Body in the bag outrage in Caulfield

In 1924 Senior Detective Frederick Piggott leads the investigation into the murder of Melbourne schoolgirl Irene Tuckerman.

Balaclava, Inkerman, Khartoum. In the suburb of Caulfield, in Melbourne’s south-east, streets were named for sites of warfare.

Gilbert Wilson turned his milk cart into Khartoum Street, stopping by the side of the house on the east corner. Behind him, across Inkerman Road, was a streetlamp, its one electric globe burning in the moonless dark, a glow that barely reached through the veil of drizzle into the mouth of Khartoum Street opposite.

Alighting with his pail and ladle, Wilson was filling in for his dairyman father on this winter’s Sunday morning, August 3, 1924. Impatient in the cold, he did not bother to brake the cart, but strode quickly past the corner property to a house where the resident had left his billy can at the front gate. Wilson stooped and ladled.

There was a jingle of harness and Wilson looked up. Clyde, his horse, was coming down the street towards him – or so it seemed. But the horse turned the cart around and began a slow trot up the west side of the street. Wilson swore under his breath. He ran to the front of the horse’s head, gathered the reins, and with a clatter of pail and ladle, jumped into the milk-cart. At just that instant Clyde shied, veering suddenly, stepping back and to the side of something lying in the road. Wilson pulled up the cart, bringing it to a halt a few metres short of Inkerman Road and some 10 metres past the object. ‘Stay!’ he insisted. But Clyde made no promises, champing nervously as Wilson stepped down from the cart and unhitched its lantern. They were beside a house whose hedge was a row of tall cypresses that cast an impenetrable shadow across the unsealed footway and on to the gravelled road.

Wilson walked back through the mud to see what had startled his animal. Raising his lantern, he saw a bulging hessian bag at the edge of the roadway. He was within a couple of metres of it when Clyde whinnied and again started off. ”I just ran after the horse,” said Wilson afterward, ”because I thought it was only a bag of rubbish. So I got up in the cart and did not think any more about it.” He gave the time as 5.30am.

Two hours later the sun had risen- though only just – amid intermittent showers of rain. In Inkerman Road, Basil Stewart got out of bed and dressed for church. He lived across the road from the entrance to Khartoum Street and, at 7.45 am, walking down the path at the side of his house, he noticed the bag in the roadway opposite and thought it suspicious.

”As I approached it I was seized with a sense of foreboding as if I was to be the witness of some terrible tragedy … The feeling almost overpowered me.” He was a fifth-year medical student, and his misgivings were not relieved as he stood over the object: a bran sack with clothesline rope tied ”lengthways, and then crossed over round the middle like you tie a parcel … tied twice each way”.

Crouching beside the bag, he saw a child’s buckle-up shoe protruding from beneath it. He fumbled in the cold to undo the knots and found a second bag inside, its mouth corresponding in position to that of the first. Opening it, he found the body of a young girl, placed head first into the bag, the legs doubled up and the head between the knees. She was wearing a red knitted dress and short black socks, and her right foot had on it a black buckle-up shoe.

Closing the bag and leaving it on the roadside, Stewart ran back to his house and telephoned the CIB. Then he went out onto the verandah and from there kept watch over the bag through the persistent misty rain.

An hour passed before detectives arrived, Constable Leemin at the wheel in one of the force’s two Lancia patrol cars. The car’s top was up, but having no side curtains it was open to the weather. Numbed, it seems, from the effects of the well-ventilated journey, neither Senior Detective Piggott nor his sidekick Detective Ethell had time to prevent Leemin driving the vehicle directly into the zone of road near which the body lay. They stopped on the east side of Khartoum Street, opposite the bag.

Stewart saw them pull up and ignoring the drizzle came across the road to meet them. Piggott and Ethell stepped into the street, their scarves and overcoats already glazed with damp. Ethell made for the bag but Piggott held him back. ”Not yet,” he said. He told Stewart to wait by the car. The two detectives lit smokes. The scene was a mess. It had rained through the night and most of Saturday. Were all clues washed away?

The bag was ”15 paces from Inkerman Road” and a metre from the trickling gutter. Piggott surveyed the road. He discerned the wheel marks of a motor car, the tyre tread looking rundown from use – a courier or taxi cab, perhaps. This vehicle had passed through before the body was placed there, Piggott knew, ”because the body was lying in such a position that the bag was on one of the wheel marks”.

At the morgue Dr Mollison was standing by. He supervised as Piggott drew away the outer bag and with his knife slit down the inner one, revealing the doubled-up body of ”a little girl between 11 and 12 years of age”.

Edited extract of Detective Piggott’s Casebook: True tales of murder, madness and the rise of forensic science by Kevin Morgan, published by Hardie Grant Books. This book is published in collaboration with the State Library and showcases elements of the library’s unique pictures, maps, manuscripts and rare books collections.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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