ; the photographs produced I recognise as the likenesses of John and Louis Pohlman ; they stayed at my place previous to starting down the river.

Timothy Foley deposed : I am a constable, stationed at Narandera, on the 30th March,1868, I accompanied Mr Elwin to a spot near the ” round waterhole ‘ on the Yanco Run, and there found a cart covered with saplings which had been half-cut through and bent down over the cart, in the cart there was a quantity of goods which had been thrown in loosely, near the cart there was a spot where a large fire had been burning, I carefully examined the remains of this fire, and found, with the assistance of Mr Elwin, several articles, consisting of a portion of a cash box, several metal buttons, four half-crowns, some buckles, and a number of pieces of bone much charred, in the cart, in a small compartment of a box, I afterwards found a number of documents which I now produce.

Robert Clark Robinson deposed : I am a duly qualified medical practitioner, riding at Wagga Wagga, the bones produced I have seen before ,they are human bones, I can pick out from them a quantity of scull bones, but cannot pick out the sculls of two persons, but there is more than a sufficient quantity of bone for one scull.

Cross-examined I believe that I cannot be mistaken in the opinion that there are bones of two individuals in the lot now produced.

John Carroll re-called : I produce a pair of boots and a shirt, which I received from Mr Patrick Rogers, publican, at Kyamba Creek.

Patrick Rogers deposed : In the month of March, 1868, I saw the prisoner at my house, in company with two other men ; I bought from one of the men, I think the prisoner, 31/2 lbs of tobacco, a portion of which I afterwards gave to Sergeant Carroll, the tobacco produced I believe to be the same , a man named Brett bought a pair of boots and a shirt also in my presence, prisoner stated they had bought the goods they were endeavouring to sell from Mr Forsyth’s store at Wagga Wagga ; a man named Glover also bought some things in my presence from one of the men, the prisoner and the other two men, after selling a portion of the clothing, went to a small hut close by, where they camped, and after-wards returned to my house and endeavoured to sell a watch, and other articles, I am positive that the prisoner is one of the men who came to my house at the time named, I identify him by a lump on his forehead more particularly.

Cross examined : I do not see any change in him, only that he is paler and thinner.

John Manton deposed : I am a contractor, and in March, 1868, was at Mr M’Neill’s Yanco station, the Pohlman Bros were camped there, I purchased many articles from them, and they gave me a sample of tobacco called ” nail rod “

To the Judge : The tobacco produced is like the kind of which the Pohlman Brothers gave me a sample.

James Delaney deposed : I am a licensed publican residing on the Tarcutta road, I saw the prisoner about the 20th March, 1868, I was then working at Cunnindroo with a snagging party, another man was with the prisoner, and they both had goods which they offered for sale, the prisoner offered a pair of Wellington boots, and a pipe, the man accompanying the prisoner offered a black cloth vest for sale, and prisoner afterwards offered some Crimean shirts ;prisoner said that he had been shepherding on the  Brookong station ; and that he purchased the things he was then offering for sale at Wagga Wagga ; I am perfectly certain that the prisoner is the person who offered goods for sale on or about the 20th March, I do not see any alteration in his appearance, only that his hair is longer.

Henry Solomon deposed : I am a partner in the firm of Myers and Solomon, Sydney, and I knew the brothers Pohlman , they had been customers of our house for about two years ,one of the photographs produced I recognise as a likeness of one of the Pohlmans, they bought a quantity of goods about January, 1868,amongst which were some double cased Geneva watches, of Nos. 7005 to 7010, and 65582 to65587, the watches produced are like the watches sold, and I believe are the same, the box produced, in which the watches are packed, is the same that was invoiced to the Pohlman brothers, and bears the private marks of our firm.

Thomas Boyce deposed : About the latter end of the month of March, 1868 I saw the prisoner ; he was then in company with another person , I bought a watch from him ; of the two watches in court, I identify one as the one I purchased from the prisoner ; on the following day prisoner wanted to sell to me a pair of black cloth trousers, and a vest, he stayed about the place for three or four days, I am positive as to the identity of the prisoner with the man who sold me the watch.

Cross-examined : I identify him by the lump on his forehead, be is not much altered in appearance, but is thinner, greyer, and his whiskers are longer George Dixey deposed : I am a farmer residing near Lake Albert, sometime during the month of March, 1868, I saw two men at the Farmers’ Home, one of whom I believe to be the prisoner, he asked me to buy a watch, which he showed me, I looked at it, and said I would do so for twenty five shillings if I could borrow the money from the landlady, this I did, and paid him that amount for the watch, which I have since handed over to the police, I cannot swear positively that the prisoner is the same person from whom I purchased the watch.

J. D. Meares deposed : I am sub-inspector of police at Wagga Wagga ; the watch produced was handed to me by Sergeant Carroll, who has already sworn that he received it from George Dixey.

James Wild deposed : I am a farmer residing at Lake Albert, towards the end of March,1868, I saw the prisoner and another man at the Farmers Home, and saw George Dixey buy a watch from prisoner, after the sale of the watch prisoner wanted me to buy some tobacco, which I looked at, and asked him where he got it, he said at Forsyth’s, I bought the tobacco (all he had), and paid him 12s. for it ; the tobacco was of the kind called “nail- rod ;” I am positive that he is the same man who sold me the tobacco ; he is slightly altered ; he is greyer, and his beard is longer.

Edward Andrews deposed : I am the son of Mrs Andrews, who kept the Farmers’ Home in March, 1868, I saw the prisoner there about that time, he had some tobacco which he wanted to sell, he had about 40lbs. of a kind called” nail rod ” of the same kind I now look at ; he also wanted to sell some Crimean shirts, some boots, and a watch, the one he wanted to sell resembled the one I now look at, but I cannot swear it was the same, I identify him as the same man by his voice and general appearance.

Rowland Ingram deposed : I am a grazier re-siding at Collen gully ; I have known the prisoner for the last four years , I saw him during the month of March, 1868, in company with two other men, he wanted to sell me some tobacco, some pipes, and a silk handkerchief ; he was then at the Gillenbah and Deniliquin cross-roads ; I have always known him by the name of Robert Campbell ; when he left he went in the direction of Wagga Wagga ; about ten days after he left I heard of the murder of the Pohlman brothers.

Allan Bradley Morgan deposed : I am a duly qualified medical practitioner ; I have carefully examined the bones I now see, they appear to have been subjected to the action of fire for several hours , they are human bones, but I cannot say whether they are the bones of two persons, but from the quantity of skull bones, I think it almost certain that they are the bones of two persons.

Cross examined : It is quite possible that these are only bones of one person, I have examined them very carefully, and have failed to discover signs of two individuals.

James Fox deposed : I am a shopman in the employ of Messrs Forsyth and Co, and was so in March, 1868 , I have never seen any tobacco of the kind produced in the store of Messrs Forsyth and Co , they have never kept any of the kind. This closed the case for the Crown.

Mr. Forbes for the defence submitted that there was no case to go to the jury, as no evidence had been adduced to show that John Pohlman was actually dead. The medical testimony failed to show that the remains of the two brothers had been found, and consequently they could not say which of the two had been killed.

The learned counsel cited several instances in which juries had been directed to bring verdicts of acquittal where no direct evidence of the finding of the body of the murdered person could be adduced. His Honour overruled the objection, and stated that in his opinion there was a case to go to the jury.

Mr Forbes then addressed the jury for the defence, saying that the Crown Prosecutor in his opening speech had in all fairness cautioned the jury from being influenced by any feelings caused by conversations heard outside the court with reference to the case, or by the knowledge of any other circumstances obtained beforehand the learned counsel reviewed the evidence at great length, and dwelt strongly upon the fact of the witness Clynes, who stated that when he saw prisoner a day or two after the murder, he was close shaved, while other witnesses who saw prisoner about a fortnight afterwards said that his beard was a little longer now than then.

 He also pointed out that the murdered men were general salesmen and sold goods at any place they possibly could, and there was as much reason to believe that the goods that had belonged to them and been found in prisoners possession had been purchased by him, as that he had taken them after committing a murder. The Crown had not attempted to prove that these goods had ever been in the possession of the murdered men.

The prisoner, in one instance, stated he had bought the goods in his possession from the store of Messrs Forsyth and Co , and no attempt had been made to contradict this statement.

He strongly dwelt upon the probability of one of the brothers having murdered the other and then having made his escape. There was no  proof but that the John Pohlman the prisoner was then being tried for murdering might not at some future time turn up.

The learned Counsel submitted that the evidence with reference to the watches, which the Crown sought to prove had been sold by a Sydney house to the Pohlman Brothers, never showed that they had been in their possession at all, and also contended that it had never been made out that any of the goods sold bythe prisoner had really belonged to the Pohlmans. The learned counsel concluded an eloquent and effective address by conjuring the jury to carefully weigh the evidence that had been adduced against the prisoner, and on such slight and inconclusive testimony not to think of returning a verdict that might consign an innocent man to the gallows.

After some little debate it was arranged that the Crown Prosecutor should reserve his reply until this morning, and the court then rose, the jury being locked up for the night in the court house in charge of the bailiff.

[By telegram we learn that the prisoner has been convicted and sentenced to death. ]



14/ 1/1871 



(From the Wagga Advertiser.)  

ON the morning of the 10th instant the last sentence of the law was carried out upon Robert Campbell, convicted at the assizes in October last of the murder of the brothers Pohlman, near Narrandera. The wretched man had been sedulously attended for the previous three days by the Rev. Father Hickey, and was most constant in his devotions, as indeed he had been ever since his conviction.

He sometimes used to cry bitterly, and express the greatest sorrow and contrition for the wickedness of his past life, but latterly he became more resigned, and, without making any detailed confession of his guilt, admitted freely the justice of his sentence.

 In his conversation with the warders he seldom alluded to the crime with  which he was charged, but it was remarked that he never distinctly denied it, while on one or two occasions, in conversation with the gaoler, he seems to have admitted that if not the actual murderer, he was at least an accomplice. He said that he was one of the three men ; that on the day of the murder he had gone into Narrandera for two bottles of rum, and on his return found  that the deed was done, when he assisted to dispose of the bodies and shared the plunder. To the priest, we under-stand, he made a still more detailed statement of his share in the crime, but whether this will over be made public or not we are not aware. Anything beyond this is mere rumour, without, it is probable, even a foundation of fact.

On the evening before the execution, Campbell went to bed about 9 o’clock, and slept as soundly through his last night on earth, to quote the warder we watched him, “as  any child in its cot.” He awoke about 4 o’clock, but finding it too early, went to bed and apparently to sleep again.

He rose shortly after five, washed and dressed himself, and, declining any offer of breakfast, devoted himself entirely to prayer. He was visited about 7 by the Roman Catholic schoolmaster, Mr. O’Doherty, and shortly afterwards the Rev.

Father Hickey arrived, and remained with him till the end. In the meantime a considerable crowd had assembled in the neighbourhood of the gaol, hoping from some point of vantage to gain a view of the proceedings.

Every precaution had been taken, however, to insure the privacy of the execution, and only those witnessed the miserable scene whose duty compelled them to be present, or whose curiosity led them to obtain orders of admission from the deputy-sheriff. The gallows had been elected at the right-hand side of the gaol yard, tho cross-beam about on a level with the wall, and immediately underneath it a yawning hole some seven feet deep, and bricked like a well, into whose dark depths the wretched man was shortly to plunge. In front of this ghastly apparatus the spectators, to the number of about twenty, ranged themselves. The sergeant of police and a couple of constables under arms, two or three warders, and the gaol magpie hopping about and chirruping as unconcernedly as it there were no such things as sin and death in the world, completed the picture.

Precisely at 9 o’clock tho Deputy-Sheriff, Mr. Uhr, proceeded to the condemned cell and demanded the body of the prisoner. Campbell, who was engaged in earnest prayer with the priest, immediately rose and stepped firmly from his cell, and the pinioning process having been quickly performed by the hangman Bull, a thin, dilapidated-looking man, but much less repulsive in appearance than his predecessor Elliott, the procession to the scaffold was formed, the prisoner in the centre. He walked rather wearily, repeating earnestly the responses after the priest    beside him, and his face wearing an expression of pain and unutterable sadness. He was dressed in the clothes he wore during his trial, and seemed to have considerably aged since his conviction, an impression that was perhaps heightened from the fact that he wore spectacles. On approaching the spot where Sergeant Carroll was standing the prisoner stopped, and handing that officer a written paper, requested him to read it aloud. The sergeant, who seemed somewhat taken aback at the unexpected request, in a rather shaky voice read the following statement :—

“January 10th, 1871,

“I return many thanks to the gentlemen who attended  on me while in gaol, Drs. Morgan and Robinson, also Mr Monteith and the warders. I die resigned. Whatever my guilt is before God, I did not murder the Pohlman’s. For any useful information, I am unable to give.

(Signed) “Robert Campbell.”

The prisoner, who listened intently to the reading of this document, murmured at its conclusion, ” That’s right,” and then with a visible effort turned to face tho gallows. Accompanied by the priest he mounted the steps slowly but firmly, and took his position on the drop, ejaculating rapidly, “Have mercy on me! have mercy on me!” The priest prayed fervently with him for a few moments, and then the fatal knot having been adjusted, the white cap shut the world from his gaze, and in a moment more the drop fell, and with a desperate plunge downwards, he was dead. Death must have been instantaneous, for nothing more was observed after the fall than a slight convulsive twitching of the hands.

The body having hung for twenty minutes was cut down and placed in a shell, where it was examined by Dr. Morgan and pronounced dead. The face had still the same troubled  expression as in life, but it was very slightly contorted, bearing out the idea that whatever death the murderer’s victims may have died, his own at least was painless. The usual form of a coroner’s inquest having been gone through, the body was interred in the Roman Catholic cemetery.  

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