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True crime podcasts might be a recent development, but our fascination with crime and criminals, with death and those who bring it, goes way back. Today, an investigation into one such bringer of death; perhaps one of the most famous of them all.
Frederick Bailey Deeming: Rockhampton’s original celebrity killer
By TC Phillips
A deranged killer is captured, and the public’s imagination swirls. Rumours abound regarding possible connections to other unsolved slayings, and the murderer’s name is spoken in conspiratorial whispers all the way from London, to New York and all the way back to the streets of Melbourne.
Journalists, sensing the viral intrigue the man’s crimes have inspired, add more fuel to the fire by plastering his name on the front of every broadsheet across the breadth of the western world. Publishing houses, hearing word that the killer himself is spending his time behind bars compiling an extensive and detailed memoir of his deranged exploits nearly fall over themselves in a bid to get their hands on the manuscript. Meanwhile, lawyers representing the accused rail against the implications of the tumult of media attention their infamous client has garnered, claiming the speed at which his trial has been arranged, coupled with the sensationalised accusations being made against him almost daily will make it next to impossible to hold a fair and impartial trial.
This sequence of events seems almost too familiar, as though it could apply to anyone of a dozen killers to capture the world’s attention throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This particular story, however, belongs to a case predating the likes of media sensation Jeffrey Dahmer by almost a century, and represents Australia’s first real public trial by media. It is the story of infamous bigamist, con artist, serial murderer, one-time Rockhampton resident, and Jack the Ripper suspect: Frederick Bailey Deeming.
Hanging a New Type of Celebrity
On the twenty-first of May,
Frederick Deeming passed away;
On the scaffold he did say --
Ta ra da boom di ay!
Ta ra da boom di ay!
This is a happy day,
An East End holiday,
The Ripper's gone away.
(Popular folk song, circa 1892)
The world’s preoccupation with serial killers and their unconscionable acts seems like a distinctly modern phenomenon. Our society’s addiction to the sordid details of their crimes, and the twisted psychology which underpins their actions, is one which seems inexorably tied to the flash and pomp of the modern media and their up-to-the-minute coverage of humanity’s darkest moments. Even the term ‘serial killer’ itself did not enter the public consciousness until it was coined in the 1970s by FBI profiler Robert Ressler after a movie industry term, comparing the repetitious acts of a certain breed of deranged mass murderers to the ‘serial adventures’ of early Hollywood.
Whilst the golden age of the serial murderer may not come fully into its own until the late twentieth century, when satellite television coverage and a burgeoning world wide web meant that audiences the world over could keep up with the details ongoing trials and investigations as they happened, the pre-digital world was certainly not devoid of these kind of slayings nor the warped neuro-pathology which continues to drive them. Moreover, whilst contemporary media outlets may have perfected the art of turning a perverted killer into an instant celebrity, even that particular penchant of the public press can trace its roots to much earlier cases and far simpler times.
At seven o’clock on the morning of Monday 23rd May 1892, Frederick Bailey Deeming was roused from his final night of slumber. Despite the assertions of a popular folk song which began to circulate following his execution, the hangings at the Old Melbourne Gaol were always scheduled to occur at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning, and not even the condemned man’s newfound fame would vary that schedule.
Meanwhile, outside the Gaol’s imposing stone walls, a record breaking crowd was already beginning to fill the streets. Driven by a potent mixture of curiosity, revulsion and macabre fascination, a good portion of greater Melbourne was drawn out of their homes into the pre-dawn chill of a late autumn morning. Whilst only a select few witnesses and officials would actually gain entry into the Gaol’s courtyard where the gallows stood, and watch Deeming hang with their own eyes, thousands would gather outside eager to hear even the faintest whispers about the details of his execution, perhaps even to catch the briefest glimpse of his lifeless body as it was taken out for burial.
It was not as though the people of Melbourne were unaccustomed to the morbid spectacle that came with the hanging of a convicted murderer; their Gaol had been leading people to the gallows for nearly fifty years before it was Frederick Deeming’s turn to mount the steps. But no hanging before or since Deeming’s trip to the noose had drawn anywhere near as much attention as this one. Not even twelve years earlier, when an estimated five thousand people had gathered for the execution of notorious bushranger and Australian folk hero Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, had the city of Melbourne witnessed such a crowd assemble purely to hear the smallest details of one man’s death.
For Deeming, who seemed to relish the attention his capture and trial had inspired, this particular morning found him in a markedly far more sombre mood than usual. Either unaware or unmoved by the people gathered outside, the inevitability of his own demise had dulled the typically razor sharp charm of a man who had spent a lifetime swindling people out of their money, taking advantage of friends and strangers alike, and brutally taking the lives of those foolish enough to love him.
Granted one final concession of a glass of brandy and a cigar, Frederick Bailey Deeming was lead to the noose in total silence. Given the performances he had been responsible for giving throughout the inquest into his second wife’s murder and his own court appearances, most of those who had gathered were expecting either a defiant speech or bizarre outburst befitting Deeming’s penchant for the dramatic. More still simply hoped to hear a final admission of guilt for a spate of other infamous crimes that had been pinned at his feet.
It is said that throughout his incarceration, guardsmen and chaplains alike would continue to ask Deeming the same question which was weighing on the minds of every single man, woman and child standing outside the walls which held him.
Despite rumours regarding boastful claims he had made to the other inmates of the Old Melbourne Gaol, Deeming would never provide any answer to those in authority other than a mischievous smile.
On this particular morning, however, even that knowing smirk would be conspicuously absent.
“Do you have any final words?” Sheriff Anderson asked once the hangman had secured the noose around his neck. Surely the small gathering of fifty men in the courtyard held their breaths, hoping for the full and uncensored confession they had all been waiting for.
Deeming would give them no such pleasure, gone now was the trickster with a wolfish grin, and in his place stood a gaunt and pale figure, petrified of his own certain doom. “The Lord receive my spirit,” he murmured so quietly even those close by had to strain to hear.
A hood was drawn over Deeming’s face, and an uncomfortable silence fell upon the crowd of witnesses as the assistant Chaplain, Reverend M. W. Whitton, began the last rites. Meanwhile, outside the Gaol’s walls, the expectant crowds had swelled to nearly twelve thousand strong. So great was the interest in this event that half a world away, even on the front pages of the New York Tribune, word would spread about the show of police force necessary to maintain order amongst the throngs.
At two minutes past the stroke of ten o’clock, Sheriff Anderson nodded to the hangman.
“God have mercy on my...”
Frederick Bailey Deeming, alias Albert Williams, never did manage to finish his final supplication. The world’s first true killer celebrity was dead, putting a sudden end to a twelve week whirlwind of intrigue and gossip which had enveloped the entire Western world.
There would be no final theatrics, no melodramatic confessions, and the final hopes of those who lingered outside were destroyed. And, in a bid to finally put the storm of public interest to rest once and for all, the autobiography Deeming had spent final his weeks drafting was ordered to be destroyed before any could see what garish and perverse claims those pages held.
The Birth of Deemania
Three months prior to his execution, on the morning of Thursday 3rd March, everything began to unravel for Frederick Deeming. In Andrew Street, in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor, a small house had sat untenanted since the beginning of the year. Fresh from returning to England, Deeming and his second bride Emily Mather had begun renting the property in December of the previous year. The couple would not last long in the property though, and the last the that Deeming’s landlord had seen of his tenant, whom he only knew by the name of Mr Drewn, was on last Christmas day when he suddenly appeared to pay one month’s rent in advance.
Unbeknownst to the house’s owner, this time would allow Deeming to assume another pseudonym and flee the city, whilst some handywork he had performed in one of the bedrooms dried over the top of his wife’s brutalised remains. When the time eventually came for another prospective tenant to be shown through the property by the landlord, they were both greeted with the pungent aroma of late stage decomposition. When the pair of men traced the offending smell to the hearthstone in one of the bedrooms and removed it, they were not prepared for the sight which lay beneath.
Emily Mather, whom Deeming had wed under the alias of Albert Williams, appeared to have attacked by some form of axe or hatchet. Whilst it was not clear what exact sequence of events led to the murder, investigations would later reveal that Deeming had purchased the necessary hardware supplies to bury all trace of his late wife’s remains prior to her death in the late evening of Christmas Eve, 1891.
It did not take police investigators long to discover the elusive Mr Drewn’s true identity, as Deeming had shared a long and varied history with Australian law enforcement. In 1882 he had been imprisoned for an act of theft against one his employers, and five years following that incident, he was facing incarceration yet again for criminal insolvency owing to debts he had accumulated fraudulently. Deeming would never see the inside of gaol for that second crime, instead deciding to jump bail and flee to England, by way of South Africa, with his first wife Marie and their young children.
Just what exactly had happened to those poor, unfortunate souls was another mystery that would also come unravelled in the following weeks.
Word of the grisly discovery of Mather’s body, coupled with an astoundingly quick response from the combined police forces of the various Australian colonies, began the initial stirrings of a public obsession with Deeming that would envelope the world and bring back memories of a series of brutal slayings which occurred four years earlier in Whitechapel, London.
It only took the Australian media two days to begin to connect the Windsor murder to the crimes of Jack the Ripper, with Melbournian newspaper The Age suggesting that this particular murder shared the same “malevolence and craft which can scarcely accompany the sane murderer”. The Whitechapel murders, of course, had also captured the globe’s attention, and the prospect that a similar minded fiend was now haunting the streets of Australia was at once both frightening and morbidly intriguing. It certainly lent a burgeoning country, one which was already well engulfed in a political movement demanding federated nationhood, a sense of metropolitan validity that many would instantly latch onto.
Either way, the sudden swell of public interest in the case played no small part in speeding along investigations into uncovering Deeming’s movements since the murder, and, more importantly, his present whereabouts. A slew of sordid details, all of which would eventually find their way into the public’s hands, began to emerge. Mere days after Emily’s murder, Deeming would flee to Sydney in a quest to find himself a new bride-victim. All the while he was posing as false nobleman, Baron Swanson, and wooing a new potential spouse in the form of a young Kate Rounsefell, he even had perverse inclination to write a loving missive to the mother of his previous slain wife.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the publicity surrounding Deeming’s Australian crime would lead British investigators to uncover the fate of his first family. In a hauntingly familiar scene, Marie and her four children, Bertha (aged 10), Mary (aged 7), Sidney (aged 5) and Leala (aged 18 months), were all discovered buried under the floor of a house Deeming had once rented in Rainhill. There was even another layer of fresh cement, laid in an effort to hide the remains of his ill-fated family.
In an act decidedly reminiscent of modern paparazzi journalism at its most cringeworthy, British authorities would not even have the opportunity to officially notify Marie’s mother of the death of her daughter and four grandchildren. Instead an enthusiastic journalist, working on behalf of the Australian publication the Melbourne Argus, would be the first one to confront her with the ghastly news in a bid to secure her exclusive reaction and better feed the growing beast of sensationalism surrounding Deeming and his actions.
Just as news of the English murders began to reach their way back to Australian shores, Deeming had finally been located and taken into custody in Western Australia. Fortunately for Deeming’s new fiancée Miss Rounsefell, she was still safely in Sydney and had not yet moved across the country to join him where he had taken up a position in a mine at Southern Cross. During the time leading up to his eventual execution, Deeming would make numerous appeals for Rounsefell to visit him in gaol, though understandably the young woman would never acquiesce to those requests.
As Deeming was transported back to Melbourne to face trial, and as the emergence of new details began to slow, newspapers began to take more fanciful approaches to their reporting. Articles comparing sample of Deeming’s own handwriting with that of one of the infamous Jack the Ripper letters began to appear on front pages across the world, alongside sketches highlighting the similarity of the two figures. Despite a clear difference in modus operandi, given Deeming’s penchant for marrying his victims and hiding the bodies, and uncertainty surrounding the timing of his arrival back in England after he first fled Australia on bail, the connection between Frederick Bailey Deeming and Jack the Ripper was beginning to solidify in thepublic mind as surely as the cement he had used to dispose of those foolish enough to love him.
By the time his transportation back to Melbourne was complete, it was now clear to all there would be no such thing as a fair and impartial trial. There was hardly a person in the colonies who had not heard of Frederick Bailey Deeming, and fewer still who had not already formed an opinion of his guilt —not only for the murder for which he would stand trial, but for seemingly every other unsolved crime which followed him wherever his travels had taken him throughout the years. Some less scrupulous journalists would even go as far as accusing the man of vampirism, citing the apparent lack of blood in his victims.
Deeming’s legal team would rally against the constant media attention, citing the bias it was creating amongst potential jurors and requested a one month adjournment to allow the hysteria, which had come to be known as ‘Deemania’, to subside. Secretly though, Deeming’s chief defence counsel Alfred Deakin - aspiring politician, champion of the Federation movement and the eventual second Prime Minister of Australia - revelled in the international publicity that his involvement in the case provided him.
On the 22nd of April, 1892, a mere seven weeks since Emily Mather’s remains were first discovered, the jury found that Frederick Bailey Deeming, alias Albert Williams, did “wilfully” and with “malice aforethought” murder his bride and conceal the evidence. Sentenced to death by hanging, Deeming’s defence would seek further appeals, but the Executive Council would uphold his warrant of execution on 9th May, and four days before he swung from the gallows the Privy Council would also deny his last avenue of appeal.
There was only one final act left to be staged in the three month sideshow that had erupted since Mather’s body was first discovered — the people of Melbourne wanted to watch him hang, as the rest of the world waited on every detail.
The Legacy of Jack the Ripper
Besides the speculative meanderings of curious journalists and rumours of his own prison confessions to other inmates, there is no real evidence which connected Frederick Deeming to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders. For a narcissist with Deeming’s considerable ego, however, one would imagine he would have been more than willing to boast about his exploits if the assertions were indeed true.
Perhaps the autobiography he had penned in gaol, which unfortunately never saw the light of day before it was destroyed, would have shed more light on the matter. But as a compulsive liar and con man, there would be no way to be sure that whatever he had written was indeed true. Even his own siblings, who growing up had referred to their youngest brother as “Mad Fred”, disputed many of his courtroom assertions around spending his own childhood in and out of asylums, as he also claimed his two parents did.
Nonetheless, following Deeming’s execution a death mask was cast from his features and sent to London’s Black Museum, the crime museum of Scotland Yard, where for many years afterward it would be displayed as belonging to none other than Jack the Ripper. For years afterward, right up to present day, the legend of Whitechapel’s Jack would be forever be tied to Deeming, ensuring his own name would continue to live on in infamy. More importantly, though, his real legacy will continues to assert itself in every media frenzy that gathers around each new serial murderer to capture the world’s attention.