On a cool autumn day, 31 May 1881, Elizabeth Brophy was in her home at Jeffcott St, Melbourne with her six year old daughter Sarah and her other daughter, Lizzie, aged four[i]. Lizzie was handicapped and could neither speak nor walk. Her usual place was tied in her chair near the fireplace where “she rocked herself about and cried continually”[ii], no doubt to her mother’s aggravation. That morning, William McKenna, Elizabeth’s father and the children’s grandfather, visited and later stated that all was well. He returned around midday and while Elizabeth may have had drink taken, all was well, so he reported. Later in the day it seems Elizabeth’s mother, Bridget McKenna, and some other women had been drinking in the house though subsequent news stories make no further reference to this[iii].
William returned around dusk by which stage Elizabeth was rather the worse for wear from the drink and was aggressive and vocal. At this stage, there are conflicting stories. Lizzie was crying and her mother shook the chair and the child fell to the floor with her head near the fire. Young Sarah would later report that William was sitting by a chair near the fire and arguing with Elizabeth. William suggested he would go and get some (wood) chips for the fire but Elizabeth said she’d burn her apron, which she did. Being both drunk and aggressive…and annoyed…she went to pick up the boiling kettle to throw it over her father. Unsurprisingly, he pushed it away and the water spilled over the child on the floor as well as on the fire. William was to state that he didn’t look at the child, whom he described as an “idiot”, nor did he see if any water had been spilled on her, though he acknowledged she was screaming. His daughter Elizabeth “was in such a temper that (he) was glad to leave the house at once”[iv].
Six-year-old Sarah, “was frightened and ran into the street”[v], heading next door to get the neighbour, Thomas Hill, who arrived at their home about 6pm – against Elizabeth’s vociferous objections. He could hear Lizzie crying and found her outside in the yard, brought her into the house and he gave evidence that “the child’s clothes were all quite wet and she appeared to be in great agony”[vi]. Hill gave Lizzie to her mother, who put her on the floor. Meanwhile Elizabeth had filled the fireplace with paper and said she was setting fire to the house… a literal fire this time for Mr Hill to extinguish. In the midst of the drama, John Brophy returned home to the domestic disaster to discover his youngest child was scalded severely. He was an engine driver with Victorian Railways so he held a responsible position and presumably had been on shift work during the day.
Around this time the local constable, Frederick Maitland, appeared, having been sent for by Hill. Once again there are conflicts, or just confusion, in the testimony. The constable said he found Elizabeth Brophy on the pavement about 100 yards from her house and arrested her because she was aggressive. Hill stated that Brophy had asked him to help tie Elizabeth’s hands in front of her because she was drunk and violent, which they did. Which came first is unclear. John Brophy took Lizzie to the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the late evening where the poor child died of her injuries a few hours later. The resident surgeon, Dr Robert Stewart testified that, based on his post mortem, she had died of shock from the scalds[vii]. Further news comment was that “her arms, legs, and part of the chest were severely burned”[viii], she was “badly nourished and unable to walk although four years old”[ix]. The doctor indicated that the results “had she been stronger the results would likely not have been fatal”[x]….or perhaps if she’d received medical care more promptly?
Elizabeth Brophy was taken into custody pending the outcome of a coronial enquiry by Dr Youl which commenced on 2nd June and was completed on Monday 6th June. Sub-Inspector Larner posed the question many of us would like to have asked “Why did you leave the house when you saw the child scalded? Was it not your duty as a grandfather to protect the child?” William replied “I left because the woman was in a temper”. The Coroner enquired: “And do you mean to say that you left this poor unfortunate decrepit child unprotected with a woman of whom you yourself were afraid”. William “I left”.
Sarah was asked for her testimony and the coroner assessed that had given an intelligent response. Her mother, however, objected saying that it “was not fair to cross examine the child like an old person. The child would answer in the affirmative to any questions put to her. She was only two years older than the deceased baby”[xi].
The jury on the coronial inquest concluded that Elizabeth Brophy was guilty of manslaughter. The coroner committed her for trial at the next Criminal sessions on 15th June 1881. Bail was then allowed.
The Criminal Trial was held and testimony taken from the same witnesses. His Honour Mr Justice Higinbotham concluded that “if the jury accepted the evidence of the daughter Sarah, the prisoner was guilty of manslaughter, but if they believed the testimony of McKenna, she ought to be acquitted”. This jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” and Elizabeth was discharged[xii].
Was their decision affected by the fact that Lizzie was handicapped? Would the outcome have been different if they’d known another daughter had died only four months earlier from diarrhoea after suffering for two weeks?[xiii]
One also can’t help wondering what reception Sarah received from her mother on her return home from prison and if she was punished for her involvement in the trials. I also wonder whether William’s four visits on this day were typical, and if so, why he went so often.
A truly heart-wrenching story of a family’s dysfunction.
When next visiting Melbourne it will be interesting to see the primary documents relating to this event.
On the positive side I can find no evidence of Elizabeth in later Trove news stories or in the Victorian Prison Records, so perhaps this caused her to mend her ways and swear off alcohol.
[i] Elizabeth Brophy daughter of Elizabeth McKenna and John Silvester Brophy, born 1877 reference 23712 / 1877 and died 1881 reference 5262/1881. I have called her Lizzie throughout this story to avoid confusion with her mother, Elizabeth Brophy, nee McKenna.
[xiii] Baby Catherine, a one-year-old infant died on 15 February 1881. Victorian Death Certificate 454/1881