The Drummer’s Death

The regular jazz drummer who played in the orchestra at the Empire Dance Hall couldn’t make it to the flannel dance held on 9 December 1932. A call was made to Edward Cassey asking if he could fill in. Despite having never played at the hall and not knowing its location, he said yes.

Edward Cassey

The hall was located on Brisbane Street in Perth while Edward (aged 19) lived with his brother and sister-in-law in Como. He sought directions and at about 7 pm he caught a ferry from South Perth to Perth. In Perth he caught a tram and he alighted near Brisbane Street.

He was wearing a blazer and cream trousers and was carrying his drum as he walked the final distance down Brisbane Street to the hall. The drum was a telltale sign that he was part of the orchestra and at the corner of William Street and Brisbane Street he was joined by Alfred Arnold (another musician) who was aware that the drummer playing that night was new. The pair walked west along the Brisbane Street footpath. It was a moonlit night and the street was busy with other people starting or finishing their Friday entertainment.

At about 7:55 pm they decided they had better increase their pace as they were due to play at 8 pm. As they walked and chatted, a dull crack was heard in the darkness. Edward suddenly dropped his drum and cried out, “I’m shot!” He tore his blazer off. He then staggered forward and fell to the ground as a pool of blood slowly spread beneath him.

While Alfred supported Edward, the police and an ambulance was called from a street phone across the road. Constables Penn and Turner were first on the scene and were in control until Detective Sergeant O’Brien and Detective Larsen took over. The ambulance arrived to take Edward to hospital but there was nothing they could do. The bullet had severed a crucial artery and he had lost too much blood. He had died on the footpath.

The police began earnest investigations. Detective Sergeant Read later arrived and so too did Detectives Campbell and Flanagan. All five detectives plus other members of the police force thoroughly searched the surrounding areas and made inquiries with people nearby. The information was confused and uncertain. No one could say where the bullet had come from. No one had seen a flash of an explosion. One lady who was first on the scene stated:

It might have come from the clouds, it was so sudden.

Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956); 10 December 1932; Page 1.
Brisbane Street in Perth in 1932. The spot where Edward fell is marked with an X.

Disturbingly, despite the terrible tragedy, the dance went on. Edward’s drum was collected from the footpath and a replacement drummer was found. For five hours people danced the night away. When the festivities came to an end at 1 am, the drum was returned to the police so they could test a theory they had in relation to the death.

Prima facie the case looked like murder. For 18 hours the police worked during the night and throughout the following day in the city and the suburbs. They obtained a statement from Alfred as well as Laurie Davis (the drummer Edward was supposed to replace). They also received statements from members of the public. One man claimed he heard two shots while another believed he saw a man running away. Police were sceptical of both reports but followed them up and quickly disproved them. There was no sign of the gun or the shell and no other clues.

In the afternoon on the following day a postmortem examination on Edward’s body was carried out by Dr Donald McKenzie. He had extensive experience of bullet wounds and saw no powder marks. He concluded that death was due to a wound inflicted by a rifle bullet fired from a long distance. The .303 mark 6 bullet had entered the front of his body “on a downward course, about an inch below the centre of his breastbone and was deflected by a rib to a position under the shoulder blade…

The nature of the wound, the condition and course of the bullet showed that it had been fired from at least half a mile away, perhaps further. And so a partly spent bullet winging its way through the air by a mere accident found this poor young fellow’s body as a target.

Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956); 10 December 1932; Page 1.

It was thought the rifle was fired in the vicinity of West Perth or even beyond that. The police came to the conclusion that, in the most unluckiest of circumstances, Edward had died as a result of an accident.

Despite the finding, investigations continued and information was sought from the public as to who fired a rifle with that type of ammunition. The Mirror surmised that it may have been a hunter, a person killing an animal or simply an accidental discharge. Regardless, anyone who fired their gun in the vicinity of the city that night was encouraged to get in touch with Detective Sergeant Doyle.

That same day Edward’s brother, Charles, was interviewed by a reporter from The Daily News. He was informed of his brother’s death on the night it occurred, not long after receiving a Royal Humane Society award for bravery. A moment of euphoria turned into devastation. Charles attended the detective office that night and, with his wife, confirmed the identification of his brother. His grief was evident when he gave the following statement.

Allowing for fraternal exaggeration I can say that Ernie was a boy in a thousand. He did not drink, and as the second youngest of a family of 12 was attached to his home to the extent that he disliked being away even when he had to go out and play at a dance.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 10 December 1932; Page 1.

With the murder theory completely discounted, police were reliant on members of the public coming forward to help prove their accidental shooting theory. The type of bullet fired was similar to those used by rifle clubs, could be fired by various types of rifles and was available for purchase at any ammunition store. They were also used by the military before they were discarded several years earlier. Known to have a long range, it may have been fired into the air several miles away and “was practically a spent force when, in its flight to earth, deceased unluckily walked in its way.

…the 0.303 bullet which killed him could have been fired anywhere within a sector embracing the eastern portion of King’s Park, the Monger’s Lake district and the district behind North Perth.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 13 December 1932; Page 9.

Several people were interviewed. A man who lived in Subiaco was known to have ten 0.303 bullets in his possession. Upon producing all ten bullets and showing that he did not have a gun, police were satisfied that he was not responsible. They also made inquiries in the areas around Monger’s Lake, Herdsman Lake and West Perth without success.

While Edward’s story was particularly tragic, it was by no means an isolated incident. Police recalled various stories where stray bullets travelled great distances and inflicted damage. In 1922 passengers on a train between Bassendean and Maylands were startled by a bullet smashing through a window. It narrowly missed them and was later found to have been fired miles away in the bush.

Inspector Johnson recalled a story from his time as a constable in Donnybrook in the 1900s. Someone fired at a crow and missed. For miles the bullet travelled through the air before it eventually crashed through a window of the Preston Valley Hotel and landed at the feet of the barmaid.

One story however was similar to Edward’s. Edward Lejeune of Boodanoo Station near Mount Magnet was with his family and talking to kangaroo shooters when he was shot in 1931. The bullet (fired by another kangaroo shooter miles away) had killed the kangaroo, continued its course and hit Edward, killing him instantly.

Detectives enlisted the help of gun experts and they confirmed that the bullet had either been fired by a new rifle or a rifle with a new barrel. Gun owners were further encouraged to check their weapons for signs that it may have been recently fired. While they may not have fired it themselves, someone else in the household may have taken it and fired it without permission.

No new information was obtained and police soon exhausted all leads. The inquest into Edward’s death was scheduled to be held on the 15 February 1933.

As part of the Coroner’s investigation, many people gave evidence as to Edward’s movements throughout the night as well as the investigation following his death. One such person was gunsmith (and expert) Leslie MacDonald. He believed that Edward was shot from a mile or just over a mile away using a Lee Enfield 0.303 rifle in good condition. He also conducted a microscopic examination of the bullet and concluded that it was manufactured sometime prior to 1915.

It was of a type not now made. He surmised also that the cordite in it having deteriorated with the passing of years, the velocity of the bullet had not been as great as it would have been if the cordite was new.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 15 February 1933; Page 2.

Once all the witnesses were heard the Coroner found that Edward’s death was caused by a gunshot wound and that there was no evidence to indicate who had fired the shot. He remarked that the case “…was an example of the inscrutable workings of fate.” For Edward’s family there was no clear answer as to why their son and brother was taken so unexpectedly in such an ordinary moment of his life.

The evidence of experts and the inquiries of the detectives compelled one to believe that it was one of those mysterious acts of providence for which humans cannot account.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 16 February 1933; Page 12.

Sources:

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