Room mate charged, exonerated


Newspapers around Australian reported the horrific death of Johanna (Hannah) Kelly in Armidale just before Christmas in 1908.
Reports of the investigation and later court hearings were carried almost daily.
The murder shocked the local community and the national audience. Most reports referred to it in headlines as the Armidale Tragedy or Armidale Murder.
Hannah Kelly’s throat was cut as she lay in her bed at an Armidale Hotel where she worked. She died there.
Her room mate sleeping in a bed in the same room was the first suspect. Agnes O’Leary, who was woken by the attack on her roommate, was charged but the charge was later dismissed. The pair were said to be best of friends, having worked together at De La Salle College in Armidale before going to work at the Central Hotel.
Hannah Kelly it was said had suffered various health problems. Agnes O’Leary helped Hannah Kelly get a job at the hotel.

The Central Hotel

Hannah Kelly and Agnes O’Leary shared room 16 at the Central Hotel on the corner of Jessie and Rusden Streets Armidale on the morning of Sunday 13 December 1908.

The window of their room overlooked Jessie Street. They had said their prayers on Saturday evening and gone to bed.

Hannah had gone to Armidale from her hometown, Murrurundi, in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW, about 200 km away.

Reports she had just become engaged to be married and the ring was under her pillow on the Saturday night.

Her roommate, Agnes O’Leary had been in Armidale for a year. She had come from Goondiwindi in southern Queensland, about 300 km from Armidale and was about 19 years old.

A newspaper report recorded the following under the heading “A terrible  tragedy”: A cold blooded murder was perpetrated at the Central Hotel, Armidale, early this morning, a girl named Hannah Kelly, employed as a waitress at the hotel, having her throat cut from ear to ear while lying asleep in bed. The deed was witnessed by another servant girl, who was awakened by a gurgling noise. Her screams caused the man who had committed the murder to hastily decamp by way of the window. The police have made an arrest on suspicion. The Central Hotel, which is situated in Rusden Street, is one the leading hotels and a large number of persons slept on the premises. About 4 o’clock this morning the boarders and others were awakened by the awful screams which were issuing from the room occupied by the two waitresses. An investigation disclosed that a horrible murder had been committed. No time was lost in acquainting the police.
The room mate of the murdered girl having recovered from the shock told her story in a few words. She stated that at about 4 o’clock she was awakened be hearing a gurgling noise, and when her eyes became accustomed to the gloomy light, she saw a man standing over Miss Kelly’s bed. Realising that a terrible tragedy was being enacted, she gave vent to agonising screams. The man instantly made a rush for the window through which he sprang, and disappeared from view.

The person arrested “on suspicion” was not a man but was revealed to be Hannah Kelly’s room mate, Agnes Sophie O’Leary.

Recollecting events some 20 years later, a former detective who was sent from Sydney by the Inspector-General of Police for the investigation, said the first question the local police chief put when he arrived on the scene was to Agnes O’Leary: “Why did you do it?”

As was the practice at the time in such cases, a Coroner’s inquest before a jury of six (businessmen in this case) was convened later on the day of the murder.

Agnes O’Leary was in police custody but not charged when she attended the inquest.

She found herself attending sittings of the Coroner’s inquiry and Police Court often held on the same day in the Armidale courthouse, before a packed courtroom,

The inquest was adjourned to Monday 14 December and after the court closed on Sunday, Agnes O’Leary appeared before the Police Court, was charged and remanded to Friday 18 December.

The inquest resumed on the Monday and was adjourned also to Friday 18 December from where it continued into Saturday.

On the Saturday, police officers related what Agnes O’Leary had told them, including that when she was awoken by gurgling noises as if someone was snoring, she saw a man standing over Hannah, holding her by the arm. Agnes said that when she screamed the man brushed passed her and went out through a window.

Police also related evidence given by other people, including a Mrs Mary McKenzie, (described as a “very old married lady”) who said at about daylight on Sunday morning she saw someone running very fast past her house in nearby Barney Street, possibly in the direction of the hospital.


After the first full day of evidence at the inquest, one newspaper reported: “The inquest … so far reveals no telling evidence against Miss O’Leary, occupant of the same bedroom. Analysis shows no blood on Miss O’Leary’s pocket knife or clothing. The mystery deepens every turn.”

Police asked Police Magistrate Corbett Lawson, also sitting as Coroner if he would like Miss O’Leary to give evidence to the inquest. Argument followed about whether she should give evidence while police inquiries were continuing.

Police sought an adjournment of the inquest, which was granted to Monday 21 December.

On the Monday, the Coroner heard further evidence, including that of another guest at the hotel and the hotel owner.
Both reported that Miss Kelly was alive when they arrived in the room after hearing screams. One said that Miss Kelly was waving her arms around and the other said she held Miss Kelly’s hand until the police arrived.

The Coroner noted there was “no hint of a weapon” found.
He told jury members if that they did not know who committed the murder they must return an open verdict.
That’s what the jury did.

A journalist reported: “The jury retired at 2.30 and in five minutes returned with the verdict that the deceased, Johanna Kelly, was wilfully murdered on Sunday, December 13, at the Central Hotel Armidale by person or persons unknow. But there is no evidence before the jury to show by whom.”

The Coroner asked: “That exculpates all the persons who have been at this inquest?”

The foreman replied: “I wanted to make it emphatically clear, but the jury prefer to leave it as it is.”

In the Police Court, hearing of the charge against Agnes O’Leary began on Monday 21 December when magistrate Mr Corbett Lawson directed that she be held in the lock-up rather than the jail and be well looked after, adding she should not have been in the jail in the first place.

The prosecution sought a further remand of eight days.

The magistrate was told of the inquest jury’s verdict and asked on what basis a remand was being sought.

The prosecutor replies that he was instructed to do so by his superintendent.

The magistrate responded: “Where is the superintendent? Why doesn’t he stand his ground now like a man? Six sane men have just given their unbiased opinion and on that account he evidently ran away.”

He added: “I must say now that Agnes O’Leary was improperly before the Coroner’s Court. If an arrest had to be made she should have first been brought before the Police Court and remanded to the Coroner’s Court.”

The police officer replied: “That verdict has nothing whatever to do with the present police case, which charges the girl with suspicion of having committed the murder.”

The magistrate: “Why not withdraw your case. You can then easily recharge the girl. She should not be left in prison.”

The police officer said it was feared the girl might not be around when she was required – “(she) may be in Queensland or the Gulf of Carpentaria.”

A remand was needed “to make further inquiries; this is a serious case, and I cannot withdraw it,” the officer said.

Magistrate Lawson responded: Although six good men and true told you there was no evidence against the girl, still you persist there is. The whole things is an absurdity. I suppose the police would like an adjournment for two to two three months while they are hunting about for supposed evidence. I consider their action a most unjust one.”

The superintendent then arrived in court and asked for an adjournment of eight days.

The magistrate: A remand for eight days is out of the question.

He granted a remand until the Thursday albeit reluctantly – “and not a moment longer”. He added: If you are not in a position to go on with the case I will strike it out.

On the Thursday morning police again sought a remand of eight days but conceded no further evidence had been elicited.

Magistrate Lawson was emphatic: I must again refer to the fact that six good men and true of integrity and character returned a verdict before me as Coroner a few days ago that Hannah Kelly had met her death at the hands of a person or persons unknown, there not being sufficient evidence against Agnes O’Leary to warrant her being detained in custody. I therefore discharge Agnes O’Leary from custody.

Loud and prolonged applause from the packed courtroom greeted the decision. Agnes’s mother and sister had travelled to Armidale for the hearings.

The detective sent from Sydney later recalled that after two days of his own investigation he was “fully convinced that the local police had bungled the whole matter and could not justify the charging of Miss O’Leary.”

That was that for Agnes O’Leary, but there was still no answer to the question: Who murdered Hannah Kelly?

The Armidale Tragedy 

pART 2

Henry Casey confesses

Hannah Kelly’s shocking murder in a room at the Central Hotel in Armidale on the early morning of Sunday 13 December 1908 went unsolved for more than a year before there was a stunning breakthrough.
A 26-year-old man arrested in Grenfell NSW on vagrancy charges confessed to police there that he had murdered the girl in Armidale in December 1908.
Henry Casey made a comprehensive statement. He was taken back to Armidale where he was formally charged with murder and faced court.
Henry Casey was found in the railway yards at Grenfell, about 600 km from Armidale.

Grenfell railway yards in 1910

The arresting Constable said he had told Casey: “You appear to have had trouble’ to which Casey replied “Yes, I murdered Hannah Kelly at the Central Hotel”.

A newspaper report said there was scepticism about his confession to the murder, which he told police had been troubling him mentally: “At first it was thought that Casey was the victim of hallucination, and not much faith was attached to his extraordinary admissions.”

Nevertheless, a statement was taken. He was held on a vagrancy charge and the matter reported to Armidale police.

There, further investigations game some credence to Casey’s story. He was as he claimed in the area at the time and apparently could have been in Armidale on the night of the murder. Some discrepancies needed to be investigated though.

After receiving a report from investigators in Armidale and detectives from Sydney, the Inspector-General of Police in NSW directed that Casey be charged with murder.

He was remanded in custody at Grenfell to appear in the Armidale court. He was taken to Sydney and then to Armidale by train where the formal charge was laid: that he feloniously and maliciously murdered Johanna Kelly at Armidale on 13 December 1908.

The text of the confession was not made available immediately but the Inspector-General noted that Casey had said he intended to murder someone else.

A report of the charged noted: “Casey apparently is a quadroon (a term used at the time to describe a person having one-fourth aboriginal ancestry, with one aboriginal grandparent). He has been travelling over the country since the murder and has been worrying.”

The committal hearing of the murder charge began on Friday 7 January before Police Magistrate Mr. G. Atkin, and a packed courthouse. A reporter noted that Casey’s demeanour throughout the hearing was “strange.”

He was not asked to plead, and depositions taken at Grenfell were read. He described himself as a labourer, moving around the country looking for work.

Casey’s deposition told of his movements and actions at the time of the murder, recorded by a newspaper reporter: “Casey said he had been at Armidale three weeks before Christmas in 1908. He had been cutting wood for a man whose name he thought was George Clark. He worked there for three days before the murder and for five days after.”

He said he’d gone into Armidale on the Saturday evening and walked about before buying a bottle of whiskey at a hotel.

He couldn’t recall the name of the hotel but it was the first one on the Guyra road entering Armidale (from the north). He laid down in a reserve for about four hours then went back into town and walked around looking for somewhere to get a drink but found all the hotels closed. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning.

The main street of Armidale, early 1900s

He said he went to a hotel on a corner where he found a door open and went upstairs.

He had seen a woman standing on a balcony, saying it was the woman he had seen taking money from his pocket at a hotel in Queensland, so he decided to kill her.

He went out on to the balcony after she went inside and lay down for about 20 minutes.

He then went into the room and saw a woman lying on her side. He drew a razor across her throat and blood spurted about.

He said he went out of the window and into the back yard of the hotel. He didn’t think there was anyone in the other bed in the room.

He went back to work at the Clarks for five days and said he had heard Mrs Clark reading out details of the murder from a newspaper.

After finishing work there, he travelled extensively around country NSW over several days before going into Queensland. He returned to NSW and went to Grenfell where he said he gave himself up because the murder was troubling him.

Investigating officers gave evidence to the Police Court that included Casey being taken around Armidale tracing his movements leading up to the murder. He had told one of the officers he had lost the razor he used sometime after he left the area. He said he didn’t have much blood on him but had buried this shirt on the way back to the Clark property and once there washed his hands.

One officer reported that Casey seemed to be unclear on features of the Central Hotel telling him at one stage “This is not the hotel, it looks too large.” When inside he had remarked that some work must have been done on it (it had not).

Ernest (not George as Casey had thought) Clark also gave evidence saying that he recognised Casey as a man who had worked for him at his property on the Glen Innes road to the north of Armidale and had given the name of Tom.

The magistrate formally charged Casey with murder and committed him to stand trial, noting that the main evidence against him was his confession and that if not guilty Casey certainly was not fit to be at large.
Casey said he had nothing to say.

When he appeared for his trial to begin on Thursday 28 April 1910 , his was one of six murder cases from around New England to be heard by Judge Cohen at the sittings.

Casey pleaded guilty.

The proceedings were reported as follows:

Mr. Chubb, instructed by Mr. H. Weaver, appeared on accused’s behalf.
His Honour (to accused) : Are you aware of the full import of the plea of guilty?
Accused: Yes.
His Honour: Do you understand that your life may be forfeited?
Accused: Yes.
His Honour : You thoroughly understand it?
Accused: Yes.

Mr. Chubb told the judge the plea was given in entire contradiction to advice.

It placed him (Mr. Chubb) in a difficult position, he said, as he would have had a jury decide whether Casey was in a fit state to plead or not. He said three local doctors were prepared to swear that the accused was delusional as to personality and that he fully believed he committed the crime.

He said the doctors were strongly of that opinion regarding Casey being delusional but would not say that Casey was absolutely insane.

Mr Chubb submitted to the judge that the provisions of section 304 of the Crimes Act “might be availed of” and that the trial be postponed to a future Court, pending the obtaining of professional experts on insanity.

Asked if he would withdraw his guilty pleas, Casey answered “no”.

His Honour: I strongly advise you to do so, for the present at any rate. I would then remand you for further observation by experts on the question of insanity. I don’t wish to pass sentence of death on you when there may be a doubt as to whether you are the man who actually committed the murder. Will you withdraw your plea?

The accused: (laughing) No.

Counsel and Casey went into a further discussion and after some minutes Mr Chubb announced that Casey would withdraw his plea.

His Honour: I am pleased to hear that. I postpone the trial to such other court as the Attorney-General appoints in order that the accused may be examined by experts on sanity. The position is a most extraordinary one.
The court adjourned sine die (without fixing a day for future action).
Details of Casey’s case were sent to Sydney for evaluation and he was sent to Darlinghurst Reception Centre (below) to undergo examination and assessment.

A newspaper report noted: “ no one seems more satisfied with his surroundings than he does.”

The next that was heard of Henry Casey was a small notice in the New South Wales Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime on Wednesday 8 February 1911: “Sydney – Henry Casey, charged with the murder of Johanna Kelly at Armidale on or about the 13th December 1908 was found to be insane and dealt with under the Lunacy Act. He was not brought to trial.”

Casey never faced trial. The evidence against him was his own confession – the confession of a man found to be insane.

The question remains – did he do it? On the balance of probability in the absence of any other suspects or evidence, yes.

NSW death records show that Henry Casey died in a mental hospital in the Parramatta district in 1932, aged 50.

Johannah Kelly’s brother travelled to Armidale to collect his sister’s body. A large crowd followed the cortege to Armidale railway station where she was taken back to Murrurundi for burial in the Catholic cemetery.

Murrurundi cemetery

Agnes O’Leary continued working in domestic service in the Armidale area.

FOOTNOTE: If Casey had gone to trial and been found guilty, he almost certainly would have been hanged, probably in Armidale.

Armidale courthouse Late 1800s

The Armidale courthouse was one of 10 in NSW where hangings were carried out between 1870 and the 1930s.

According to the capitalpunshimentuk.org web site, six people were hanged at the Armidale in that time, the first in 1874 and the last in 1912.



RESEARCHER’S NOTE: This material is based on the many newspaper reports carried at the time, Government archive material and cemetery records. It should be noted that some newspapers carried reports of proceedings daily while others reported less frequently, which made cross-checking some dates of court proceedings inexact.

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