‘The Concrete Slab Murder’

The Value of Circumstantial Evidence 

Detective Sergeant George Ronald Richards, CIB Perth
A body is found floating in the Swan River in post-WW2 Perth, and police move swiftly to identify the murderer.

In the condemned cell at the Fremantle Prison, at 1.30am on the 17th April, 1947, Leonard Charles Jackson was found dead. 

He died by his own hand, whilst under sentence of death for the wilful murder of Stella Ivy Farnworth, at Perth, on the 11th December, 1946, a crime for which he was to have been hanged on the 21st April, 1947.

He was 48 years of age, and his suicide ended a career of criminal excesses extending over thirty years, hardly equalled in Australia in its variety; for even at the time of his death he was wanted in the states of New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, for forgery, false pretences, larceny, robbery with violence, breaking, entering and stealing, and perjury. 

The testimony given at the trial of Jackson provides a striking example of the cumulative value and strength of circumstantial evidence in solving a major crime. 

From the beginning of the investigation until his death Jackson denied his guilt. His conviction was secured only because all the circumstances, known and discovered, about the murder, were joined in an unbreakable, convincing fashion by the depositions of a doctor, a scientific analyst, an engineer, a photographer, a handwriting expert, police officers and forty-two ordinary men and women who, in the course of their usual business, rubbed shoulders with him around the time of his victim's disappearance. 

THE BODY DISCOVERED

At 4pm on the 16th December, 1946, two schoolboys swimming in the Swan River near the end of the Como Beach jetty saw the floating body of a woman, face upwards, drifting slowly towards the beach. The South Perth police were telephoned and the officers, attending quickly, decided that, the matter was one for investigation by the Criminal Investigation Branch. The woman's body was weighted with 56lb of concrete paving slab; measuring 24in x 12in x 2in. This was secured to her back by a length of 4-strand wire tied around it, threaded through a similar wire which was bound tightly around the waist and fastened with a left-hand twist. The length of the wire encircling the waist was 21-½in, and the waist measurement of the skirt worn by the body was 29in; indications of unusual strength on the part of the person affixing the wire and slab. 

The concrete slab which was attached to the body of Mrs Farnworth, showing the left-hand twist used to secure it.

The face was disfigured by bruises and lacerations to the forehead and right cheek. The body was distended and showed early signs of decomposition. It was dressed in a skirt, blouse, pantettes, brassiere, one sockette inside which was a bunion pad. A necklace was around her throat. No other jewellery or ornament was on the body, and the shoes were missing. 

The body was removed to the City morgue and the following morning identified by a man as that of his mother, Stella Ivy Farnworth, aged 63 years. She had been missing from her place of residence for six days. 

Photographs of the body were made. A full set of fingerprint­ impressions, blood specimens and a sample of hair from the scalp were obtained. The same morning Dr. D. S. Mackenzie, Government Medical Officer, made a post-mortem examination which established that the skull had received multiple fractures, a severe ante mortem bruising over the right temple region, and that the body had been floating in a supine position for at least twenty-four hours before discovery. It had probably been immersed in water for several days. Dr. Mackenzie gave his opinion that death was caused through a fractured skull. 

Inquiries soon showed that Mrs. Farnworth for some months had been living at a city residential under the name of ‘Mrs. Stella King’ with a man known as ‘Robert King.’ A visit to their room proved 'King’ to be identical with Robert Alfred Hobson, a local criminal. 

A 21st Century photo of the Swan River, with Perth in the background. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lodgers at the residential confirmed the information that ‘Mrs. King’ had not been seen there since the 11thDecember. Hobson had told several of them that his wife was visiting friends at Fremantle for a few days. It was discovered that he had telephoned several times to her son at Fremantle between the 11th December and the 16th December inquiring for her. 

It was also learned that Mrs. Farnworth was in the habit of wearing fairly valuable rings and other articles of jewellery. She was comfortably well off financially and usually carried £20 or £30 in her handbag. She was a woman who had stored up innumerable trifles and personal papers, a practice we turned to our good advantage, for the careful examination of these papers revealed several items which later proved of the utmost importance. 

On the evening of the 17th December, Hobson was interviewed. Suspicion was by this time pointing in his direction. It was not allayed by finding in his possession two telegrams addressed to him dated the 12th and 17th December, lodged at Fremantle and purporting to have been sent by Mrs. Farnworth. They gave her whereabouts as Fremantle and announced her intention of leaving for Geraldton, where she had obtained work. The telegram dated 17th December obviously was sent after the dead body of Mrs. Farnworth bad been found in the Swan River. 

Hobson gave an account of his conduct, movements and associates during the vital 11th to the 16th December. It was checked and proved to be substantially true. He was taken again and again over the movements of himself and the deceased woman prior to the 11th December. We began analysing the various documents and papers belonging to her in the light of his information. 

Among the papers were three telegrams. sent from ‘J’, ‘Jack’ and ‘Jacko’ respectively. On the face of them they were ordinary social messages, but one dated 3rd December, 1946, lodged at Kalgoorlie, stated that the sender, ‘Jacko’, would see her in Perth on the following Thursday. In a small pocket diary kept by Mrs. Farnworth an entry under the date of 11th November, 1946, was noted, which suggested that she was to meet ‘J’ at a Perth hotel on that day. 

Hobson, by this time, was clearing himself of suspicion, and our interest in ‘Jacko’ was increasing. Robson's memory was not functioning well, but, when he informed us that ‘Jacko’ was a Kalgoorlie businessman who was trying to persuade Mrs. Farnworth to join him in a business venture, our attention at once became concentrated on Leonard Charles Jackson. Jackson was an interstate criminal who bore a reputation for the use of violence in order to achieve his ends. He was then well established in a cafeteria business in Kalgoorlie and – most significantly – was known by us to have been in Perth early in November and again at the time of the disappearance of Mrs. Farnworth

The position at the end of the first day of the investigation was:

  • The woman's body had been identified.
  • The cause of death was by a fractured skull which could not have been self-inflicted.
  • The disposal of the body, with a heavy slab tightly bound to it, in the river after death strongly suggested wilful murder.
  • Jewellery and possibly money usually carried by the deceased was missing.
  • She had been living with a known criminal who had satisfactorily given an account of his association with her.
  • The murderer was a left-handed man of more than ordinary physical strength who had been resourceful enough to delay suspicion by sending telegrams, allegedly from the dead woman, to Hobson.
  • She expected to see, on Thursday the 4th December, a business man from Kalgoorlie known as "Jacko."
  • Leonard Charles Jackson a criminal of violent tendencies; a Kalgoorlie businessman; of more than ordinary physical strength, had been seen in Perth at about the time of her disappearance.

THE SECOND DAY

The original telegrams of the two copies found in the possession of Hobson and the original telegrams from ‘Jack,’ copies of which were among Mrs. Farnworth's property, set a nice problem in handwriting comparison. Certain words were misspelt in the same way, several characteristics appeared to be similar in design and, conformation; but some peculiarity about the handwriting hindered the forming of a definite opinion whether or not the telegrams were written by the same hand. 

At noon Jackson was located in Perth by Inspector A.J. Blight and the writer and taken to the Detective Office where he denied any knowledge of Mrs. Farnworth under that or any other name; he denied knowing the hostel she had lived in; he denied ever sending telegrams to her; he denied writing the five telegrams which were shown to him; he denied knowing Hobson. He willingly gave examples of his handwriting by writing the contents of the five telegrams on blank telegraph forms.

Knowing that he was a practised forger we watched closely as he was writing. He wrote with his right hand in a laboured, deliberate manner. The back of his left hand was slightly swollen and behind the knuckle of the middle finger was a freshly-healed cut. The damage to his hand he explained by saying that he had cut it some weeks previously when opening a case of goods. 

Two composites of Jackson’s handwriting, made up by Mr A Lammond, Handwriting Expert, designed to show similarity in the test writings made by Jackson and the writings on the disputed telegrams.

He gave a detailed account of his movements, associates and business since his arrival in Perth on the 5thDecember. Every word he said was recorded. 

Among the property on his person was found £24 7s. 0d. in cash; a motor driver's licence issued to him in Perth on 9/12/46; and a sheet of paper with a stock inventory in his admitted handwriting. The writing was notably dissimilar to the samples he had just given to us.

At about this time the early edition of the city evening newspaper was on the streets carrying a story covering the finding of the woman's body, with an accompanying photograph of her taken some weeks previously. It was seen by a police traffic pointsman who hastened to the Detective Office with the information that he knew the woman well and had seen her being driven in a motor car Reg. No. 144 on the 10th December. 

We took Jackson to his hotel room and there we found four things which strengthened the growing suspicion that he knew much more about the woman's death than he had told us:-

  • A gent's wristlet watch, with a broken glass and the fingers missing.
  • A tin of ointment, labelled in Jackson’s name and dated 12/12/46.
  • Screwed into a ball, and water stained, a receipt for the hire of a motor car No. 144 between the 9thDecember and the 13th December.
  • A suit of his clothes, freshly cleaned, repaired and pressed, but which was still faintly stained on the right side and right sleeve of the coat.

Jackson denied hiring or using the car and denied any previous knowledge of the receipt. 

Several lines of inquiry set going by the interview with Jackson were now developing rapidly. Information was turned in that he was left-handed, but able to use either hand for writing. In this we saw a probable explanation of the disguised handwriting on the telegrams. A careful questioning of other boarders at the hostel produced a story from a woman there who had accompanied Mrs. Farnworth to Fremantle on the 10th December. They had travelled by a car No. 144 driven by a man who answered the description of Jackson. 

This valuable evidence soon led to other persons who had seen, Jackson and Mrs. Farnworth together in the motor car on the 10th December and 11th December. The car was located and impounded and, despite the fact that it had been in daily use by other people between the 14th December and the 18th December, a thorough scrutiny of it revealed clues which later assisted materially in convicting Jackson. 

At 4pm, 48 hours after the discovery of the body in the river, Jackson had been identified by four persons, from line­ups of sixteen to twenty men, as the man in the company of Mrs. Farnworth when she was last seen alive. He. denied each identification.

At 6pm on the 18th December he was arrested and charged with the wilful murder of Mrs. Farnworth. 

The car was a mine of information. Threads of human hair were found entwined around the rear seat window winding handle, hair which closely resembled the sample taken from the head of Mrs. Farnworth. Minute pieces of grass were seen embedded in the upholstery of the back seat, and radiating from this broken glass were seventeen small blood splashes which reached the ceiling and interior sides of the car. A large dried stain was discovered on the under side of the carpet floor covering. On the floor of the car underneath the carpet were several pieces of broken glass, similar to the glass used in the manufacture of beer bottles. 

Motor car 144 (a Ford V8) showing interior of rear seat where the murder was committed,
1. Small blood spots.
2. Minute pieces of glass embedded in upholstery. 
3. Three strands of human hair entwined around winding handle.
4. Ash-tray with small piece of bloodstained broken bottle glass.
5. Faint blood smear indicating body dragged out of car.
6. Blood stain underneath steel door rim.

At the end of the second day of the investigation the position was:- 

  • Leonard Charles Jackson had been located, interviewed and had denied all knowledge of the dead woman.
  • Articles found in his possession had strengthened the suspicion that he was connected with the woman's death.
  • Witnesses were located who had seen him in her company the day she had last been seen alive.
  • A motor car had been impounded and identified as being hired to Jackson between the 9th December and the 13th December. The car bore evidence of a tragedy.
  • Still denying all knowledge of the woman, Jackson was charged with the wilful murder of her.

THE THIRD DAY

By the time Jackson had made his appearance in the Perth Police Court at 10am on the 19th December we were in touch with additional witnesses who not only identified Jackson as being in the company of Mrs. Farnworth on the last day she was seen alive, but who, on the 12th and the 13th December, had seen him in the possession of jewellery similar to that worn by her that day. 

During the day the person was found who had cleaned Jackson’s wet suit on the 12th December, and the repairer who, a few days later, had mended a fresh tear in the trousers of the same suit.

The chemist was interviewed who had prescribed the ointment for Jackson's hand on the 12th December, when it was badly swollen and freshly cut.

Boarders at his hotel also described his damaged hand, and told of the different stories he had given concerning it. The hotel staff supplied valuable evidence of his movements on the night, of the 11th December and the wet condition of his clothing on the morning of the 12th  December. 

Inquiries had now demonstrated the untruthfulness of Jackson’s account of his movements and associates. We had unearthed evidence of an effort made by him to wash out the interior of car No. 144 at a suburban house. Later Mrs. Farnworth's shoes were found under the wood heap at this home. 

The full story of Jackson's association with the murdered woman was rapidly taking shape, and, what was more important, it was being recorded in the form of admissible evidence. A hand writing expert expressed his opinion that Jackson was the author of the two telegrams sent from Fremantle to Hobson, allegedly from Mrs. Farnworth.

At the end of the third day of the investigation, despite Jackson's continued denials of complicity in the death of the woman. the chain of circumstance linking him with it was unbroken, although one or two links required strengthening.

From the fourth day until the Coronial Inquiry held in the Perth Court House on the 13th January, 1947, our activities were directed towards strengthening these weak links, and planning the presentation of the case. A record number of witnesses and a large number of exhibits were already available.

Dr. Kingsbury, Government Pathologist, reported that the exhibits taken from the car No. 144 included some human hair similar to that of Mrs. Farnworth, and human blood. He also stated that Jackson’s suit and hat were stained with human blood. A witness had come forward who had been almost struck down by car No. 144 late on the night of the 11th December, when it was being driven by a man at a furious speed in the direction, where, five days later, the woman’s body was discovered.

Not one piece of the jewellery missing from the body of the dead woman had been recovered, but we had been able to link up Jackson with it because of the unusual combination of the items: a gent's wristlet watch, a heavy old fashioned wedding ring, a modern wedding ring, a single red stone gold ring, and an old fashioned 12-stone double row diamond ring. Articles answering the description of each item had been seen in his possession on the 12th and the 13th December, when he was attempting quietly to sell them. 

Every person mentioned by Jackson in the course of his detailed account to us on his movements and contacts had been interviewed and their story secured by signed statements. This procedure proved to be sound, for as the investigation developed, some witnesses showed unmistakeable signs of loss of memory. 

Just before the inquest opened, information was received that Jackson intended to incriminate Hobson in the death of the woman. During the hearing he described to the two police officers guarding him how Hobson allegedly pushed Mrs. Farnworth from the first floor balcony of the hostel after they had argued with each other over her association with Jackson. Both officers were called as witnesses, and despite defence objections, were permitted to give this information in evidence. 

Jackson was committed to stand his trial at the February 1947 Criminal Sessions. The trial was notable for a strong effort by the defence to implicate Hobson in the murder, and a seven hour unsworn statement made by Jackson from the dock. In the course of this statement he attempted an explanation of each separate circumstance which had been adduced in evidence for the prosecution. It was replete with details seeking to account for his association with the woman; their movements together on the 11th December; the damage to his left hand; the blood stains and hair in car No. 144; his torn, wet clothing; the stains on his clothing; the broken glass in the car; his broken watch glass; his possession of the rings and the watch; his reasons for denying any knowledge of Mrs. Farnworth when interviewed by the police; the reason he washed the car out; and an unequivocal statement that Hobson caused the woman’s death by an assault which culminated in her falling from the balcony on to the street below, where Jackson then placed her into the car for the purpose of getting assistance for her. 

He denied sending the two telegrams signed ‘Stella’ which were lodged after the woman's death. He called a handwriting expert to counter the Crown’s proposition that both telegrams were written and lodged by Jackson, a proposition which had been supported by the evidence of a postal official who had seen a man answering Jackson’s description lodge the later telegram.

At the conclusion of an eight day trial the jury required but ninety minutes to decide that Jackson was guilty of wilfully murdering Mrs. Farnworth and he was accordingly sentenced to death, a sentence he cheated on the 17th April, 1947, by taking his own life. 

Two months later on the 14th June, Robert Alfred Hobson, the man Jackson tried so hard to implicate in the crime, was accidentally burned to death whilst following his employment. 

Fremantle Prison, where Jackson committed suicide just prior to his scheduled hanging. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

CONCLUSIONS 

The Concrete Slab Murder trial was an excellent example or the strength of circumstantial evidence properly used and produced. The prosecution witnesses were able to describe the events leading up to the murder, the actual murder in the car (by the strong suggestion of the use of a beer bottle in the assault on the woman) and the happenings after the murder so convincingly that short of a confession of guilt by Jackson, direct evidence could not have bettered it. 

After the discovery of the body the crime was solved quickly for several reasons, each of which should be a fundamental attribute in detective work.

  1. A knowledge of the identity, associates, habits and whereabouts of active criminals; Jackson was readily identified with "Jack" on the telegram because we knew those things about him.
  2. Observation: The left-handed twist in the wire attached to the slab and body; the freshly healed scratch on Jackson's left hand; the faint blood spots on the hat he was wearing (about which nothing was said to him at first); the freshly cleaned appearance of his clothing; the minute fragments of glass and small blood splashes inside the car; the laboured style of handwriting whilst making the test writings: all proved of vital importance.
  3. Teamwork: Good teamwork on the part of all officers assigned to the investigation enabled full advantage to be taken of all circumstances as they arose; every small lead was followed up immediately and unremittingly until its value was accurately assessed and recorded from an information or evidential view­point.
  4. Proper use of Scientific and Expert Knowledge: The medical, analytic and handwriting opinions were correctly correlated with the investigation as it proceeded, and later made full use of in the trial.

The application of these attributes demonstrated, once again in a powerful way, that circumstances can be turned into evidence ‘as strong as steel,’ to quote the Crown Prosecutor in his address to the jury in the closing stages of this most interesting case.

This article was first published in the October-December 1947 issue of the APJ.

The author

About the author

George Richards was born in England and migrated to Western Australia in the 1920s. He joined the Western Australia Police Force in 1928 and spent most of his police career undertaking investigative (detective) duties. During World War 2 he monitored subversive elements, including during a period where he was seconded to the Commonwealth Security Service. Just after this article was published in the APJ, Richards left the police to join the newly formed Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and he subsequently played a lead role in securing the defection of Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov. Richards was later promoted to the position of the Deputy Director of ASIO.

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