In early 1882, a man of unknown real name (lets call him Mr A), possibly from the West of Dorset in England, was transferred from HMS Duke of Wellington to HMS Sultan. The Sultan sailed to Gibraltar and then to Malta and a short time later Mr A was at the bombardment of Alexandria in Egypt. Four months later he returned to England. After this (also in 1882) Mr A deserted from either HMS Pelican or HMS Triumph and joined HMS Liffy.
In 1886 Mr A was seen in Coquimbo (Chile) and then in the city prison in San Francisco. After this he proceeded to Canada where he entered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The same year Mr A enlisted in the United States Army as James MacKnight and in September 1886 he deserted.
In February 1887 Mr A he enlisted again in the US Army as George Anderson and deserted in May, proceeding to San Francisco where he shipped for England in a vessel called the Baclutha. This went to Holyhead.
In one newspaper report it was said that his next move was shipping as Richard Asche (or Ashe) on the ship Eulidia [sic], bound for Sydney. It is presumed that this was sometime after early 1888.
However, much later in 1897 he stated to a newspaper reporter that his first experience of Western Australia was when the sailing ship Ulidia, which Mr A joined in Liverpool (England) to sail to Sydney, was wrecked. The Ulidia was wrecked near Rottnest Island on 18 May 1893, but the ship was outward bound to England after leaving Western Australia.
The claim that he was on the ship when it sank does not appear to be true as it does not appear he had time to get to England to have completed this voyage or even to Western Australia as we know that earlier in 1893 he was in gaol in NSW. Perhaps his comments that he arrived on the Ulidia and that the ship was wrecked was taken to imply that he was on the voyage when it sank when he really meant he sailed to Australia in it and it was later wrecked. In any case, it seems he first came to Australia on the Ulidia in 1888.
It is not know what he did while in Australia for this first period but it seems Mr A left Sydney in about mid-1891 (possibly June) on the Star of Russia as Richard Ashe and arrived in San Francisco in August 1891 (also said to be 21 or 31 October 1891). The Star of Russia was a sailing vessel and is now wrecked in Port Vila Harbour in Vanuatu. Click here to read about this ship. Next he was employed as a fireman at Le Grande Laundry and then perhaps a shipping company till February 1892.
There is some confusion about his whereabouts during the period 1892 to 1893 as there are many different and conflicting reports about his voyages and sightings of him.
It seems that on 1 March 1892 he may have returned to England in the ship Scottish Glen under the name Ascher and made his way on the Olivebank (also called Olive Bank in some papers) to Newcastle, New South Wales.
He was later to declare that he first came to Australia in one of the Adelaide Steamship Company's steamers, which he identifies by saying that it was the vessel that relieved the SS Rob Roy in the West Australian trade. As far as I can see, the SS Albany replaced the SS Rob Roy about April or May 1893. He said that this was in June, 1892. I have assumed that he was actually referring to his arrival in Western Australia as the Albany was only used for travel within Australia. On 11 June 1892 the Albany left Sydney for Western Australia so this is presumably how he got over to the west. What he did for the rest of this year is not clear.
Sometime about late 1892 or early 1893 Mr A again took a position as a seaman on the Star of Russia in San Francisco. When this was later reported in papers, it was said that his real name may have been Elgan, but as you will see, even this may not be correct. The ship sailed for Australia and Mr A appears to have jumped ship once in Australia, possibly Sydney. However, this does not really tie in with the reports of the above paragraph unless he left WA fairly soon after arriving there.
The next bit has some conflict and all cannot be true. In early 1893, Mr A, using the name Richard Asche (as reported - similar to Ascher when he last served), again served as a seaman on the four-masted barque Olivebank on a voyage from Newcastle, NSW to Glasgow and return. However, conflicting reports state he arrived in San Francisco on the Olivebank from Australia and on 16 June 1893 was staying under the name Frank Butler at the International Hotel in San Francisco.
A fact is that on 22 April 1893 Asche was charged with threatening Captain John Petrie of the Olivebank while on a journey from Rio de Janiero (where Asche joined the ship). Presumably the ship had arrived in Newcastle a day or two before that. He was imprisoned for a month in Maitland Gaol as he could not pay the sureties imposed. Upon release, he left Newcastle, NSW.
Fred Horton, of Tamworth, stated that in 1893 he was mining at John Bull with a man named Butler, who wanted a mate to go prospecting with. They proceeded to Glen Innes, 80 miles from Grafton, and prospected together for four months. It is not clear when this was supposed to be, but this does not appear to fit in with known facts. It could be after he was released from Maitland Gaol, but hard to see how it could be correct considering that in August 1893 he was imprisoned in Fremantle Gaol (see below).
From NSW it appears that as Butler, he proceeded to Western Australia. It could be that he was on the SS Albany as this fits in with the implied claim he was on it when it relieved the Rob Roy (see above).
He landed at Fremantle, was paid off, and went to Coolgardie, in Western Australia. There he was seized with fever, and upon his recovery he proceeded to Fremantle, where he spent or lost all his money and had to walk back 300 miles to the goldfield to resume work.
He got to a little place called Northam and thought there was no fun in tramping any farther. He accordingly offered to sell to a traveller who wanted to buy horses, one of three which he saw in a paddock. The man gave him Â£40 for the animal, and he handed him a receipt for the amount, signed "Richard Asche". The theft of the horse was reported to police and Mr A was tracked for twelve days. He was finally arrested and sent to Fremantle where he was charged with horse-stealing.
On 28 August 1893 as Ashe, he was convicted of unlawful possession in Newcastle, Western Australia, and sentenced to six months in jail. Newcastle was 85 kilometres north-east of Perth and was renamed Toodyay in May 1910 to end confusion with Newcastle in New South Wales. He must have been released early as on 8 February 1894 he faced a similar charge again in Newcastle WA. He was again sentenced to six months, this time with hard labour.
After he got cut of gaol this time, he had adventures with the blacks, several of whom he shot. He was involved in an affray in which a party went out to avenge the death of a man named Frank Searle. Mr A was at this time making himself out to be a Mr Harwood (or Horwood) but when caught out, he was consistently reticent as to how he came into possession of the certificate of Mr Harwood, the assayer. He later stated that he lived for nine months in Western Australia under that name, and for four years under the name of Ashe [sic]. It is not clear what time period this referred to, but presumably it was the period 1892 to 1896.
On his release from Fremantle Gaol, he travelled to Northam where he was suspected of stealing from miners. His tent was searched and the items found. On 1 September 1894 he was again sentenced, this time to 18 months hard labour. On his release in January 1896 he travelled to Coolgardie and was there in August 1896. It appears that he then travelled to Sydney.
Around this time Mr A appears to have stopped using the name Ashe and adopted the name Frank Butler.
On about 12 or 13 August 1896, a Norwegian called Burgess purchased a wagon and horses from Mr McCarthy (also called McCarty and McWharty in newspaper reports), a stable keeper, in Castlereagh Street in Sydney. Together with Mr A (now calling himself Frank Butler), he travelled to the Parkes area (over the Blue Mountains west of Sydney) to go prospecting. After been seen in the area, Burgess was never seen again.
The newspapers also reported that on 16 August 1896 a man called Lesagh called (Lisah or Lesah in newspaper reports) left Sydney for Germantown (I think this is part of Hill End - west of Blue Mountains, north of Bathurst) in the company of Mr Butler. However, this does not seem possible considering the above as Mr A would not have had time to return from Parkes. They were said to have left in a wagon purchased by Lesagh, also from McCarthy, for this trip. He had answered an advertisement placed by Butler for a prospecting mate. They were reported to have headed to Orange and then Parkes where they were seen on 26 August 1886. According to the papers, a day or two later Butler sold the wagon and horse. It was reported that Lesagh was never heard of again. However, as it turns out, Lesagh was found alive in late January 1897 and he reported he had never met the man known as Frank Butler.
Another report says that in August 1896 Butler and Frank P. Harwood went prospecting at Cobar in western NSW. However, there are other claims that he was already using the name Harwood before then. Harwood was never seen again.
Another person who was said to have answered Butler's advertisements was Frank Campbell. He accompanied Butler to Mudgee and was never seen again.
On 12 or 13 September 1896, David L. Yates, advertised for people to go mining with him and as a result, a man called Frank Harwood answered. This was of course Mr A (Mr A was now using the ID of a man actually called Frank Horwood - see above mentions). They arrived at Grafton on 15 September and using horses, went towards Coldale. Near here some gold was found and Harwood tried to talk one of the group into telling the others no gold had been found so they could mine it themselves. When the man refused and told Yates, Harwood left and presumably returned to Sydney.
On about 17 October 1896, Arthur T. O. Preston, 20 years old and a student at Sydney University, answered an advertisement in a newspaper and met a man called Frank Harwood (Mr A) at the Railway dining rooms in George Street, Sydney. They then caught a train to Emu Plains (at the foot of the Blue Mountains). On the train, they spoke to a Mr Thompson who reported that they planned to go to Glenbrook. A few days later, Thompson saw Harwood in Sydney and asked where Preston was. Harwood advised that Preston was "no use in the bush" and he was taking another man with him instead.
On 29 October 1896, a retired sea captain, Lee E. Weller, who lived in Phillip Street, Sydney, in answer to an advertisement, went prospecting with Frank Butler (Mr A). They caught the train from Redfern (in Sydney) to Glenbrook in the Lower Blue Mountains, the plan was to look at the creeks in this area for gold. They pitched camp at Glenbrook. Weller was last seen on 31 October 1896. Weller's friends appear to have reported him missing to the Police. Detectives went to the camp and found ashes, including the remains of a notebook that Weller used. Also found were a pair of trousers with the initials FH. As mentioned above, Mr A was known to have used the name Frank Harwood.
On 15 November 1896 a man named Lee Weller took a room in the Sailors' Home at Newcastle. He then took a job as a seaman on the sailing vessel Swanhilda in the name of Lee Weller and sailed from Newcastle to San Francisco. This was, of course, Mr A, also known as Richard Ashe, also known as Frank Butler and Frank Harwood.
A flannel shirt bearing the initials of Preston was found at Linden about 50 yards from where he was seen camping with Butler. On 2 December 1896, a body was found buried in a grave about two feet deep. It was about a mile and a half from Linden. This was discovered to be Arthur Preston. He had been shot in the head. Preston was buried at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney on 5 December 1896.
Shortly after 9 am on Sunday 6 December 1896, the body of Lee Weller was found in a shallow grave under an overhanging rock about a mile to the west of Glenbrook. This was very similar to how Preston was buried. The body was found by J. J. Meed of Glenbrook who was out looking for the body. Weller had been shot in the head. He was buried at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney on 8 December 1896.
Once the deaths were mentioned in the paper, Mr A was thereafter referred to as Frank Butler.
On Monday 7 December 1896, Mr Payten, the Chamber Magistrate in Sydney, sat in Chambers at the office of the Inspector-General of Police and received ex-parte evidence with a view to establishing a case sufficiently strong against Butler to warrant the Imperial authorities obtaining his extradition upon his arrival at San Francisco. A large number of witnesses were examined.
At the end, Mr Payten ordered the issue of warrants for the arrest of one Frank Harwood, alias S. Burgess, alias Butler, alias Simpson, alias Clare, alias Lee Weller. Detective John Roche left the same day by train for Adelaide. He had with him the warrants and a certified copy of the depositions taken at the court. In Adelaide he joined the RMS Austral for London. When he arrived there he was to take the steps necessary to secure the extradition of Butler (since Australian law at that time still had England as the overseeing authority). He then proceeded to America, arriving in San Francisco before Butler.
Constabulary Probationer Conroy, who was acquainted with Butler through the negotiations he had with him about the proposed prospecting tour, left Sydney by the SS Miowera (a steamer) on Wednesday 9 December 1896 with Detective McHattie. They were bound for Vancouver, en route for San Francisco, with the object of arriving before Butler and procuring his arrest .
On Thursday 21 January 1897, a Mr Mulhall and his son found a body in thick scrub at the foot of the Black Range Mountains. This was 20 miles from Waroo (called Warroo in my maps), about 46 kilometres west of Forbes which is about 34 kilometres south-west of Parkes. It was assumed that the body was of Lesagh. He had been shot in the back of the head. However, the body turned out to be that of Burgess.
On Friday 29 January 1897 it was discovered the Lesagh was actually still alive. He was living in Grafton on the NSW North Coast. He had been there for at least 18 months and was using the name Miller (he said because people could not pronounce his real name). He said he had not been in Sydney in August or September and had not purchased a wagon and horses. The same day, a chest was discovered in Sydney in a second hand dealer shop (owned by Woolf) in Bathurst Street. In it were found items belong to Captain and Mrs Lee Weller.
On 2 February 1897 on arrival of the Swanhilda in San Francisco, Detective McHattie, of Newcastle, and Constable Conroy from Sydney searched the boat and found articles of jewellery belonging to Waller, a portrait of Mrs Weller, a diploma in the name of Harwood, a jacket belong to Preston and was wearing Lee Weller's boots. He claimed to have not known Weller, despite using his name and having some of his possessions. It was also reported that he had packets of strychnine powders in his possessions. When the arrest caused some publicity in California, Mrs Etta Butler of Napa, California, claimed that he was her husband, Frank.
While in custody in San Francisco, Butler claimed that Weller accidentally shot himself. On 3 February 1897 the request for extradition was deferred till 8 February 1897. Butler then claimed that he was forced to accept Weller's belongings. He then claimed that he was Weller, so could not have murdered himself. A new extradition for murdering Preston was lodged.
On 9 February 1897 during the extradition process, Butler admitted that his real name was Richard Ashe. Mrs Etta Butler then stated about 10 February 1897 that her previous claim that Butler was her husband was wrong and that she was mistaken!
On about 27 February 1897 Butler was approved for extradition back to Sydney. At the same time, a reporter from the Francisco Examiner ascertained from Butler that his real name was John Newman and that he was born in West Bromwich, England. He also claimed that he was in the British army, serving in the Zulu and Egyptian wars. However, given his claims over the past five years as to his identity, this has to be viewed with caution.
Finally, on Monday 5 April 1897, Butler left San Francisco on the SS Mariposa bound for Sydney. He informed one of the NSW Police who were accompanying him that he shot Preston in self defence and buried his body as he was frightened. He again claimed that Weller shot himself, this time it was in an act of suicide, as he was distraught over the death of his wife.
On Friday 23 April 1897 the Mariposa arrived in Auckland, New Zealand. On Tuesday 27 April 1897 she arrived in Sydney. On the voyage, at times Butler was in a talkative mood. He was full of reminiscences, some of which were so startling that one of the Police escorting him called him a "born liar." The first mentions of him in Australia in this article were given on that voyage.
Once in Sydney Harbour, he was transferred to a launch and taken to shore. He was put in a Police van and taken to Darlinghurst Gaol. Here he was formally charged with the murders of Lee Weller and Preston.
Butler declared that he had no money and was therefore allocated defence counsel by the Government. On Sunday 2 May 1897 it was announced that Mr Edmunds, assisted by Mr R. Bloomfield, would defend Butler and be instructed by Mr Mark Williamson. The prosecution would be conducted by the Attorney-General "in person", assisted by Mr Wade, the Crown Prosecutor and Mr E. S. Scarvell. The trial was due to start on 31 May 1897.
On about Tuesday 11 May 1897 "rules nisi" were granted by the Full Court of New South Wales against the printers and publishers of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, Evening News and Australian Star on the motion of Butler, calling upon them to show cause on Thursday 13 May 1897 why writs of attachment should not issue against them for contempt of Court for publishing statements which, it was alleged, were calculated to prejudice the jury against Butler.
On Thursday 13 May 1897 the Court found the newspaper publishers guilty of contempt and fined them Â£100 each.
The trial was postponed till 14 June 1897. On Monday 14 June 1897 the trial started before Chief Justice Darley at the Central Criminal Court at Darlinghurst. It appears that the trial was only for Weller's murder. On the first day 27 witnesses appeared before the Court. Some of the evidence presented was that the shot to the head could not have been self inflected (as claimed at one time by Butler) and that there were many items owned by Weller that were found in the possession of Butler in San Francisco.
The next day the second hand dealer Woolf gave evidence that Butler sold Weller's sea chest to him. Detective John Roche who arrested Butler in San Francisco, gave details of statements made to him by Butler. One was that Weller had sold to Butler the many items that Butler had in his possession. Detective Roche would later found Sydney Night Patrol and Inquiry Company (now called SNP Security) on 16 June 1923.
On Wednesday 16 June 1897 Butler attempted to kill himself before the Court started. He tried to use the sharp point of a tobacco tin to cut his throat, but the cut was vertical and shallow. This was the second time he attempted suicide, the other was when he was in gaol in San Francisco. When Butler finally was brought into the Court, a huge fracas occurred, with Butler fighting the Police who were escorting him. It took a while, but finally he calmed down enough to be put in a straight jacket and for the trial to proceed. When Butler was offered the chance to make a statement, his Counsel advised that his medical state (the result of the suicide attempt and his fight with the Police) meant that he needed an adjournment.
The Chief Justice granted an adjournment. In the afternoon the trial resumed, with Butler giving evidence through his counsel. His claims were similar to that made previously, that Weller had killed himself. After this the Chief Justice summed up the evidence and the jury retired. It returned one hour and twenty minutes later. The jury's verdict was guilty and the Chief Justice gave Butler a death sentence.
On Wednesday 23 June 1897, the Full Court heard an appeal on a point of law (that the crime that he was convicted of was not the crime for which he was extradited from the USA) but they rejected the appeal and upheld the conviction.
On Friday 25 June 1897, the Executive Council (this is composed of senior members of the NSW Parliament) set a date of 16 July 1897 for Butler's execution.
At 9 am on Friday 16 July 1897, Frank Butler was executed by hanging in the Darlinghurst Gaol. When asked if he had any last words, he proclaimed "Let her go". This was presumably a reference to the trap door. The day before his execution, he called into his cell Mr Herbert, the Governor of the Gaol, and admitted his guilt to the murders of Weller, Preston and Burgess. He confessed to killing another man called Price. When shown a photograph of this person, he agreed that this was him. I have no further knowledge of this. He also implied that he had murdered another man, Davis, in company with others.
Therefore, it appears that Frank Butler, murdered four people (Weller, Preston, Burgess and Price) and probably another three (Davis, Harwood and Campbell) in Australia. He will go down in Australian history as the first serial murderer, but one that is hardly known to anyone.
Aliases of Mr A: Frank Butler, Frank Harwood, Frank Horwood, Sampson or Simpson, Clare, Burgess, Lee Weller, Richard Asche, Richard Ashe, James MacKnight, George Anderson, Richard (?) Ascher, Elgan, John Newnan