by Trish Frei © 2010
The First Murder Committal in Canberra since its proclamation as the Federal Capital Territory.
This is a sad story from Canberra’s Depression years – of unemployment, loneliness, marital rejection, desolation and tragic circumstances.
It’s the story of an unemployed man, left with his baby son after his wife, Vera Jofferette Jacobs, deserted him for another man – Edward Ford. Rejected by its mother, the baby was adored by its father who, despite his unhappy marriage, wanted reconciliation, as he could not cope as a single parent. She refused, so Bert decided to end it all, for himself and his son, with tragic circumstances. He was subjected to two trials, as the first jury could not agree on a verdict. A verdict of 'not guilty on the grounds that he was insane at the time of the commission of the act' was returned by the second jury, and he was committed and kept at Long Bay gaol until his divorce in 1935 when authorities felt that he was no longer a danger to his wife or himself. Bert Porter’s wife, Vera Jofferette Jacobs, a 17-year-old girl, whom he had married two years prior to the tragedy when Vera was herself a single parent, aged 15. One year after their marriage, Vera gave birth to her second child, Charles Robert Porter, Bert’s son. [N.B. The media, at first, described the baby as Robert Charles Porter, then altered it to Charles Robert Porter.]
The Canberra Times, Tuesday, 29 November 1932.
CHILD’S DEATH AT KINGSTON
POLICE EFFORTS TO SAVE LIFE
FATHER HELD ON MURDER CHARGE
The death at Kingston yesterday under highly suspicious circumstances of an infant, led to the arrest of Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, sheet metal worker, of Grose Street, Kingston, on a charge of the wilful murder of Robert Porter, his eleven months’ old son.
It marks the first charge of murder to be laid in the Federal Capital Territory.
Porter had been unemployed for some months, and has been engaged on relief work.
According to the police, relations between Porter and his wife have been strained for a considerable time. Last week at the Children’s Court, with the consent of Porter, a maintenance order was made against him. On his application, the court granted him the custody of the child.
Porter, it is stated, made a special trip to Sydney last weekend with the intention of finding a home for the child at his mother’s place. Her circumstances, however, would not permit of her keeping it and Porter returned to Canberra yesterday morning, proceeding to the residence of his brother-in-law and sister in Grose Street, Kingston, but they were absent in Sydney.
It is stated that Porter was worried by his inability to care adequately for the child because of intermittent employment. He is stated to have visited the Canberra Police Station yesterday morning and asked Sergeant Cook if he could do anything to assist him to settle his domestic differences, as he could find no one to look after the child.
With this object in view, Sergeant Cook went to Mugga to interview the parents of Porter’s wife, but they were out.
Later in the morning, a message was received by the police from the parents of Porter’s wife. They stated that they had seen Porter at Kinston and that he had made a certain statement to them concerning the child.
Alarmed at this information, Sergeant Cook, accompanied by Constable Weiss, lost no time in getting to the house by motor car. They found the doors locked, but looking through the kitchen window, Sergeant Cook saw Porter with a glass containing some white liquid in his hand. The child was lying on the floor crying.
Smashing the kitchen window after Porter had refused repeated demands to admit the police, Sergeant Cook sprang through and snatched the glass from Porter’s hand.
The child was hurried by Constable Weiss to a chemist’s shop in Kingston, where the infant was found to be in an extremely grave condition. An urgent call was made for Dr Henry, who reached the shop within a few minutes. Antidotes were administered and the doctor worked on the child for some minutes, but his efforts were unavailing, and the child expired within half and hour of reaching the shop. It is believed that death was due to strychnine poisoning.
Legislation was recently passed to provide for sittings of the High Court at Canberra, and, in the even of a committal. It is understood that necessary ordinances will be in force in Canberra in time for Porter to be tried in the Federal Capital.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday, 30 November 1932
PENDING RESULT OF ANALYSIS
Bertram Edward Porter, 25, sheet metal worker, appeared at the Canberra Police Court yesterday morning on a charge of the wilful murder of Robert Porter, his eleven months’ old son.
Applying for a remand, Sergeant Cook told the magistrate (Mr J.W.T. Forrest) that it was necessary to sent the contents of the child’s stomach to Sydney for analysis.
Porter was remanded for seven days, bail being refused.
The Canberra Times, Saturday, 3 December 1932.
VERDICT OF STRYCHNINE POISONING
FATHER COMMITTED FOR TRIAL
The circumstances of the death of Robert Charles Porter, the eleven months old son of Edward Howard Porter, 25, unemployed sheet metal worker, at Kingston last Monday were unfolded at the inquiry conducted at the Canberra Court House yesterday afternoon by the Coroner (Mr J.W.T. Forrest, P.M.)
Returning the finding of death by strychnine poisoning, the Coroner committed Porter for trial on a charge of murder – the first murder committal in Canberra since its proclamation as the Federal Capital more than 20 years ago.
Porter, who was remanded to and transferred to the Goulburn Gaol last night, will stand his trial at the High Court “at its next sitting at Canberra or at any other court the Attorney-General may direct.”
Neither Porter nor his wife, from whom he was separated at the time of the infant’s death, gave evidence.
There was an early sensation when, after Philip James Cook, sergeant of police at Canberra, had commenced his evidence, Mr F. Woodward (appearing for Porter) direct the Coroner’s attention to the fact that Porter was not present in court.
The omission was rectified and Sergeant Cook proceeded with his story of the infant’s death.
Sergeant Cook described how at 1 p.m. on Monday, in response to a telephone message he drove to Constable Weiss’s residence at Kingston and then proceeded with the constable to the residence in Grosse Street, Kingston, of Milton Purcell, brother-in-law of Porter, who with his wife and family was absent. He found all the doors and windows locked and unsuccessfully demanded admittance at the front door. He walked towards the rear of the house and through the kitchen window saw Porter with a glass containing a milky-coloured fluid in his hand. (Produced.)
Porter was walking about the room in an excited manner and was muttering something beneath his breath. Several times he commanded Porter to admit him and Constable Weiss. Finally Sergeant Cook broke the window and thereby gained admittance. After he had taken the glass away from Porter, he was informed by Porter that it contained strychnine. Porter denied having taken any of the liquid, but admitted having “given the baby a sip, some of which he swallowed and some he spat out.”
After driving as fast as possible to Dr Finlay’s residence, where he left Weiss, Sergeant Cook returned to Purcell’s house where in the kitchen he found a bottle (produced) marked poison. Porter admitted to him that the bottle contained strychnine, which he purchased an hour previously at Campbell’s Pharmacy in order to poison his son and himself.
“If you had stayed away a little longer I would have done for both of us,” said Porter, according to Sergeant Cook.
An unfinished letter, addressed by Porter to his mother was also found, reading: “I love my mother. God bless her.”
Sergeant Cook then stated how he took Porter to Campbell’s chemist shop where Campbell recognised Porter as the man to whom he had sold strychnine earlier in the day to use for poisoning cats and dogs. Porter had signed the poison register.
After leaving Campbell’s, Sergeant Cook and Porter went to Croker’s Pharmacy nearby where he found that the infant Porter had died. Dr Henry and Mr Croker were present and Dr Henry told him that life was extinct. He (witness) left Port in the charge of Constable Weiss and took the body to the Canberra Hospital morgue and later returned to Kingston for Porter, whom he subsequently charged at the Canberra Police Station with murder. Porter cried bitterly while the charge was being laid and again at the morgue that night where, he identified the remains as those of his son.
Sergeant Cook tendered the certificate of the Government Analyst certifying that death was due to strychnine poisoning.
Dr David Henry, of Canberra, gave evidence of the respiratory measures, which were unsuccessfully taken at Croker’s shop, in an endeavour to save the life of the infant.
Mr Campbell, chemist, told how Porter appeared sober and intelligent when he purchased the strychnine to kill cats.
Constable Francis Edward Weiss detailed how in consequence of information received he went to Purcell’s residence, and, refused admission by Porter, telephoned Sergeant Cook. He said that when he found that Dr Finlay was not at home he ran with the baby in his arms to Croker’s shop. He was not present when it died. After Porter had been left in his care he furnished a voluntary statement that he had intended to take the rest of the poison after completing the letter to his mother. “Give it to me now,” he said: “I will drink it.”
Vera Porter, the mother of Robert Charles Porter, who looked a pathetic figure in black and seemed extremely young, declined to give evidence, but Mrs Florence Toone Jacobs, grandmother of the dead infant, told the story of the events which led to her and Mrs Porter’s informing Constable Weiss of statements made to them by Porter.
On Monday at about 12.20 p.m., they were sitting on a seat on the lawn at the rear of the Kingston shops when Porter, who was carrying his son, approached from the direction of Kingston Café.
Placing the baby on the grass, Porter remarked to his wife: “I know you love me.” Mrs Porter said: “You have said that too many times.” Porter said: “Baby and I will only see the day out” and, picking up the child, walked away.
Half an hour later, Mrs Jacobs saw Porter walking towards the Café, this time without the baby. He showed them a bottle similar to that produced in court and said: “This will fix us two.”
“Oh, you won’t do that,” replied his wife. “You have said that too many times.”
“I will drink it now,” he responded, at the same time unscrewing the top off the bottle.
Mrs Jacobs said that her daughter told him not to be silly and walked away in witness’s company. Porter followed them and took his wife by the arm and asked her to kiss him. Mrs Jacobs stopped between them and as she did so, Porter said: “Come down in half an hour and you will find us both stiff.”
They again walked away and then informed Constable Weiss of the occurrence.
The coroner found that Robert Charles Porter had died from strychnine poisoning, and committed Porter for trial at the next sitting of the High Court at Canberra or at any other court that the Attorney-General may direct.
Porter was remanded to Goulburn Gaol pending his trial.
The Canberra Times, Friday, 16 December 1932.
FIRST SITTING IN CANBERRA
Trial on Murder Charge
STATEMENT OF ACCUSED FROM DOCK
Mr Justice McTiernan presided at the first sitting of the High Court in Canberra yesterday, when the trial was commenced, in the criminal jurisdiction of the court, of Bertram Edward Porter, 25, unemployed sheet metal worker, who was charged with having, at Canberra, on November 28 inst., feloniously and maliciously murdered his infant son, Charles Robert Porter, aged 11 months.
Porter, who pleaded not guilty, was represented by Mr Gerald O’Sullivan and Mr Frank Hidden, of Sydney, instructed by Mr Felix Mitchell, and Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C., an officer of the New South Wales Crown Law Department, prosecuted for the Crown.
At the outset, Mr Storkey briefly outlined the case for the Crown, touching upon various events leading up to the tragedy. He laid particular stress on the marital differences, which existed between Porter and his wife.
Dr David C. Henry, of Canberra, said that at 1.25 p.m. on November 23, he received an urgent summons to go to Croker’s pharmacy at Kingston, and reached there two or three minutes later. On arrival, he saw Constable Weiss with the baby, Charles Robert Porter. He described the condition of the child and his treatment. About a quarter of an hour after he arrived the baby died. He applied artificial means of respiration without success.
Later, he conducted a post-mortem examination and was of the opinion that the child died as the result of strychnine poisoning. He placed the contents of the child’s stomach, and certain organs in sealed jars and handed them to Constable Weiss to be sent away for analysis. One fortieth of a grain of strychnine was sufficient to kill a child aged 11 months. From the analyst’s report, it was disclosed that more than half a grain of strychnine was recovered from the child’s body.
Replying to Mr O’Sullivan, the witness stated that the amount of poison taken by the child might cause death within half an hour or it might possibly take two hours. When he arrived at Croker’s pharmacy the child was suffering from a late spasm.
Albert T. Campbell, chemist of Kingston, said that at 12 o’clock on November 28, Porter entered his shop and said that he wanted some poison to kill some cats and dogs, which were troubling him. Porter purchased 1/- worth of strychnine for which he signed the poison register.
Events leading up to the child’s death were recounted by Porter’s mother-in-law, Florence Jacobs, a married woman residing at Mugga. She stated that shortly before midday on Monday, November 28, she was sitting with Porter’s wife in a park outside the Kingston café. Porter approached, and placed the baby, which he was carrying, on the grass beside the seat. She asked Porter what he wanted, and he replied, “Nothing from you.” Turning to his wife, Porter said, “Vera, I love you.” His wife did not reply.
Porter then said: “This will be the end of us two to-day,’ and picking up the baby he went away. Ten or 15 minutes later he came back without the baby and, stating “This will fix us,” he held up a small brown bottle. His wife said, “Don’t be silly, Bert; you’ve said that too many times.” Porter said that he would take it now, and commenced to screw the top off the bottle. The witness and her daughter then went to walk away when Porter caught hold of his wife and said, “Kiss me, Vera.” As Porter had the bottle in his hand she went between them. Porter then went away with a final remark that they could come down half an hour later and they would find both himself and the baby “stiff”.
Later, witness informed Constable Weiss of what had happened. Ten minutes afterwards, witness again saw Porter emerge from a newsagent soon carrying a bottle of ink. He said to witness: “You -----. What did you send Weiss down for. You and the police are a lot of ------.”
Cross-examined by Mr O’Sullivan witness stated that Porter first approached them at 10 minutes to 12. The only words he said were, “Vera, I love you.” She did not remember Porter asking his wife to come back and nurse the baby. Porter had been away from his wife for three weeks, having been separated from her since November 8. On the following Friday, Mr and Mrs Purcell approached Porter’s wife and asked he to take the baby.
Mr O’Sullivan: How many daughters have you?---Seven: Vera is the fourth eldest.
How old is Vera?---Seventeen. She was 15 when she married Porter. They had been married 12 months when the child was born.
In further reply to Mr O’Sullivan, witness stated that Vera had had a child to another man when she married Porter. At that time, she was 14 years of age. When Porter married her daughter, he took her first child and cared for it for three months.
Constable Weiss, of Canberra, said that at 12.45 p.m. on November 28 he went to the home of Milton Purcell at Kingston, where Porter was staying. He saw Porter coming down a lane towards the house, and said: “Porter, I want you.”
Porter turned, and went hurriedly towards the front door, stating “Everything is all right. You can’t come in.” Porter then went in and locked the front door. Witness heard the baby crying and hurried to his home from where he telephoned Sergeant Cook. Later, with Sergeant Cook, he went to the house and found the front door locked. Looking through the kitchen window, they saw Porter walking about with a glass containing a milky fluid in his hand.
Porter was crying and calling out: “I want to die.” Sergeant Cook said “Put that glass down, Porter, and let us in.”
As Porter made no attempt to admit them, Sergeant Cook smashed the glass in the kitchen window, and they both entered. The baby was lying on the floor. Witness said to Porter: “Did you give the baby anything?” and Porter replied, “Yes, I gave it a sip. It drank some, and spat the rest out.”
He then carried the baby to the car. They went to Dr Finlay’s, and later to Croker’s chemist shop where the child died after an emetic had been administered. Later, Porter, when questioned, said, “I gave the baby strychnine so that it would die first, while I was writing a note to my mother.” At this stage witness was holding the glass in his hand, and Porter said; “give it to me now, and I’ll drink it.”
In reply to Mr O’Sullivan, Weiss said that immediately Mrs Jacobs told him that Porter had a bottle of poison, he went to the house which was about 250 yards from his own. When Porter went in and locked the door, he immediately telephoned Sergeant Cook who arrived about 10 minutes later.
Corroborative evidence was given by Sergeant Cook, who added that he snatched the glass out of Porter’s hand. Porter said the police had come too soon, or he would have finished himself as well as the baby. On the table was found a letter, which Porter admitted he had been writing to his mother. It read: “I love my mother; God bless her, and may He be kind enough to curse the Jacobs.” Porter said he wanted to write to his mother before he died.
When the Crown case had closed, Porter made an impassioned statement from the dock. In tones which trembled with emotion, he said: “Gentlemen of the jury, I loved my wife: I love her still, and I loved my baby. I love her still, and I loved my baby child. I cannot believe he is dead. My wife said she had another man to go to and we were both better dead. After that I don’t know what happened. I have nothing more to say.”
Milton John Purcell, ‘bus driver of Gosse Street, Kingston, brother-in-law of the accused, said that up to the time of the tragedy, Porter had been staying at their home. He had known Porter and his wife since their marriage some two years ago, and from his observations, they had not lived happily together.
“One night when I came home,” said Purcell, “I saw a blood stained towel in the laundry, and later I saw Porter who had a deep cut on his forehead. I was told that Porter’s injury was caused by his having been struck by crockery thrown by his wife.”
Continuing the witness said he noticed on November 8 that Porter and his wife did not speak to each other. Mrs Porter accused her husband of breaking up the home by allowing the furniture to be repossessed. That morning Mrs Porter had brought the baby to the house. It was dirty and did not look as if it had been well cared for. Mrs Porter left the house that afternoon for Molonglo and returned about an hour later. Porter was nursing the baby.
Addressing Porter, Mrs Porter said: “I have a better man to go to. He is a butcher at the abattoirs earning £5 [?] a week. I do not want the child.”
After tea, Porter’s wife left and did not return. From then on Porter, who was usually of a jovial nature, became melancholy and quiet. He kept speaking about his wife and wondering if she would return to him. Porter was restless at nights. He looked after the baby like a mother, and always spoke to it in affectionate terms.
On Thursday afternoon, November 10, witness saw Mrs Porter in the street at Kingston. He went home and returned in a car with his wife and Porter’s baby. His wife beckoned Mrs Porter and when she came over asked her what she was going to do with the baby. Mrs Porter replied that she did not want it, and that they should kick Bert (meaning Porter), and the baby out of the house.
Porter was very upset when informed of his wife’s attitude, and complained next morning that his nerves were breaking, as he was unable to sleep and was taking powders.
A day or so later, Porter saw his wife walking in the street alone and asked her to give the baby and himself a chance to live. She replied, “Go away. I don’t want to talk to you.”
On Friday, November 25, witness took Mrs Purcell, Porter and the baby by car to Sydney to the home of Porter’s mother. During his stay at his mother’s home, Porter continued to be morose and was off-hand in his manner with members of his family.
Under cross-examination by Mr Storkey, Purcell said that Porter and his wife were unhappy from the time of the marriage.
Mr Storkey: Do you know of any occasion when Porter threw crockery at his wife>---No.
In further reply to Mr Storkey, the witness said that he remembered the occasion a few months ago when Mrs Porter had been confined to hospital for a fortnight. He had heard that her injuries had been caused by Porter throwing something at her in self-defence, as she was advancing on him in a threatening manner with an axe.
Florence Ethel Purcell corroborated the evidence of her husband, and emphasised the fact that Porter had frequently implored his wife to come back to him and look after the child. She had offered to let Porter and his wife and child share their home, but Mrs Porter would not hear of it, stating that she was through with Bert and the baby.
The witness said that when Mrs Porter suggested that she should look after the baby, she told her that she had four children of her own, including an infant aged 12 months, to look after. The court adjourned at 4.15 p.m. until 10 o’clock this morning.
The Canberra Times, Saturday, 17 December 1932.
JURY UNABLE TO AGREE IN PORTER MURDER TRIAL
LOCKED UP FOR THE NIGHT
POSSIBILITY OF NEW TRIAL
The jury in the trial of Bertram Edward Porter on a charge of murder, was unable to agree last night and, at eight o’clock, was locked up until nine o’clock this morning.
In the event of the jury failing to agree when the court resumes its sitting at 9 a.m., it will be discharged and a fresh trial will be ordered.
Temporary insanity was the defence raised at the trial of Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, unemployed sheet metal worker, when the trial was resumed before Mr Justice McTiernan, sitting in criminal jurisdiction of the High Court at Canberra yesterday.
The trial was commenced on Thursday, Porter being charged with having on November 28, at Canberra, feloniously and maliciously murdered his eleven months’ old son, Charles Robert Porter.
Porter pleaded not guilty, and was represented by Mr Gerald O’Sullivan and Mr Frank Hidden, of Sydney, instructed by Mr Felix Mitchell.
Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C., of the New South Wales Crown Law Department, prosecuted for the Crown.
Mrs Agnes Porter, a widow, living in Salisbury Road, Stanmore, the mother of the accused, said that when Porter came to her home in Sydney on the Friday before the tragedy, he was obviously distressed, and was worrying about his wife and baby all the time. Although she was suffering bad health, she offered to take charge of the baby. Her son, however, would not hear of this, saying that he must take the baby back to Canberra, as it was the only chance he had of getting his wife to return to him.
On November 27, her son penned a note to his wife as follows:-
“I dream of you in the mornings,
I dream of you at night;
I want to see your smiling face,
So don’t forget to write.”
He said: “This ought to bring her back to me.”
Replying to Mr Storkey, Mrs Porter said that if she had thought that her son intended to do anything to the baby, she would have kept it by all means. Her son brought the infant to Sydney with the idea of getting her to look after it, but she was in poor health.
Alfred James Prowse, of Stanmore, said that he had known Porter for just on ten years. He visited the house on the day Porter came to Sydney, but Porter was extremely dejected and hardly spoke to him.
Evidence on similar lines was given by Albert John Rudd, of Marrickville.
Lucy Porter, a sister of the accused, said that she saw Porter off on the train on Sunday evening when he was returning to Canberra. Before the train left he cried, and she offered to take the baby, but he refused.
William Walter Weatherall, of Molonglo, said that he saw Porter at Kingston on the morning of the tragedy, and had a drink with him. Porter was eagerly looking forward to meeting his wife in order to bring about a reconciliation.
Mary Charlton, newsagent, of Kingston, said that shortly before one o’clock on the day of the tragedy, Porter entered her shop to buy a bottle of ink. He was in a very excited state, and threw the money on the counter and left without having his purchase wrapped.
Albert Bennett, who lives next door to the Purcell’s, at whose home Porter was staying, stated that at 1.5 p.m. on November 28, he heart Porter crying in the house. He went to the back door and knocked. Porter came to the door and locked it, at the same time saying: “I’m all right. Go away.”
Doreen Bennett stated that she saw Porter in Purcell’s house about seven o’clock on the morning of the tragedy. The baby was sitting in a high chair, and Porter, who appeared to be quite normal, asked her to get some bread from the baker for him. She next saw Porter about one o’clock when he was coming down the lane crying and screaming. He looked awful. She later heard both Porter and the baby crying in the house next door.
Recalled by the Crown, Mrs Jacobs, mother-in-law of the accused, said that Porter appeared quite normal when talking to his wife and witness on the Monday afternoon.
Mr O’Sullivan: Even when he tried to kiss his wife and you stopped him?---He appeared just the same as he always was.
Dr Henry (recalled) stated that at 9 o’clock on the night of the tragedy, he saw Porter in the cells at the Canberra Police Station. He conversed with Porter for more than half and hour, and there was nothing to suggest that there was anything abnormal about his behaviour. He did his utmost to determine if Porter was in any way abnormal. He discussed the tragedy with Porter, who understood fully the effect of what he had done and the import of having administered strychnine to the baby.
Mr O’Sullivan: Have you any knowledge of catharsis.---It is perfectly well-known to medical science.
Does not catharsis signify the cleansing of the mind after the gratification of an insane desire?---That is so.
Have you given much attention to melancholia?---A great deal, and I have studied it since this tragedy. I have constantly kept the complaint of melancholia before me and have made a study of it for 30 years.
In reply to further cross-examination, Dr Henry said that persons suffering from melancholia were the greatest potential suicides he knew of. Another feature of the complaint was a tendency to destroy those nearest or dearest, without motive, rhyme or reason.
Replying to Mr Storkey, Dr Henry said that in the light of this, he had carefully observed Porter to see if he was in any way abnormal, but was satisfied that he was not.
Sergeant Cook (recalled) stated that he had always considered Porter to be normal. During the four days he was in the lock-up there was nothing to suggest that he was abnormal.
Following the child’s death, Sergeant Cook said that he asked Porter if he had taken any drink that day. Porter replied: “I had a doubleheader um and three beers and lemon. A man had to have something to brace himself up for the job..”
Continuing, Sergeant Cook said that on the first evening he was in the cell at the Canberra lock-up, Porter tore a strip off his blanket and made it into a noose, which suggested that he was going to make an attempt on his life. After that, he behaved quite normally and slept well. He ate exceptionally well. The food given him was equal to that provided at a boarding house.
Mr Justice McTiernan: You should not advertise the place so much. (Laughter.)
Sergeant Cook added that on one occasion Porter had asked for police protection against his mother-in-law. He stated that he could manage his wife, but was frightened of his mother-in-law.
In his address to the jury, Mr O’Sullivan said that time and again Porter had implored his wife to come back and do her duty as a mother, and each time she had refused. When his wife left him he apparently did not know where to turn. A domestic affliction such as the separation of a man and wife was in itself a severe blow. Porter must have suffered great stress of mind for the three weeks after his wife left him with the child. This developed as time went on into acute melancholia. The evidence showed that when he went to Sydney he acted like a man possessed. When his wife spurned his entreaties to return on the day of the tragedy, his mind cracked. He was in a state of coma and was not responsible for his actions.
The Crown Prosecutor, Mr Storkey, told the jury that the main question they had to decide was whether or not Porter was temporarily insane when he committed the deed. Temporary insanity had to be proved beyond all doubt. If such a defence was accepted without the strongest of evidence, the life of the community would be unsafe. This was not an issue that should be decided on sentiment, and the jury should not allow their hearts to run away with their judgement. He contended that from the evidence submitted, Porter knew quite well what he was doing. He had put the child to death because he had intended to kill himself at the same time, but was prevented from doing so by the arrival of the police.
Mr Justice McTiernan concluded his summing up at 2.45 p.m., when the jury retired to consider its verdict.
At five minutes past three, the jury returned to court, and the foreman asked His Honour if the accused would be punished if the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the ground of temporary insanity.
His Honour ruled that it was the duty of the jury to bring in a verdict according to the evidence. The question of punishment was the responsibility of the Executive Government and did not come within the province of the jury.
The jury again went into retirement and returned to court at four o’clock when the foreman announced that they were unable to agree upon a verdict.
It was stated by His Honour that he could not accept a disagreement at that stage, as the time allotted the jury to come to a decision had not expired.
The Canberra Times, Monday, 19 December 1932.
In Porter Murder Trial
NEW TRIAL TO BE ORDERED
The jury having failed to agree upon a verdict in the trial of Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, unemployed sheet metal worker, who stands charged with the murder of his infant son, Charles Robert Porter, at Kingston, on November 28 last, a new trial will be ordered.
The trail of Porter was commenced on Thursday morning, when he appeared before Mr Justice McTiernan, presiding over the High Court in its criminal jurisdiction at Canberra.
The jury retired to consider its verdict at 2.45 p.m. on Friday, and as it had failed to reach an agreement by 8 o’clock that night, his Honour ordered that it should be locked up for the night.
The Court sat at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning when it was announced by the foreman of the jury that they were unable to agree upon a verdict. Mr Justice McTiernan accordingly discharged the jury.
The date upon which the new trial will be held will be decided by the Attorney-General (Mr G. Latham), it being unlikely that it will take place before next March. Meanwhile, Porter will be imprisoned in the Goulburn Gaol.
During the trial, the members of the jury were kept under strict surveillance, having all their meals at Hotel Canberra. At night they were accommodated in a separate wing of the hotel, a police guard being posted at the entrance all night.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday, 11 January 1933.
Date fixed for a Re-trial
FIXED FOR JANUARY 31
Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, unemployed sheet metal worker, who is a prisoner in the Goulburn Gaol awaiting fresh trial on a charge of having at Kingston in November last, feloniously and maliciously murdered his eleven months’ old son, Charles Robert Porter, will, it is understood, be arraigned before the High Court sitting in its criminal jurisdiction at Canberra, on Tuesday, January 31.
An official announcement has yet to be made by the Federal Attorney General (Mr J.G. Latham). It is learned that Mr Justice McTiernan, who presided at the last trial, will again be on the Bench.
Porter stood his first trial at Canberra last December when the jury after a retirement of 18 hours, failed to reach an agreement, whereupon the jury was discharged and a new trial was ordered.
It is expected that a summons for jury service will be served on some 40 Canberra residents within the next fortnight.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday, 18 January 1933.
Porter Murder – Trial on January 31
Trial on January 31
BY MR. JUSTICE DIXON
The second trial of Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, now a prisoner in Goulburn Gaol, who is awaiting fresh trial on a charge of having murdered his eleven months old son, will be conducted by Mr Justice Owen Dixon, sitting in the criminal jurisdiction of the High Court at Canberra on Tuesday, January 31.
At the first trial of Porter before Mr Justice McTiernan last December the jury, after a retirement of 18 hours, failed to agree and a new trial was ordered.
It is expected that the hearing of the case will occupy two days.
A summons for jury service will be served on some 40 residents of the Federal Capital Territory.
The Canberra Times, Tuesday, 24 January 1933.
Fifty Jurors Summoned
Fifty Jurors Summoned
Summonses to fifty residents of Canberra for service as jurors were issued yesterday by the sheriff (Mr B. Bellhouse) for the second hearing of the trial in which Bertram Edward Porter, 25, is charged with the murder of his eleven months old son.
Porter, who is an inmate of Goulburn Gaol pending the trial will be tried before Mr Justice Owen Dixon sitting in the criminal jurisdiction of the High Court at Canberra on Tuesday, January 31.
It is likely that the hearing of the case will occupy two days.
The Canberra Times, Tuesday, 31 January 1933.
Second Hearing to Begin To-day
Second Hearing to Begin To-day
The second trial of Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, unemployed sheet metal worker, who stands charged with the murder of his eleven months old son, Charles Robert Porter, will take place before the High Court in its Criminal Jurisdiction at Canberra at 10 o’clock this morning.
Mr Justice Owen Dixon will be the presiding judge.
It is expected that the hearing will occupy two days. Mr P. Storkey, V.C., who presented the case for the Crown at the first trial, in which the jury failed to agree, will again officiate in that capacity, and Porter will be defended by Mr O’Sullivan, and Mr Hidden, of Sydney.
Yesterday Porter was escorted to Canberra from the Goulburn Gaol, where he had been detained pending fresh trial.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday, 1 February 1933.
SECOND HEARING OF MURDER CHARGE
Cross-Examination of Police
The second trial of Bertram Edward Porter, 25, unemployed sheet metal worker, on the charge of having murdered his 11-months-old son, Charles Robert Porter, was commenced at the Canberra Court House yesterday before Mr Justice Dixon exercising the original criminal jurisdiction of the High Court.
The keen interest in the case was reflected in the crowded nature of the public gallery.
At the previous hearing before Mr Justice McTiernan, the jury disagreed and a new trial was ordered by the Attorney-General.
Most of the evidence was completed yesterday, and at 4.10 p.m. the hearing was adjourned until 10 a.m. today, the jury being locked up for the night.
The empanelling of a jury occupied only 25 minutes.
For the main part, yesterday’s evidence consisted of a repetition of that given at the first trial. Throughout Porter sat passively and gazing with twitching eyes at the Bench. He showed no visible emotion except when, at the end of the case for the prosecution, he rose in the dock and made a statement substantially similar to that which he made at the earlier hearing, implying[?] his love for his wife and his dead son.
In his opening address, the Crown Prosecutor (Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C.) described the case as particularly pitiful. The death of the child Porter was associated with domestic differences. The accused and his wife had become estranged some time prior to the tragic occurrence and, under a maintenance order, Porter had the custody of his son. The evidence would show that Porter met his wife and mother-in-law in the park at Kingston on Monday, November 28, the date on which the child died, and had made advances towards obtaining a reconciliation with her. Rebuffed, Porter had left the only to return later, carrying a small bottle, the contents of which would “fix us both,” meaning himself and his son. Mrs Porter told her husband not to be silly and, seeing the bottle in his hand, the mother-in-law stepped between Porter and her daughter.
The Crown Prosecutor stated that evidence would show that Mrs Porter said her mother interviewed Constable Weiss, who called Sergeant Cook. Both officers went to where Porter was living and broke into the premises on seeing Porter with a glass containing a milky coloured fluid in his hand, and the baby crying on the floor. Porter told the sergeant that the infant had swallowed some of the fluid, which contained strychnine. He himself wanted to die and the police had come too soon.
Medical evidence that death was due to strychnine poisoning was given by Dr David Henry, who was called to attend the child at Croker’s Pharmacy, Kingston. After he had recounted the efforts made by him to save the life of the child, Dr Henry replied to the senior counsel for the defence (Mr G.J. O’Sullivan) that the only chance of saving the life of a person suffering from the effects of strychnine was immediate medical attention. Every minute counted.
Evidence that Porter signed the poison register in order to obtain strychnine, purportedly to “get rid of dogs and cats” was given by Albert Campbell, chemist, of Kingston.
Florence Toone Jacobs, mother-in-law of the accused, retold the evidence given by her at the initial hearing, of the encounter with Porter in the park and his threat to kill himself and his son; also of how she interviewed Constable Weiss with regard to the threat. She said her daughter did not want her to go to the police, and that when she did go, Constable Weiss smiled and said Porter would not carry out his threatened intentions. The constable, however, went to where Porter was living. When she saw him again he passed in a car with the child on his knee, going in the direction of Dr Finlay’s residence. Constable Weiss subsequently ran past her with the child in his arms in the direction of the chemist.
Constable Weiss, in evidence, told how at about 12.45 p.m. he saw Porter in the street near the home of Milton Purcell, where he was living. He was refused admittance to the house and then returned to his own residence and communicated with Sergeant Cook by telephone. He outlined the events at Purcell’s house leading up to Sergeant Cook’s breaking the window to gain admittance, and described how they had rushed the baby to Dr Finlay’s, only to discover that the doctor was not at home. On his way to the pharmacy the baby had a fit in his arms.
The witness was closely cross-examined by Mr O’Sullivan as to why he had not broken into Purcell’s home immediately on arrival there, if he realised that the situation called for immediate action, instead of returning to get Sergeant Cook. He replied that he did not have sufficient evidence.
Mr O’Sullivan: But you had evidence that Porter had strychnine? When Sergeant Cook arrived some 25 minutes after you first saw Porter he had no hesitation in gaining admittance to the house?
Constable Weiss: When he saw Porter with a glass in his hand.
Why didn’t you take the child by car from Dr Finlay’s to Croker’s shop?---The car had gone.
Do you mean to say that the sergeant had left?---Yes.
So it took you about 15 minutes to run to Croker’s shop?---No; about five minutes.
The witness denied that in his presence Dr Henry said: “It is a pity I did not have the child a quarter of an hour earlier.”
Mr O’Sullivan: If you had been able to take the child to the shop in a car it would have been there 15 minutes earlier?
Constable Weiss: Not 15 minutes.
Corroborating the previous witness’s account of the discovery of Porter with a glass in his hand, Sergeant Cook said that after taking Constable Weiss to Dr Finlay’s house he hurried back to Purcell’s with Porter and the glass. He found in the kitchen where he had seen Porter and the infant, a small bottle, which Porter had told him contained strychnine.
Replying to Mr O’Sullivan, Sergeant Cook said that the constable had communicated with him at 1.0 p.m., and he had made all haste to Kingston. Weiss apparently did not like the look of the case when he telephoned him. He had taken it for granted that Dr Finlay would be home when he drove the child there, and had left it with the constable because he was concerned about having left the house open.
Mr O’Sullivan: You were not concerned about the child?
Sergeant Cook: I had already provided for that. In ordinary circumstances the doctor would have been home.
Sergeant Cook said that he could cover on foot in less than 10 minutes the distance between Dr Finlay’s house and Croker’s shop. The journey could have been completed very much quicker in the car.
Mr O’Sullivan: I suppose you took your junior to task for not forcing entry into Purcell’s at 12.45.
Sergeant Cook: I told him over the phone that he should not stand on ceremony in a case like that.
Porter tried to hang himself that night didn’t he?---I am advised that he tore a strip off his blanket.
What induced you to go back to the house?---I went back to see what else there was there. I did not believe that Porter had poisoned the child, as a matter of fact. He had stopped crying and it seemed to me that he had been whimpering because of a little neglect.
At the completion of Sergeant Cook’s evidence, Porter speaking from the dock and speaking in a slow, measured voice, declared:- ‘I love my wife; I loved my baby. I asked her to come back to Charlie and me and she said she had a better man to go to and that we were both better dead. After that I remember nothing. Gentlemen, I have nothing more to say.”
For the defence, evidence that for the three weeks after his separation from his wife until the death of his son, Porter was in a depressed mental condition totally unlike his usual bright self, was tendered by his sister and brother-in-law, Florence Ethel Purcell and Milton John Purcell, respectively.
Mrs Agnes Porter, of Sydney, William Walter Weatherall, of Molonglo, Alfred James Prowse, of Sydney and Albert John Bennett, and Mrs Elva Doreen Bennett, of Kingston, also gave evidence that Porter bore himself dejectedly on account of his domestic troubles.
Sergeant Cook (recalled) said that three days before the tragedy, Porter seemed normal and also on the morning of his son’s death. There was also nothing abnormal about his behaviour at the police station or in the cell.
Replying to Mr O’Sullivan, the witness said that Porter was undoubtedly upset.
Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C., instructed by Mr K.C. Waugh, Crown Solicitor, conducted the prosecution. Instructed by Mr Felix Mitchell, Messrs G.J. O’Sullivan and Frank Hidden appeared for the defence.
The Canberra Times, Thursday, 2 February 1933.
JURY’S CONTRADICTORY FINDING
Accused to be Detained
A verdict of not guilty on the grounds that he was insane at the time of the commission of the act, was returned by the jury in the case in which Bertram Edward Porter, 25, unemployed sheet metal worker, was charged at the Canberra Court House yesterday, before Mr Justice Owen Dixon, with having murdered his 11 months-old son, Charles Robert Porter.
Mr Justice Owen Dixon, exercising the original jurisdiction of the High Court, directed that Porter be detained during the pleasure of the Governor-General.
The jury left the court to consider its verdict, and returned at 2.40 when the foreman announced that agreement had been reached.
When the hearing resumed at 10 a.m., Dr David Henry, who attempted to save the life of Porter’s son on November 28, after it had been administered strychnine, was recalled by the Crown Prosecutor (Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C.) for cross-examination on Porter’s mental condition.
Dr Henry said he examined Porter at the police station at 9 p.m., on the night of his arrest. At that time there was nothing to suggest an abnormal state of mind on the part of Porter. He was perfectly coherent in his conversation and said that he fully realised the seriousness of his act. Porter led him to understand that he gave the child strychnine with the intention of causing death.
Dr Henry was closely cross-examined by the senior counsel for the defence (Mr G.J. O’Sullivan) on the mental state of a person suffering from melancholy, and Dr Henry stated that it was a condition of insanity.
Mr O’Sullivan: Would you say that a father who is passionately fond of his child, and destroys it for no apparent reason, was sane when he did the act?
Dr Henry: Personally, I do not think so, but I find that I possibly am not supported by authority.
His Honour asked the witness whether in his opinion a person would be in a condition to form sound judgement if he had had three weeks of great worry in which his fixed idea was to effect a reconciliation with his wife, had frequent recourse to A.P.C. powders and had passed three sleepless nights.
Dr Henry: No.
His Honour: Could he form any settled consideration?
Dr Henry: I do not think so.
Addressing the jury, Mr O’Sullivan said that the simple issue raised by the defence was whether Porter, who was admittedly passionately devoted to his little child and to his wife, was guilty of murder. Was he sane when he committed the act? The killing of a human being was not murder unless it was the result of a vicious intention. Killing was not murder unless the mind went with the act.
“I submit,” Mr O’Sullivan added, “from the evidence and from the very nature of the act that this man was not responsible for his actions when he administer[ed] that dose to his little child. The only possible conclusion to your deliberation is that this man has committed no crime against society and is not guilty on the grounds of insanity. If that is your view, do not hesitate to express it.
Continuing Mr O’Sullivan said that the actions of the police in the case left a little to be explained. “the father of that child,” he said, “was seen at 12.40 p.m., but the child was not in medical hands until 1.10 p.m. the child could have been in the care of a medical man earlier had the police acted more quickly.”
Mr O’Sullivan said that Dr Henry, a Crown witness, who was a man experienced in mental cases, had proved an excellent witness for the defence. He had expressed as his opinion that Porter was not sane when he administered the poison to his son.
The Crown Prosecutor said that the law fixed standards of insanity, which would be explained to the jury by His Honour. The jury would have very little difficulty in deciding whether the accused person had caused the death of this infant boy. Dr Henry had expressed his opinion, but had admitted that he was not possibly supported by authority. He had given evidence that Porter was normal on the night of his arrest.
Summing up, His Honour said that the crime of murder was that committed without justification, excuse, or provocation by a person of sufficient soundness of mind to be criminally responsible for his acts. The sanity of every person was presumed until the contrary was made to appear at the trial. Every person was also presumed to be innocent until the contrary was proved beyond doubt.
The questions in this case were: Did the prisoner administer the strychnine, with the intention of causing death and did death result from his so doing? Unless the jury was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt then it was its simple duty to return a verdict of not guilty. Probably the jury would have no difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that he had and that death did result from strychnine poisoning.
If this conclusion were reached the jury would turn to consider if his state of mind was such as to make him criminally responsible for his act. If it formed the opinion that the prisoner’s faculties were so disordered as to make him not responsible for his actions, it would return a verdict of not guilty on the ground of insanity.
Referring to the standard set by law of a disordered mind His Honour said that the prime purpose of the law was to deter people from committing offences. It was perfectly useless for the law to try to deter people whose mental condition was such that they could not be in the least influenced by the possible or subsequent punishment. His Honour pointed out, however that a great number of persons brought before courts were abnormal. Nevertheless, they were able to appreciate what they were doing. The law, therefore, had to fix a standard of abnormality. The law set out that the menial state of an accused person must have been of such character as to prevent him from knowing the nature of the act or that it was wrong, or that the state of mind was diseased, disordered, or mentally disturbed. In his opinion, the real question in this case lay in: Was the accused able to appreciate the wrongness of his act? If he could not reason with moderate sense and composure, then he might be said not to be able to do so. If the jury thought that when he administered poison to the child his mind was in such mental disorder, disturbance, or derangement that he was incapable of reasoning about the wrongness of what he was doing, then it should find him not guilty on the ground that he was insane at the time of the act.
When the jury returned with its verdict, His Honour stated that under the statutory laws of the Federal Territory, he ordered that Porter be kept under custody at the Police Station, Canberra, or at such place to which he might be lawfully removed until such time as the pleasure of the Governor-General was known.Mr P.V. Storkey, V.C., instructed by Mr K.C. Waugh, Crown Solicitor, presented the Crown case. Messrs G.J. O’Sullivan and Frank Hidden, instructed by Mr Felix Mitchell, appeared for the defendant.
The Canberra Times, Thursday, 9 February 1933.
NO RELEASE IN SIGHT
Bertram Edward Porter, aged 25 years, who at the sittings of the High Court in Canberra last week was found not guilty of the murder of his infant son on the ground that he was insane at the time of the commission of the act, is still being kept in strict custody at the Canberra police station.
Upon hearing the verdict of the jury, Mr Justice Owen Dixon ordered that Porter be detained in such place to which he might lawfully be removed during the pleasure of the Governor-General.
The Solicitor-General (Mr Knowles) stated yesterday that no decision had yet been made as to Porter’s future place of confinement.
Such decision will rest with the Attorney-General (Mr J.G. Latham) and it is probable that action will be taken within the course of the next few days.
The Canberra Times, Wednesday, 16 October 1935.
PORTER v. PORTER
Bertram Edward Porter, who in 1933, at Canberra, was found guilty of murdering his child while of unsound mind, and has since been an inmate of the Long Bay gaol, was granted a decree nisi for divorce from his wife, Vera Jofferette Porter, by acting-Justice Dethridge, sitting in matrimonial jurisdiction in the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory yesterday.
Porter was brought to Canberra in custody, and on the submission being made that he would be released from the penitentiary when the divorce was given effect to, the decree was made returnable in three months instead of the usual period of six months.
The application for divorce was made on the grounds of adultery, Edward Ford being named as co-respondent.
Mr. F.F. Mitchell appeared for the applicant and the suit was not contested.
In evidence, Porter said that he was a sheet metal worker by trade. At the present time, he is confined in Long Bay gaol following a charge made in connection with the death of his infant child. It had been found that he had caused the death of the child while temporarily of unsound mind. A native of Sydney, he married Vera Jofferette Jacobs in Canberra in October 1930, and there was one child of the marriage. While in Goulburn goal after his detention in 1933, he received photographs from his wife. One (produced) showed his wife with a man named Edward Ford. He had since been in communication with friends and relatives and in consequence of information received, had instituted divorce proceedings.
George Alfred Batchelor, Queanbeyan district bailiff, said he had found the respondent and co-respondent living together at Michela [Michelago?]. Questioned, they admitted having lived together at other places including Nerriga, Hoskinstown, and Queanbeyan. Witness had seen them together in Queanbeyan on many occasions.
Corroborative evidence was given by Milton John Purcell.
His Honour having found the issues proven, Porter then made an application for a reduction of the usual time for making the decree absolute.
Speaking in support of the application, Mr Mitchell said he understood the authorities were prepared to recommend Porter’s release if he obtained a divorce as the trouble, which led to his detention, has been exercised primarily through his association with his wife.
Sergeant Cook said he understood that the actual reasons for Porter’s continued detention was that the authorities feared some harm might befall the woman if he were released. If the decree were granted, his release would then be considered on condition that he remained away from her.
His Honour granted a decree nisi returnable in three months.
Bertram Edward Porter, son of James Edward and Agnes Porter, died in Sydney NSW in 1974. He married Frances Heather Edwards at Paddington NSW, in 1940. Let’s hope he found peace and love in a happy marriage. He certainly deserved it.