WA History

II – The Second Inquest

Part II – The Second Inquest follows on from Part I – The Death of Claude Cotton. Click the link below to read the first story.

The result was what most of Geraldton wanted. Knowing there would be a post mortem and a new inquest, letter writer ‘Groper’ turned their attention to Claude’s mother. She was elderly and was said to have been supported by Claude, who regularly sent her half his pay. Concerned at the inquiry being left solely in the hands of the police, they suggested the establishment of a fund to raise money to pay for a solicitor to represent her. ‘Groper’ gave ten shillings and, within three days, they received donations of about two pounds. With the money, they hired Arthur Altorfer to represent Emma Cotton.

Early Saturday morning, on 25 March, George Lester exhumed Claude’s remains and brought them to the morgue. He placed them on a table, locked the door, and took the key with him. They would lay there, undisturbed, until Dr Thomas Boyd and Dr Alexander Wallace (the two doctors conducting the post mortem) obtained a duplicate key from the hospital. That day, they began the post mortem, observed by Dr Hungerford.

On 28 March 1922, the second inquest was held at the Geraldton Court House. Public interest relating to Claude’s death was so strong that police opted for Perth officials to attend and conduct it. Chief Inspector John McKenna was present at the inquiry to ensure “no effort is spared to endeavor to clear up the mystery,” while the Crown Solicitor, Hubert Parker, acted for the police.

There was a large attendance at the inquest into Claude Cotton’s death at the Police Court yesterday. All the seats allotted to the public were filled, and many who were present had to stand.

The Geraldton Express (WA : 1906 – 1928); 29 March 1922; Page 2; General
Geraldton Court House circa 1920s. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (008588PD).

Three jurors, Alfred Bogle, Victor Johnson, and Lionel Chapman, were sworn in. The ss Millpool and the crew were no longer in Geraldton and, to overcome the impossibility of them giving evidence in person, Resident Magistrate Gee instead admitted their signed statements.

John Cody was the first of the original witnesses to give evidence. His recollections of the night in question were much the same. He was, however, asked additional questions by the Crown Solicitor.

With regards to the chase on the jetty, Mr Parker asked John why he couldn’t catch Thomas, considering Thomas had a short head start and was drunk. John said he wasn’t trying as he was chasing him as a joke. Mr Parker also wanted to know if he had heard Constable Bell (who was known as Harry) say, “You will get one too if you are not careful,” and whether John himself had said, “Don’t do that Harry.” John stated that he did not hear nor say anything of the kind.

After the jetty incident, John confirmed he was standing with John Wayland and Daniel McAuley when Constable Bell approached them. He claimed that he did not hear Constable Bell talk about a fight with the sailors. Nor did he hear him say that he “knocked the six b___s out.” If he did say that, it was a lie.

With regards to the man he saw exiting the fish shop, he changed his story. Whereas during the first inquest, he believed the man looked like Claude, in the second, he thought the man was Thomas. It does not appear that anyone pointed out this difference in his evidence. It’s not known whether seeing one man or the other has any particular meaning.

Mr Altorfer asked some questions, and John provided an additional piece of information: when he and Constable Bell approached Thomas and Claude, two other men (William Marsh and Emil Luoma) were present on the jetty.

John’s evidence closed with a question from the jury. They asked, “Were these men creating any noise or disturbance to justify Bell and yourself going down to them?” John stated that while they weren’t making a disturbance, they were, however, making a noise. The jury’s response was one of disbelief. They wanted to know how John and Constable Bell came to assume Thomas and Claude were drunk when they were 200 yards away. According to John, they could tell they were drunk because the jetty lights were on.

Geraldton Jetty circa 1910. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (006086PD).

Dr Hungerford’s evidence was similar to what he gave in the first inquest. He remained adamant that a fist did not cause the marks on Claude’s face. He believed they came from Claude falling and hitting the jetty’s whaling piece. The fact he was still holding the matches showed he was stunned when he entered the water. With no signs of violence and no knowledge of violent behaviour, Dr Hungerford decided a post mortem was unnecessary. When questioned by the jury, he noted that “Cotton was not a man of good health…” As it had no relevance, he provided no further detail.

Doctors Boyd and Wallace gave evidence of the results of the eagerly awaited post mortem. They found no evidence of violence, no fracture of the skull, and no dislocation of the cervical vertebrae. Dr Boyd noted that while it was common for a body to sink after drowning, it was not always the case. It was more likely that Claude had been stunned when he entered the water (hence why he was clutching matches) and then asphyxiated. Overall, as predicted, the body was too decomposed to be able to ascertain the cause of death.

Matthew Willock’s evidence was, perhaps, the most interesting given during the second inquest. Unbeknownst to everyone on the jetty that night, he was fishing on the plat, near the springboard. From his place out of sight, he heard two men walk past (presumably Claude and Thomas) and, one said, “I have no time for the lime juice bastards.” Lime juice or limey was slang for British people who emigrated to America or Australia, and it’s likely he was referring to Australian men.

Two other people followed close behind, one of whom he recognised as Constable Bell. They walked out of his line of sight, and he heard a smack. There was a sound of someone falling on the jetty, and what he thought was a kick. Constable Bell and his companion walked away, eventually returned, and Matthew, once again heard a kick, accompanied by the words, “Get up you pommy bastard and put ’em up.

The man started to squeal, and Matthew heard one of the men fearfully say twice, “Don’t do that Harry.” Afraid and unwilling to become involved in an altercation involving a policeman, Matthew continued fishing. He left just before midnight (well after everyone was gone) and on Saturday went away on business. When he returned to Geraldton, the inquest was over. Regardless, what he heard bothered him, and he eventually spoke to the police and made a statement on 24 February. Despite all that he heard that night, he did not hear the sound of a body entering the water.

Constable James Lowry was standing on the jetty with Sergeant John Teahan when Matthew approached them on 24 February. They spoke about Claude’s death, and Matthew pointed out where the disturbance occurred. He told them that he saw the men and heard someone say, “Don’t do it Harry.” Constable Lowry measured the distance from Matthew’s location to the location of the men and found it to be 118 paces (90 metres). According to the constable, considering that length, “A man on the plat could not see what happened on the jetty.” Matthew, however, refuted the measurements and stated that he did not say it was that far.

On the 17th, Samuel Mifflin was standing on a corner, near the Freemason’s Hotel, close to Constables Moore and Reid, when Constable Bell approached them. He overheard Constable Bell say that “he had cleaned two up, and he was going to clean two more up.” Upon being questioned, he could not say what Constable Bell was referring to, nor was he positive those were the exact words.

Sydney Parsons testified similarly. He saw Constable Bell approach Constables Moore and Reid and heard him say, “I knocked two of them out, come and watch me finish the rest.” Despite a denial from Constable Reid, Sydney remained adamant that that was what he heard.

Marine Terrace in Geraldton with the Freemasons Hotel on the left circa 1920s. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (109569PD).

The two other men on the jetty that night (at 10:45 pm) were William Marsh and Emil Luoma. William was the first to give evidence. As Thomas and Claude approached, William asked one man if he could help him get aboard. They walked as far as the platform when Constable Bell and John approached. Constable Bell said, “You’re the bastards off the ship.” Thomas responded in the affirmative. William then saw Constable Bell push Thomas on the side of his face. Thomas fell over, and Constable Bell kicked him. He next turned to Claude, pushed him, and caused him to trip and fall. Confirming what others had heard, John went over and said, “Don’t do that Harry.

John helped Claude get up while Thomas got up on his own. The sailors walked down the jetty towards the ship, and when there was some distance, they yelled out, “You bastards.” Constable Bell and John ran towards them, but by that point, William was leaving the jetty and saw no more. Illustrating just how angry Constable Bell was, William recalled that he wanted to hit Emil, but William stopped him.

The ss Millpool (left) at Geraldton circa 1922. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 028995PD).

Emil Luoma corroborated William’s evidence. Both he and William followed the sailors onto the jetty, intending to help them aboard. He saw Constable Bell approach and witnessed him push both men and knock them down. Emil said that after threatening him, Constable Bell went back and continued to kick Thomas.

Bell said, “Get up you Pommy b___.” Was going to stop Bell, but Marsh advised him to keep clear. [Thomas] Goode said, “I did not do any harm.”

The Geraldton Express (WA : 1906 – 1928); 29 March 1922; Page 3; Medical Evidence

Emil went into town and later told Constables Reid and Moore what he saw. He expressed his fear and stated that he was afraid to return to his boat as he thought that Constable Bell might attack him. Constable Moore reassured him, and Emil returned to the jetty. On the way back, he passed Constable Bell, who was standing on his own. Further down the jetty, he passed John Cody. He did not see Thomas or Claude.

Constable Moore denied the truth of the evidence previously given. He and Constable Reid had told some sailors to move on, including Thomas, who he said was causing trouble. He did not see Samuel Mifflin or Sydney Parsons. He did not hear Constable Bell conversing with Constable Reid. He never spoke to Emil Luoma and was not informed of the happenings on the jetty.

Likewise, Constable Reid confirmed he spoke to Constable Bell but denied that he had said anything about fighting the sailors. He also denied speaking to Emil and did not hear of anyone being afraid to go on the jetty.

While Daniel McAuley mentioned John Wayland’s name in the first inquest, John never actually gave evidence. He later stated that he preferred not to become involved. Nevertheless, he gave evidence in the second inquest, which corroborated Daniel’s story.

On the 17th, at 11:30 pm, John was standing with Daniel on the corner opposite the Freemason’s Hotel. John Cody approached them and stated that he “had been in a lot of stoushing matches all the night.” Cody explained that he had agreed to help Constable Bell and stated that he chased two of the sailors along the jetty and was called an “Australian b___.

Constable Bell then approached the group and said to Cody, “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you.” Cody responded, “I’ve been all over the shop.” Constable Bell described the altercation with the horse, saying, “…he knocked six of them out.” John saw some blood on Constable Bell’s hand and watched as he turned his attention to Chakalakis’s fish shop. He heard Constable Bell exclaim, “there’s another of the b___ going into that fish shop.

The final witness was Constable Bell. His evidence was much the same as the evidence he gave in the first inquest. He admitted shoving both Thomas and Claude, causing them to fall over. He denied kicking either of them. He essentially confirmed that Emil was on the jetty that night as he said he turned to a man who was not from the ship. He did not hear John Cody say, “Don’t do that Harry.

After the men got up and went towards the ship, Constable Bell left the jetty. He did not return a second time. He walked around for a while and later approached the group consisting of Daniel McAuley, John Wayland, and John Cody. He refuted John Wayland’s recollection of the conversion and said that all he had told Cody was that he was going home. He had no blood on his hand and did not see a sailor entering a fish shop. According to Constable Bell, he “took no further interest in the matter.

When questioned by Mr Altorfer, Constable Bell said he did not follow the men to the jetty and had no scratches on his hands. Although he was not on duty that night, he believed “he was always on duty in a country town.

With the evidence concluded, Resident Magistrate Gee briefly summarised the case and particularly questioned the legitimacy of Matthew Willock’s statements. The inaccuracies and the length of time Matthew took to report what he heard was concerning. Furthermore, several people had looked over the jetty, and none of them saw him there. Resident Magistrate Gee advised the jury to treat the evidence with caution as there was “considerable doubt whether he was on the plat at all.” For whatever reason, he made no statement regarding the reliability of William Marsh and Emil Luoma’s evidence, much of which corroborated what Matthew heard.

The court adjourned, and when it resumed, the jury gave the verdict, “That deceased came to his death by falling off the jetty, and, striking some part of same, was rendered unconscious, and drowned, and on the evidence given there is nothing to show how deceased came to fall off the jetty.” They also added a rider, “We consider Police Constable Bell and John Cody had no right or cause to follow and interfere with the sailors on the jetty.

While there was some criticism for holding a second inquest, The Geraldton Express felt there was “abundant justification.” Two sides of the story persisted throughout the proceedings. Statements from different men present during the night indicated that Constable Bell was more involved than what he made out to be. Police flat out denied evidence from these men. Who was telling the truth? Regardless, it seems unlikely that so many men, at different times, recounted similar stories involving Constable Bell that were all lies. Constable Bell had acted violently and the reporter for The Guardian Express was scathing in their opinion.

Bell’s conduct from the beginning to the end on the night of February 17th does not appear to have one redeeming feature, and it will be interesting to note whether the police force considers him an adornment to its ranks, and feels itself highly honored by his continuing his duties as a preserver of law and order, and a protector of our citizens.

The Geraldton Express (WA : 1906 – 1928); 31 March 1922; Page 2; The Claude Cotton Tragedy!

The words may not have held much weight with the authorities within the Western Australian Police Force, but they seemed to predict their next steps. A week later, Inspector McKenna charged Constable Bell with “…conduct to the prejudice of good order by using violence on one Claude Cotton and Thomas John Goode…“, “…disgraceful conduct by using obscene language and being under the influence of liquor…” and “…tyrannical conduct at Geraldton…” Suspended from duty, Constable Bell initially pleaded not guilty and planned to fight the charges. By 12 April 1922, he changed his mind and tendered his resignation. It was a decision welcomed by the Commissioner of Police.

From the evidence taken at the Coroner’s Inquest held on Claude Cotton, I can come to no other conclusion than that the Force is well rid of Const. Bell.

Commissioner of Police, 19 April 1922. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S2015- cons1065 Bell, H.P.).

Time passed, however, speculation continued. In the minds of many Geraldtonians, Claude Cotton’s death was not an accident. In the years that followed, reporters occasionally mentioned his name in connection with other stories. In 1924, when officials commuted a man’s death sentence to life imprisonment and changed the law to ensure he remained in prison for the term of his natural life, The Geraldton Express questioned the likelihood of justice for other cases. They asked, “Will they have another go to try and discover who killed Claude Cotton…

In 1925, a Royal Commission found Dr Hungerford guilty of negligence when he failed to examine and operate on Constable Hubbard, who was suffering from peritonitis and a perforated appendix. The result caused one newspaper, The Leader, to recount the Claude Cotton case.

This is the “Doc” who said Claude Cotton was drowned, when everybody reckoned he was first murdered, and then thrown into the water.

The Leader (Perth, WA : 1926 – 1928); 27 February 1925; Page 7; To Northern Housewives

After the post mortem, the undertaker again buried Claude’s remains at Geraldton Cemetery (today’s Apex Pioneer Park). No headstone marks his final resting place. Claude was a stranger in Geraldton, and, soon enough, his name began to fade. Throughout 1922, numerous residents utilised the newspapers to speak up to try to bring about justice for Claude and his family. However, despite evidence of Constable Bell’s interference on the jetty, there was no evidence whatsoever to prove he was the reason Claude ended up in the water. Unfortunately, and is often the case with stories such as these, the circumstances surrounding Claude Cotton’s death and his last moments in Geraldton remains a mystery.



Share your story...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s