A Puzzling Case

Having worked hard as a teamster in the Government boring party near Mingenew, William Ernest Ellison was due for a holiday. Intending to return after the New Year, he left his portmanteau containing his work clothes and other possessions with Coorow storekeeper, Mr Todd, and on 15 September 1912, he travelled on the Midland railway line to Perth.

Grand Central Coffee Palace circa 1906

He arrived on the same day and took a room at the Grand Central Coffee Palace on Wellington Street. He was designated room 19 and a workmate named Charles Henry Spargo occupied the room across the hallway. Throughout his time in Perth, William was seen on the streets, at the Coffee Palace and around the racecourse, often in company with Spargo. He withdrew various amounts from his bank account on the 21st and 28th September and on the 1st, 5th, 19th and 22nd October. There was nothing unusual about these withdrawals and it was thought a large amount of the money was spent betting at the races.

William was originally from South Australia and kept in regular contact with his parents who remained there. He also had three brothers in Western Australia. On 24 October, a man named Cameron Arthur delivered him a message from his brother, Frank. In the message Frank asked him to go to Gunyidi and then to Nugadong for work. At the time William was seeking employment and was pleased to hear from him. He planned to leave on Saturday, 26 October 1912.

Despite agreeing to meet his brother, William never arrived. On 28 October his accommodation (paid a week in advance) ceased and the proprietor of the Coffee Palace simply assumed that he had left. Correspondence to his family stopped and 18 months passed by. During that time Spargo was tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of Gilbert Jones in Broome. The mangrove murder was the talk of the town and speculation was rife as to whether Spargo had killed other men. On 14 January 1914, George O’Hern of Watheroo contacted the Criminal Investigation Branch (C.I.B.) on the brothers’ behalf. William had vanished and they suspected foul play.

Special inquiry notice printed in the Western Australia Police Gazette (18 March 1914)

For two months Detective Sergeant Stephen Condon searched for clues relating to William’s whereabouts. By April 1914 he had found no trace of him and with the inquiry close to being abandoned, he turned to the press for publicity.

William was about 36 years of age when he went missing in 1912. He stood at 5 foot 8 inches high, was well-built, had greyish blue eyes, a fair complexion, fair hair parted on the left and was slightly balding at the front. He sported a thick, light coloured moustache and was known to show his teeth when smiling. Even though one tooth was missing at the front, his remaining teeth were said to be “good” and “clean“. He was further described as having a round, smiling face and was noted to be of “sociable disposition, but does not make friends quickly.” Accompanying the description and article was a photo.

William Ernest Ellison

There was no solid evidence to account for his whereabouts after October 1912. His untouched bank account (containing £324), his lack of communication and the fact that he was seen with Spargo was cause for concern. A reporter in one newspaper tried to maintain some hope however even William’s brother was doubtful, remarking in a letter that “There is no man in this world can tell me that Bill’s alive to-day…

The case is a most remarkable one, and the circumstances attending the disappearance have led to the acceptance of the theory that Ellison was one of the unnumbered victims of notorious murderer, Spargo, who was executed last year.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 17 April 1914; Page 10; An Unsolved Mystery

Publicity had the desired effect but not the desired outcome. On 18 April 1914 (one day after articles relating to William’s disappearance were published) William King decided to recheck some bones he had seen lying in scrub a little over six kilometres from Kalamunda Road in Maida Vale. He had originally assumed they belonged to an animal however upon closer inspection he realised they were human. He immediately reported them to Constable Leen of the Guildford Police Station.

Detective Sergeant Condon, Detective Sergeant Harry Mann and Constable Read were dispatched to the area along with Doctor David Blanchard. They observed the bleached “broken and charred bones” crammed between the fork of a fallen tree and noticed that much of the area looked burnt; a measure likely taken to dispose of the body. While the bones were scattered by animals, enough of the skull remained to show that the deceased had been murdered.

The site of the tragedy is a lonely one, lying amidst dense scrub, a quarter of a mile off the road, and a similar distance from the nearest habitation.

Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1954); 21 April 1914; Page 5; Later Particulars

No clothing was found nearby however under the skeleton were fragments of hessian, suggesting that the victim may have been killed elsewhere and was then transported to the spot. It was predicted that the remains had been there for at least 12 months. No substantial clues were found apart from some light coloured hair near the skull, a metal clip from a pair of braces, metal trouser buttons, a copper eyelet and a flattened, lead bullet “pronounced by an expert to be out of a .32 revolver cartridge of German manufacture.

Despite the lack of identifying evidence, police had already begun to suspect that the remains were William’s. He was the only person known to be missing in the last 12 months and he associated with a man who was later convicted of murder. Regardless, a thorough investigation was conducted in order to try to identify the remains.

Dr Blanchard conducted an examination of the bones and wrote a report for Sub Inspector Walsh. The height and age of the deceased matched the description of William. He concluded that the cause of death was due to a fracture in the skull and possibly a bullet wound. He also gave special attention to the teeth. The first molar on the right side of the upper jaw was filled with amalgam. Some teeth had been removed prior to the man’s death while others had fallen out when the body was burnt. To help with the investigation, dentists in Perth were urged to contact the police if they recognised the teeth and dental work.

On the evening of 24 April 1914, Ralph Potts, a dentist on Hay Street, reported to the police to advise that on 13 December 1912 he was approached by a man named Ellison who requested that one of his teeth be filled. On 30 December the man visited the dentist, had some preliminary work done and returned the next day for the filling. On his return he also requested that a plate be made to replace the teeth that he had lost. Ralph took a cast of his mouth and agreed to complete the work as quickly as possible.

An impression of the mouth was taken by Mr. Potts and the man said he would call back on the 2nd or 3rd January, after the Banks had opened, and get the plate and instructed that there should be no delay, as he was returning to the bush somewhere near the rabbit-proof fence out from Mullewa.

Detective Sergeant Condon’s report. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S59- cons3458 1915-22).

Along with the man’s statement that he had work near the rabbit-proof fence, he also mentioned that before he arrived in Perth he had worked with a boring party.

Ralph made the plate and had it ready for collection by 2 January 1913. Even though he insisted on haste, the man never returned to collect it. Upon being shown a photo of William Ellison, Ralph, and his assistant Miss Alice Williamson, confidently identified him as the man who had had the dental work done.

To help further identify the remains, Ralph was shown the skull, took an impression of the mouth and then added the uncollected plate to the model. Detective Sergeant Condon noted that “…allowing for the absence of the flesh, the plate fitted perfectly.

Newspaper articles quickly declared that the remains were “practically identified” and that William had to be one of Spargo’s many victims. Police were hesitant to confirm this. Troubling the detectives was the uncertainty of timing. Questions further arose as to William’s movements throughout November and December and with no information forthcoming, the case became a puzzling one.

This would appear to prove conclusively that the remains found were those of the missing man Ellison, but in support of that one would expect to be able to trace Ellison right up to 31st December… I cannot trace him after 24th October.

Detective Sergeant Condon’s report. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S59- cons3458 1915-22).

What is certain is that William was definitely seen by Cameron Arthur (who delivered a message) on 24 October. After that date, his movements are unknown. Did he remain in Perth? If yes, where did he stay? Why did he stop drawing money from his bank account? The obvious reason for the lack of answers to these questions is that he was murdered some time after that date. Throwing doubt on the timeline is the dentist’s statement.

If the man who visited the dentist in late December 1912 was indeed William, it would seem he remained in Perth. At that point in time however, Spargo was known to be in Broome. That means either William was murdered by someone else or he was murdered by Spargo upon Spargo’s return to Perth in February 1913. If that was the case, what was William doing throughout that period of time? Why didn’t he collect the plate? Why did he neglect to contact his family after 24 October?

Even though Ralph and Alice identified William from a photo, it is also entirely possible (considering that nearly two years had passed) that they made a mistake. It would mean that William was murdered not long after the 24 October 1912. This theory then raises two important questions: 1) Who visited the dentist and gave the name Ellison? And 2) Seeing as the plate fit, did the remains belong to someone else?

The gaps in William’s timeline after 24 October were obvious to Detective Sergeant Condon. There was no clear evidence that the remains were William’s and there was no clear evidence that he had been killed by Spargo. No one came forward with additional information and Spargo could not be questioned as he had been hanged in 1913.

Leaving Mr. Potts and Miss Williamson out of the question, there is nothing whatever to show whose bones those are that were found on 20th April at Maida Vale.

Detective Sergeant Condon’s report. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S59- cons3458 1915-22).

In spite of some uncertainty regarding the identity of the remains, it was nevertheless obvious that something had befallen William. By February 1915 he still had not accessed his bank account and still had not contacted his family. His father, James, in Glen Osmond in South Australia, applied for Administration of the Estate and requested that William’s death be presumed to have occurred on or about 3 January 1913.

By the end of the year it would appear that the police had decided that the remains more than likely were William’s. They were released to the family and on 6 December 1915 they were buried in the Anglican denomination of Karrakatta Cemetery.

The mystery of William’s death and the identity of his killer was never completely solved. However (considering Spargo’s history and the mysterious disappearance of other men known to associate with him) it seems police were certain that he must have been involved in some way.

If it could be established beyond doubt that the remains found were those of Ellison then I should be inclined to believe that he was murdered by Spargo…

Detective Sergeant Condon’s report. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S59- cons3458 1915-22).

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