The Ghost Upon
the Rail by John Lang
IT was a winter's night--an Australian winter's night--in the
middle of July, when two wealthy farmers in the district of Penrith,
New South Wales, sat over the fire of a public house, which was about
a mile distant from their homes. The name of the one was John Fisher,
and of the other Edward Smith. Both of these farmers had been
transported to the colony, had served their time, bought land,
cultivated it, and prospered. Fisher had the reputation of being
possessed of a considerable sum in ready money; and it was well known
that he was the mortgagee of several houses in the town of Sydney,
besides being the owner of a farm and three hundred acres, which was
very productive, and on which he lived. Smith also was in good
circumstances, arising out of his own exertions on his farm; but,
unlike his neighbour, he had not put by much money.
"Why don't you go home, John, and see your friends and relations?"
asked Smith; "you be now very warm in the pocket; and, mark my words,
they would be very glad to see you."
"I don't know about that, friend," replied Fisher. "When I got
into trouble it was the breaking of the heart of my old father and
mother; and none of my brothers and sisters--in all, seven of
'em--have ever answered one of my letters."
"You did not tell 'em you were a rich man, did you?"
"No; but I don't think they would heed that much, lad; for though
they are far from wealthy, as small farmers, they are well-to-do in
the world, and in a very respectable position in the country. I have
often thought that if I was to go back they would be sorry to see me,
even if I carried with me £100,000 earned by one who had been a
"Bless your innocent heart! You don't know human natur' as I do.
Money does a deal--depend on't. Besides, who is to know anything
about you, except your own family? And they would never go and hint
that you had been unfortunate. Why, how many years ago is it?"
"Let me see. I was then eighteen, and I am now
forty-six--twenty-eight years ago. When I threw that stone at that
man I little thought it would hit him, much less kill him; and that I
should be sent here for manslaughter. But so it was."
"Why I recommend you, John, to go home is because you are always
talking of home and your relations. As for the farm, I'd manage that
for you while you are away."
"Thank you, Ned. I'll think about it."
Presently, the landlord entered the room, and Smith, addressing
him, said, "What think you, Mr. Dean? Here is Mr. Fisher going home
to England, to have a look at his friends and relations.
"Is that true, Mr. Fisher?" said the landlord.
"Oh, yes," was Fisher's reply, after finishing his glass of punch
and knocking the ashes out of his pipe.
"And when do you think of going?" said the landlord.
"That'll depend," replied Fisher, smiling. "When I'm gone you will
hear of it, not before; and neighbour Smith here, who is to manage
the farm during my absence, will come and pay you any little score I
may leave behind."
"But I hope you will come and say good-bye," said the
"Oh, of course," said Fisher, laughing. "If I don't, depend upon
it you will know the reason why."
After a brief while the two farmers took their departure. Their
farms adjoined each other and they were always on the very best of
About six weeks after the conversation above given, Smith called
one morning at the public house, informed the landlord that Fisher
had gone, and offered to pay any little sum that he owed. There was a
small score against him, and while taking the money the landlord
remarked that he was sorry Mr. Fisher had not kept his word and come
to bid him "good-bye." Mr. Smith explained that Fisher had very good
reasons for having his departure kept a secret until after he had
left the colony; not that he wanted to defraud anybody--far from it,
he added; and then darkly hinted that one of Mr. Fisher's principal
reasons for going off so stealthily was to prevent being annoyed by a
woman who wanted him to marry her.
"Ah! I see," said the landlord; "and that's what he must have
meant that night when he said, 'if I don't, you'll hear the reason
"I feel the loss of his society very much," said Smith, "for when
we did not come here together to spend our evening he would come to
my house, or I would go to his, to play cards, smoke a pipe and drink
a glass of grog. Having taken charge of all his affairs under a power
of attorney, I have gone to live at his place and left my overseer in
charge of my own place. When he comes back in the course of a couple
of years I am going home to England, and he will do for me what I am
now doing for him. Between ourselves, Mr. Dean, he has gone home to
get a wife."
"Indeed!" said the landlord. Here the conversation ended and Mr.
Smith went home.
Fisher's sudden departure occasioned some surprise throughout the
district; but when the explanation afforded by Mr. Smith was spread
abroad by Mr. Dean, the landlord, people ceased to think any more
about the matter.
A year elapsed, and Mr. Smith gave out that he had received a
letter from Fisher, in which he stated that it was not his intention
to return to Sydney and that he wished the whole of his property to
be sold and the proceeds remitted to him. This letter Mr. Smith
showed to several of Fisher's most intimate acquaintances, who
regretted extremely that they would see no more of so good a
neighbour and so worthy a man.
Acting on the power of attorney which he held, Mr. Smith
advertised the property for sale--the farm, the livestock, the
farming implements, the furniture, etc., in the farmhouse; also some
cottages and pieces of land in and near Sydney and Parramatta; with
Fisher's mortgagors, also, he came to an agreement for the repayment,
within a few months, of the sums due by them.
About a month previous to the day of sale, an old man, one David
Weir, who farmed a small piece of land in the Penrith Road, and who
took every week to the Sydney market, butter, eggs, fowls, and a few
bushels of Indian maize, was returning to his home when he saw,
seated on a rail, the well-known form of Mr. Fisher. It was very
dark, but the figure and the face were as plainly visible as
possible. The old man, who was not drunk, though he had been drinking
at Dean's public house, pulled up and called out, "Halloa, Mr.
Fisher! I thought you were at home in England!" There was no reply,
and the old man, who was impatient to get home, as was his horse,
loosed the reins and proceeded on his journey.
"Mother," said old Weir to his wife, while she was helping him off
with his old top-coat, "I've seen either Mr. Fisher or his
"Nonsense!" cried the old woman; "you could not have seen Mr.
Fisher, for he is in Old England; and as for spirits, you never see
any without drinking them; and you are full of 'em now."
"Do you mean to say I'm drunk, mother?"
"No, but you have your liquor on board."
"Yes; but I can see, and hear, and understand, and know what I am
"Well, then, have your supper and go to bed; and take my advice
and say nothing to anybody about this ghost, or you will only get
laughed at for your pains. Ghostesses, indeed! at your age to take on
about such things; after swearing all your life you never believed in
"But I tell you I saw him as plain as plain could be; just as we
used to see him sitting sometimes when the day was warm and he had
been round looking at his fences to see that they were all
"Yes, very well; tell me all about it to-morrow," said the old
woman. "As I was up before daylight, and it is now nearly midnight, I
feel too tired to listen to a story about a ghost. Have you sold
"Yes, and brought back all the money safe. Here it is." The old
man handed over the bag to his partner and retired to his bed; not to
rest, however, for the vision had made so great an impression upon
his mind he could not help thinking of it, and lay awake till
daylight, when he arose, as did his wife, to go through the ordinary
avocations of the day. After he had milked the cows and brought the
filled pails into the dairy, where the old woman was churning, she
said to him:
"Well, David, what about the ghost?"
"I tell you I seed it," said the old man. "And there's no call for
you to laugh at me. If Mr. Fisher be not gone away--and I don't think
he would have done so without coming to say good-bye to us--I'll make
a talk of this. I'll go and tell Sir John, and Doctor MacKenzie, and
Mr. Cox, and old parson Fulton, and everybody else in the commission
of the peace. I will, as I'm a living man! What should take Fisher to
England? England would be no home for him after being so many years
in this country. And what's more, he has told me as much many a
"Well, and so he has told me, David. But then, you know, people
will alter their minds, and you heard what Mr. Smith said about that
"Yes. But I don't believe Smith. I never had a good opinion of
that man, for he could never look me straight in the face, and he is
too oily a character to please me. If, as I tell you, Mr. Fisher is
not alive and in this country, then that was his ghost that I saw,
and he has been murdered!"
"Be careful, David, what you say; and whatever you do, don't
offend Mr. Smith. Remember, he is a rich man and you are a poor one;
and if you say a word to his discredit he may take the law of you,
and make you pay for it; and that would be a pretty business for
people who are striving to lay by just enough to keep them when they
are no longer able to work."
"There's been foul play, I tell you, old woman. I am certain of
"But that can't be proved by your saying that you saw 'a ghost
sitting on a rail, when you were coming home from market none the
better for what you drank upon the road. And if Mr. Fisher should
still be alive in England--and you know that letters have been lately
received from him--what a precious fool you would look!"
"Well, perhaps you are right. But when I tell you that I saw
either Mr. Fisher or his ghost sitting on that rail, don't laugh at
me, because you will make me angry."
"Well, I won't laugh at you, though it must have been your fancy,
old man. Whereabouts was it you saw, or thought you saw him?"
"You know the cross fence that divides Fisher's land from
Smith's--near the old bridge at the bottom of Iron Gang Hill?"
"Well, it was there. I'll tell you what he was dressed in. You
know that old fustian coat with the brass buttons, and the corduroy
waistcoat and trousers, and that red silk bandanna handkerchief that
he used to tie round his neck?"
"Well, that's how he was dressed. His straw hat he held in his
left hand, and his right arm was resting on one of the posts. I was
about ten or eleven yards from him, for the road is broad just there
and the fence stands well back."
"And you called him, you say?"
"Yes; but he did not answer. If the horse had not been so fidgety
I'd have got down and gone up to him."
"And then you would have found out that it was all smoke."
"Say that again and you will put me into a passion."
The old woman held her tongue, and suffered old David to talk all
that day and the next about the ghost, without making any remark
On the following Wednesday--Thursday being the market day in
Sydney--old David Weir loaded his cart and made his way to the
Australian metropolis. True to his word with his wife, he did not
mention to a soul one syllable, touching the ghost. Having disposed
of his butter, eggs, poultry and maize, the old man left Sydney at 4
p.m., and at half-past ten arrived at Dean's public house.
He had travelled in that space of time thirty miles, and was now
about eight or nine from home. As was his wont, he here baited his
horse, but declined taking any refreshment himself, though pressed to
do so by several travellers who wanted to "treat" him. During the
whole day he had been remarkably abstemious.
At a quarter to twelve the old man re-harnessed his jaded horse
and was about to resume his journey when two men, who were going to
Penrith, asked him for "a lift."
"Jump up, my lads," said old David; and off they were driven at a
brisk walk. One of the men in the cart was a ticket-of-leave man in
the employ of Mr. Cox, and had been to Sydney to attend "muster." The
other was a newly-appointed constable of the district. Both of these
men had lived for several years in the vicinity of Penrith and knew
by sight all of the inhabitants, male and female, free and bond.
When they neared the spot where the old man had seen the
apparition, he walked the horse as slowly as possible and again
beheld the figure of Mr. Fisher seated on the upper rail of the
fence, and in precisely the same attitude and the same dress.
"Look there!" said old David to the two men, "what is that?"
"It is a man!" they both replied. "But how odd! It seems as if a
light were shining through him!"
"Yes," said old David; "but look at him; what man is it?"
"It is Mr. Fisher," they said, simultaneously.
"Hold the reins, one of you," said old David. "I'll go and speak
to him. They say he is at home in England, but I don't believe
Descending from the cart, the old man, who was as brave as a lion,
approached the spectre and stood within a few feet of it. "Speak!" he
cried. "Don't you know me, sir? I am David Weir. How came you by that
gash in your forehead? Are you alive or dead, Mr. Fisher?" To these
questions no answer was returned. The old man then stretched forth
his hand and placed it on what appeared to be Mr. Fisher's shoulder;
but it was only empty air vacant space--that the intended touch
"There has been foul play!" said the old man, addressing the
spectre, but speaking sufficiently loud to be heard by both men in
the cart. "And, by heaven, it shall be brought to light! Let me mark
the spot." And with these words he broke off several boughs from a
tree near the rail and placed them opposite to where the spectre
remained sitting. Nay, further, he took out his clasp-knife and
notched the very part on which the right hand of the spectre
Even after the old man returned to the cart the apparition of Mr.
Fisher, exactly as he was in the flesh, was "palpable to the sight"
of all three men. They sat gazing at it for full ten minutes, and
then drove on in awe and wonderment.
When old David Weir arrived home, his wife, who was delighted to
see him so calm and collected, inquired, laughingly, if he had seen
the ghost again. "Never mind about that," said the old man. "Here,
take the money and lock it up, while I take the horse out of the
cart. He is very tired, and no wonder, for the roads are nearly a
foot deep in dust. This is the fifteenth month that has passed since
we had the last shower of rain; but never mind! If it holds off for a
fortnight or three weeks longer our maize will be worth thirty
shillings a bushel. It is wrong to grumble at the ways of Providence.
In my belief it is very wicked."
"Well, I think so, too," said the old woman. "Thirty shillings a
bushel! Why, Lord a'bless us, that ull set us up in the world,
surely! What a mercy we did not sell when it rose to nine and
"Get me some supper ready, for as soon as I have taken it I have
some business to transact."
"Not out of the house?"
"Never you mind. Do as I tell you."
Having eaten his supper, the old man rose from his chair, put on
his hat and left his abode. In reply to his wife's question, "Where
are you going?" he said "To Mr. Cox's; I'll be home in an hour or so.
I have business, as I told you, to transact."
The old woman suggested that he could surely wait till the
morning; but he took no heed of her and walked away.
Mr. Cox was a gentleman of very large property in the district,
and was one of the most zealous and active magistrates in the colony.
At all times of the day or the night he was accessible to any person
who considered they had business with him.
It was past two o'clock in the morning when David Weir arrived at
Mr. Cox's house and informed the watchman that he desired to see the
master. It was not the first time that the old man had visited Mr.
Cox at such an hour. Two years previously he had been plundered by
bushrangers, and as soon as they had gone he went to give the
Mr. Cox came out, received the old man very graciously and invited
him to enter the house. Old David followed the magistrate and
detailed all that the reader is in possession of touching the ghost
of Mr. Fisher.
"And who were with you," said Mr. Cox, "on the second occasion of
your seeing this ghost?"
"One is a ticket-of-leave man named Williams, a man in your own
employ; and the other was a man named Hamilton, who lived for several
years with Sir John Jamieson. They both rode with me in my cart," was
the old man's answer.
"Has Williams returned?"
"It is very late, and the man may be tired and have gone to bed;
but, nevertheless, I will send for him." And Mr. Cox gave the order
for Williams to be summoned.
Williams, in a few minutes, came and corroborated David Weir's
statement in every particular.
"It is the most extraordinary thing I have ever heard in my life,"
said Mr. Cox. "But go home, Weir; and you, Williams, go to your rest.
To-morrow morning I will go-with you to the spot and examine it. You
say that you have marked it, Weir?"
The old man then left Mr. Cox and Williams returned to his hut.
Mr. Cox did not sleep again till a few minutes before the day dawned,
and then, when he dropped off for a quarter of an hour he dreamt of
nothing but the ghost sitting on the rail.
The next morning--or rather, on that morning--Mr. Cox, at eight
o'clock, rode over to the township of Penrith and saw Hamilton,
Weir's second witness. Hamilton, as did Williams, corroborated all
that Weir had stated, so far as related to the second time the
spectre had been seen; and Hamilton further volunteered the assertion
that no one of the party was in the slightest degree affected by
There was a tribe of blacks in the vicinity, and Mr. Cox sent for
the chief and several others. The European name of this chief was
"Johnny Crook," and, like all his race, he was an adept in tracking.
Accompanied by Weir, Hamilton, Williams and the blacks, Mr. Cox
proceeded to the spot. Weir had no difficulty in pointing out the
exact rail. The broken boughs and the notches on the post were his
Johnny Crook, after examining the rail very minutely, pointed to
some stains and exclaimed, "white man's blood!" Then, leaping over
the fence, he examined the brushwood and the ground adjacent. Ere
long he started off, beckoning Mr. Cox and his attendants to follow.
For more than three--quarters of a mile, over forest land, the savage
tracked the footsteps of a man, and something trailed along the earth
(fortunately, so far as the ends of justice were concerned, no rain
had fallen during the period alluded to by old David, namely, fifteen
months. One heavy shower would have obliterated all these tracks,
most probably, and, curious enough, that very night there was a
frightful downfall--such a downfall as had not been known for many a
long year) until they came to a pond, or water-hole, upon the surface
of which was a bluish scum. This scum the blacks, after an
examination of it, declared to be "white man's fat." The pond in
question was not on Fisher's land, or Smith's. It was on Crown land
in the rear of their properties. When full to the brink the depth of
the water was about ten feet in the centre, but at the time referred
to there was not more than three feet and a half, and, badly as the
cattle wanted water, it was very evident, from the absence of recent
hock-prints, that they would not drink at this pond. The blacks
walked into the water at the request of Mr. Cox and felt about the
muddy bottom with their feet. They were not long employed thus when
they came upon a bag of bones--or, rather, the remains of a human
body, kept together by clothing which had become so rotten it would
scarcely bear the touch. The skull was still attached to the body,
which the blacks raised to the surface and brought on shore, together
with a big stone and the remains of a large silk handkerchief. The
features were not recognisable, but the buttons on the clothes, and
the boots, were those which Mr. Fisher used to wear! And in the
pocket of the trousers was found a buckhorn-handled knife which bore
the initials "J.F." engraved on a small silver plate. This was also
identified by Weir, who had seen Mr. Fisher use the knife scores of
times. It was one of those knives which contained a large blade, two
small ones, a corkscrew, gimlet, horse-shoe picker, tweezers,
screwdriver, etc., etc. The murderer, whoever it might be, had either
forgotten to take away this knife or had purposely left it with the
body, for all other pockets were turned inside out.
"Well, sir, what do you think of that?" said old Weir to Mr. Cox,
who looked on in a state of amazement which almost amounted to
"I scarcely know what to think of it," was Mr. Cox's reply. "But
it is lucky for you, David, that you are a man of such good character
that you are beyond the pale of being suspected of so foul a
"Yes, you. If it were not that this dead man's property is
advertised for sale, it might have gone very hard with you, old man.
It would have been suggested that your conscience had something to do
with the information you gave me of the ghost. But stay here, all of
you, with the body until I return. I shall not be absent for more
than an hour. Have you a pair of handcuffs about you, Hamilton?"
"Several pair, sir," replied the constable.
After leaving the dead body, Mr. Cox rode to Fisher's house, in
which Mr. Smith was living. Mr. Smith, on being informed of the
approach of so exalted a person as Mr. Cox, one of the proudest men
in the colony, came out to receive him with all respect and honour.
Mr. Cox--who would not have given his hand to an "ex-piree" (under
any circumstances), no matter how wealthy he might be--answered Mr.
Smith's greeting with a bow, and then asked if he could speak with
him for a few minutes. Mr. Smith replied, "Most certainly, sir," and,
ordering a servant to take the magistrate's horse to the stables, he
conducted his visitor into the best room of the weatherboarded and
comfortable tenement. The furniture was plain and homely, but
serviceable, nevertheless, and remarkably clean. The pictures on the
walls formed a rather motley collection, having been picked up at
various times by Mr. Fisher at sales by public auction of the effects
of deceased officials. Amongst others were two valuable oil-paintings
which had originally belonged to Major Ovens, an eccentric officer
who was buried on Garden Island, in the harbour of Port Jackson.
These had been bought for less money than the frames were worth.
There were also some Dutch paintings, of which neither Mr. Fisher nor
those who had not bid against him little knew the real value when
they were knocked down for forty-two shillings the set--six in
"I have come to speak to you on a matter of business," said the
magistrate. "Is the sale of this farm and the stock to be a
peremptory sale? That is to say, will it be knocked down, bonâ
fide, to the highest bidder?"
"And the terms are cash?"
"Sales for cash are not very common in this country. The terms are
usually ten per cent. deposit, and the residue at three, six, nine
and twelve months, in equal payments."
"Very true, sir, but these are Mr. Fisher's instructions, by which
I must be guided."
"What do you imagine the farm will realise, including the stock
and all that is upon it?"
"Well, sir, it ought to fetch £1,500 ready money."
"I hear that the whole of Mr. Fisher's property is to be sold,
either by auction or private contract."
"What will it realise, think you, in cash?"
"Not under £12,000 I should say, sir."
"One of my brothers has an idea of bidding for this farm; what
about the title?"
"As good as can be, sir. It was originally granted to Colonel
Foucaux, who sold it and conveyed it to Mr. Thomas Blaxsell, who sold
it and conveyed it to Fisher. But as you know, sir, twenty years'
undisputed possession of itself makes a good title, and Fisher has
been on this farm far longer than that. All the deeds are here; you
may see them, if you please, sir."
"There is no occasion for that; as Mr. Fisher's constituted
attorney, you will sign the deed of conveyance on his behalf."
"What is the date of the power of attorney?"
"I will tell you, sir, in one moment"; and opening a bureau which
stood in one corner of the room, Mr. Smith produced the deed and
placed it in Mr. Cox's hands.
With the signature of Fisher, Mr. Cox was not acquainted; or, at
all events he could not swear to it. He had seen it--seen Fisher
write his name, it is true; but then it was that sort of hand which
all uneducated and out-door working men employ when they write their
names--a sprawling round-hand. But as to the signatures of the
attesting witnesses there could be no question whatever. They were
those of two of the most eminent solicitors (partners) in Sydney--Mr.
Cox's own solicitors, in fact.
"And the letter of instructions authorising you to sell by
auction, for cash; for it says in this power, 'and to sell the same,
or any part thereof, in accordance with such instructions as he may
receive from me by letter after my arrival in England.'"
"Here is the letter, sir," said Mr. Smith, producing it.
Mr. Cox read the letter attentively. It ran thus:
"Dear Sir,--I got home all right, and found my friends and
relations quite well and hearty, and very glad to see me again. I am
so happy among 'em, I shan't go out no more to the colony. So sell
all off, by public auction or by private contract, but let it be for
cash, as I want the money sharp; I am going to buy a share in a
brewery with it. I reckon it ought, altogether, to fetch about
£17,000. But do your best, and let me have it quick, whatever
"Your faithful friend.
There was no post mark on this letter. In those days the postage
on letters was very high, and nothing was more common for persons in
all conditions of life to forward communications by private hands. As
to the signature of the letter, it was identical with that of the
power of attorney.
"All this is very satisfactory," said Mr. Cox. "Is this letter,
dated five months ago, the last you have received?"
"Yes, sir. It came by the last ship, and there has not been
another in since."
"Good morning, Mr. Smith."
"Good morning, sir."
Riding away from Fisher's late abode, Mr. Cox was somewhat
perplexed. That power of attorney, drawn up so formally, and signed
by Fisher in the presence of such credible witnesses, and then the
letter written, signed in the same way by the same hand, were all in
favour of the presumption that Fisher had gone to England, leaving
his friend and neighbour, Smith, in charge of his property, real and
personal. But then, there were the remains! And that they were the
remains of Fisher, Mr. Cox firmly believed. When he had returned to
the pond, by a circuitous route, Mr. Cox ordered the blacks to strip
from a bluegum tree, with their tomahawks, a large sheet of bark.
Upon this the remains were placed, carried straightaway to Fisher's
house (Mr. Cox, upon horseback, heading the party) and placed on the
verandah. While this proceeding was in progress Mr. Smith came out
and wore upon his countenance an expression of surprise,
astonishment, wonder. But there was nothing in that. The most
innocent man in the world would be surprised, astonished, and in
wonderment on beholding such a spectacle.
"What is this, Mr. Cox?" he said.
"The last that I have heard and seen of Mr. Fisher," was the
reply. "Of Mr. Fisher, sir!"
"These were his old clothes," said Mr. Smith, examining them
carefully; "most certainly this was the old suit he used to wear. But
as for the body, it can't be his; for he is alive, as you have seen
by his letter. These old clothes he must have given away, as he did
many other old things, the day before he left this; and the man to
whom he gave 'em must have been murdered."
"Do you think he could have given away this knife?" said David
Weir. "To my knowledge, he had it for better than twelve years, and
often have I heard him say he would not part with it for
"Give it away? Yes!" said Smith. "Didn't he give away his old
saddle and bridle? Didn't he give away his old spurs? Didn't he give
away a cow and a calf?"
"He was a good man, and an honest man, and a very fair dealing
man, and in his latter days a very righteous and godly man, but he
was not a giving-away man by any manner of means," returned old
"And if he gave away these boots," said Hamilton, "they were a
very good fit for the man who received them."
"This man, whoever he is, was murdered, no doubt," said Mr. Smith,
with the most imperturbable countenance and the coolest manner. "Just
look at this crack in his skull, Mr. Cox."
"Yes, I have seen that," said the magistrate.
"And that's where poor Fisher's ghost had it," said old David.
"Fisher's ghost!" said Mr. Smith. "What do you mean, Weir?"
"Why, the ghost that I have twice seen sitting on the rail not far
from the old bridge at the bottom of the hill yonder."
"Ghost! You have seen a ghost, have you?" returned Mr. Smith,
giving Mr. Cox a very cunning and expressive look. "Well, I have
heard that ghosts do visit those who have sent them out of this
world, and I dare say Mr. Cox has heard heard the same. Now, if I had
been you, I'd have held my tongue about a ghost (for ghosts are only
the creatures of our consciences) for fear of being taken in
"I taken in charge!" said old Weir. "No, no! My conscience is
clear, and what I've seen and said I'll swear to. Wherever I go I'll
talk about it up to my dying hour. That was the ghost of Mr. Fisher
that I saw, and these are the remains of his body."
"If I were Mr. Cox, a magistrate," said Mr. Smith, "I would give
you in charge."
"I will not do that, Mr. Smith," replied Mr. Cox. "I feel that my
duty compels me to give you in custody of this police officer."
"For what, sir?"
"On a charge of wilful murder. Hamilton!"
"Manacle Mr. Smith and take him to Penrith."
Mr. Smith held up his wrists with the air of an injured and
pure-minded man, who was so satisfied of his innocence that he was
prepared for the strictest investigation into his conduct and had no
dread as to the result.
A coroner's inquest was held on the remains found in the pond, and
a verdict of "Wilful Murder" was returned against Edward Smith. The
jury also found that the remains were those of John Fisher, albeit
they were so frightfully decomposed that personal identification was
out of all question.
The vessel in which Fisher was reported to have left Sydney
happened to be in the harbour. The captain and officers were
interrogated, and in reply to the question,--"Did a man named John
Fisher go home in your vessel?" the reply was "Yes, and on the Custom
House officers coming on board, as usual, to look at the passengers
and search the ship to see that no convicts were attempting to make
their escape, he produced his parchment certificate of freedom, in
which there was a description of his person."
"And did the man answer exactly to that description?"
"Yes, making allowance for his years, on looking at the date of
the certificate. If he had not, he would have been detained, as many
convicts have been."
"And during the voyage did he talk of himself?"
"Frequently. He said that he was a farmer near Penrith; that after
he had served his time he went to work, earned some money, rented a
farm, then bought it, and by industry and perseverance had made a
"Did he ever mention a Mr. Smith--a friend of his?"
"Often. He said he had left everything in Mr. Smith's hands, and
that he did not like to sell his property till he saw how he should
like England after so long an absence. He further said that if he did
not come back to the colony he would have all his property sold off,
and join some trading firm in his own country."
The solicitor who had prepared the power of attorney, and
witnessed it, said that a person representing himself as John Fisher,
of Ruskdale, in the district of Penrith, came to them and gave
instructions for the deed; and after it was duly executed, took it
away with him and requested that a copy might be made and kept in
their office, which was done accordingly. In payment of the bill,
twenty dollars (£5 currency), he gave a cheque on the bank of
New South Wales, which was cashed on presentation; that the man who
so represented himself as John Fisher was a man of about forty-six or
forty-eight years of age, about five feet eight inches in height, and
rather stout; had light blue eyes, sandy hair, and whiskers partially
gray, a low but intelligent forehead, and a rather reddish nose.
This description answered exactly that of Mr. Fisher at the time
of his departure from the colony.
The cashier of the bank showed the cheque for twenty dollars. Mr.
Fisher had an account there, and drew out his balance,
£200--not in person, but by a cheque--two days previous to his
alleged departure. He had written several letters to the bank, and on
comparing those letters with the letter Mr. Smith said he had
received from England, they corresponded exactly.
Opinion was very much divided in the colony with respect to Mr.
Smith's guilt. Numbers of persons who knew the man, and had dealings
with him, thought him incapable of committing such a crime--or any
heinous offence, in fact. The records were looked into, to ascertain
of what offence he had been convicted originally. It was for
embezzling the sum of twenty--two shillings and fourpence, which had
been entrusted to him when he was an apprentice for his master, who
was a market gardener, seedsman and florist. As for the story about
the ghost, very, very few put any trust in it. Bulwer was then a very
young gentleman, and had never dreamt of writing about Eugene Aram;
nor had Thomas Hood contemplated his exquisite little poem on the
same subject. Nor had the murder of the Red Barn been brought to
light through the agency of a dream. The only instances of ghosts
coming to give evidence of murder were those of Banquo and Hamlet's
father--and Shakespeare was not considered an authority to be relied
upon in such a case as that of Fisher.
Smith's house and premises, as well as those of Fisher, were
searched in the hope of finding apparel, or some garment stained with
blood, but in vain. Nor did the inspection of Smith's letters and
papers disclose aught that strengthened the case against him. On the
contrary, his accounts touching Fisher's property were kept entirely
distinct from his own, and in memorandum books were found entries of
the following description:--
Sept. 9.--Wrote to Fisher to say P. has paid the interest on his
Sept. 27.--Received £27 10s.--from Wilson for year's rent of
Fisher's house in Castlereagh Street.
Nov. 12.--Paid Baxter £3 12s.--due to him by Fisher for
No case had ever before created, and probably never will again
create, so great a sensation. Very many were firmly impressed with
the belief that Weir was the murderer of the man who wore Fisher's
clothes, crediting Smith's assertion or suggestion that he had given
them away. Many others were of the opinion that the remains were
those of Fisher, and the man who murdered him had robbed him of his
certificate of freedom, as well as of the cash and papers he had
about him, and then, representing Fisher, had got out of the colony
and made Smith a dupe.
The anxiously looked-for day of trial came. The court was crowded
with persons in every grade of society, from the highest to the very
lowest. Mr. Smith stood in the dock as firmly and as composedly as
though he had been arraigned for a mere libel, or a common
assault--the penalty of conviction not exceeding a fine and a few
The case was opened by the Attorney-General with the greatest
fairness imaginable, and when the witnesses gave their evidence
(Weir, Hamilton, Williams and Mr. Cox) everyone appeared to hold his
breath. Smith, who defended himself, cross-examined them all with
wonderful tact and ability; and, at the conclusion of the case for
the prosecution, addressed the jury at considerable length and with
no mean amount of eloquence.
The judge then summed up. His honour was the last man in the world
to believe in supernatural appearances; but with the ability and
fairness that characterised his career in the colony, he weighted the
probabilities and improbabilities with the greatest nicety. To detail
all the points taken by the judge would be tedious; but if his charge
had any leaning one way or other it was in favour of the
The jury in those days was not composed of the people, but of
military officers belonging to the regiment quartered in the colony.
These gentlemen, in ordinary cases, did not give much of their minds
to the point at issue. Some of them usually threw themselves back and
shut their eyes--not to think, but "nod." Others whispered to each
other--not about the guilt or innocence of the prisoner at the bar,
but about their own affairs; whilst those who had any talent for
drawing exercised it by sketching the scene or taking the likeness of
the prisoner, the witnesses, the counsel, the sheriff and the judge.
But in this case they seemingly devoted all their energies, in order
to enable them to arrive at the truth. To every word that fell from
the judge during his charge, which lasted over two hours, they
listened with breathless attention, and when it was concluded they
requested permission to retire to consider their verdict. This was at
half--past five in the afternoon of Friday, and not until a quarter
to eleven did the jury return into court and retake their places in
The excitement that prevailed was intense, and when the murmurs in
the crowd, so common upon such occasions, had subsided, amidst awful
stillness the prothonotary put that all-momentous question,
"Gentlemen of the jury, what say you? Is the prisoner at the bar
guilty, or not guilty?"
With a firm, clear voice, the foreman--a captain in the
army--uttered the word "GUILTY!"
Murmurs of applause from some, and of disapprobation from others,
instantly resounded through the hall of Justice. From the reluctant
manner in which the judge put the black cap upon his head, it was
evident that he was not altogether satisfied with the finding of the
jury. He had, however, no alternative; and in the usual formal manner
he sentenced the prisoner to be hanged on the following Monday
morning at eight o'clock.
Smith heard the sentence without moving a single muscle or
betraying any species of emotion, and left the dock with as firm a
step as that which he employed when entering it. His demeanour
through the trial, and after he was sentenced, brought over many who
previously thought him guilty to a belief in his innocence, and a
petition to the Governor to spare his life was speedily drafted and
numerously signed. It was rumoured that the Chief justice who tried
the case had also made a similar recommendation, and that the
Governor, in deference thereto, had ordered a reprieve to be made
out, but not to be delivered to the Sheriff until seven o'clock on
Monday morning. It was further stated that the Governor was of
opinion that the finding of the jury was a correct one. The press of
the colony did not lead, but fell into, the most popular opinion,
that it would be tantamount to murder to take away the life of any
human being upon such evidence as that given at the trial.
On the Monday morning, so early as half-past six, the rocks which
overlooked the gaol yard in Sydney, and commanded a good view of the
gallows, were crowded with persons of the lower orders; and when, at
a little before seven, the hangman came out to suspend the rope to
the beam and make other preparations he was hailed with loud hisses
and execrations; so emphatic was the demonstration of the multitude
in favour of the condemned man. By seven o'clock the mob was doubled,
and when the Under-Sheriff or any other functionary was seen in the
courtyard, the yells with which he was greeted were something
At five minutes to eight the culprit was led forth, and at the
foot of the gallows, and near his coffin (according to the custom
prevailing in the colony), was pinioned preparatory to ascending the
ladder. Whilst this ceremony was being performed the shouts of the
populace were deafening. "Shame! Shame! Shame! Hang Weir! He is the
guilty man! This is a murder! A horrid murder!" Such were the
ejaculations that resounded from every quarter of that dense mob
assembled to witness the execution; while the calm and submissive
manner in er in which Smith listened to the reverend gentleman who
attended him in his last moments, heightened rather than suppressed
the popular clamour.
At one minute past eight the fatal bolt was drawn and Smith, after
struggling for about half a minute, was dead! Whereupon the mob
renewed their yells, execrations, hisses, and cries of "Shame! Shame!
Shame! Murder! Murder! Murder!" These noises could not recall to life
Mr. Smith. He had gone to his account, and after hanging an hour his
body was cut down, the coffin containing it conveyed in an uncovered
cart to Slaughter--House Point (the last resting-place of all great
criminals) and the grave filled in with quicklime.
There was a gloom over Sydney until the evening at half-past six
o'clock. Almost everyone was now disposed to think that the blood of
an innocent man had been shed. "The witnesses were all perjured, not
excepting Mr. Cox"; "the jury were a parcel of fools"; and "the
Governor, who would not listen to the judge, a hard-hearted and cruel
man." Such were the opinions that were current from one end of Sydney
to the other. But at the hour above mentioned--halfpast six in the
evening--the public mind was disabused of its erroneous idea. At that
hour it became generally known that on the previous night Mr. Smith
had sent for the Rev. Mr. Cooper, and to that gentleman had confessed
that he deserved the fate that awaited him; that for more than two
years he had contemplated the murder of John Fisher for the sake of
his wealth, which was equal to £20,000; that the man who had
personated Fisher and executed the power of attorney had gone to
England and written thence the letter upon which he so much relied in
his defence, was a convict who resembled the deceased in person, and
to whom he (Smith) gave Fisher's certificate of freedom; that it was
his (Smith's) intention to have left the colony as soon as the
proceeds of the sale came into his possession--partly because he
longed to lead the last portion of his life in England, but chiefly
because, from the day on which he committed the murder, he had been
haunted by that ghost which old Weir had truly sworn he saw sitting
on the rail; that the deed was done by a single blow from a tomahawk,
and that the deceased never spoke after it was inflicted. He
protested that the man who had personated Fisher in respect to the
execution of the power of attorney, and who had escaped from the
colony, was ignorant of his (Smith's) intention to murder Fisher; and
that the letter which had been forwarded from England was only a copy
of the one which he (Smith) had told him to despatch a few months
after he had arrived at home. He concluded by saying that, since he
struck Fisher that fatal blow his life had been a burden to him, much
as he had struggled to disguise his feelings and put a bold front on
the matter; and that he would much rather, since he had been
convicted, suffer death than be reprieved--although he hoped that
until after the breath had left his body his confession would be kept