Gun Alley by Kevin Morgan is about the murder of Alma Tirtschke (12) a.k.a. the “schoolgirl murder.” It is a cold case, a wrongful conviction, the rape-murder of a child, sloppy police work, jailhouse information, and a rush to judgment that led to the botched execution on April 24, 1922 of an innocent man.
Collin Campbell Ross was an easy target. He owned a wine shop near the crime scene. Naturally, he must have invited her in. He probably gave her a few drinks, fooled around with her, and more bad things happened. But no evidence tied him to either the victim or the crime scene.
We are in Melbourne, Australia. It is Saturday, New Year’s Eve 1921.
Around 6am, Henry David Errington and his daughter Eva search the streets for discarded bottles to sell. When Errington is two-thirds down Gun Alley, he sees the body of a child. “She lies on her back, naked, wantonly posed. Her left leg is bent up with the heel under her buttock; her right leg is also drawn up, and crossed under her left.”
This gave me pause. There is no information about the position of the child’s arms. If this was staged for shock effect I’d imagine certain arm positions. My answer comes later in the book. There are signs that her private parts were washed most likely when her body was held upright.
One of the key officers would later state: “there were other signs that the killer had tried to force the body down the drain, but had been disturbed.” This explains her body position. Who killed her was disturbed but didn’t stage her body for a shock effect like we saw with the Black Dahlia. He was trying to lower her in the drain, feet first. He was disturbed, dropped her, and her legs simply folded below her.
Back to December 30, 1921.
Aunt Maie Murdoch visited Alma and her grandma. Not having been able to pick up her weekly order from the local butcher, grandma asked Alma to do it for her aunt. Grandma was a very strict woman who gave precise instructions that she expected to be followed to the letter. If not, there would be consequences. Alma, dressed in her school uniform, left the house at 1230pm. She never returned home.
Coroner’s Surgeon Crawford Henry Mollison performed Alma’s autopsy:
- the skin over her right eye is very black probably due to a blow to her eye
- her face is swollen
- her eyelids are congested
- lividity on the right side of her face and the front of the chest indicating she was turned around
- nothing underneath her fingernails
- abrasions on her neck e.g. bruising caused by tight shirt collar
- condition of her lungs indicate asphyxiation during a rapid, violent death
- hymen has a recent tear in the lower margin that penetrates her vagina wall
- blood and mucus around her private parts
- no semen
- her private parts show signs of washing
- no alcohol smell upon opening her stomach.
There were no signs of a struggle or blood elsewhere in the alley.
The rape-murder of a child is one of the most disturbing crimes for police. It should not come as a surprise that they were under pressure to close the case.
The book explains in detail how the investigation and the ensuing trial continued. For me, the book gained speed and peaked my interest when the case went to the Court of Criminal Appeals. To be considered, the appeal had to be based on
- inadmissibility of the evidence
- judge erred in jury instructions
- the verdict is against the weight of the evidence
- new evidence has emerged.
In case of new evidence, the rules are strict. You must show that
- the new evidence could not have been obtained at the original trial and
- that had it been presented at the original trial it was likely to have affected the outcome of the trial.
We read about the inadequate summing up of the judge and the inconsistency of the prosecution. If the killing was accidental the judge should have instructed the jury to render a verdict of manslaughter. If the killing occurred while committing a felony (such as the rape of a child) the instructions should have been for murder.
Aside from this, we hear about disreputable witnesses who received awards for testifying, the wrong labelling of the interior rooms in Ross’ shop, improper handling of evidence (such as shaking dust off pieces of cloth and blankets), and most importantly ignoring witnesses who said that
- they never saw Alma inside Ross’ wine shop and
- they recalled a different sequence of events
Despite this, the appeal was denied.
As if being railroaded was not enough, the authorities also managed to botch the hanging. Here you can find how execution by hanging should take place. Note this: “The rope, which should be 3/4-inch to 1 1/4-inch in diameter, must be boiled and stretched to eliminate spring or coiling. The knot should be lubricated with wax or soap “to ensure a smooth sliding action,” according to the 1969 U.S. Army manual. (The Corrections Professional, 1996 and Hillman, 1992)”
In the Ross hanging, the unnecessarily large knot didn’t slide smoothly. It fractured his second cervical vertebra. His cord didn’t severe though. His diaphragm contracted, he tore his windpipe, and struggled between 8-20min before death finally granted him mercy.
The authorities had experimented with a four-stranded rope instead of just three strands. The four-stranded rope had never been used in executions. It is noted in the Melbourne Goal’s book in red ink to never use this rope again.
The author mentions John Pitt Taylor’s book “A Treatise on the Law of Evidence: As Administered in England and Ireland: with Illustrations from the American and Other Foreign Laws, Volume 1.” On page 83 he starts part of the explanation for the sloppy police work:
and it continues here:
After this the book takes you on a roller coaster tour of what was all along in our minds:
- how do you get a 12-year-old to sit still in a wine shop for several hours without anyone trustworthy noticing her and
- how it is possible that strict grandma didn’t come looking for her when Alma didn’t return home on time?
Alma’s sister Viola explains from page 320 onwards what happened to her and Alma all these years. She also explains how her words were categorically ignored and dismissed by family members. After all, the family name and standing were more important than to take actions that could have saved Alma’s life.
Mitochondrial DNA showed that hair taken from evidence doesn’t match Alma’s hair.
As for who did rape and kill Alma?
I believe Morgan is right. The way Alma behaved on that fateful day clearly indicated she knew who was following her. She tried to take detours but an adult predator outsmarted her.
Collin Campbell Ross did eventually receive a posthumous pardon exonerating him completely from Alma’s murder. It is to date the only posthumous pardon for a judicial execution in Australia.
At times there are too many details in a chapter making it difficult to follow. There is no clear last timeline in the book so the reader sees the crime unfold as it most likely happened. The timeline in the book is only described. However, to fully absorb what the author discovered it should have been outlined in simple columns.
The book starts slow and takes its time to pick up speed. But when it does you are fully invested in this most tragic case.
Let us never disregard anyone’s words when they say that someone is touching them and they don’t like it.
Highly recommended reading for all interested in cold cases, miscarriages of justices, and true crime aficionados. H/T to friend Susy Alger for alerted me to this case.
R.I.P Alma Tirtschke and Collin Campbell Ross.