In an era when leisure activities were sparse to non-existent, gossiping about crime was one of the few pastimes which was available. And it was free. This chapter will briefly cover the establishment of a Court House and then deal with a number of cases which gripped the imagination of the towns’ folks during the nineteenth century.
Main picture: Clockwise from the top left, these buildings have served as the Court House over the years. 1. The building between Evatt’s house on the left and the Post Office on the right from circa 1825 to 1856. 2. Commercial Hall from 1856 to 1884. 3. Magistrates Courts from 1884 to 1934 in South Union Street. 4. North End Law Courts from 1934 onwards
Stories of drunken sailors and their misdeeds were legion in the nascent town. To deal with this spree of disorderly conduct, drunkenness and petty theft by sailors letting off steam, Capt. Francis Evatt was appointed as the Government Resident with the Court House and Jail being in outbuildings on Evatt’s property on the corner of the road up the hill to Fort Frederick, later to be known as Military Road. This arrangement served the tiny community well until 1856 when the Court House was burnt down. As the only suitable building available was the Commercial Hall, it was expropriated to serve as the Court House temporarily.
On July 29th 1882, the sale of part of the Military Reserve as building lots commenced. This was Crown Land and the proceeds plus the annual quitrent were in due course used for the building of the new Magistrate’s Court on the site of the Commissariat’s Yard. The plans were prepared by the Public Works Dept in Cape Town and construction commenced in 1884. This building was completed in December 1885 in Baakens Street. Among the materials used in the new Court House were teak, Paarl granite, Coega stone, Italian marble and yellowwood.
In turn this building was replaced by the New Law Courts at North End adjacent to the prison which was opened on 2 July 1934 and the former Court House became part of the Post Office, until 1990/91. The old Collegiate School in Bird Street was demolished and the Supreme Court was built on the site. It was opened in 1990.
Until 1869, executions were public affairs. To ensure that they never missed the “action”, the residents would arrive early and take up their place. The last public execution in Port Elizabeth took place on the green fronting the North End Gaol on the 22nd April 1869. This was the first execution since November 1833 and was attended by a huge crowd. Act 3 of 1869, effective from 18 October 1869, stated that all future executions were to be conducted inside prison walls. Two further executions took place here, in 1891 and 1901
Murders with a local flavour
Most of the cases tried in Port Elizabeth during the nineteenth century were of a petty nature. The first one of a sensational nature occurred in 1852 when the Court had not yet relocated to Commercial Hall in Market Square. This matter related to a murder at the farm Maitland Mines in which a coloured woman had stabbed her husband to death with a clasp knife. The murder had piqued the interest of the citizens of Port Elizabeth. At her trial, crowds thronged on the verandah of the building until she was found guilty and sentenced to death
The gallows comprised scaffolding which had been hastily erected between the sand hills off Queen Street. Presumably this area is today occupied either by the Settler’s Freeway or the railway lines. To prevent a public execution with crowds of morbid spectators being present, the hanging was performed at dawn before the crowds had descended upon the gallows.
The last public execution of a condemned person held in public relates to a coloured man, Gert Arantes in 1869. His offence was to kill an elderly man, January Jacobus, at Hankey. After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty and the death sentence was pronounced. The gallows was erected on the open green in front of the North End Jail. On the given date, he was hung before a motley crowd who looked on with morbid curiosity. Arantes was buried in the paupers cemetery nearby.
The jewel thieves
Not all of the sensational cases involved murder. This case possessed an international flavour which piqued the interests of the local inhabitants. The newsworthy trial in October 1875 relates to the theft of very valuable diamonds, rubies and pearls valued at twenty-five thousand pounds in Rio de Janeiro. The three perpetrators slipped aboard the ship Ellen with their ill-gotten hoard of precious jewels, working their way as ordinary seamen. Unluckily for them, whilst nearing Algoa Bay, the ship struck foul weather and had to wait the passing of the storm in the Bay. Meanwhile the three rogues came ashore and took up residence in comfortable apartments at the Phoenix Hotel in Market Square.
As the thieves were attempting to dispose of their stolen gems, they were arrested by Inspector Bromwich. After a preliminary examination, the trio were trans-shipped to Cape Town and then transferred back to the location of the theft: Rio de Janeiro, where they were tried.
Trial with an Irish flavour
Of all the trials held in Port Elizabeth during the nineteenth century, this one must surely rank as the one with the most international interest.
The origins of this murder extend all the way back to Ireland and the Fenians. The Fenians were an Irish Republican Brotherhood, a 19th-century revolutionary nationalist organization among the Irish in the US and Ireland and a predecessor of the IRA. The Fenians staged an unsuccessful revolt in Ireland in 1867 and were responsible for isolated revolutionary acts against the British until the early 20th century, when they were gradually eclipsed by the IRA.
This series of events commenced with the gruesome murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the chief secretary for Ireland, and Mr Thomas Henry Burke, the permanent under-secretary, as they were walking home to their official residences in the Phoenix Park in Dublin on a fine May evening in 1882.
The Phoenix Park murders – as they were known – created the same sort of sensation as the death of Princess Diana on the 31st August 1997 in a Paris underpass such was the intense interest.
Among the Fenian activists detained for this murder was James Carey. From suspect he became an informer. Although the Phoenix Park murders were widely condemned, even in orthodox Fenian circles, there was nothing but anger and revulsion in nationalist Ireland against Carey for what he had done. The authorities had no use for him either but it was incumbent upon them to make some provision for his safety by getting him out of Ireland. The problem was to find a safe haven in the English-speaking parts of the world; the USA and Canada, the Australian colonies and New Zealand; even the Cape Colony had too many Fenian sympathisers in them for safety. Therefore, Natal was chosen, where the Irish were thin on the ground.
Then Mrs Carey and five of the children boarded the Kinfauns Castle in London as steerage passengers and Carey and the two eldest children joined the ship at Dartmouth, all of them travelling as a family under the name of Power, Mrs Carey’s maiden name, bound for Cape Town on the first stage of their journey. Travelling on the same ship, in a second-class berth, was another Irishman by the name of Patrick O’Donnell with whom the so–called James Power became very friendly on the voyage, playing dice and draughts and drinking together. O’Donnell was booked for Cape Town but so well did he get on with Power that he decided to go on with him to Natal and changed his booking before they reached Cape Town. At Cape Town, they all transferred to a coastal steamer, the Melrose.
The Melrose Castle sailed on Saturday 28 July from Cape Town. About a quarter to four on Sunday afternoon while the ship was rounding Cape Recife to enter Algoa Bay, O’Donnell and Power were having a drink together in the saloon. Unexpectedly, O’Donnell drew a revolver and shot his friend three times. It was a harrowing scene. According to Redgrave, he had shadowed Carey – alias Power – all the way from Ireland.
News of the murder was signalled by the Captain to the Port Authorities who despatched the Police Tug to arrest the murderer. Handcuffed to the rails of the tug, he was brought ashore along with the dead body amidst the jeers of the assembled crowd and placed in the jail.
When the body of James Power was brought ashore at Port Elizabeth in the Cape Colony on 30 July 1883 the town became the focus of world attention as never before or since; for James Power turned out to be James Carey, the notorious assassin—turned informer—who had dominated the news since the beginning of the year.
Just as O’Donnell was about to stand trial at the Court, a message arrived from Britain stating that, as the crime had been committed on board an English vessel on the high seas, the suspect was to be returned to Britain for trial. The orders were carried out. O’Donnell was returned to Britain, found guilty and executed.
During the proceedings at Port Elizabeth there occurred the one instance of humane conduct that has come to light in this whole affair. Dr Frederick Ensor, the district surgeon at Port Elizabeth, conducted the post mortem on Carey and gave his evidence in the magistrate’s court on the first day of the inquiry. At five o’clock that evening he went to see the prisoner. He asked O’Donnell if he had any relative with him and on being told about the niece he undertook to ask the local Catholic clergy to see to her welfare. O’Donnell replied, ‘with much emotion’, ‘Then that is all I care for’. When he found that O’Donnell had been given only bread and water since his arrest he gave orders that he should be provided with proper food. Later when he learnt that O’Donnell had paced about his cell all night, he prescribed a sleeping draught for him. Dr Ensor also attended Carey’s funeral. Finding that neither the Catholic clergy nor any other clergyman in the town was prepared to conduct a burial service he said he thought it only right that a few words should be said over the grave of ‘this poor man’ and that he would say a prayer to alleviate the distress of Carey’s wife and family.
Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave
Port Elizabeth – A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine
The Fate of an Infamous Informer: http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/the-fate-of-an-infamous-informer/
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Destruction of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth
Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road Methodist Church – 1872 to 1966
The Royal Visit to Port Elizabeth in 1947
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street before the Era of Trams