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William Colston 1852-1891 Was the Double Murderer Insane?

William Colston the self-confessed murderer, was found guilty of willfully killing William Davis and his wife Mary Elizabeth Davis in Narbethong, Victoria, Australia. He was subsequently hanged in Melbourne Gaol in August 1891.

Colston was born in Bristol, England in 1852. It is not known who his parents were, and no birth/baptism or census records have been found for him, suggesting that perhaps this was not his real name. However, it appears he had started to use this name from the time he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1872, where he participated in the Ashanti War in Africa and as a Lance Corporal (Regimental No. 11521), was awarded “The Clasp” for his conduct in the battle for Coomassie (Kumasi) before being sent to Hong Kong, where he discharged himself in 1878.

He then worked for the Hong Kong Public Works Department as an Overseer, before arriving in Sydney on the Claverhouse (perhaps working his passage as the ships carpenter) in 1880 and joined the New South Wales Artillery. Rising to the rank of Sergeant, he was part of the NSW contingent sent to the Sudan in 1885. Upon returning to Australia, he then discharged himself,  moved to Victoria and worked for the Roads and Bridges Department before arriving in the Narbethong area where he also found work as a carpenter in Healesville, Marysville and Fernshaw.

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Courtesy Trove

The story of the tragedy was much publicized in the newspapers of the time and many articles can be found on here on Trove.

The elderly couple had been found dead on 21st February 1891. Mary was found on her bed with her skull fractured and throat cut. Her husband was found by the road side, some distance from their house.

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William and Mary Davis’s house Courtesy the State Library of Victoria

William Colston was a carpenter and considered to be a very good tradesman. His reputation was so good, that until he was found to be missing, no one had thought of suspecting he was involved in the murders. Ironically, his disappearance only became known when his services were required to construct the coffins of the murdered couple.

A reward of £50 was offered initially, but as time went by, this was increased to £200. After nearly 6 weeks on the run, Colston was caught on 30th March 1891, having been recognized while having breakfast in a hotel at Yarra Glen.

GENERAL PARALYSIS OF THE INSANE

Following the inquests into the murder of the Davis couple, held in a packed Healesville Court on 2nd April 1891, William Colston was found guilty and committed to trial on 29th April 1891. The trial was postponed on 3 or 4 occasions while the defence council involved medical practitioners to ascertain whether Colston was sane at the time he committed the murders. 4 concluded that he had been suffering early stages of ‘General Paralysis of the Insane’ at the time of the murders. Colston’s defence argued that although Colston had confessed to the murders, he should be committed to an asylum for the insane, rather than be hanged. While in gaol, Colston had been examined by many medical practitioners, who could not agree regarding his sanity.

In a letter he wrote to his solicitor Mr M Lyle while awaiting a new trial date, Colston appears far from insane. His full account of what led to the murder of the couple is articulate and well presented.

“Her Majesty’s Gaol,” Melbourne, 1st July, 1891.

” Sir, — Some remarks you made the other day set me thinking that the police are getting off the track about how and why I killed Davis and his wife, and are misconstruing some of the events of that day with a view to build up a case independent of a statement I handed in for their information. One thing you mentioned was that a doubt had been expressed as to whether it rained much that night, sufficient to wet things in my pocket, and that I had probably washed the bank notes to remove the blood stains, which would lead to a suspicion that I had taken them from the Davis’s. As a matter of fact I got no blood stains at all, except a little on my hand, as I just drew the knife across their throats and left them, and had no occasion to put my hand in my pockets for anything. … I find on consideration that I have given everybody concerned full information of the affair except you, so I think I had better give you a plain statement of all that occurred that day, so that you will be able to meet any other errors the police may fall into. … I had for a long time been thinking of going to Mildura. As a new and rising township I thought it a very likely place for work, and if I got into work to take up a bit of ground and settle there. … I had been up to Davis’s three or four times that week to see what day would be suitable to take my tool chest to Healesville, as it was too big and heavy for the coach. He put it off from day to day, owing to the weather being suitable for some work he was at, and we finally agreed for Saturday.

“On the Friday evening Davis came down to the hotel where I was staying, about 9 o’clock. I helped him to load the box, paid him 5s, and then he shouted, and went home with his dray. … So I went to my room and packed up, leaving out small articles for the journey to Mildura. Amongst these were a revolver and a sheath knife, which I used to carry in the bush, using the knife when in camp as a meat knife, but when in lodgings I kept both in my box, unless on a Sunday I went out shooting, or for a long stroll in the bush, I would take them with me. On this occasion I put the revolver in my pocket, and the knife in my waist strap — their proper places. When 1 had finished and locked up, I thought I had best warn Davis to call for them with his dray, as otherwise he would be off before I was up. I started off, but never reached his house that night. I remember leaving the hotel, but nothing else till dawn next morning, when I woke up on the roadside about half way to Davis’s house. I had fell down and slept there. When I was fully awake I went on to Davis’s to complete my errand. I expected Davis to be up, but he wasn’t. I knocked at the door. Mrs Davis called out ‘ Who’s there ?’ I said ‘ Colston.’ She replied ‘All right; I’ll be up in a minute.’ I was a bit surprised, as I had been there at night before, and bawled a message through to Davis in bed, and she had never heard it, and always seemed to be deaf. She opened the door and said ‘ Come in.’ I stepped in, and she was half behind the door, with only her nightdress on. I asked where was Davis, and she said ‘Oh, he is out in the garden scaring birds.’ I then said ‘I want to see him about my boxes.’ She then said ‘ I ‘spose if you had catched Mrs ___ this way . . .’I laughed at the old hag, and turned to go out, when she suddenly caught me by one arm and gave me a pull, and being off my balance, and not expecting it, we tumbled on the couch together. As we fell she sang out ‘ Davis ! ‘ and Davis came out of the next room at once, and said : ‘ This here sort of thing has been going on quite long enough, and I’ll put a stop to it.’ I thought he was joking as usual, for it was a habit of the old woman’s to bail me up at the gate and start her usual gossip, complaining of Davis ill-treating her (which I knew to be a lie) and going with other women. She would then accuse me of … At this stage Davis would generally appear, although she would lead me to infer that he was not home. When he appeared she would catch hold of me, and use some such expression as … I was a bit astonished the first time, but the whole thing was so ridiculous that I laughed at it, and so did Davis, and I thought she was cranky, and that he knew it. I used then for a time to take no notice of her, and pretend not to hear her as I passed ; but having business with Davis six months before I killed them she went through the same performance and declared that Davis was out, but I saw him, sneaking about the end of the house, so I called him. He looked ashamed this time, but still laughed as usual when she caught hold of me. But on the morning this row occurred I soon found he was not joking, but thought if I got him away from her be would come to his senses, so, to put an end to it, I said: ‘ Oh, I see, this is a blackmailing job. How much will square it? ‘ He said:  ‘ Well, give us a fi-pun-note and I’ll say no more about it.’

” I never intended to give him anything, but to get him out of the house I said: ‘ Well, you had better come down to the hotel for my boxes, and I will see about it.’ So we went out to the gate, when he turned back and said: ‘ I’ll take my axe down, and get somebody to turn the stone.’ I waited at the gate till he returned. We went down the road together. I tackled him at once, saying that he knew the old woman better than I, and that there was nothing in it; and when I saw he meant business I accused him of knowing all about it, and trying it on with her for two years or more. We went on talking till I hardly knew what I said to him, till he said he would either have the £5 or report to the police as soon aa he got to Healesville. ‘

” I tried to say something more to him, but I couldn’t speak, and snatched the axe off his shoulder and hit him with it. He fell down, and I dragged him off the road out of the traffic, and hit him again, and drew my knife and cut his throat; only- for the mess I could have chopped him to bits then. I then thought of the old woman, and went back and served her the same. I put the axe outside the door, and threw the knife into the bushes.

” I went up the garden and washed my hands and got over the fence to go home the back way, when I thought if I upset the house a bit it would look as if someone had done it for plunder, so I went back then and upset the beds, boxes, and everything I could move, and nearly rolled the old woman off before I remembered she was on it. I put her back, and sent the clock round and stopped it. I went then the front way, and, passing Davis, I saw the flies were getting at him. I pulled a few ferns and threw over him, and went on to the hotel through the bush. I went into my room and washed my face and called to John Neale, who slept in an adjoining room, as we usually had a drink before breakfast. Whilst waiting for him I had a drink with the groom (Cobb and Co.’s; and when Neale came along I remembered 1 had to give him some money about a watch that had changed hands the night before, but not having sufficient change I told him I would give it him as soon as Mrs Miller appeared, as I should settle my account and get change of a £5 note. We had our breakfast shortly after, and then took our books for a read and a smoke till coach time (10 a.m.) While thus occupied I got up and went into the bush, and seeing the sheath on my strap it set me thinking about the thing, and it struck me that as I had no coat on when I had a drink with the groom that he may have noticed the sheath and wondered where the knife was, so I slipped it off and threw it into the creek above Miller’s boat-house. I was in a sort of maze, and had scarcely thought about Davis or his wife after leaving them, and I crossed the creek and went up the old road to think.

“I went on and forgot all about the coach by which I could have got clear off before Davis was discovered, and at least made up my mind to go on to Maryville and see the constable there about it, as I knew him very well. I missed him through his going up a short cut through the bush, while I went through the town. I called at the first hotel for a glass of beer, and then went on to the second, which was next door to the police station. When I got there the people told me he had gone. I stayed to dinner, and then started back to Narbethong, where he had gone to.

“About a mile out of Maryville I heard the coach coming, and, not wishing to meet anyone before seeing the constable, I turned off into the bush while it passed. There was someone behind on the track whom I thought was the groom from Narbethong, and he was stooping and looking at the road for my tracks as I thought, and with the probability that he had seen the sheath on me I thought everything was known, and they had commenced to look for me. So I thought then I would give them a run for it, and turned off into the bush, intending to get away if I could. The police told me afterwards, at the inquest, that my fears were all imaginery, as for the past three days they only wanted me to make ‘coffins for Davis and his wife, but as I did not turn up they thought it time to look for me. Well, after passing the coach I cut across through the bush towards Munro’s, and got there just as a thunder shower came down.

“As soon as it was dark on the Sunday night I made for Munro’s house to see if I could get anything to eat. I found one window unfastened, and got in and went to bed. I woke up at daybreak, and looked around for something to eat. I found a few tins of fish and some rice and barley — about a couple pounds each. Whilst eating I thought of the roof, and if I could get up it would be a good shelter for a day or two, if I could avoid the caretakers. So I went out and found a ladder and cut it the length, and put it down in the cellar for future use. I stayed out in the bush for a few days, and by getting up towards the road in the scrub I heard from the conversation of passers by that the detectives were up and the trackers coming, and I determined to euchre them if I could. I saw them a few times, and not far off, but the scrubby country was favorable to me for concealment, I lived on fish the first week and raw rice, and after that on potatoes and apples, cooking the potatoes at night on the bush fires. I got one loaf of bread the last week out of Munro’s dairy. I read books from Munro’s house all day and went in to sleep generally. I was greatly amused at one book ‘Australia and Homeward ‘ (by Lucas, I think), in which was a chapter on the infallibility of black trackers.

“The last week I was there Mr Munro came up, and I expected he would sleep there as usual, and thought I should have a good chance to see the newspapers when he was out. So I went into his room while he was at breakfast on the Sunday, and be came in before I could get up in the roof again, so I had to hide myself in the next room. He stayed all the forenoon reading, and when he went in to dinner I went in, but there was no paper. I looked about, and saw a bulky purse sticking out of his trousers pocket hanging on a chair. I looked at it, and there were about thirty sovereigns in it. I took two of them, as I had lost my own money, thinking he would not miss them, and got up in the roof. Then I thought if I had enough to get a tent and odd things I should be fixed up, so I got down and got two more, and got up again. He did not come down again that afternoon, but just before dark his son, Aleck Munro, came down for the trousers and purse as I thought. Not seeing my way to any more food, I packed up that night ; and on going into the room the trousers and purse were still there, which I thought was a providence, and I took the lot then. I started about 3am. It was dark and was very wet, so I kept the road to Fernshaw, and then laid by in the bush till night. I fancy someone was sleeping on the seat outside the hotel at Narbethong, and the dog growled but did not bark as I passed by. I rather expected there might be police and dogs at Davis’s ; but the road was soft, and I got through all right.

“I left Fernshaw at nightfall, and walked through Healesville to Yarra Glen, arriving there about 6 a.m. I waited there till the hotel opened, had one glass of brandy and my breakfast, While I was filling my pipe at the door, Forster came through the hotel into the bar and spoke. I turned round and shook hands, and he asked what I was doing there. I told him I was travelling. He turned short round, went back through the hotel to the police station, which was next door, and brought the constable and said ‘There you are, look at him.’ The constable asked my name, and I said Lewis, and Forster said ‘It’s no use to deny it, you are Colston.’ After a few more questions the constable arrested me on suspicion of being Colston, and when in the cell he began to search me. I handed him my revolver to prevent accidents, as it was loaded. He spoke of taking me. to Narbethong for identification, and I told him he needn’t trouble, as I was Colston, and if I had time I would tell him all about it, I thought then if I had to hang for it it might be done with as little trouble as possible. Some people had asked me why I didn’t shoot Forster, but I had no reason. He did not aggravate me in any way, nor did the constable annoy me. He came in after a bit to take down my statement, and as he seemed to be flurried and busy I offered to write it myself, and did so. The inspector and detectives came later and interviewed me. I thought I had already told them enough for practical purposes, but the inspector seemed to think there was a lot more to be said about it. Any how, I answered all their questions, and gave them all the information they asked for, telling them where to look for the knife and sheath, and everything connected with it, till something occurred that showed me they were jealous of each other, and only wanted the information to gain professional laurels in getting up the case. One went so far as to say to me: ‘Don’t tell those fellows everything; give me a chance ;’ and the inspector tapped another on the back and said : ‘ All right, old man, I know where the knife is as well as you, but you can go for it and get the credit of it just the same.’ 1 felt a bit disgusted at this sort of work, and from then I did not tell them within a mile where to look for anything else, so as not to handicap one more than another. Consequently they have never found my shirt, or the bank notes, or a swag I made up and threw away. I never took the shirt off till I got to Fernshaw, and there was no blood on it or anything else, and I don’t see what difference if there was. There is evidence enough without it, and I don’t want to shirk out of it.

“I should never have bothered about a barrister at all. It seems such a simple case, only the time was hanging heavily in the remand yards, and when a man named Anderson and others persuaded me to write to you, I did it more with the idea of breaking the monotony than any hope that it would make any difference.

“Everybody at Healesville and Yarra Glen seemed disappointed, as if they had been defrauded of their rights, because I was not a howling maniac or shamming it ; and I had every opportunity of doing so, living here with lunatics of all sorts to imitate if I had wished to, but I am a cut above that yet. Since I was fool enough to be caught I can put up with the consequences, and yet feel that millions of people come to a more painful and lingering end than I. Besides, if I was mad enough to satisfy a jury, the alternative is worse still. Life in a madhouse is no improvement on the gallows, I think.

“However, I have killed them, and if I had remembered I was breaking the law I do not suppose it would have stopped me killing them or anyone else who provoked me as they did. No one else ever did, or I suppose my career would have been cut short before.

“I admit I made a great mess of it, for I might have shot them with my revolver instead of hacking them about so, if I had thought of it ; or if I had hidden Davis and set fire to the house it would have made a cleaner job, and not left so much for people to horrorise over.

“But there, if I had thought of all these things, I should have gone away by the coach instead of fooling around as I did. I have to face the consequences of my folly, and see no good fretting about it. Nor can I honestly say I am sorry, for if a snake had bitten me I should have killed it, and that is how I feel about them, and should have forgotten it by now only I am so constantly reminded of it here, and to anyone that knew the old woman it would seem the earth was well rid of such a venomous old libeller, who could do more harm with her tongue than I could do with an axe. In fact I have often heard neighbors say she ought to be burnt. And yet it seems strange to me sometimes that I do not feel differently about it. I do not think that murder is justifiable in the settlement of all quarrels, for that would soon make a hash of things and leave only cowards ; but I believe there are times when human beings, like other animals, can no more control themselves than they can help being alive, and under certain provocation are justified in taking the life of another who intends to make life a hell to them, or inflict an injury which to some people would be worse than death.”

Extract from Tuapeka Times, Volume XXIV, Issue 1818, 5 August 1891, Page 6 https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TT18910805.2.41

In the letter, Colston describes hiding out at Munro’s house. He is referring to the country home “St Filan Farm” owned by the then Premier of Victoria, James Munro. Colston had apparently done carpentry work there in the months prior to the murders and knew the property well.

During his incarceration, William Colston also wrote a very detailed account of his time in the Sudan in 1885, when a sergeant in the New South Wales Artillery. He also made furniture while in prison to stave off the boredom while waiting for his trial.

According to 4 of the physicians who had examined him, Colston had presented with typical physical symptoms of the disease – the twitching of facial and lingual muscles and defective speech, unequal pupil size which were irregular in contour – but confirmation could only be determined after his death and his brain then examined. Regardless, Colston was not prepared to spend the rest of his life in an asylum, preferring to meet his end on the gallows.

On July 18th 1891, after 4 days of hearing all the evidence, the jury dismissed the insanity argument and Colston was sentenced to hang in Melbourne Gaol. This was carried out on 24th August 1891.

It appears that William Colston may have come from a much higher standing prior to joining the Royal Engineers in 1872. He was obviously well read in philosophy (with evidence to support this in the content of his last letter written to the Reverend Scott who had been instructing him on religious matters) and articulate in his communications, suggesting a sound education. He may have even mastered the discipline of Pitman’s Shorthand (suggesting perhaps a legal connection?) because it is known he communicated with an unknown female using this method, while awaiting his fate.

Colston had taken great interest in the science of insanity and had decided to leave his brain to medicine so that they could better understand the disease. It is not known whether an examination took place after his death.

One of the medical practitioners, John Fishbourne M.D. who had examined William Colston on several occasions while Colston was imprisoned, wrote a lengthy letter of his involvement in the Colston case, which was read at the monthly meeting of the British Medical Association (Victorian Branch) in November 1891 and subsequently included in an article published in the Australian Medical Journal December 1891 Page 586.

In the article, there are questions raised as to whether the argument of insanity given by witnesses during the trial had been presented well enough for the jury to come to a satisfactory conclusion. I surmise that only after reading this compelling article will you be able to decide if William Colston was sane or not when he murdered William and Mary Davis. ©Maggie Speak 2020

Author’s note: If anybody can provide me with evidence of the parents of William Colston, please leave a comment or contact me via my contact page on this website.

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