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One Murder, Three Approaches: The story, the reminiscence, and the archival case file

Mélanie Méthot and Mariana Castillo Arce


From the annals of Western Australia's law enforcement, Detective Harry Mann emerges as an enigmatic figure. Trove, the wonderful digital archives of Australian historical newspapers, chronicles his complicated involvement in numerous criminal investigations. Mann joined the Western Australia police force in 1897, moving up the ladder rungs from “trooper” to plain clothes constable, then to detective sergeant in 1912, and only five years later to Inspector of the Perth Criminal Investigation Bureau. [1] He retired after twenty years of loyal service and spent the next twelve years as a Perth MP.


In 1943 young journalist Max Praed had the original idea of interviewing the retired inspector to garner material for articles about several infamous murderers.  The nine parts series appeared in the Perth’s tabloid Sunday Times. Eight years later, the 79-year-old ex-chief inspector took up pen and paper to contribute a weekly column on crime to the sensationalist tabloid, The Mirror. In addition to commenting on various notorious offenders and colourful historical crimes, Mann revisited Praed’s published stories. Comparing the journalist’s “Murder in a Gold Mining Camp” and the inspector's “A Crime without Reason” to the surviving


The Mirror, 7 July 1951.


archival case file will showcase three distinct approaches to explaining and understanding Ahaz Wren and his crime.


The Story


Enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia, Praed is flexing his literary skills when he tells the story of Mick, the murdered Cue gold prospector. He paints a vivid tableau of life in the mining town, where every soul seems intertwined in the pursuit of golden riches: “Boom days on the Murchison goldfields! What a picture that calls up to us who remember the richness -and the wickedness! - of those roaring times!” Born in 1918, Praed is not part of the us. [2] He narrates as if he were the brilliant inspector Mann he interviewed, relying heavily on the detective’s recollections, but also injecting some fictitious details of his own.


The Sunday Times, 29 August 1943



Naming the people who gave life to the town, Praed transports readers three decades earlier to the universe of Mick, a man “who because of his good nature and learning, was respected by everyone.” He insists on the small-town atmosphere, stating twice in a short paragraph that everyone knew Michael Naughton (Mick), the murdered prospector. The local bi-weekly paper, The Day Dawn Chronicle described the victim as a seventy-year-old who was “well known and respected in Cue. [3]  It is impressive and mysterious that a tri-weekly paper located some 500 km away from the murder scene, ascertains the very next day (this is in 1906!) that the victim was an “old hand of about 65”, “had been in Cue for about 10 years”, “held a goldfield license”, “never known to keep gold in his camp”, “made Barnes and Mahoney, local storekeeper his bankers”, “had 20 oz this week”, “had no relative in this country”, “a brother in America”, “very quiet, good living old fellow but made no friends.” [4] A few days later, the weekly  Murchison Advocate, also situated at quite a distance from the tragic event, gave a more ambivalent account of the victim: “Poor old Mick, good living kindly old soul, perhaps rather eccentric in the way he conducted his business.” [5] Those differing opinions of the victim do not make it into the tale of the storyteller, journalist Max Praed.




Praed's narrative follows the layout of a short story rather than that of a news article. After describing the location, he traces Naughton’s activities the day before the tragedy: “On Saturday, June 9, 1906, Mick put 30 ounces of gold into the Union Bank for an assay. Many thought he had been paid in full.” He brings in the point of view of the crowd, thus planting the seed for the possible motive, as many thought that the prospector had just received money.




In the following scene, Praed starts with something dear to Australians: Football. Apparently the whole of Cue was watching the game in the neighbouring town, leaving its mining camps “deserted till about six o’clock in the evening.” [6]


Describing the moment of the crime, the young author emphasizes the supposed smallness of the town: “Suddenly every camp was startled by the sound of four gunshots.” If something was happening in the mining town, in Praed’s imagination, the whole village would easily hear it and participate in the aftermath. The Kalgoorlie Sun, a paper from another

Football match Fremantle Oval 1910,


goldfield boomtown, does not assume as much and tempers the small-town depiction: “The crime was committed so openly that other camp-dwellers in the vicinity not only heard the shots, but the cries of the victim and the police were actually on the scene inside of an hour.” [7] If it did not take long for police to make their way to the crime scene, it was only the people in the surrounding area who were alerted. Praed refers to a big crowd obliterating any tracks around the victim’s hut. To inject more drama to an already tragic event, he decides that Mick’s mates were ready to exact revenge, advancing once more the purported good nature of the murder victim and the closeness between him and other camp dwellers. 



 

Praed then introduces Aziz [sic] Wren, the accused murderer who apparently was “caught in the act [of stealing] by Mick on his return from the football match.” (Not deviating from his story-telling stance, Praed even has old Mick at the Day Dawn football game!)


Shifting focus, Praed states that though the police searched Wren’s encampment, they found nothing incriminating. Sergeant Simpson nevertheless locked him up for being of unsound mind. Praed writes that the investigation continued without success, until one day Wren sold some broken pieces of manufactured gold. Only then was Detective Mann apparently “in possession of the first bit of real evidence.” The next time the police searched Wren’s lodgings, months later, they conveniently found a revolver “which was proved to be the one from which the bullets were fired”,


https://Murchinson Times and Day Dawn Gazette


and coincidently two bank notes “which were proved to be the ones given to Mick by Barnes [the storekeeper/banker] on that fateful Saturday.” Praed has Detective Mann speak of the evidence with conviction. The journalist is both precise and vague. Wren resisted arrest and apparently exclaimed: “Yes! He was a Catholic, and I killed him!” While not hesitating to quote the accused murderer, the narrator does not specify that it took four months to catch the killer.



The murderer finally introduced in his tale, Praed continues with the drama by revealing that Wren’s diary demonstrates that he was insane. He explains Wren believed he was the offspring of a snake. At this point, the journalist applies some Freudian psychoanalysis, speculating that: “The sexual fantasy he had of being the son of a snake is one that reveals unmistakably the depth and extent of his hatred of life and of his fellow man. This was the disease in the mind of Aziz Wren that remained dormant until it was aroused by greed and hatred, which caused him to kill a kindly old man who had done him no harm, and which finally branded him a murderer.” [8] Believing strongly in his psychoanalytic skill, Praed will open his own psychotherapy practice a few years later. [9] Though the journalist implies that Mann is writing the story, the detective’s own 1951 account suggests that the storyteller took artistic license, something tabloid press is known for.

 


The Reminiscence


Former detective Harry Mann starts his account where Praed ended his, with the introduction of the murderer and his supposed state of mind. Mann delves deep into the recesses of the human condition, seeking to unravel the enigma that lies at the heart of the tragedy: “The Bible has told us that it is not good for a man to be alone”, he first reflects.  His whole exposé warns readers of the dangers of loneliness.



 

Following the introduction, Mann separates his text into 5 sections: “Reticent”, “Armor”, “Stupid Act”, “Insane” and “Senseless”.  Under the first section, he describes the victim, Michael Naughton, at length. He was a fifty-something prospector appreciated by others for his generosity, though he was reticent to advertise his inclinations. Instead, Naughton “preferred mostly to do his good deeds by stealth”. The trait corresponds to what one might expect from a former clergyman, a profession Mann assigns to the victim, a questionable detail which was never in the media coverage nor in the legal proceedings. Painting him as a much younger man than he was, Mann shows signs of a failing memory since Naughton was 69 years old when he met his end. According to Mann, the victim had a great intellect “far beyond the intelligence of most people who roamed around Cue in those days.” Not only had the Perth detective never met the Cue victim, but his choice of verb roaming crystalises how the inspector perceived Cueites: That they did not have clear aims. For Mann, an urban gentleman, if the supposedly refined victim “could endure a lonely, humdrum life and the long silences of his surroundings,” others with less culture would succumb to the monotony. 

 

The old detective then contrasts the victim with his killer. One is cultured while the other primitive. None of the nearly 200 newspaper accounts ever described Wren’s lodgings, but Mann somehow remembers the home as “a hole dug in the side of a hill with a lean-to to shelter the opening.” To stress the conceived primal instincts of the killer, Mann specifies that Wren “rarely shaved and rarely washed”.  He declares that people found him queer, “a stupid sort of a man”. To bolster that claim, the former inspector describes derisively the self-made armour Wren wore to protect himself.  [10]

 

To the attentive reader, Mann muddies the waters when he paints the murderer as a man of weak intellect who after being arrested on suspicion of murder was released “as there was no evidence against him.” Mann adds: “No doubt he thought he had got off scot-free.”  The detective specifies it took four months for Wren to do a stupid act, selling along with his alluvial gold “Naughton’s ring chopped in small pieces.” Mann declares with assurance that Wren had the victim’s ring. He admits that once they had that piece of evidence, it did not take much “to pin the killing on Wren.” Both Praed and Mann imply that the investigators knew all along of Wren’s guilt, yet we know that the detectives continued to pursue other leads, even offering a reward for any information which would lead to the arrest of the killer(s).

 

 


 Murchison Advocate, 14 July 1906

 

 

 

 

August 1906 Police Gazettes serve as proof that detectives entertained different theories.


 




















 






Completely ignoring the other avenues investigated and the insistence that the motive for the crime was robbery, Mann acknowledges that though the police were convinced Wren had killed Naughton, it took much longer to find a motive. This is when the ex-inspector brings in psychoanalysis: “To Wren’s mind the only way was for him to get in first and to kill Naughton” before the prospector would kill him.  Readers’ confusion surfaces as Mann in one stroke gives intent to Wren who thought he had got away with something, but in the next, paints him as someone who had simply acted in self-defence and “had no great sorrow about the killing”. “As a keen student of crime” [11], the retired inspector, motivated to share what makes a person a murderer, expounds: “In normal circumstances,” Wren would have functioned in society, but “outback life and loneliness have a strange effect on these weak minds.”  Mann offers a sombre reminder of the possible tragic consequences that arise when the frailty of human nature collides with the unforgiving landscape of the outback. [12]



Other than the motive for the crime and the wrong first name Praed used for the accused killer, the discrepancies between the two accounts are subtle. While the journalist incorporated the most sensational of Wren’s delusions, the former inspector only described the armour worn by the murderer to point to insanity and he insisted on the effects of loneliness. He included more details about the killer and his victim, such as their ages, living conditions and former professions (seemingly all distorted information) but refrained from developing other characters and surroundings, something a storyteller must do.  While Mann’s reminiscences come closer to what one finds in the archival case file, his account shows that memory plays tricks.

 


The Archival Case File

 

 

 

State Records Office of Western Australia has a 54-page case file containing memos from the Crown Solicitor to police officers, telegrams, correspondence between various parties such as the Colonial Secretary Department and the Deputy Inspector General of the Insane, subpoena, copy of the depositions taken on the 4th, 13th and 30th of October 1906 and annotated by Wren’s defense attorney. [13] The documents not only help in establishing a timeline, but they also offer a different take than those Praed and Mann proposed.


SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036



The content of the file confirms what some newspapers reported immediately after the murder.  The homicide occurred on June 10th  at 6:30 pm, within minutes, two neighbours made their way to the victim’s camp, and one of them fetched the police. By 8 pm, constables were interviewing Wren, Naughton’s other neighbour. Praed insinuates that Wren was locked up for being of unsound mind that night, but Louis Vincent Simpson, police sergeant in charge of Cue District station, declared he put Wren in jail on June 14th [14] Wren remained in prison for three weeks. They released him in early July. He was charged with the wilful murder of Michael Naughten only on October 3rd. Twenty-five witnesses made depositions during the following weeks.

 


The sworn evidence divulges that the first and only witnesses on the night in question were Rhonda Walker, her husband, and their neighbour Thomas Chesson; there were certainly no big crowds. Mrs. Walker testified that while preparing Sunday tea, she heard some noises from the neighbouring camp at 6:30 pm: “I called my husband, and he and I went out by a side door to the tank and heard the same voice continuing in the direction of Naughten’s camp. I then recognized it was Naughten’s voice. After a few moments two shots were fired and I ran indoors.” [15] Her husband corroborates her deposition. Too dark to see anything, Walker decided to get his boots to go check on his neighbour, but after hearing two shots, a third one and probably a fourth, instead he took his family to safety to Chesson’s house. The two men proceeded to Naughton’s camp.  James Walker explained that they called the old


SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036




prospector’s name, but when he did not answer, they did not try to find him. Only once Walker arrived with Sergeant Simpson and two constables, did Chesson find the body. He describes the sequence of events: “I got the lamp from the police and went in and saw the dead body of Michael Naughten lying upon its back. The pockets of the pants were turned inside out, there was no blood or sign of it on the pockets.” [16] He states he accompanied the police to several camps in the neighbourhood, including that of Ahaz Wren’s.  



Chesson’s testimony highlights other discrepancies. By mentioning that “the door was open”, he invalidates Mann’s depiction of Wren’s lodgings.  Chesson also shows that from the get-go, the police were trying to incriminate Wren. He shares that one constable asked the accused: “It was about half past six when you left Naughten’s.” Chesson quotes Wren’s reply: “I have not been to Naughten’s.” Choosing to recall those specific details suggests that Chesson did not believe Wren was guilty. The miner even declares: “I found him honest and possessed of a good memory and a clear head.” [17] Nothing in Chesson’s testimony implicates Wren.



Detective Sampson also points the finger away from Wren.  He describes what he found (and did not find!) on June 16th when he executed the search warrant at Wren’s camp: A pair of trousers with blood stains, a diary, two one-pound notes, some money.  He is adamant, swearing twice that there was no murder weapon: “I made a thorough search for a revolver but failed to find one and swear there was none there, also searched for cartridges without finding any and swear that the box containing cartridges now produced Exh Q was not there.”  He also stated: “There was no such ring or parts of a ring.” [18] The tone hints that when he made his deposition, four months after the homicide, the detective was not convinced of Wren’s guilt. Afterall, the state analyst confirmed that the blood on the trousers was not human.  Since the medical examiner found that the shooter fired four times at close range, one can imagine that some of the victim’s blood would have transferred on the clothes of the killer especially considering the careful observations of Sergeant Simpson when describing the crime scene: “There was a quantity of blood splashed about to the right and in front of the body.” [19] The absence of human blood on the accused’s garments seemingly absolves him.


Evidence from other Crown witnesses did not help the prosecution’s case. Constable Joseph Doody affirms: “Among other things found there were several pairs of boots. In my opinion none of these boots could have made the track I followed.” [20] Those depositions display that the case was certainly not all that tight. Detective Mann’s recollections of a clean-cut case starts to splinter. 



When he reminisces about Wren’s case, Mann mentions what he considered the incriminating evidence: The revolver, the bank notes, and the ring. But what he perceives as damning evidence was not evident at trial.  Not only did the expert gunman throw some doubt when he shared that it would be difficult to fire the revolver in quick succession (so not possible for the two gunshots heard in quick succession) [21], but as Wren’s attorney underlines (literally!), the revolver was found under the pillow of the accused after his October arrest. Detective Sampson insists that he had found nothing when he searched Wren’s lodging back in June.



More could be said about the facts of the case, but the focus of this blog is on the different approaches to the murder that diverse sources convey. The archive file proves Praed invented some details.  None of the witnesses refer to a football game. Nicolas Oates, one of the wirnesses, even declares that Naughton came to his camp around 3 pm and remained there until 5 pm. [22] The old prospector was visibly not at a football game.  Mann’s account also should be read critically. Sergeant Simpson mentions that Wren resisted arrest, but he simply states: “He was overpowered and handcuffed,” none of the dramas Mann included. The arresting officers both quote Wren, and though what he says could be understood as a confession, Wren did not explicitly state that he killed Naughton: “He [Michael Naughton] tried to shoot me in that house; a man must do something to protect his life; he has been trying to kill me for seven years. He told me I was an enemy to his church. He was a bad man.” [23] Since the Jury found Wren insane,  should they have taken at face value what he said when he was arrested?



Praed’s story and Mann’s recollections are tainted with their intrinsic bias and personal goals.  Reviewing novels for the Times, if Praed was honing his own storytelling skills when he published his nine parts series, finding the right number of facts to mix with fiction, Mann was sharing all the wisdom he had acquired in his detective years.  He pondered on the characteristics of murderers. Are they born to kill or are there some special circumstances which contribute to their evil deeds? He focused on the evidence he believed the most incriminating, which incidentally he provided to the Crown.



Of course the he case file itself has no particular approach, but the way historians use the information to put forth a version of history does. Certainly, readers would have noticed how the authors subtly question police practices. Featuring the testimonies which throw some doubt on Wren’s conviction, the authors consider the possibility that the accused was innocent. Finally, readers of THEbigamyblog might wonder why the Cue murder made it to the website when there are no mention of bigamy. They have to return to the Bigamy-Murder post https://www.thebigamyproject.com/post/bigamy-murder-a-favorite-fictional-trope.

 



REFERENCES:

 *We want to thank Mark Heinrich and Marian Lorrison for their sensible suggestions



1“New Detective Inspector,” Perth Western Mail, 27 April 1917.

2 National Archives Australia [NAA], A6119, 442, “Praed, Max. Secret Memorandum, 19 December 1955”.

3 “The Cue Murder,”Day Dawn Chronicle, 13 June 1906.

4 “Brutal Murder at Cue,” Geraldton Express, 11 June 1906. 

5 “The Murder of Michael Naghten,” Murchison Advocate 16 June 1906.

6 Interestingly, there was only a “moderate attendance” at the game. “Football”, Geraldton Express, 11 June 1906.

7 “Sunbeams,” The Kalgoorlie Sun, 15 July 1906.

8 Max Praed, “Murder in a Gold Mining Camp,” Sunday Times, 29 August 1943.

9 NAA, A6119, 442, “Praed, Max. Secret Memorandum, 19 December 1955”. 

10 When the Perth police decided to create a museum, they called upon all stations to provide exhibits associated with crimes committed in the region. Amongst the objects, “the very ingeniously shaped breastplate made and worn by Ahaz Wren.”  The Sunday Times description gives more credit to Wren than Mann is ready to concede. “Countryman’s Column”, The Sunday Times, 30 November 1913.

11 Mirror, 30 June 1951.

12 Harry Mann, “A Crime Without Reason” Mirror, 14 July 1951. 

13 State Records Office of Western Australia [SROWA] S3029- cons 7728 1906/0136, “Rex vs Ahaz Wren for the Wilful Murder of Michael Naughton on 10 June 1906 at Cue in the State of  Western Australia.

14 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Sergeant Louis Vincent Simpson.”

15 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Rhonda Walker.”

16 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of James Walker.”

17 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Thomas Chesson.”

18 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Detective Sampson.”

19 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Sergeant Simpson.”

20 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Jos Doody.”  

21 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Austin Valentine Marshall.”  

22 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Nicholas Oates.”  

23 SROWA S3029- cons 7728/1036, “Deposition of Harry Mann.”

 

 




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