Murder victim Catherine Whitley, aka Rose Baker, was known locally as “Wild Rose”. (Supplied: Public Record Office Victoria)
Official documents relating to the brutal 1942 murder of Melbourne pensioner Catherine “Wild Rose” Whitley are now public for the first time.
The 75-year-old files were among hundreds released on Monday by state archives Public Record Office Victoria.
The press at the time labelled the case the “Peephole murder” due to the testimony of 18-year-old motor mechanic Alan Alfred Shaw.
Shaw said he was at work one Saturday in July 1942 when he heard a woman in the back laneway saying, “Don’t do that to me”.
He peeped through a crack in the rear door of the garage and watched a man drag a woman by her ankles to the centre of the laneway and attempt to rape her, punching her three times in the jaw when she resisted.
Shaw ran to get his workmate Edward White, who then peered through the crack, and together they decided to fetch their boss Tasman Knight, who also looked through the opening into the laneway.
Knight took White to call the police, leaving Shaw alone to watch the crime unfold.
The man in the laneway tried several more times to rape the woman, before he stood and walked out of sight as the woman lay on the ground, moving very slightly.
The attacker returned to view carrying a bluestone paving block which he dropped on the woman’s head. She stopped moving.
A two-month police investigation resulted in detectives arresting 32-year-old Frederick Francis Green, who confessed to the murder in a statement.
Green said he left work in South Melbourne at 11:45am on the day in question and had drunk “seven or eight pots of beer” at a city hotel before arriving home in Carlton at 12:45pm.
What are Section 9 files?
- Some Victorian Government files are kept hidden under Section 9 of the state’s Public Records Act 1973.
- The section demands “personal or private” government records be withheld from public view for a period of time.
- Examples include police and prison files, medical records and documents concerning children in state care.
- Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds all state government records in climate-controlled conditions.
- Section 9 files relating to adults are generally made public after 75 years and those relating to children after 99 years.
- PROV releases a new batch of Section 9 files each year on January 1.
He washed, ate and changed his clothes before meeting his father at another hotel about 2:00pm where he continued drinking.
“I cannot say how many drinks I had during the day, but it was a lot.”
When Green left the hotel two hours later he encountered an old woman who offered to “go up the lane” with him for five shillings.
He went with her but the two got into an argument and Green recalled hitting her as she lay on the ground.
“I must have been on top of her I suppose but I don’t think that I had any connections with her. I think I was too drunk.”
Green later added to his confession, admitting to dropping the stone block on the elderly woman’s head, but by the time his trial came around he had changed his story and denied ever meeting the old woman.
Nevertheless, he was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to death by hanging.
Tabloid newspaper Truth focused its coverage of the sentencing on Green’s attractive 26-year-old wife Doris, with whom he had a 10-month-old son.
Leading the story with a large photo of mother and child, Truth tells how Doris and her husband ran to each other outside court after the verdict but were separated by police.
“[They] dropped their hands helplessly and gazed numbly one at the other, both prisoners: he of the police, she of her grief.”
Sentence commuted, victim besmirched
Shortly before Christmas in 1942 the Victorian cabinet commuted Green’s death sentence to 20 years’ imprisonment.
In documents provided to cabinet, released for the first time on Monday, the assistant government medical officer said it was possible Green was so intoxicated that he was unaware of his actions.
The Victorian cabinet commuted Green’s death sentence to 20 years’ imprisonment. (Supplied: Public Record Office Victoria)
Meanwhile, the inspector general of the penal and gaols department described the victim as an “unsavoury character”.
According to police, Whitley was known locally in North Melbourne as Rose Baker or “Wild Rose”, and she had for years been in and out of jail for crimes including indecent behaviour, larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, obscene language and insufficient means.
Truth again interviewed Doris Green — “a frail but courageous blue-eyed woman” — who maintained her husband’s innocence.
“They say he did it, but nothing they say will ever convince me that he did,” she said.