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Who murdered George Sturgeon? (continued from previous post)

In my last blog post I introduced you to my convict ancestor Mary Ann Dalton and left off at the point of the last entry in her convict record. This post will look at other sources of information on the Irish in Tasmania and how to reconstruct the lives of Tasmanian Irish ancestors.

My search for more information on the life of Mary Ann Dalton and her husband James Knibbs led me to the Archives Office of Tasmania in Hobart. Initially I searched birth records and found the couple had 8 children; Mary Ann in 1853, Maria Ann in 1855, twins named Charles and James in 1857, Henry in 1859, Susan in 1861, a second son named James in 1864 and George Richard in 1866. Young Mary Ann died aged 4 in 1857 and the twin named James must have died allowing another son to take the name, although no record was found of his death. Perhaps being a twin he died at birth or shortly after. It is fortunate for today's researchers that such records are now freely available on the Archives site.

It seemed, however, that I was not the first to search for Mary Ann Dalton and James Knibbs. In the 1960s a resident of Oatlands had been researching their lives and in the aging manila folder labelled 'James Knibbs' that contained notes on her research I was to receive a shocking revelation. According to the author of the notes Mary Ann's husband, James Knibbs, had made a death bed confession in the Campbell Town Hospital in 1875 to having murdered a man by the name of George Sturgeon in 1856.

A search of Campbell Town hospital records failed to find any trace of James Knibbs having ever been admitted to the hospital so perhaps the information in the folder was just a tall tale. Perhaps newspapers of the day could shed light on the crime and who the murderer was. Again, for today's researchers, much of that newspaper content is now in digitised form and freely available on the web. The National Library of Australia's Australian Newspapers can be searched for "George Sturgeon" to uncover numerous reports on both the crime and trial. (This collection is also worth searching for news of the period from other countries as the papers included details of foreign news, including news from Ireland.)

It turned out that George Sturgeon had been on his way home to the Salt Pan Plains from a trip to Oatlands. He stopped off for a drink at the Antill Ponds Hotel and when he reached a point known as Kitty's Corner he was brutally murdered. Suspicion fell on a couple of escaped convicts named Dennis Doherty and Richard Ennis. Ennis due to being Irish and because of his height was known as Long Mick or Tall Mick. Two key witnesses were Mary Ann Dalton and her husband James Knibbs. They gave evidence that Doherty and Ennis had held them up in their house in order to gain supplies such as flour. It was Ennis who protected the family when threatened by Doherty when he remarked 'The woman's alright'. This seems likely to be a reference to the fact that she was Irish and possibly saved them from the same fate as George Sturgeon. It was also said the two bushrangers gave coins to the couple's children.

A short while after they left the house the gun-shot that killed Sturgeon was heard by the couple. Too frightened to leave their cottage they waited some time before James Knibbs raised the alarm.

Various later accounts of the murder suggest that Ennis was an innocent man and inconsistences in the trial evidence of Doherty and Ennis seem to support this. The local Catholic Priest also believed Ennis to be innocent. While Doherty was found not-guilty, Ennis was found guilty and was hanged at Oatlands. Reputable locals reported seeing Ennis some distance from the scene of the crime on the day and too far away to have made it to the murder scene in time. Others suggest the real murderer was a jealous husband and that a love triangle may have been involved. Perhaps we will never know who killed George Sturgeon but perhaps enough evidence might find that Ennis was innocent. The newspaper link mentioned earlier has lots of articles with details on the crime and trials. There is also an account on the Rootsweb site.

In my next post I will take a look at the celebration of St Patrick's Day in Tasmania.

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Tags: 'van, dalton, diemen's, doherty, ennis, land', murder

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Comment by David Boon on August 1, 2010 at 12:59
Just following up on my previous comment. I forgot to also mention that the Woolmers estate, where my Boon ancestors worked and lived on their arrival in Tasmania, and which provided the roses for this years Famine Memorial Day, has also just received World Heritage listing.
Comment by David Boon on August 1, 2010 at 12:55
I was very excited today to learn that the Cascades Female Factory where my ancestor, Mary Ann Dalton spent time on her arrival in Van Diemen's Land, along with a number of other significant convict sites with links to those sent from Ireland, has been added to the UN's world heritage list. A fitting tribute to all those who suffered and ultimately prospered in the land I love. I wonder what Mary Ann Dalton from Dublin, whose crime was to steal a shawl, would think if she were here today? Next years' Famine Memorial Day in Hobart will take place on a site of World significance. Congratulations to the hard work of all those responsible for the submission that brought this listing.
Comment by David Boon on May 21, 2010 at 9:11
Gerrard, I am glad you enjoyed reading my blog. Amazing that these things happened to my ancestors. That is the sort of history I love to research and write about. I am glad I gave you an idea and I look forward to seeing what it is. David
Comment by Gerard on May 21, 2010 at 9:09
Hi David
I had not noticed till today (sorry) that you had opened a blog.
Very Interesting.Congratulations.
I love the way you tell your stories.
You gave me an idea...

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