Fortune’s Crooked Smile
On Wednesday, November 15th, 1911, the simmering trouble at the Whim Well copper mine boiled over. About eighty men called a strike and downed tools, citing the company’s failure to pay a living wage, its poor record compared to other mines in the Nor’-West, and its new requirement that shovellers work ten-hour shifts underground.
A thousand miles away in the capital, the company found new men and signed them up, but when it became known that it was neglecting to tell its new recruits that a dispute was already in progress, the trouble at the mine rapidly escalated. On arrival at Whim Creek the newcomers received a briefing from the union; most decided to join the strike. For that show of solidarity, the accidental activists were brought before the local magistrate and convicted of breach of contract. Each was ordered to repay the steamer fare of £5, or face a month’s imprisonment.
The Whim Creek strike was never likely to be a simple two-cornered contest. The dispute divided the ragtag workforce along national and cultural lines. Almost to a man, the Britishers were staunch unionists; by contrast, many of the Europeans had no experience of collective bargaining, had experienced conditions far worse, and had lower expectations. Those who elected to keep working became targets of abuse and intimidation and the unsegregated miners’ camp quickly became unmanageable. To protect its few remaining workers, and to give the district’s only police officer some respite, the company created a new camp on the mining lease itself. But rather than ease tensions, the new compound increased antipathy toward the strike-breakers, who were now seen as enjoying the protection and patronage of the bosses.
On December 7th, to the surprise of many, the dispute ended. After three weeks of lost production, the company capitulated. The union’s success was widely reported, and Adelaide newspaper The Advertiser included details of an interim agreement.
p252A TROUBLE SETTLED.
Perth, December 8.
The labor trouble at the Whim Creek Copper Mine has been ended, the employers agreeing to concede the following rates for six months:—Miners in shafts, 15/–; winzes and rises, 14/2; elsewhere, 13/4; timbermen, 13/–; truckers, mullockers & shovellers, surface hands, 13/4, with extra 1/8 extra for wet ground; 47 hours a week, inclusive of crib time; rockbreakers, 10/–; orebreakers, 10/–; dressing plant 6/4; surface hands, 47 hours, exclusive of crib time.
Constable Fred Growden welcomed the agreement, but if he thought that things would settle now that the men were back at work on better pay, he was quickly disabused. The resumption of work brought the antagonists together. As the union men saw it, the ‘scabs’ were now enjoying benefits they had been unwilling to fight for. The unionists warned the strike-breakers to keep to themselves and to avoid any encounter beyond the perimeter of the mine.
A week or so after the end of the strike, Italian mineworker Joseph Seleno came to see the constable. He said that he was thinking of returning to his old camp near the hall, but was worried that some of the men might “knock him about.” To Growden, Seleno seemed a decent chap; he told the Italian that if he called in again before making the move, he would ensure that he was not interfered with.
p253Perhaps Joseph Seleno had second thoughts about moving camp, or perhaps he decided to test the water in a different way. On the evening of Saturday, December 23rd, he and his compatriot Frank Cattellini went to the pub for the first time in three weeks. In the side bar of the Federal Hotel the barman greeted the men, served their drinks and, in a matter-of-fact way, advised them not to stay long. With a nod of thanks for the drinks, they ignored the advice.
As the front bar steadily filled, the two Italians kept to themselves. It was a little before 10 p.m. when a yell of “Where are the scabs?” came from beyond the partition. The two Italians looked at each other, stood up, and went to investigate. In the front bar they met a group of six or seven men just arrived from the Whim Creek Hotel down the road. Among the new arrivals were mine labourers George Connelly, Jim Aylward and Tom Darlington; all had been drinking for hours.
Seleno and Cattellini were both sober but handled the situation very differently. Cattellini was agitated, jittery, pacing back and forth with one hand inside his coat; Seleno walked slowly, trying to appraise the situation. Realising that his assailants were working to some sort of plan, he took a couple of steps backward, rested his elbows on the bar and kept his hands close and high. With only the barman behind him, he watched and waited.
He did not wait long. Jim Aylward stepped up to Cattellini and demanded to know what he had under his coat. But almost before the p254Italian could reply, Aylward landed two heavy punches to his head. Over Seleno’s shoulder, publican Tom Hill yelled at the two men to get out. To his surprise they complied, but as all eyes followed the fight out of the door, Seleno, on his blind side, took a punch to the side of the head. The blow knocked his hat off and left a cut over his left eye.
After replying to something that Cattellini yelled in Italian from the verandah, Seleno stooped down, picked up his hat and placed it on the bar. And then, as if wishing to wind back the clock by a few seconds, he picked up his hat and put it back on his head. Neither Seleno nor the publican had seen who threw the punch, but Seleno figured it was Aylward’s mate Thomas Darlington; he shaped up to Darlington and yelled to the room: “How many you want to fight me?”
Fearing a free-for-all, the publican vaulted the bar and shepherded the whole crowd out through the double doors. Apart from a single patch of light, the verandah was dark. It was impossible for anyone to make out precisely what was happening; indeed, it was too dark for Seleno and Darlington to land punches. A few feet from the door, the two men ended up in a clinch, wrestling on their feet.
At the Federal Hotel, fistfights were a common occurrence. Tom Hill, pleased to have cleared the room and spared the furniture, only stood by the door for a minute or so, deciding whether this latest stoush could work itself out. There was no sign of Cattellini; he had run off, apparently. And since no one seemed inclined to interfere in the scuffle between Seleno and Darlington, he returned to the bar. After a couple of minutes he heard Jim Aylward yell “The bastard’s got a knife!” but before he could ascertain exactly who had a knife, the front doors burst open. Thomas Darlington, bleeding badly, staggered in, supported by George Connelly. At the bar Darlington said nothing; he simply leant forward and appeared to rest his head.
Connelly asked Hill to keep an eye on the injured man while he fetched the doctor. He then rushed away, declaring, “Give me a gun and I’ll shoot the bastards!” A moment later, Darlington’s legs gave way. He slumped awkwardly but was caught by the nearest drinker and guided to the floor. His head now unsupported, a four-inch gash across the right side of his neck was plainly visible. The man who had broken his fall placed his hand over the wound in a vain effort to stop the flow of blood.
* * *
Constable Growden had expected a busy night. It was Saturday and it was payday, the first on the new deal and the last before Christmas. A little before ten o’clock, on his round, he called at the Whim Creek Hotel, where many of the mineworkers were drinking. At the bar he learned that a bunch of union men, angry and well fuelled, had just left for the Federal Hotel where two ‘scabs’ were reported to be drinking.
As he approached the Federal Hotel, P.C. Growden heard agitated p255voices and the sound of heavy feet on boards. As he picked up his pace, he met George Connelly running for the doctor. Told of the stabbing, the constable dashed the last hundred yards. On reaching the injured man, he was surprised to be pushed aside by mine labourer Herbert Hayman who declared, “I am a first-aid man.” To the experienced police officer it was painfully clear that Thomas Darlington was beyond any aid, save perhaps of a spiritual kind. He turned to Tom Hill behind the bar and asked for a cork. He then knelt down, gave the cork to the “first-aid man” and instructed him to push it down behind the collarbone against the jaggedly torn artery.
When Joseph Shelmerdine arrived a few minutes later, there was nothing for the doctor to do but to pronounce life extinct.
Constable Growden did not know if the two Italians would return to their camps or ‘go bush.’ In the bar he asked young mine labourer Matthew Murphy to help him, and outside on the street he commandeered Harry Haile with horse and cart to drive them to the mining lease. As he approached Joseph Seleno’s camp, Growden saw a dim light burning. He called a halt. With his nervous citizen deputies hanging back, he walked the last hundred yards. The arrest of Joseph Seleno would turn out to be the simplest part of a long and difficult night. Twenty yards from the glowing tent, the constable called “Are you there, Seleno?”
Without hesitation came the reply. “Yes, who is that?”
Without neither anguish nor gravitas Seleno said: “All right. I know you want me.”
It was almost as if Seleno’s mission was to put his visitors at ease. Emboldened by the very subject of their fears, Haile and Murphy now came alongside the constable; the three walked together into the camp. At a basin near his tent, Seleno stood stripped to the waist, washing his face and hands. Growden knew the rules of arrest and spoke clearly: “Is that you, Seleno?” But before the arresting officer could warn his prisoner or affirm any right to silence, Seleno turned, faced him and said: “Yes, I know you want me. I kill that man.”
As he spoke, Seleno walked into the light. His face was clean, but partly congealed blood matted his hair and covered his chest and arms. When Constable Growden asked about the knife used in the attack, Seleno said nothing. He simply walked to a table by his bed, retrieved the weapon and handed it over.
When Growden asked Seleno where his mate was, Seleno replied “Out the back.” Cattellini had been hiding in darkness a little way off; he had apparently heard the conversation between Seleno and the constable. When Growden called “Are you there, Cattellini?” the Italian stepped from behind a hessian wall and allowed himself to be arrested. Once again, Cattellini’s response to adversity was very different to that of his p256compatriot. In response to the constable’s questions he declared that he had no knife and had not left his camp all evening.
At the Whim Creek police station, Joseph Seleno wanted to explain the whole affair, but was advised to rest and gather his thoughts before saying much more. Growden had two good reasons for silencing his unusual prisoner. He was not sure that Seleno fully understood the gravity of his situation, or how his prospects might be harmed by what he said. He also knew that Seleno was the least of his worries, and that he was urgently needed elsewhere.
Indeed, the benign composure of the accused was in sharp contrast to the wild mood that had developed outside the Federal Hotel. When Doctor Shelmerdine heard threats of lynching he addressed the men from the verandah but failed to pacify them. When Growden returned, the two men discussed the situation. They agreed that without support they could not guarantee the safety of the prisoners. A little before midnight, they woke the postmaster to telegraph for reinforcements from Roebourne, 25 miles away.
The reinforcements were not needed. In the early hours of Christmas Eve, the lynch mob lost its cohesion as one by one its champions sobered up, and anger subsided into regret. After a few hours of sleep, aggrieved men prepared themselves as best they could for the funeral of a friend.
p257Thomas Darlington was 33 years of age and married, but his wife would not witness his burial. Few women accompanied their husbands to this unshaven outpost. At the graveside, in place of family, fellow workers and drinking mates paid respect deep or shallow. Jim Aylward did not attend.
As the funeral party dispersed, Dr Shelmerdine advised the witnesses among the mourners that his coronial inquest would begin immediately. Over two days, he and Constable Growden took enthusiastic but inconsistent testimony from men who had been in one or both hotels on the Saturday night. To his surprise, Growden learned that Seleno was a former soldier; among personal effects retrieved from his camp were discharge papers from Légion étrangère—the French Foreign Legion. He also learned that “Frank Cattellini” was an invention; Lawrence Cappelli had been working under an assumed name to conceal a prior conviction.
When the inquest concluded, the two Italians were transferred to Roebourne Gaol to await trial: Seleno for wilful murder, and Cappelli for his supposed part in it. Growden and Shelmerdine took great care to ensure that the information they released to the press was measured and unprejudiced, but their diligence had little effect upon The Advertiser, which squeezed every drop of drama from the facts it had been given.
STABBED TO DEATH BY AN ITALIAN.
AN HOTEL TRAGEDY.
Perth. December 27.
Thomas Darlington was killed during a quarrel with an Italian named Sileno, at Whim Creek on Saturday night. Sileno was getting the worse of a fight with Darlington, at the Federal Hotel, when, with a knife handed to him by Capelli, another Italian, Sileno stabbed Darlington first in the thigh and then in the neck. Darlington’s jugular vein was severed, and he died in a few minutes. Both Italians are under arrest, and extra constables have been sent from Roebourne to Whim Creek to prevent the miners from carrying out an alleged threat to lynch the prisoners.
The affray started as the result of someone calling the Italians scabs.
* * *
On the afternoon of Monday, March 18th, 1912, Commissioner Norbert Keenan, K.C. arrived in Roebourne. He had come north by Koombana to hear the case of Rex v. Seleno & Cappelli. A few hours after Koombana cast off and continued north, the first witnesses arrived from Whim Creek. The steamer Paroo, southbound from Singapore to Fremantle, had deviated from her usual track to call at Depuch Island and collect the men. Captain Richardson later told The West Australian:
When we were anchored in the passage there was a heavy swell coming in from the N.E., and I could tell there was some dirty weather about—in fact, it was apparently so near that I was seriously thinking p258of clearing round the Monte Bello Islands and leaving Onslow out of the itinerary altogether. However, I called in during the following morning, and got through without mishap. I have been lucky with several of these blows, in being either a day or so ahead or astern of some of them.
The steamer Bullarra, which had arrived in Port Hedland as Paroo left, was also southbound. She too was under instructions to call at Depuch, to collect the witnesses for the second day of the trial. The appointment was not kept. Four hours out of Hedland, Bullarra encountered horrendous sea conditions; her master discarded any thought of weaving among reefs and islands in fading light. Without hesitation, he chose the dark simplicity of the open sea.
In sultry, unpredictable weather the trial began. The first day proceeded to plan but the second certainly did not. When the prosecution witnesses failed to appear, Commissioner Keenan fell back upon evidence gathered at the coronial inquest. In the statements handwritten by Fred Growden and Joseph Shelmerdine, the union men clearly emerged as the aggressors. Moreover, the statements of Aylward, Kay and Connelly were guarded and evasive, especially when seen beside the astonishing forthrightness of the accused murderer. With the witness stand empty and with time to spare, Keenan gave Joseph Seleno an unusual opportunity to speak in broken English on his own behalf.
The men who had come to the Federal Hotel with Thomas Darlington were united in their belief that Seleno had used Cappelli’s knife to stab their friend. They claimed that Cappelli had concealed a knife under his coat and had passed it to Seleno during the fight on the verandah. That summation was almost certainly correct, but ultimately it was supposition regarding the knife that brought the prosecution case undone. In the gloom of the hotel verandah, none had seen any more than the glint of a blade, and none could say precisely how or when the knife had passed from one man to the other.
If the prosecution witnesses thought that any guilt lifted from Cappelli would naturally settle upon Seleno, they were to be disappointed. The odd mix of the known and the unknown worked to the advantage of both defendants. Cappelli could not be convicted upon the mere fact of his owning the knife, but that same fact remained powerful and influential in Seleno’s defence. The commissioner was inclined to accept that Seleno had come to the Federal Hotel without any weapon at all, and once there had remained sober, had not invited trouble, and had only taken and wielded a knife in a moment of fear or madness.
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 21st, 1912, as Roebourne residents barricaded windows and prepared for the arrival of the dread visitor, Commissioner Keenan delivered his verdict. Seleno was found p259guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Cappelli was acquitted.
For Seleno, the verdict was a huge relief. At day end, he was back on the same straw mattress on the floor of the lock-up, but the cell to which he returned in the evening was not the cell he had left in the morning. It was as if the wind, in his absence, had swept away the fear of death and laced the air with salt and sweet salvation.
* * *
The prisoner, awaiting transfer to Fremantle, was told that he would not leave from Point Samson, as the jetty had been badly damaged by the storm. He would be taken to Cossack by tram and transferred to a steamer in the roads. Although there was no further official communication, news of life outside reached him in snippets both sympathetic and mischievous. Whim Creek, he learned, had been hit hard by the storm. The mine had all but ceased production. Two big ships, partly loaded, had been caught in the anchorage. The larger of the two had gone to pieces, and the dead had been buried on Depuch Island. The trial witnesses had been caught, too. Tom Hill had drowned, but the others had survived. After three days at sea, Bullarra had limped into Cossack without her funnel. No rest for her crew, though; they had built a funnel of corrugated iron and gone back to sea to search for Koombana.
* * *
In 1912, Fremantle Prison was changing. A new wing had opened, and a commission of inquiry had recommended that the cells of the old main block be doubled in size by knocking down every second internal wall. There were new workshops too, reflecting the prevailing view that prisoners—or at least a better class of prisoner—should be gainfully employed within the precinct. Whether Joseph Seleno was impressed or amused by the modern principles of incarceration is not known. What is clear is that, for delivery of hard labour, this government agency could not match either the French Foreign Legion or the Whim Well Copper Mining Company.
Seleno adjusted well to the rhythm of life in the temperate south. Like all inmates, he watched, listened and took a keen interest in the pattern of arrivals and departures. By the end of his first year, he had reason to think that freedom of a kind might soon be offered.
On July 9th, 1913 a little piece appeared deep on page six of The West Australian:
A Prohibited Immigrant.—The latest undesirable who is to be deported by order of the Minister for Customs is Joseph Seleno, of Italian birth, a native of Turin, Italy. In December, 1911, Seleno, figuring in an affray at a hotel at Whim Creek, stabbed another European named Darlington in the neck. Darlington succumbed, and p260Seleno was sentenced to imprisonment for three years on a charge of manslaughter. He began to serve the sentence in March, 1912, and on June 23 last he was released from prison. The dictation test was applied to him, and he failed. The order authorising his deportation has been received by the Collector of Customs at Fremantle, and Seleno is being detained at the Fremantle Gaol until the departure of the Singapore boat which is to take him from the Commonwealth.
Three days later, Joseph Seleno was escorted to his temporary accommodation: a demountable lock-up on the ’tween deck of the S.S. Minderoo. His future was entirely uncertain—but then, he had never railed against the past or the present. When Lady Luck smiled, he simply smiled back, accepting her wry munificence with characteristic candour.