“I saw that thing up there in my dreams one night, and I knew how it would end. …It’s funny – that I dreamt many years ago that I’d get my head cut off – by a white nation, too”.
These were words spoken by Oscar Wallace, a 24-year-old man originally from the West Indies, to a clergyman in an Australian prison cell in August 1873. The “thing up there”, in his dreams both nights and years before, was the gallows. The following day, August 12th, he was hanged from them at Ballarat Gaol, on the goldfields in the Australian colony of Victoria.
Around 120 people had been executed over the 40-year colonial history of Victoria prior to Oscar Wallace – most of them men, and most for murders and robberies . Although five other men had been hanged for the crime of rape, Wallace was the first to be hanged for the rape of an adult woman, rather than a child.
The crime he was convicted of was dubbed “The Outrage at Mount Beckworth” by newspapers. “Outrage” was a common Victorian-era euphemism for rape, and Mount Beckworth was a rural district close to the gold mining town of Clunes, about 30 kilometres north of Ballarat. Oscar Wallace was convicted in the Circuit Court of raping Mary Cook, a married woman. Mary Cook had been attacked at her farmhouse at Mount Beckworth on the morning of July 4th 1873, by a rapist disguising himself with grain (‘chaff’) bags and wielding a knife. Wallace was arrested four days later in Beaufort, 50 kilometres west of Ballarat, in connection with armed robberies. He admitted to one robbery, but denied having been at Mount Beckworth.
Oscar Wallace was a black man – and “negro”, “colored man” or other terms were nearly usually always used in newspaper stories referring to him. While his country of origin was referred to as “Santa Cruz” he was also referred to in newspapers as an (or ‘the’) “American black”. Being a black man from North America in 19th century Ballarat was not, in itself, altogether uncommon – two of the men tried for treason in the Eureka stockade trial had been African American. But neither was it common. Or at least, popular. The Judge in Wallace’s trial, Justice Edward Williams, wrote of the difficult task of putting a balanced case for Wallace to the jury. The principal fact connecting Wallace to the crime was that he had been a black man in a largely white area. In his statement to the jury, the judge suggested that the victim Mrs Cook:
“…might come to the conclusion that as it was a black man who had raped her it must be the prisoner – as no other black found was found in the neighbourhood at the time – in other words, that she identified the prisoner rather through the force of circumstances than from actual recognition.”
In any event this statement did not have an appreciable impact on the jury. In passing the sentence of death by hanging, the Judge asked Oscar Wallace if he had anything to say, to which Wallace answered “all I can say is I know nothing about it. There’s twelve men [the jury] who will have their own way, and they say I did it”. (This was also reported as “all I can say is it is a made-up affair”). When the judge pointed out that the only person now in a position to spare the death penalty was the Governor, Wallace retorted – “and I hope he’ll put a rope round my neck” .
Some weeks later on the day of his execution and with a rope now literally around his neck, Wallace had apparently planned to use the opportunity of his last words to complain of his treatment during the trial and in the colony. Last words were a privilege ritually granted condemned prisoners on the gallows. But first Wallace asked the hangman, Bamford (a seasoned executioner), to take the noose off his neck. When this request was refused, Wallace asked the Sheriff “ain’t I allowed to speak?”. Yes, replied the Sheriff, but the rope cannot be removed. This was followed by a short dialogue where Wallace sought to address the 40 spectators (which the authorities would allow) but wanted the noose taken off to do so (which was not allowed):
Wallace: “How long am I to be allowed to speak?”
The sheriff: “You must say what you have to say at once”.
Wallace: “I have a good deal to say about the unfair treatment I have had in this colony, but I want this rope off”.
The Sheriff : “I cannot allow it”.
(The hangman drew the cap over Wallace’s face).
Wallace: “Then I must go to hell without…” 
On that abruptly shortened note, Oscar Wallace dropped to his death – or, in the words of the widely republished newspaper account “The last hours of an unrepentant criminal: the execution of the Negro Wallace”, he was “launched into eternity”. This was to be the last of many executions by Bamford the hangman who, as it turned out, died two months later.
I first heard of Oscar Wallace in 2012 while researching material for a Taylor Project song writing project, as part of a performance (‘Convict Paradise’) of historical convict and penal-themed folk music to be staged at the Old Melbourne Gaol. I was interested, morbidly, in the lyrical potential of the last words recorded of executed prisoners. To research these, I made much use of the National Library of Australia’s Trove – a digital archive best known for its digitized newspapers.
While perusing the range of execution stories from Victoria, certain things about the reports on the execution of Oscar Wallace stood out. He was did not proclaim his innocence, did not pray, and did not seize the opportunity to complain about a wife he had murdered – all of which were fairly common events. His words also seemed to leap off the page rather than being, as was more often the case, paraphrased. In one euphemistic account, for example, Patrick Gearey was executed in 1871 after having made “remarks condemnatory of his wife’s general conduct in life”.
I had heard nothing of Oscar Wallace before researching the song lyrics, although I grew up in Ballarat surrounded by relics of goldfields-era history. I used to hang around the dark corridors of the former gaol at night while my mother taught music lessons – at that time the building was occupied by the School of Mines (it has since become part of Federation University). To not know of a convicted rapist executed over a hundred years earlier should not be surprising, nor considered much of a loss in the context of all the people and events forgotten through time. The context, however, of Victoria and Australia, is one where 19th century criminality forms a strangely significant part of nationalist memory and identity. There is the Eureka uprising, for one, and the supposed last words of bushranger Ned Kelly, “such as life”, which are so fondly remembered as to be often found as tattoos. (Other reports suggest Kelly’s last words were along the less tattoo-able lines of “oh well, I suppose it has come to this at last”).
For reasons I still can’t fully explain and or be comfortable with, I was immediately curious about how Oscar Wallace spoke, where he came from, about the snippets of his life and how they were reported. It was said, for example, that he “danced a kind of jig to a tune he hummed to himself” in his cell ahead of the execution– I wanted to know what the jig and the tune was. I was curious about the reactions of people in this time and place to this rape case, as compared to others. I began to ask, and to slowly answer, some basic questions.
The following, as well as a once planned for (but probably abortive) longer essay, is one result of occasional but habitual research over the course of years, in archives both digital and dusty. These are the same archives I have visited for my research on sewerage and ‘nightsoil’; on hotels and temperance-era local liquor controls; chicken farms and rendering plants; and other minutiae of urban conflicts of the past. The essay follows around questions that generally grow less simple, and more uncomfortable to answer, as they go along.
Some shorter answers to give a sense of the whole. First – who was Oscar Wallace, and where did he come from? While Oscar Wallace’s place of origin was referred to as “Santa Cruz”, this was more accurately the island of Saint Croix, then in the Danish West Indies (but now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands). I learned about Oscar Wallace’s past and his nationality in large part courtesy of a digital archive, the St Croix African Roots Project (SCARP). Glimpses into Wallace’s life and family come partly from these records, partly from witness accounts during his trial; and more recently from descendants of one of Oscar Wallace’s brothers who contacted me via the genealogy website Ancestry.com. It is apparent that Wallace spoke Danish, and requested the assistance of the Danish consul.
Was it unusual for a black man from North America, like Wallace, to have been on the Australian goldfields at that time? Wallace’s story connects to a small number of studies and accounts of people referred to as ‘men of colour’ in colonial Australia. These include work on the key role of John Joseph in the Eureka treason trial; and other papers describing the presence of North American and West Indian men in 19th century Australia – indicating perhaps around 2,000 people who typically arrived, as did Wallace, as seamen or as ship’s cooks before leaving to join the gold rushes. I also found news reports and inquest records giving glimpses into the lives of ‘colored’ men in the Ballarat region during the 1870s. Many worked as labourers and ‘splitters’ on stations in the area. These stories put in a different light, for one thing, the statement in the Mount Beckworth trial that “no other black found was found in the neighbourhood at the time”. The presence of local aboriginal people, one of whom was employed as a tracker on the case, and most of whom had been confined to local missions, also adds its own light. To the already large task of acknowledging the long-whitewashed history of colonial Australia and its dispossession of Indigenous people; can be added the fact that more of Australia’s early settlers were black than historical accounts have tended to recall.
On questions of the details of the case – did the evidence put together by the authorities make sense, procedurally? What was Oscar Wallace’s version of events? I spent much time finding, transcribing (from hideously unreadable cursive handwriting) and piecing together the parts of the criminal and trial records for the Mount Beckworth case, as well as information from different newspaper articles related to it. Initially, after having read the execution stories in their flowery hyperbole, there was a kind of disappointment in encountering the grubbier documentation. For one thing, Oscar Wallace had a criminal record – he had been convicted of theft, 3 years earlier, from a hotel in Eurambeen (a few kilometres west of Beaufort – see map below) although he denied this and maintained he had been set up. His prison record for time served in Pentridge Prison in Melbourne for the theft included the only photograph of him, and a series of occasionally humorous infractions including “wearing his hat going to dinner”. These infractions had extended his time served from 2 to 3 years, and stoked his grievances:
“‘Tis an awful place that: they get it all their own way, and can do as they like in there. They rile a man up, and then put a black mark against him. That system’ll have to be altered, or some on ‘em will suffer for it. There’s some fellows as I know who’ll make it hot for ‘em if they get the chance”.
Wallace was in Pentridge Prison, incidentally, alongside Ned Kelly, who served time for receiving a stolen horse (1871-1874) some years before attaining notoriety for violent bush ranging and standoffs with police. Ultimately, there is no doubt that in the days preceding his arrest Oscar Wallace was not wholly engaged in innocent, law-abiding activities. He may well have had cause for grievance against the authorities and the locals of Beaufort and district, but he was no unblemished victim of circumstance and injustice. Wallace said that since his release from prison in Melbourne some days before, he was on his way to seek revenge on the people he claimed “lagged” him for the theft in Eurambeen in 1870. He openly admitted to planning to enact revenge on Ryan, the publican of the Eurambeen Hotel. Someone in such a frame of mind seems a pretty good candidate for crimes in the area. Which is difficult, if one approaches it as a story and a character befitting an audience. It is much easier to hear about good and bad, innocent and wronged. Even Ned Kelly is usually cast as one or the other: the grey areas tend to prove less compelling.
At the same time, I certainly came to doubt sections of the evidence against Oscar Wallace around the Mount Beckworth trial. The details of the whereabouts of Wallace and the physical evidence used by the prosecutors to connect him to the case (a gun, a knife, chaff bags, a ‘billy’ and ‘pannikin’) were boasted of as “conclusive in every case”. Initially, they did sound like a convincing sequence of evidence. But when laid out by time, location, witness and object I began to see large holes in logic. Wallace was not found in actual possession of any of these objects. And while Mount Beckworth is not on the way to Eurambeen from Melbourne or Ballarat, Beaufort is. Most of the witnesses who saw Wallace closer to Beaufort recognised him from earlier years, while those in the Mount Beckworth area described him only as a colored man. Wallace’s alternative version of events, while not pleasant, did hold at least a similar amount of water as the case against him. He claimed he “wasn’t near the place at the time” and, somewhat blithely, argued that:
“’Twas a made-up story, their having witnesses to swear that they saw me near the house that morning, and going along the road afterwards. Why, if I had done a thing like that they wouldn’t have seen me on the road”.
But before latching onto the idea of this being only about casting doubt on whether or not Wallace was guilty of rape, there come questions of “The Outrage at Mount Beckworth” in the context of other rape trials and of criminal justice more broadly at the time. To what extent were Mary Cook and Oscar Wallace treated differently to the victims and accused in other rape cases at the time? Very differently, is the short answer. In Victoria in 1873 overt discrimination on a dizzying range of factors – including but not limited to race and sex, and compounded by class – was legal and entrenched. That Oscar Wallace was a black man and Mary Cook a married white woman clearly had weight in the outcome. But racial and other aspects of injustice ran in both directions, and across more than one narrow meaning of justice. Notably, the prospects of the countless indigenous women raped by white men in colonial Australia achieving any legal justice were infinitesimally small. For every question making the evidence and conviction in the Beckworth case seem dubious, I encountered myriad examples of dubious innocence in others. Justice in a broader sense is not within the scope of any one individual verdict.
Perusing other rape trials from the area and time shows how any alleged rape victim over the age of eight could be sufficiently disreputable, and anyone under that age could have a sufficiently disreputable mother, to have a rape case thrown out. The main defense pursued by Oscar Wallace’s lawyer, Walker, was not the circumstantial evidence of whether Wallace was really in the places or had the weapons that were claimed, but whether Mrs Cook had shouted loud enough or resisted enough. Being threatened with a knife by a random intruder was deemed, in this particular case, to be reason enough to have not shown more convincing signs of resistance. Yet much of the focus was still on her and her actions – on finding signs of consent, or holes in her character, questioning her reliability as a witness, and in general finding reasons to throw out the case. The trial documents contain Wallace’s defense lawyer’s queries- “ascertain from Mary Cook what she did when defendant pushed her on to the bed?” In the trial, Mary Cook responded to cross-examination about her comparative lack of a fight: “I was very weak at the time I was in fear of my life I resisted him at the bedroom door but not afterwards”.
This in itself was standard for the time (and is not unfamiliar today). All judges and jurors at that time were male, and the small numbers of hangings for rape in Victoria were not, as I soon found out when delving into newspapers and other records of the time, for any lack of rapists – even by the fascinatingly narrow legal definitions applied at the time. The fact rape was a capital offence (carrying the death penalty) was a significant factor – jurors were reluctant to return a guilty verdict even in the face of overwhelming evidence, if they disagreed with the likely penalty. This had been especially noticeable in the gang rape by three young (white) men of a 16-year-old girl in Geelong in 1871. In that case, the jury had queried “whether they could not return a verdict carrying with it lesser consequences than death: the answer was ‘no’ and consequently, the verdict was ‘not guilty’”. Compounding this, as a critical editorial observed, the judge “evidently leaned to the opinion that the girl’s conduct led to the outrage, and that it would be monstrous to hang lads for an offence committed in such company”. The three rapists in the Geelong case were released, although both jury and judge accepted they were in all practical respects guilty of the attack.
For another contrast to Wallace’s case you can look to the trial of Thomas Rea, a gunsmith, in Sandhurst (now Bendigo – a similarly sized city to Ballarat, about 150kms away) in the same month as the trial of Oscar Wallace (July 1873), Rea was accused of repeatedly raping two girls aged under 12, Elizabeth and Margaret Spencer, the daughters of a neighbour. Rea “admitted to having tampered with the girls, but said it was not so serious as they had represented”. The girls’ father had asked Rea to leave the neighbourhood, but Rea refused and so the case went to court. The girls were unable to give convincing testimony, however, because they wouldn’t stop crying. In a presumably related turn of events, during the trial Rae’s son John had threatened the girls’ family with blowing their brains out if they testified. Meanwhile the girls’ brother, George, hanged himself from a tree in surrounding bushland – as “the proceedings affected the young man’s mind deeply”. Thomas Rea was acquitted. At his death from illness in 1889 he was described as “Mr Thomas Rea, an old Bendigonian, and father of Mr John Rea, the well known gunsmith”, and “a colonist of over 40 years, much respected by all who knew him” . Respect, like hanging, was selective in its company.
All said, in Victoria in 1873 it took a pretty gigantic sequence of luck to get a rape trial to court let alone to conviction, even for the rape of a child. One can reasonably presume that the jurors in the Mount Beckworth case did not necessarily have any stronger or more convincing evidence than in other rape trials, but rather felt fewer qualms about hanging the accused. Wallace, incidentally, regretted having relied upon a lawyer and “said he could have cross-examined the witnesses to some advantage”. Along what lines, is not clear.
It seems that more than whether I want to question if Oscar Wallace was ‘really’ guilty I want to understand how and why it would be so easy – and so self-important – for the white men of colonial Australia to have hanged him for rape when so many other rapes were swept guilelessly out of view of the justice system. So another question is – what were the stories that the people involved in the case told themselves, to make versions of reality they preferred? How consciously were they lying, or at least, being selective with the truth? Shortly after Wallace’s conviction, and in the days leading up to his execution, a letter to the editor was published in the Ballarat Courier. Signed “a husband”, the letter laid out the sense of outrage, relief and pride widespread in public response to the Outrage at Mount Beckworth:
“As a husband and father, I have felt considerable interest in the above case just concluded, and must say that I was much relieved when I read this morning that the rascal was condemned to be hanged… The general verdict of all true men will be that you have acted a noble part in denouncing such a brute as Wallace, and defending the helpless wife or daughter who may be subject to such prowling demons”.
The hope that “a husband” speaking for “all true men” seemed to cling to was that executing Wallace would keep under control the prospect of “demons” violating further wives and daughters. These sentiments sit awkwardly in a year, and a decade, indeed a century in Australia that the historical record shows amply sprinkled with reports of local fathers murdering their own wives and raping their own daughters. The sentiment reminds me of Oedipus Rex – I read this ancient play in Year 12 English class, and it sometimes seems everything reminds me of it. As Oedipus blusteringly insists that the curse on the land be rooted out and expelled – “I command all to drive him from their homes, since he is our pollution” – Tiresius and the audience know the “land’s pollution” is Oedipus himself, in spite or because of his efforts to evade this truth of his history. They watch as he tries to avoid seeing what he does not want to believe, then as he stabs his own eyes out rather than face it. They watch because it is so familiar, and because they know how it always goes and ends.
I probably initially felt drawn to the Mount Beckworth story because Oscar Wallace seemed so out of place. Putting the pieces together then became, like my other more explicable historical research projects, about untangling connections and trying to understand what has been inherited from the past. Parts of my mind seem now stuck in the late 19th century, in the dry absurdities and pompous language of its municipal disputes and its newspapers – both of which are characterized by the depth of critical thinking of the average 12-year-old. I think there is something timeless about the Oscar Wallace story, with something hidden in plain sight about it. But I am as inevitably of my own time and motives in trying to tell it as were people back then. It is reasonable to ask why I have attempted it, and whether I should have.
On a pragmatic level the story of “All True Men”, of Oscar Wallace and the Outrage at Mount Beckworth, is historical research. It is an exercise in finding new connections through the rapid expansion of digital archives and technology. But it is a story as much about how much other people got away with, as it is about the details of a particular long-forgotten case. It is about another thing that had struck me as unusual about Oscar Wallace, that he expressed an aversion to hurting women: “I wouldn’t hurt a woman: never did”. While I don’t actually credit this sentiment, having immersed myself in texts from this era it still strikes me as an unusual thing to even say in the 19th century. Most people stuck to the questions of what exactly was wrong with a particular woman in order to justify or diminish the violence against her – her clothes, race, cooking, choice of route home. In this and several other respects Wallace seems almost like a time traveler, marooned in a 19th century colonial outpost, surrounded by irate men lacking even a cursory understanding of irony. He seemed – accurately – to know the game was unwinnable. He knew how it would end. After all, he had dreamed of this white nation, many years ago.
- You can listen to the Taylor Project song (mostly by Andrew) “The Outrage at Mount Beckworth” (part of the 2012 ‘Convict Paradise’ collaborative project) here: http://taylorproject.com.au/track/the-outrage-at-mount-beckworth
- If you have suggestions or questions contact Liz: firstname.lastname@example.org or Elizabeth.email@example.com
Footnotes / references:
 For an imperfect list see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_legally_executed_in_Australia
 Stevenson, K. (2007). Unearthing the realities of rape: Utilising Victorian newspaper reportage to fill in the contextual gaps. Liverpool Law Review, 28(3), 405-423.
 Atkinson, J., & Roberts, D. A. (2008). ‘Men of Colour’: John Joseph and the Eureka Treason Trials. Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10(1), 75.
 Justice Edward Williams, Public Records Office Victoria, Capital Case Files VPRS 264 Consignment P0000 1873 Oscar Wallace
 Atkinson, J., & Roberts, D. A. (2008). ‘Men of Colour’: John Joseph and the Eureka Treason Trials. Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10(1), 75.
 Potts, E. D., & Potts, A. (1968). The Negro and the Australian Gold Rushes, 1852-1857. Pacific Historical Review, 37(4), 381-399.
 Public Records Office Victoria Series: 515 (Central Register of Male Prisoners) Item: Volume 13: Prisoner nos. 8613 – 9185. Page 167. Page 167 No. 8775 Name: Wallace James Tried as Oscar Wallace http://access.prov.vic.gov.au/public/component/daPublicBaseContainer?component=daViewRecord&entityId=090fe273812cb499
 Clements, N. P. (2014). The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania.
 The Kerang Times AND SWAN HILL GAZETTE. (1889, January 15). Kerang Times and Swan Hill Gazette (Vic. : 1877 – 1889), p. 2. Retrieved March 26, 2018, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65606601
 One example of a murdered wife in 1873 was Mary Hartnell in Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne). Mary had been so thoroughly and repeatedly beaten by her husband until he actually killed her that a news editorial pondered whether “it would be an advantage to low society if some line could be drawn to settle where wife-beating ends, and manslaughter or murder begins” (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223791594). Violent abuse of wives by husbands was essentially and practically legal. Men sometimes seemed tripped up by the quirk of the law that, at least at the point when they were murdered, women were technically human.
 One example of a rape trial involving a father against his daughter in 1873 was John Church, charged with raping his 10-year old daughter in Ballarat. In the trial “the girl stated that her father had frequently treated her in this manner before”. Although there were witnesses, the case was dismissed because the father claimed successfully that the girl’s mother had a conspiracy against him, and that in any case “he was only lying on the girl for a minute and that any man might do that without doing his daughter any harm” (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article192277386).