Colin Campbell Eadie Ross (11 October 1892 –
24 April 1922) was an Australian wine-bar owner executed for the rape
and murder of a child which became known as The Gun Alley Murder,
despite there being evidence that he was innocent.
Following his execution, efforts were made to clear
his name, and in the 1990s old evidence was re-examined with modern
forensic techniques which supported the view that Ross was innocent.
In 2006 an appeal for mercy was made to Victoria's Chief Justice and
on 27 May 2008, the Governor of Victoria pardoned Ross in what is
believed to be an Australian legal first.
The life of Colin Ross
Colin Ross was born in North Fitzroy, Melbourne,
the third of five children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Ross. Thomas
Ross died in 1900 leaving his wife to care for the five young
children, including one who was newly born. Consequently, none of the
children were well educated, as each left schooling as early as
possible to find work to help support the family.
Colin Ross began working at a local quarry at the
age of 11, and over the following years he worked as a labourer and
later as a wardsman at the Broadmeadows army hospital. In 1920,
Elizabeth Ross became the manager of the Donnybrook Hotel, 30
kilometres north of Melbourne, with Colin as partner and another of
her sons, Ronald, as licensee.
During this time, Colin Ross began a relationship
with Lily Mae Brown, who worked in a Melbourne hotel. On 5 March 1920,
Ross asked Brown to marry him, and when she refused, he produced a
revolver. He followed her onto a tram, where he continued to threaten
her, until she agreed to meet him later in the day.
Instead she contacted the police and a plain
clothes detective was present when she kept her appointment with Ross
later in the evening. Ross was charged with using threatening words
and for carrying firearms without permission; on the charge of using
threatening words he was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment, along with
a 12 month good behaviour bond, and was fined for carrying the
In April, 1921 the Ross family returned to
Melbourne, where Colin Ross, with his brothers Stanley and Ronald,
bought a wine shop in the Eastern Arcade, in the business centre of
Melbourne. With the purchase of the shop, renamed "The Australian Wine
Saloon", the Ross's continued the employment of its barmaid, Ivy
Matthews. She later commented that the saloon had previously attracted
a quiet and respectable clientele, but that the Ross brothers were
willing to serve anyone, with the result that it was soon frequented
by alcoholics and criminals. Other tenants in the building resented
the intrusion of Ross's customers, who drank to excess and vomited and
urinated in the arcade, and made lewd comments to passing women.
On 13 October 1921, one of the saloon's customers
was robbed in the saloon's outdoor lavatory, and during a struggle
with his assailant was shot. His wound was not serious but he was
unable to give an account of events to police, due to the large amount
of alcohol he had consumed. An investigation revealed that his
assailant was a young English traveller, Frank Walsh, who had spent
most of his money, and who had been approached by Colin Ross to rob
the customer on the understanding that the proceeds would be shared
between them. Ross and Walsh were arrested and charged with armed
robbery. Ross's comments to police incriminated Ivy Matthews, who had
until that point refused to discuss the matter. Following a visit by
Elizabeth Ross, Matthews began to speak on Ross's behalf, and at the
same time began referring to herself as the saloon's manager, and
drawing money from the saloon's account. Ross made no further attempt
to draw Matthews to the attention of police.
Ross was acquitted of his charge, however Walsh was
sentenced to six months hard labour. Following Colin Ross's acquittal,
Stanley Ross confronted Ivy Matthews and dismissed her from her
Nell Alma Tirtschke, known as Alma, was born on 14
March 1909 at a remote mining in Western Australia, the first child of
Charles Tirtschke and Nell Alger. In 1911, Charles Tirtschke accepted
a position with a mining company in Rhodesia, and the family moved
there, where Nell gave birth to a second daughter, Viola, in 1912. The
family was returning to Australia in December, 1914, when during the
journey Nell died of complications relating to a third pregnancy, and
was buried at sea. After arriving in Melbourne, Charles Tirtschke was
unable to care for the children, and returned to Western Australia
where he worked at the goldfields. Alma and Viola were cared for by
their grandparents, Henry and Elizabeth Tirschke and were assisted by
their five adult daughters.
By 1921, Henry Tirschke had died, and their
grandmother assumed all parental duties. She was remembered by Viola
as a strict disciplinarian who kept a close watch on both daughters.
Alma was studious and well behaved, and excelled in her studies at the
Hawthorn West Central School, however her grandmother greatly
restricted her from social activities with other students, and she
became very shy. An uncle, John Murdoch, said of Alma Tirschke,
"Though of a bright disposition, she was somewhat reserved, and did
not make friends readily like some girls. She lacked the vivacious
manner than encourages chance acquaintance". Viola Tirschke later
described her with the comment that Alma was "soft in speech and soft
On the afternoon of 30 December 1921, twelve year
old Alma Tirtschke was sent on an errand by her aunt. She was to
collect a package of meat from her uncle's butcher's shop in Swanston
Street, Melbourne and take it a short distance to Collins Street to
deliver it to a customer.
The errand should have taken no more than 15
minutes, and when Alma, who was known to be reliable and obedient,
failed to return home, her grandmother became alarmed. She was
reported as missing, and the police, along with the Tirtschke family
searched for Alma through the night. Early the next morning, her naked
body was found in Gun Alley, a laneway off Little Collins Street, near
the address Alma had been sent to. She had been raped and strangled.
The case became a major newspaper story,
sensationalised by the Melbourne press and convincing its readers that
a maniac was on the loose and likely to strike again. A reward of 1250
pounds was offered for the capture of the killer; one of the greatest
rewards offered in Australia at that time. As time passed with no real
progress, the police were criticised, and were subjected to public
pressure to make an arrest.
Investigations revealed that Alma had last been
seen alive between 2.30 and 3.00pm on the afternoon of her
disappearance, at the corner of Alfred Place and Little Collins
Streets, near the lane in which her body was subsequently discovered.
Among the numerous men interviewed was Colin Ross, a saloon manager,
who described seeing a girl matching Alma's description, outside his
saloon. His description of events closely matched that of several
witnesses who had also seen her.
Ross was well known to the local police as he had
recently been acquitted on a charge relating to his involvement in the
shooting and robbing of one of his customers. Despite Ross's
willingness to co-operate police began to interview him in greater
detail. Ross was able to nominate several witnesses who had seen him
tending his saloon on the afternoon of Alma's death, and who would
confirm that he had not left the premises, but the police remained
convinced that he had killed Alma, and on 12 January 1922 they
arrested him for murder.
The public fascination with the case intensified as
newspapers published news of Ross' arrest, but Ross told his lawyers,
family and friends that he had nothing to fear. As an innocent man, he
said, it was only a matter of time before he would be released.
The trial began on 20 February 1922 and witnesses
were presented to speak of Ross's guilt. John Harding, who had a
previous conviction for perjury, was being detained in prison at the
time, "at the Governor's pleasure". He testified that Ross had
confided in him in prison, and had admitted his guilt. Ivy Matthews, a
prostitute, and Julia Gibson, who worked as a fortune-teller under the
name "Madame Gurkha" also testified in court that Ross had confessed
the crime to them.
The prosecution also offered forensic evidence in
the form of several strands of hair they had obtained from Alma
Tirtschke shortly before her funeral. A detective testified that on
the day of Ross's arrest he had noticed several strands of "golden
hair" on a blanket in Ross's house, which were later removed and
examined by the state government analyst, Charles Price, a trained
chemist with little previous experience in the new field of forensic
science. Price testified that he compared the hairs under a
microscope, and concluded that the hair found in Ross's house was a
light auburn colour", while Alma's hair was a dark red. He measured
the diameter of the hairs and concluded that they were of a different
thickness. At one point in his testimony he commented that the hairs
on Ross' blanket had most likely fallen from the head of a regular
visitor, such as Ross's girlfriend, but after a long testimony stated
that he believed the hairs were "derived from the scalp of one and
same person." His contradiction was accepted by the judge without
Ross's barrister, Thomas Brennan, protested and
requested that a further examination be carried out by a more
qualified person but the judge refused. The jury found Ross guilty of
murder and he was sentenced to death by hanging. His legal
representatives were convinced of his innocence but found that public
opinion remained strongly against Ross and news of his death sentence
was met with public celebration. Ross's representative sought to
obtain the right to appeal but this was refused by the judge who
stated that Ross's guilt had been proven beyond doubt. Brennan sought
leave to appeal to the Privy Council in England, but his application
Brennan remained supportive of Ross and certain of
his innocence, but had exhausted all avenues in his attempt to save
Ross from execution. During this time Ross received a letter in prison
from a man, who failed to give his name, but who admitted that he had
killed Alma, and although consumed by guilt, was not willing to come
forward as it would cause grief to his family. Brennan later wrote
that he believed the letter to have been authentic. On the eve of his
execution a letter was sent to his lawyer. This letter is now believed
to have been written by the real killer.
Before his execution in his farewell letter to his
family, Ross wrote: 'The day is coming when my innocence will be
Ross composed himself with dignity for his quiet
but resolute statement from the scaffold:
'I am now face to face with my Maker, and I
swear by Almighty God that I am an innocent man. I never saw the
child. I never committed the crime, and I don't know who did. I
never confessed to anyone. I ask God to forgive those who have sworn
my life away, and I pray God to have mercy on my poor darling
mother, and my family.'
But it would take 86 years before his innocence was
eventually confirmed by a thorough investigation.
Ross was executed on 24 April 1922 at Melbourne
Gaol in a particularly gruesome manner. A new four-strand rope was
used for the first time in an Australian execution and proved to be a
failure, Instead, the knot of the noose did not run freely.
Authorities had decided to experiment with a four-stranded rope rather
than the usual three-stranded European hemp.
Ross did not die immediately because his spinal
cord was fractured, not severed. Although his windpipe was torn and
obstructed by his destroyed larynx, the condemned man continued with
rasping breaths and convulsed on the rope. Three times Ross bent his
knees and flexed his arms as he battled his killer bonds, before
succumbing. Ross slowly strangled to death by asphyxiation. A prison
report later ruled that such a rope must never be used again.
Attempts to clear Ross's name
Thomas Brennan became consumed with his failure to
save the life of Colin Ross, eventually writing a book, The Gun
Alley Tragedy in which he attempted to establish that Ross had
been hanged for a crime he did not commit. Although Brennan attracted
supporters it was not enough to persuade the Victorian government to
have the case re-examined, and over the following years, interest
began to wane in all but the most ardent of Ross's supporters.
In 1993, Kevin Morgan, a former school-teacher
became interested in Ross' case, and began to research the events
surrounding the murder of Alma Tirtschke and execution of Colin Ross.
He read handwritten notes in the bible Colin Ross had kept with him in
prison, and which had been preserved by his family following his
death. Morgan was moved by the simple notations in which Ross wrote of
false witnesses, knowing that Ross had written these notes without
expecting anyone else to read them.
Morgan examined interview records and court
transcripts and discovered information that had been kept from the
court at the time, including the testimony of six reliable witnesses
who placed Ross inside his saloon for the entire afternoon of Alma
Tirtschke's murder. Furthermore, a cab driver, Joseph Graham, had
heard screams coming from a building in Collins Street at 3.00pm, thus
in the time frame within which Ross was verified as having been in the
saloon. Graham's interview had been disregarded by police and he had
not been called to give evidence. Following Ross's arrest, Graham
attempted to have his story told through a solicitor, but was not
permitted to present his version of events in court. Morgan also noted
that the witnesses against Ross were of dubious character and could
have been motivated to present false testimony; John Harding's
sentence was reduced after he stated that Ross had confessed to him in
prison, and the prostitute, Ivy Matthews and fortune-teller, Julia
Gibson had shared the reward money. A closer examination of the long
testimony of Charles Price regarding the hair samples seemed to
support Ross's innocence.
Two years after he began researching the case,
Kevin Morgan found a file in the Office of the Public Prosecutions,
which contained the original hair samples, which had been thought
lost. He began a legal fight for the right to submit the hair samples
for DNA testing, finally winning the right in 1998. Dr. Bentley
Atchison of the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine found that the
hairs did not come from the same person, thereby disproving with
certainty the most damning piece of evidence presented at Colin Ross's
trial. His findings were confirmed by a second series of testing
conducted by an independent agency.
On 23 October 2006 the Victorian Attorney General
Rob Hulls wrote to the Chief Justice, Marilyn Warren, with a 31-page
petition asking her to consider a plea of mercy for Ross. The
subsequent pardon, granted on 27 May 2008, is the first case in
Victoria's legal history of a posthumous pardon.
The family of Alma Tirtschke believes that the
pardon does not go far enough and that Ross should be exonerated. In a
Fairfax Radio interview discussing the pardon, the murdered girl's
second cousin recounted how her grandmother was preoccupied with the
murder "She didn't say who was the right man but she said the wrong
man was hung". In a later interview on the Nine Network's A
Current Affair program, the family stated they believe the true
murderer was a family member.
Ross cleared of murder nearly 90 years ago
By John Silvester - TheAge.com.au
May 27, 2008
THE State Government will create legal history
today when it announces a posthumous pardon for a man wrongly executed
86 years ago in the notorious Gun Alley murder case.
Colin Campbell Ross was hanged in 1922 after he was
convicted of killing Alma Tirtschke, 12. He went to the gallows
maintaining his innocence.
Governor David de Kretser has signed the pardon,
and Attorney-General Rob Hulls will formally announce the decision
today in Parliament during question time.
The pardon follows an unprecedented inquiry by
Victorian Supreme Court judges Bernard Teague, Phil Cummins and John
Coldrey, who found Ross was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
After receiving the advice, Mr Hulls moved to have
Ross posthumously pardoned. "This is a tragic case where a miscarriage
of justice resulted in a man being hanged," he told The Age.
The formal re-examination of the case began three
years ago when relatives of Alma Tirtschke and Colin Ross signed a
petition of mercy after they learned that fresh evidence showed the
executed man had been wrongly convicted.
Alma Tirtschke, a Hawthorn schoolgirl, was raped
and strangled while in Melbourne shopping for her aunty. A bottle
gatherer found her naked body in Gun Alley, off Little Collins Street,
on December 31, 1921.
Ross, who ran a nearby wine bar, was arrested at
his Maidstone home on January 12. Just 115 days after the murder, he
was executed, following a short trial and two failed appeals.
The Crown case was that Ross, 28, persuaded the
young girl to enter his wine saloon in the Eastern Arcade, in Bourke
Street. He was then alleged to have given her alcohol before raping
and strangling her.
A new investigation has ruled out any link between
Ross and the only physical evidence said to connect him to the crime —
hairs found on a blanket at the suspect's home, which the jury was
told came from the scalp of the victim.
In 1995 researcher Kevin Morgan traced the exhibit
to an archive and pushed for the hair to be re-examined using modern
technology. In 1998 a test by the Victorian Institute of Forensic
Medicine found the hairs were not from the same scalp.
A second test by Australian Federal Police
confirmed that the key evidence was wrong.
Prosecutors used two witnesses who claimed Ross had
confessed to the crime. But the jury was not told that one of the key
prosecution witnesses was a convicted perjurer.
The defence team produced alibi witnesses who swore
they saw him at work and on a tram heading home at the time of the
Two years ago, Mr Hulls wrote to Chief Justice
Marilyn Warren to ask for the court to re-examine the case to see
whether the Ross conviction remained sound.
A specially convened panel of justices Teague,
Cummins and Coldrey said the move to seek advice rather than a
judicial determination appeared to be an Australian first. In their
30-page opinion the judges unanimously concluded that new evidence
showed the case against Ross was flawed.
"There has been a miscarriage of justice," they
The judges found that the Attorney-General could
send the case to the Court of Appeal to seek a quashing of the
conviction or had the option "of granting a pardon independently of
this statutory regime". Mr Hulls chose to seek a pardon, which was
signed by the Governor on Friday.
Mr Morgan, who wrote a book on the case Gun
Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice yesterday told The
Age: "A big stain on the legal system has finally been expunged,
and a shadow on two Australian families has also been lifted.
"That justice has finally been done for the Ross
and Tirtschke families after 86 years is a tremendous outcome."
Alma Tirtschke's niece, Bettye Arthur, said: "It is
a tragedy for everybody that the actual perpetrator was not caught,
and an innocent man lost his life."
She said the tragedy deeply affected her mother,
who had been two years younger than her sister, Alma.
The flawed prosecution case was that the
12-year-old chose to drink in Ross' wine bar instead of running
messages for her aunty.
"The actual pardon has also helped restore the
reputation of Alma, because it shows that she didn't enter the wine
bar as was said in the trial," Mrs Arthur said. "She was a good girl."
Colin Ross' niece Betty Everett, said her parents
had not told her of the family secret, but she read of the case in a
magazine and realised the link when she saw the striking resemblance
between her father and Colin Ross.
"I had lived with this fear and doubt for most of
my life, the more so as I began to have children, that perhaps I
carried the genes of a murderer," she said. "That shadow has gone."
Mr Hulls said: "The pardon is a tribute to the
families of Colin Campbell Ross and Alma Tirtschke for their
"These families have come together to right a
"I trust the pardon will provide some relief from
the suffering that this terrible human tragedy has caused the Ross and
Tirtschke families, and allow these wounds to heal."
Pardon not enough, murdered girl's
May 27, 2008
It is too late to save his life, but
today a man who was executed for murder 86 years ago has been
Colin Campbell Ross was hanged in 1922 for raping
and strangling a Victorian schoolgirl, but the 28-year-old publican
always said he was innocent.
Now, thanks to modern technology, he has been
But while legal experts say justice has finally
been done, one relative of the dead girl says the pardon does not go
The family of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke always
thought the wrong man had been executed for her murder.
A woman, identifying herself only as Joan, is the
murdered girl's second cousin.
She told Fairfax Radio how the case has preoccupied
people like her grandmother over the years.
"She didn't say who was the right man but she said
the wrong man was hung," Joan said.
It was 1921 when Alma's naked body was found dumped
in Melbourne's Gun Alley.
Kevin Morgan researched the case for 15 years and
wrote the book Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and the Failure of Justice.
"The prosecution held Alma Tirtschke went into the
wine saloon of Colin Ross and as the saloon continued its normal
trading, remained there consensually from 3:00pm until 6:00pm drinking
wine, at which time Ross had sexual intercourse with her and murdered
her, and to us it just didn't make sense," Mr Morgan said.
Mr Ross was convicted on the basis of a jailhouse
confession, and several strings of hair found on a blanket.
But a little research revealed the confession had
been reported by a fellow inmate, who himself had prior convictions
Mr Morgan says two weeks after Alma's funeral, Mr
Ross was arrested.
"They took from him some blankets and on those
blankets they found some hairs, and they had the government chemist of
the day have a look at those hairs and he was willing to testify in
court at Colin Ross's trial, that these hairs and I quote 'come from
the scalp of one and the same person'," he said.
But when the samples were retested using modern
techniques, the hair on the blanket was found not to be the girl's and
the whole decades-old case unravelled.
Victoria's Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, has today
granted Mr Ross a posthumous pardon.
"This really is a tragic case where a miscarriage
of justice has resulted in a man being hanged. It is almost
incomprehensible," he said.
"This pardon is a recognition that there are
serious doubts about Mr Ross's conviction for murder."
'Not good enough'
But Joan says the pardon is not good enough.
"A pardon means, 'I am forgiving you for something
you have done'. Shouldn't it rather be an exoneration, which means, 'I
accept you didn't do this in the first place'?" she said.
But Victorian Premier John Brumby says the pardon
does come close to exonerating Colin Ross.
"Science in particular has proven beyond reasonable
doubt that he could not have committed that crime," he said.
The Premier says the case shows how far forensic
technology has come - and it reinforces the decision to formally
abolish the death penalty in Victoria in 1975.
Speaking on Fairfax Radio, Mr Brumby said it was
not inconceivable there could be other instances of people being
executed for crimes they did not commit.
"If you went back through every single case and you
had the evidence still around to scientifically test, forensically
test, there may well be some other cases," he said.
The president of the Law Institute of Victoria,
Tony Burke, says the pardon serves a purpose, even if it comes too
late to save Mr Ross's life.
"Justice reverberates beyond the particular victim
to the extended families and it is a good news story for those family
members that this verdict will now be set aside," he said.
Based on a report by Jane Cowan for The
Colin Campbell Ross
Nell Alma Tirtschke, known as Alma, 12.