The Oriental Bank Robbery

Caution

The discovery of a robbery at the Oriental Bank in Melbourne spurred the Acting Manager, George Hamilton Traill, into action. A public notice was immediately placed with three Melbourne newspapers and went to print on 30 January 1867. They cautioned the public against transacting with any of the bills, which were specially endorsed to the Oriental Bank.

Oriental Bank
The Oriental Bank, Melbourne. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Having read the notice and the news in the papers, the “mysterious and sensational event” quickly became the talk of Melbourne.

It has quite absorbed public attention at the west end of town, and groups have been seen in the Exchange with the newspapers of to-day, and especially the Herald of Saturday, in their hands, conjecturing all sorts of clues to the secret.

Circumstances preceding the robbery only added to the mystery. Two or three days before, the bills were looked over, placed inside a wooden box and the wooden box placed inside a tin box. The tin box was fastened and locked securely and the messenger (a man in charge of cashing paper assets) placed the box in the vault. On 29 January 1867, the tin box was unlocked and it was discovered that the wooden box had disappeared “like the mystical cases in the hands of the wizard.

The wooden box was eventually found covered up under the counter. Some of the bills, estimated to be worth about £300,000 were gone.

It is most difficult to consider what could be the object of the thief or thieves when it is known that the bills are not of the slightest value to any person but the people of the bank.

The bank officials involved swore that they saw both boxes placed one inside the other. There was also no way that anyone could get into the vault. The fact that the robbery had taken place quietly without any sort of violence or force added to the conjecture. It indicated that the person who committed the crime knew what they were after and hinted that it had been an inside job.

Keys

Adding further intrigue to the crime was the appearance of an advertisement in The Herald on 22 January 1867. Printed under the ‘Missing Friends, Messages, etc.’ column, it initially held no meaning until someone realised that it was an acrostic, with the capital letters spelling “portentous facts“.

Portentous

The letters used in the third column to spell the word ‘facts’ were assumed to represent the surnames of the banking officials. The sentences were said to describe how each person would react to the robbery. ‘S will wind up’ was further thought to refer to the inspector of the Oriental Bank and implied that the Queen InitialsStreet branch would be wound up because of the affair.

Detectives were placed on the case and they began by trying to find the person who placed the advertisement with The Herald. They obtained the original handwritten document and came to the conclusion that, apart from the capital letters, it looked as though it was written by a person attempting to disguise their writing.

Rumours began to swirl around Melbourne and the safety and security of the banks was questioned. Considering the bills were useless to the individual who stole them, theories emerged that the robbery was carried out to hide evidence of forgery.

Lacking any new clues, by 1 February 1867, the managers of the Oriental Bank decided to offer a £1,000 reward for the return of the stolen bills and the conviction of the perpetrator. In the end it was the perpetrator himself who offered vital information. At about 4 am on Sunday, 3 February 1867, an envelope was pushed under the door of the detective office on Little Collins Street.

Old Police Office
The Old Police Station on Little Collins Street in 1850. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.

Inside the envelope was a small white card. Stuck on the card were letters cut out from a book, which gave the police the following directions.

Look for Bills

Superintendent Nicholson, the Resident Clerk, James Scott, and Detectives Jennings and Williams immediately left the police station for Carlton Gardens. Having found the right location, they carried out a search but did not find the bills. To ensure that the card was not a hoax, Mr Scott and the detectives went to the Oriental Bank to look in their book room. They searched the room and, sure enough, on top of a cedar cabinet, was a parcel wrapped up in brown paper. Upon opening it they found that it contained some of the missing bills.

Thoroughly convinced that the card was genuine, they quickly returned to the gardens to search again. Knowing that it was there somewhere, this time they had more success. The second parcel was eventually found in the nursery attached to the residence of the gardener, Mr Hyndman. It contained the remainder of the missing bills.

With the discovery of the two parcels it was presumed that the stolen bills had been found in their entirety. If the perpetrator thought that their return would be an end to the investigation, they were sorely mistaken. It was noted that authorities were determined to find the culprit and “resolved to spare neither money nor trouble in sheeting the guilt home to the proper parties…

The fact that one parcel was found within the Oriental Bank (in a place that had already been searched several days earlier without success) was not lost on many people. Suspicion turned towards the bank’s employees.

The inference justifies the impression that has all along been entertained that the depredation was committed by some individual within the bank, who did it more for the sake of mischief than anything else.

Two days later all was revealed. The acting accountant, John Dixon, was interviewed by George Traill with a solicitor present. In that interview, he gave a full confession.

The motive for the crime was the next topic of discussion and reporters speculated that it may have been revenge for not being promoted. Dixon was dismissed and with the bills returned, it appeared he would not be prosecuted. ‘The Age’ however begged the questions: “But have we really got to the bottom of the mystery at last? Is there nothing at all behind?

By the end of the week pressure was mounting upon the officials of the Oriental Bank. People were puzzled and questions were repeatedly being asked as to why they were not seeking the criminal conviction of Dixon. Rumours abounded that a deal had been made; if Dixon confessed to the crime, the bank would not prosecute him. Coupled with an incredulous rumour (denied by police) that Dixon had received the £1,000 reward, people were understandably concerned.

Questions

According to ‘The Herald’ the bank officials had only considered Dixon’s action a “malicious attempt to annoy the institution, and not as a felony.” The affair reeked of a cover-up. A senior bank official had confessed and was terminated from his employment. Did others know more about the crime than they wished to disclose?

Police continued to keep a watchful eye on Dixon and, on 21 February 1867, at his home on Gipps Street in Melbourne, he was arrested and charged with embezzling £300,000. The arrest came about not at the request of the Oriental Bank officials but at the request of the Minister for Justice, Samuel Bindon.

On the following day the case came before the Police Court and many eager people crammed into the hot, smelly courtroom hoping to hear answers to their many questions. They were to be disappointed. The case was remanded for five days.

Again, on 27 February, the Police Court “thronged with business men of almost every character” keen to hear the proceedings. This time the case got underway and many witnesses were heard; giving evidence in relation to the movement within the bank on the day the bills went missing. When George Traill took the stand he confirmed that he had spoken to all the clerks.

I let it be known to the clerks of the bank that if the bills were returned, I would not proceed against them.

Having admitted to ‘compounding a felony’ (accepting the return of the bills under an agreement not to prosecute) the counsel for the defense, Butler Aspinall, immediately submitted to the Bench that Traill was “not bound to criminate himself.” With nowhere else to go the Crown Solicitor, Henry Gurner, again requested that the case be remanded for several days.

It returned to the Police Court on 1 March 1867. More witnesses were heard and Butler Aspinall gave an impassioned speech lasting half an hour, in which he declared that Dixon had no case to answer and that it was a “clap-trap prosecution to satisfy the public“. Despite a round of applause at the end, the Magistrates felt differently. There was a case to answer and the evidence looked unfavourably upon Dixon. He was committed for trial.

Over a month passed before the case was finally heard on 17 April in the Supreme Court of Victoria. Dixon, who acted rather nonchalant at the Police Court, showed obvious signs of worry. He pleaded not guilty to the crime of larceny.

George Traill was the first witness to give evidence. He confirmed that he had provided the inducement to the clerks and that after the bills were returned, he spoke privately to Dixon. In the meeting he pointed out that an “error” had been found within Dixon’s account book. Dixon admitted to the falsification and stated that at the end of the month they would find several others. He then sought confirmation from Traill that he would keep his promise not to prosecute and, having obtained it, confessed to stealing the bills.

It was these fraudulent “errors” and the possible punishment arising from their discovery which shaped Dixon’s decision to steal the bills. He only confessed because of Traill’s promise; assuming it would absolve him from being held accountable for both crimes.

Questions as to how the bills were stolen from the Oriental Bank were also finally answered.

He told me that he had taken opportunities when the key of the billbox was lying on Mr. Falconer’s desk, to take impressions of it, and that after some difficulty he had got a key to fit the box. …he had taken the opportunity of getting access to the box; that he had taken out the wooden case, made the bills into two parcels, and taken one to Richmond, and the other to his own house.

Dixon had acted alone. Along with the falsifications in the account book, he provided another reason for his behaviour: he had suffered losses in mining stocks.

Other witnesses gave evidence and many confirmed the location of various keys as well as the movement of people and the boxes inside the bank. The messenger, Henry Grounds, recounted that he had left Dixon on his own in the vault for about five minutes. There was ample time to steal the bills. When Grounds returned he found the tin boxes had been rearranged and Dixon was gone.

Certain words spoken by Dixon did not help his case. Robert Grieve, a bill-clerk for the Oriental Bank, related a statement made by Dixon when he returned his keys. Dixon declared, “I have exonerated all the other clerks in the bank.” Assuming the other clerks were not involved, the meaning behind it is not clear. Perhaps, in Dixon’s mind, he believed he had somehow saved them by making a confession.

Thomas Bell (a clerk) also recalled a conversation he had with Dixon. While discussing the robbery, Dixon had predicted that the Oriental Bank would close. To prevent it from closing, he speculated that the officials would likely pay thousands of pounds to have the bills returned.

…he said that I might depend that unless the bills were obtained the bank would be obliged to close. He added, that any person having the bills would very likely be able to get £5,000, £10,000, £15,000, or even £20,000 for them from the bank.

Dixon’s barrister, Richard Ireland Q.C., closed the case and declared to the jury that (apart from the confession to Traill) there was not “one tittle of evidence” against his client. He concluded that Dixon’s actions were not malicious and were only done “…to cause temporary annoyance to the manager and other officials who were obnoxious to the clerks generally.

The Chief Justice directed the jury and, at the end, made his opinion quite clear on what he thought of George Traill’s deal not to prosecute.

…if any persons, whether bank corporations or otherwise, were allowed to make compacts by which they were benefited and the prosecution of felonies suppressed, courts of justice had better be closed at once.

The jury retired for several minutes to deliberate. When they returned the foreman announced their verdict: guilty.

Early on the following morning Dixon was placed in the dock for sentencing. The Chief Justice took into account the jury’s recommendation for mercy and reiterated to Dixon that the crime he had committed was “no ordinary crime.” Dixon was allowed to speak on his own behalf and emphasised that there had been no long term inducement to act illegally. The act only took place after he had falsified the books because of losses from his mining speculations.

Speculated

The Chief Justice tried to reiterate to Dixon that he had committed one offence to hide another but Dixon still could not comprehend the magnitude of his crime. He attempted to use the fact that the bills were not destroyed as proof that what he had done was not that bad. The Chief Justice was direct in his response.

But the abstraction of them was a serious matter; what you subsequently did is comparatively unimportant. You seem scarcely aware of the nature of your crime, and but for the recommendation of the jury, I don’t hesitate to say I would pass a very different sentence on you to what I am about to pronounce.

For stealing £300,000 worth of bills, Dixon was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment without hard labour. Further to that, he was to spend the first week of each alternate month in solitary confinement so that he could think about what he had done.

With the once mysterious details laid bare in the courtroom, analysis of the crime followed in the major Melbourne newspapers. Many reporters expressed shock at the revelation that it had turned out to be a “robbery within a robbery” that was nearly brushed aside due to the illegal deal made by George Traill.

In committing the crime Dixon displayed arrogance and an astonishing lack of accountability. He speculated on the stock market, suffered heavy losses and then attempted to recoup some of those losses by using funds stolen from the bank. When the date drew closer to the fraud being discovered, rather than accept his fate, he instead chose to steal the bills in the hope that that crime would overshadow his previous one and cause the bank’s closure.

Astounded by Dixon’s actions and curious about the mentality behind his behaviour, I related the facts of the case to Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Lisa Barratt. She stated that his behaviour showed a “…belief he is entitled to do what he wants and manipulate others with a flagrant disregard for the law.” According to Dr Barratt, these elements are indications of a narcissistic personality disorder. Her opinion immediately resonated with me. Thinking of his actions throughout the trial and especially his words at sentencing, it is an analysis that fits perfectly.

While the reason for stealing the bills is clear, the use of the advertisement is harder to understand. Even a reporter questioned it but skirted providing an answer. If Dixon acted alone, what was the point in placing the ad? Clearly he thought it was important or it wouldn’t have been used in the first place. Perhaps the ad actually had a purpose, printed in the newspaper in order to portray the robbery as something more elaborate than what it was. If that was the case, it provides another clue to Dixon’s intent and shows the level of planning that went into the scheme.

But what if the ad was never seen? Considering it was placed in the messages section and was essentially a puzzle, there was a strong possibility that no one would have noticed it. Personally, I believe it was always meant to be seen. When the acrostic was uncovered the reporters noted that the man who worked it out was “a gentleman in the bank.” No further information was printed and no name was provided. We have no way of knowing who it was but I would not be surprised (given his behaviour) if it was Dixon who carefully pointed out his handiwork in order to draw attention to it.

However, leaving this point, let us glance at the rare combination of coolness, audacity, and originality displayed by the delinquent. Even now he has succeeded to the extent of saving himself from the consequences of embezzlement.

John Dixon most likely served his sentence and was a free man in just under two years. He was never charged with the first crime of embezzling money from the bank. Nor was George Traill charged with ‘compounding a felony’. While Dixon was sent to prison, his punishment was meagre. In contrast, ‘The Herald’ noted that a man convicted of three charges of horse and cattle stealing (worth less than £100) was sentenced to eight years hard labour. Unsurprisingly, both men were essentially protected by their status in society and the banking institution they worked for. Even more disturbing, if it wasn’t for the perseverance of the police, there may not have been a conviction at all.

Sources:

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