If we are to believe Australian writer Ion “Jack” Idriess, the pearl buyer Abraham de Vahl Davis, visiting Port Hedland on Tuesday, March 19th, 1912, purchased a pearl like no other. Placed before him by a pearler recently arrived from Cossack was a ‘perfect round’ 65 grains in weight, of soft rosae tint and deep oriental lustre. It was not the largest pearl ever found in the Nor’-West, but perhaps the most exquisite. Idriess insists that Davis acted in good faith, unaware that the pearl had been seven years from the sea, that it had been an object of obsession, and that several men had met their deaths because of it.
Jack Idriess was a traveller. He moved among his readers and never tired of matching his subjects to their interests. His stories—Australian tales of adventure for the most part—read easily and sold extremely well. But for determined disentanglers of fact and fiction, his work poses many problems. Idriess was both a collector and manufacturer of folklore: a careful weaver who judged well what his readers would accept and embrace. His personal paragon was that special, seductive tale, capable of sliding mistress-like into the minds of men, to be coveted, possessed, adorned and ultimately taken for granted.
The tale of the roseate pearl is just such a temptress. The present challenge is to inquire after the truth, leaving as much of the mystique as may survive the interrogation.
* * *
Jack Idriess first stepped onto the Broome jetty on December 23rd, 1933. He remained in the town for the summer lay-up, gathering material for what he called his “pearl book.” It has always been imagined that the tale of the roseate pearl, which became the backbone of Forty Fathoms Deep, was stitched together during this time from the recollections of the town’s long-time residents. Indeed, the tale was brought to light in just such a fashion, but not by Jack Idriess. Three years earlier, the Sydney-based p306journalist Ernestine Hill had found her way to the port of pearls and had done well to keep the locals talking. Of one prized informant she wrote:
With a world of romance and adventure at his fingertips, it was his pet vanity to avoid writing and writers, determined that “what I know will die with me” but, typically Irish, by a cautious stratagem of contradiction, mild and polite, he could be made to talk.
One product of Ernestine Hill’s Nor’-West adventure was a titillation piece published by Sydney newspaper The Sun in 1932. Under the banner “Grim Tales Of The Pearl Game, Where Greed Laughs At Murder,” Hill wrote:
In 1904 there happened in Broome the Liebglid pearl murder, surely the strangest story ever told in a strange history, in which four men were sent to their deaths for a pearl that not one of them had seen.
On the fishing-grounds out from the Eighty-Mile Beach a Swedish pearler of that time found a pearl in his first year out. In amateurish delight he made for the nearest white man to celebrate his prize, a lugger owned by one Lilley, in company with Victor Nabos, a shrewd Manila diver.
Glass after glass of squareface was raised to the luck of the new beauty, and, when the Swede pulled off, practically incapable, in his dinghy, it was a bit of baroque that rattled reassuringly in his treasured tin matchbox. The pearl remained behind with Nabos who, for safe hiding, on his next night watch, wound it round and round in a strand of rope near the tiller. When Nabos returned to Broome the pearl had gone, but he was arrested and served a term of imprisonment for stealing it.
It was then that Liebglid, a Jewish traveller in gimcrack jewellery, in reality a buyer of snides, heard of the missing pearl, offered £500 for it, and became the eager, credulous prey of Pablo, a Manilaman; Simeon, a Patagonian sailor of gorilla strength; and Charlie Hagen, a Scandinavian of sorts, barber, and saloon-keeper.
Clandestine meetings on the sandhills and the dark jetty, in which the glass marble stopper of a lemonade bottle masqueraded as the pearl, and Liebglid was killed by a slingshot in a cabin of the derelict schooner Mist, lying opposite Broome, his mangled body left by the tide in the mangroves. Mystery surrounded the murder until, through the influences of a priest in the confessional who refused absolution till the crime was disclosed, the Manilaman turned King’s evidence, and the three murderers were hanged.
Here in broad outline was the foundation upon which Jack Idriess would build Forty Fathoms Deep. Throughout his writing life Idriess travelled to remote places, ever determined to be more than a “main roads explorer.” It now appears that he discovered this story without leaving his home p307in suburban Sydney. Other anecdotes from ‘Grim Tales’ also found their way into Jack’s pearl book; indeed, Hill’s piece was full of little nuggets of the kind that Idriess travelled in search of, and built his career upon.
* * *
That the pearl was stolen on the day of its discovery is beyond doubt. Indeed, the events surrounding the find are very much as Ernestine Hill recorded them. A beautiful round pearl was fished by the lugger Cleopatra in waters off Wallal on June 17th, 1905. The shell was gathered by the boat’s Swiss diver, Silber Gala, one of the few Europeans making a living in that dangerous game. It was Augustine, Gala’s tender, who opened the shell and discovered the pearl. He immediately passed it to Gala, as if to acknowledge him as the natural custodian.
In a sense the find was a lucky one for Cleopatra’s part-owner and master, Gustav Ulbricht. The boat was new and this was Ulbricht’s first season in Nor’-West waters. But it is not quite fair to assert that Ulbricht bubbled with naive excitement and rushed off to the nearest boat to show his prize. Ulbricht and Gala did, however, row across to the schooner Alto, to show the pearl to Captain Franck and to have it weighed.
In Jack Idriess’s version of events, the more experienced master was greatly impressed by what was handed to him.
He examined the pearl with the love that pearlers lavish on these gems of the sea. He had never had the luck to win one like this himself. It was the most exquisite gem he had ever seen. Almost reverently he laid it upon its cotton-wool on the little cabin table. He sighed; this wondrous thing meant a fortune, for him who owned it. He weighed it under the fascinated eyes of the stranger.
“Sixty-five grains!” he murmured. “You are lucky, mate. This stone will take very little cleaning, judging by the eye. There are several spots on it; a skin or two will remove them. Suppose it loses ten grains in the cleaning, its weight would be fifty-five grains—a beauty. I wish I had half your luck.”
“What should it be worth?” the man almost whispered. “Impossible to estimate until it is cleaned. Depends mostly on the depth and lustre. judging by looks, it will be rosae tint which is the most prized. Its shape is a perfect round. Should it clean as it promises, a big buyer would pay you anything from one hundred pounds per grain.”
“Phew! Five thousand five hundred pounds.”
“Yes, easily. Mind, if it was mine I would demand more. You could ask what you liked for a gem of this class.”
“Heavens! I wonder what the buyer will get for it?”
The pearler laughed. “He will sell it as a gem of all the seas,” he sighed. “He can approach the rich men of the world as buyers. He will make a fortune out of it, far more than you will.”
p308It is important to record that no one aboard the schooner Alto was connected with the theft of the pearl; that occurred later, aboard Cleopatra. Word of a great find spread from boat to boat; in the late afternoon Carl Lilly, skipper of the lugger Toniko Toko, came across with his diver Victor to see the pearl and celebrate in the usual way. It is not known exactly when or how the switch was made. At the beginning of a long drinking session, the special pearl and a smaller one were in a metal matchbox in Silber Gala’s coat pocket, but when the bottles were empty and the visitors had left, so had the pearls. In their place lay two pieces of misshapen ‘baroque’, of comparable size and weight.
At Broome the diver Victor was identified as the thief, not by discovery of the pearl in his possession but by the emergence of a written agreement in which he undertook to make a present to Augustine if he kept his mouth shut. Not only had the agreement been signed by Victor and Augustine, it had been witnessed by Sebastian, another Cleopatra crewman. By that remarkable triangular stupidity, the matter came to court. Through all of this, the pearl made no appearance. Victor claimed that it had been stolen from him before he reached port, and a search warrant executed on Toniko Toko revealed nothing.
As far as can be told, Broome extended little sympathy to Gustav Ulbricht or Silber Gala. Indeed, interest in the missing pearl might have quickly faded, had not a rumour spread through the billiard saloons and gambling houses that the commercial traveller Mark Liebglid had been flashing money and letting it be known that he was in a buying frame of mind. The figure of £500 was bandied about.
A few days later, Broome residents were shocked by news of a murder in their midst. The Dampier Despatch reported:
A terrible tragedy was enacted in Broome on Wednesday night. At about 10.45 piteous cries for help were heard from the foreshore opposite Messrs Robison and Norman’s. Some men in the vicinity reached the spot in time to see a dinghey being pulled from the shore towards the lugger “Rose”, belonging to Yee Ah Chun. They hailed the boat, but it did not return. At 9.30 on Thursday morning a coloured seaman belonging to Captain Mills’ lugger reported to Councillors Haste and Nick that the dead body of a white man was lying amongst the mangroves. These gentlemen found the body awash with the incoming tide and brought it ashore. The head was fearfully battered about but it was subsequently recognised as that of Mark Liebglid, the local representative of Messrs Falk & Coy and Messrs Friedman & Co. Later it was found that Mr Liebglid’s premises were all open, and that his samples of jewellery were spread around his bedroom.
It was all too clear that Mark Liebglid had played a dangerous game, and that the hunter had become the prey.
p309Suspicion quickly fell on ‘Manilaman’ Simeon Espada. A day or two before the murder, Simeon had been seen in his boarding house making a slingshot from a heavy iron rowlock. And when Norwegian Charles Hagen was questioned, he identified Simeon as the man he had seen walking with Mark Liebglid in the sandhills late on Monday night. On September 1st, Simeon was arrested on suspicion of murder. Over the next few days, Hagen also came under scrutiny. He had difficulty explaining bloodstains on a pair of white trousers he had delivered to Soon Lee’s laundry, and made contradictory statements of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. On September 9th, he too was arrested.
With two men in custody but no clear picture of how Mark Liebglid had met his death, the police had a problem. Desperate for a new lead they lent heavily on Pablo Marquez, who seemed to know more than he had revealed. The breakthrough came on Saturday, September 16th, when Pablo declared that he wanted to make a full statement in the presence of Resident Magistrate Warton, Sergeant Byrne, and Father Russell, a Catholic priest. Byrne always insisted that Pablo came willingly and without inducement but Pablo, it seems, believed that he would gain immunity by turning “King’s Evidence.”
Three days later The West Australian reported:
THE BROOME MURDER.
CONFESSION BY ONE OF ACCUSED.
STORY OF HORRIBLE BRUTALITY.
LIEBGLID BATTERED TO DEATH.
THREE MEN IMPLICATED.
Broome, September 18.
Pablo Marques, who on Saturday made an unfinished statement regarding events that immediately preceded the murder of Mark Liebglid, made a full confession of the whole affair before Fr. Russell, Mr. Warton, R.M., and, Sergeant Byrne to-day. The story told by Marques is one of horrible brutality, in which Marques, Simeon Espada, and Charles Hagen, who are all under arrest on suspicion are concerned. Marques states that on the night of the murder Liebglid accompanied him and Simeon Espada and Charles Hagen to the wreck of the schooner Mist, a short distance from the shore, Liebglid being assured that a valuable pearl was hidden in the wreck. The four got into a dinghy belonging to the lugger Tauriko Toko and rowed to the Mist. There Espada produced a glass marble—the stopper of a lemonade bottle—wrapped in paper, and presented this to Liebglid as the “valuable pearl.” Liebglid, on viewing the valueless piece of glass, said, “Why make a fool of me?” Thereupon Espada struck him on the head with a sling-shot, and as the Mist’s deck was canted Liebglid fell overboard into 8ft. of water. The unfortunate man was unable p310to swim, and in consequence he clutched the side of the dinghy and screamed, “Help! Police! They are murdering me. I am done.” Espada plunged into the sea and endeavoured to drown Liebglid, and as the latter clung to the boat, Hagen and Marques battered his head to force him to release his hold. Hagen struck Liebglid in the face with his bare fist, which became smeared with blood, and to get rid of the blood he wiped his hand on his trousers. Hagen next endeavoured to drag the almost lifeless body into the dinghey, with a view to plunder, and to loosen Liebglid’s hold on the boat. Espada smashed the victim’s hands. Liebglid’s cries had attracted persons with lanterns to the beach, only a few yards away. Upon one of these persons calling out “What’s going on there? What’s wrong?” the party on the boat became scared and dropped Liebglid’s body into the sea.
Marques concluded his confession by stating that he and his two companions then pulled in the dinghey through the mangroves to the foreshore below Carter’s foundry. There they landed and made good their escape. It is stated that the police discovered on Hagen’s trousers blood-stains, which appear to corroborate Marques’s story concerning the action taken by Hagen to clean his hand after striking Liebglid in the face. The discovery of these stains first aroused suspicion against Hagen, Espada, and Marques, and led to their arrest. An inquest in connection with the murder will be resumed on Wednesday next.
p311It should immediately be recorded that in its rush to bring these gruesome details to the public, The West Australian grossly misrepresented Pablo Marquez’s statement. In fact, Pablo had protested his innocence; he had confessed only to being present when the murder was committed. Somehow, beneath his sensational story, that life-and-death distinction was buried.
At the coronial inquest Pablo insisted that Mark Liebglid had asked him to come with him for the purchase of a pearl, and had promised that there would be some money for him if the deal went through. The pearlers of Broome, and the coroner’s white jury in particular, never accepted that part of his testimony. Why, they wondered, would an educated Jew want the assistance of a coloured man, and a coloured man too small to be of any use in a fight. They never budged from a simple, race-based assumption that two ‘Manilamen’ had conspired.
Careful reading of the testimony of Simeon Espada (translated) and of Pablo Marquez (given in English) opens a possibility as chilling as it is simple: that Pablo was only present at the murder because Mark Liebglid, having arranged a meeting with Simeon, decided that he needed an interpreter. Simeon spoke no English. His native tongue was Tagalog, the dominant regional dialect of the Philippines and the dialect spoken in the capital. To the pearlers of Broome, Tagalog speakers were ‘Manilamen’ and their language simply ‘Manila’. By Broome’s reckoning, Simeon and Pablo were both Manilamen. In fact, they were of different race and could scarcely have looked more different. Simeon was tall and thick-set. His facial features were Japanese but his skin was dark. Pablo was short and of slim build, but also of mixed race. It was difficult to tell his homeland by his appearance. The two men were acqaintances but had never been friends and, contrary to all supposition, had never worked on the same boat.
In Forty Fathoms Deep, Jack Idriess wrote:
The case excited keen attention. The attempt to sell as a huge pearl a lemonade stopper wrapped in a handkerchief was unique. But among the twenty-eight witnesses called there were many who evidently were afraid of saying too much. Never throughout the inquiry did the existence of the true pearl come out publicly.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Few in Broome doubted that the missing pearl and the murder of Mark Liebglid were linked. Two nights before his death, Liebglid had been seen walking along the beach at midnight with a big coloured man. When his friends cautioned him, he said he knew the man was dangerous, but if he got the pearl described to him, his fortune was made. After Simeon’s arrest on September 1st, there was a second bloom of speculation. A few days before the murder, Simeon had signed on to Toniko Toko as cook. No one was quite sure if he p312had found the stolen pearl aboard the boat, or if he had signed on merely to make his claim of finding it more plausible. And on September 6th Pablo Marquez, under suspicion but not yet under arrest, testified that he had spoken to Mark Liebglid about a pearl Simeon claimed to have. Here in Pablo’s broken English is part of his sworn statement:
The Jew said, “I want speak you.” He said, “Did you see anything tonight?” I said, “No.” He said he was waiting for a “big thing” now. I said “Good luck to you.” Hagen was waiting. He and I went to Billiard Room verandah. Asked me for money I owed. I said to-morrow. Then went macaroni house, was eating when Jew came. I said “How you got on?” He said “He take me long way and show me only piece of barroque, he reckon he got big thing which he bring to-morrow.” Told him I’d seen the barroque too. I know that man. He said it’s a big Jap man with a Jap cap on. I went home, he too. This was about 11.30 p.m. Monday. I told him that man no Japanese.
* * *
Jack Idriess shared Broome’s view that Pablo was as guilty as sin. The Pablo Marquez of Forty Fathoms Deep is a shifty-eyed crewman who spies upon the pearl thief to see where he will hide his ill-gotten prize. From below deck, he watches intently as the pearl is concealed in a length of hemp rope, its position marked with a tiny thread of coloured cotton. Later, in darkness, Pablo makes his move.
Ashore in Broome, the fictional Marquez realises that he can have his pearl and sell it too. With Simeon Espada and Charlie Hagen, he conspires to lure Mark Liebglid to the derelict schooner Mist. But as the conspiracy unravels and the police close in, he entrusts the pearl to an old Manilaman named Sulu, who under threat of death is left to choose an undiscoverable hiding place.
Broome folklore throws up a multitude of possibilities; Jack Idriess, it appears, simply chose the most inventive. After watching a hornet come and go from its nest under the corrugated-iron roof of his shack, old Sulu smiles to himself. He soaks a little piece of black silk in insecticide and wraps the pearl in it. Later, in darkness, he scrapes away dried mud to make a neat hole in the side of the nest. He presses the pearl into the hole, knowing that the hornet upon its return will not rest until the damage is daubed over.
* * *
Perhaps, while the three accused languish in the Broome Gaol awaiting transfer to Fremantle, we may pause to consider where the roseate pearl sits among the greatest of pearls.
The question was often asked: how large do pearls grow? And where are the greatest pearls ever found? A paragraph from The Western Mail of February 12th, 1910 helps to answer both questions.
p313The World’s Largest Pearl.—Bombay advices which reached Perth by the G.M.S. Bremen last week state that when the mail left that city there was on view what is described as the finest pearl that has ever been fished from the bottom of the seas. Its weight is 34 carats, and it is nearly three-quarters of an inch in diameter. There is, it is stated, only one other pearl of equal beauty, the Pellegrina, now in the Museum of Zosima in Moscow. This pearl has hitherto been considered a priceless gem, owing to its globular shape with a flawless skin of Oriental lustre, but the weight of the Pellegrina is only 28 carats. Those connected with the pearl industry of this State will be interested in this magnificent jewel now in Bombay.
The language of the jeweller will not be familiar to all. The common measures of a pearl’s size and weight are derived not from the inch and ounce of the British, but from the gram and millimetre of the French. A carat is one fifth of a gram, and a grain is one quarter of a carat. Lest heads begin to spin, let what is needed be confined to a table, to permit conversion between two different measures of a pearl’s diameter and two different measures of its weight.
The relationship between diameter and weight for a natural round pearl.
inches millimetres carats grains
1/4” 6 1.8 7
5/16” 8 3.6 14
3/8” 10 6 25
7/16” 11 10 40
1/2” 13 15 60
9/16” 14 21 85
5/8” 16 29 115
11/16” 17 38 150
A keen observer may notice that the two great pearls of Moscow and Bombay, at 28 and 34 carats respectively, differed in diameter by a single French millimetre. And that the roseate pearl of Forty Fathoms Deep, at 65 grains, was a little more than half an inch in diameter.
Although the size of a pearl was never the sole determinant of its value, the influence of size upon value was very striking. All else being equal, a doubling of weight delivered far more than a doubling of price. There also existed a hierarchy of desirability based on shape, but the appraisal of size and shape in combination was the business of experts. Ernestine Hill offered her readers a neat summation:
p314Seed-pearl, flat button, high button, double button, “pear” or “drop,” and perfect round—so run the values ascending, and the usual worth of a perfect round is the square of its grains in pounds. A 20-grain pearl of fair quality might be expected to bring £400. But a jewel of distinction is a pearl without price.
What delivered that distinction could be unusual symmetry or colour or brilliance. It could also be good fortune. In 1918, a superb round pearl of 47½ grains, of perfect size and colour to become the centrepiece of a special necklet, fetched in London the extraordinary price of £14,000.
A pearl of great brilliance always commanded a higher price, but lustre and colour were inextricably bound. They could only be judged together and holistically because a fine pearl had not only a basic hue but also a palette of deep secondary colours known as “orient”. For fine pearls, as for fine wine, a premium was placed upon complexity.
The influence of colour upon value was further complicated by culture and complexion, as Perth’s Sunday Times explained:
London jewellers, for England’s fair beauties, buy mostly the white pearl; vivacious Parisiennes, the most avid buyers, prefer the roseate Oriental stone, while the harems and courts of the Indies and the East seek the straw-colored jewels that harmonise with dark complexions.
If the appraisal of pearls was complex and subjective, the fickleness of the market added yet another layer of uncertainty. In November 1907, The West Australian reported:
p315A well-known Hatton Garden dealer states that pearls have gone up 75 per cent in the past five years, and really fine stones of this kind will fetch almost any price. A fine Orient pearl, which twenty years ago could have been bought for £20, will now sell for as much as £160. With sapphires and diamonds it is much the same—the former having trebled their value in five years, rubies alone having fallen back.
There is a tremendous demand for high-class gems and jewels in America, three-fifths of the total output from De Beers diamond mines, in South Africa, having been secured by American buyers. Of course, Broome is only interested in pearls, but as they are to some extent in sympathy with other gems, the opinion quoted should be reassuring to those engaged in our great Nor’-West pearling industry.
If changing times cast doubt upon the true value of pearls, there was no doubt whatever that fortunes had been made by trading them. Between 1905 and 1910, demand for the finest of the fine made Mark Rubin a millionaire, and a millionaire in pounds sterling. After 1907 the ‘pearl king’ was rarely seen in Broome; he left the local buying and the management of his fleet to his brother-in-law Abraham de Vahl Davis, who would earn fame in his own way and in his own right. In those years Broome buzzed with tales of fabulous pearls and the prices fetched for them in the gem houses of London and Paris. Davis, for reasons not difficult to discern, worked hard to contain the optimism of his prospective clients. In a 1909 interview with Perth’s Sunday Truth, he declared:
You accept some extraordinary stories as to the value of pearls found. For instance, there was a yarn going the rounds of the press some time ago, as to the finding of a pearl worth from £10,000 to £12,000. No such gem has ever been found in the waters of this coast. That special pearl, for which a special value was claimed, went round all the purchasers of London, and came back to Broome unsold, and eventually I bought it for my firm at £750. All the stories of pearls of great price want a big discount off.
Perhaps, between hard reality and wishful thinking, the truth of the roseate pearl may also be negotiated.
* * *
By steamer, the accused murderers were conveyed to Fremantle to await trial in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Also southbound were 26 witnesses: nineteen for the prosecution and seven for the defence.
In substance and sequence, the trial echoed the coronial inquest. The statements taken in Broome were tendered to the court on the first day; they became the foundation of the prosecution case. Over five days, as witnesses repeated and defended their depositions, there seemed little likelihood that the jurors in the capital would contradict their peers in Broome. On Saturday, November 11th, the trial drew to a close. Justice p316Burnside, in the course of a three-and-a-half-hour summing-up, declared what all in the court already knew: that the case had been made more complex and difficult by the discordant accounts of the three accused. “I hope,” he said, “that some day the Legislature will alter the law which allows three men who are charged with a crime to be indicted together.”
Burnside then told the jurors that in assessing the guilt or innocence of each man, they should disregard entirely the depositions of the other two. That, he must have known, was an impossible request. Each man’s prospects had been harmed, perhaps irrevocably, by the testimony of the other two. After deliberating for five hours, the jury found all three men guilty of wilful murder. Immediately, the three state-appointed defence attorneys applied to have the convictions referred to the Full Court, on the grounds that the evidence of conspiracy was too weak to support the convictions. In response, Justice Burnside declared: “I attach to the sentence of death perhaps a graver importance than it may deserve, and I do not feel inclined to pass a sentence that I am not certain will be carried out.” He agreed to the request, and remanded the prisoners.
* * *
The conviction were confirmed, and on the day of sentencing, the public gallery was full. Indeed, The Western Mail declared it “unwholesomely crowded half an hour before the time appointed.” The public did not come to learn the fate of the three men; that was already known. They came to witness the passing of the death sentence. They came to be affronted. They came to be horrified.
Three men would be condemned at once, but it was not that fact alone that gave the circumstance its dark attraction. The Western Mail reported:
Representing three different races, the adjudged partners in crime entered the dock apparently unmoved, the white man leading, the diminutive yellow man in the second place, and the black man last.
What made this case so shocking was not the callousness and brutality of the crime, or even that three men had conspired to commit it. It was the notion that three men of different race—one white, one yellow, one black—had collaborated, and collaborated as equals.
There being no other business before the court, the moment came quickly. “The sentence,” The Western Mail continued, “was delivered in absolute silence, except for a stifled cry uttered somewhere in the back of the court as his Honour produced the black cap emblematic of the dread extremity of human law.”
A correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald noted the prisoners’ reactions.
Hagen received the dread pronouncement with the same unconcern that he exhibited throughout the trial. His face betrayed not the slightest emotion, and his step was firm as he descended from the dock p317to the cells in the basement of the Court. Espada looked more solemn than usual, but otherwise wore a composed air. Pablo Marquez, who is in delicate health, betrayed some emotion as he accompanied his fellow prisoners to the cells, and gave vent to audible sobs as he disappeared from the view of the spectators.
Some in the gallery observed that immediately upon the close of proceedings, Hagen tried to attract the attention of his counsel. Richard Haynes, K.C. either did not hear or else decided that his duty was done. He stood up, turned away, and walked out.
* * *
By several accounts, Charles Hagen was broken by the verdict. In his cell on death row he rambled, railed and rationalised, telling one reporter that if he had not called the police a lot of asses for not arresting certain men, everything would have been different. Almost daily came new explanations, strikingly misaligned. There was clear evidence of mental breakdown.
Pablo Marquez, too, was overwhelmed by his circumstances and in poor physical health, but he continued to enjoy the support of his state-assigned attorney William Purkiss who, in the course of the trial, had become convinced of his client’s innocence. As the day of execution approached Purkiss kept working, within the gaol and without, to comfort his former client and to have the sentence overturned.
Although the discretion of mercy belonged to the governor, the advice of the executive council was rarely disregarded. When the ministers of cabinet met on the morning of December 8th, they recommended that the sentences be carried out. The governor accepted their view. That evening, the governor of Fremantle Gaol visited each condemned man in his cell. He reported that Simeon Espada in particular seemed untroubled by the news; when he walked past Simeon’s cell a few minutes later, he was asleep.
The problem for Pablo Marquez was that Simeon’s account of the murder was almost the mirror image of his own. Each man accused the other. But three days before the planned execution, a breakthrough came. Simeon recanted; he confessed his own guilt and admitted that Pablo had been no more than a bystander. Suddenly, the two men’s stories were fully aligned. The substance of Simeon’s confession was conveyed to the colonial secretary, for consideration by the executive, and Purkiss made a powerful plea to the press. Simeon’s statement, he said, “was made in circumstances of the most solemn nature, in full knowledge of the seriousness of its import, and in view of the fact that death to him was imminent.”
The next morning, some newspapers went so far as to predict that the executions would be postponed. It was not to be. The executive council stood true to its name and recommended that justice take its course.
* * *
p318Thursday, December 14th, 1905 was one of the most remarkable days in the long history of capital punishment. The authorities, for reasons that may never be known, had decided that the white man Hagen should be executed first, and that one hour later, the two coloured men should drop side-by-side and simultaneously.
At 8 a.m. Charles Hagen was led out; he conversed with the Reverend G. O’Halloran as he walked to the gallows. When the linen hood was drawn over his head, he was asked if he had anything to say. “Yes,” he said, “let me see.”
So began Hagen’s final, rambling declaration of innocence. He spoke calmly and with conviction, but whether he was still of sound mind is extremely doubtful. He took many short breaks to moisten his lips, only to resume with a new preoccupation. After a full twelve minutes, he seemed to bring his discourse toward a close, but struck out once more in a new direction. His final fixation was his Broome acquaintance Carpio, who by police and other accounts had gone mad on the night after the murder. “I am going to die,” Hagen declared, “but Lucas and Carpio know more of the murder than I do. Carpio is a great friend of Pablo’s—”
At this point, Mr O’Halloran stepped forward and whispered something. Hagen ignored him. “I am not going to say too much, but I am going to die, and I want to speak. Gentlemen. I have studied palmistry, and I have always feared something dreadful would happen to me. Carpio would kill or rob anybody for money. Let anyone look at his left hand, and the line of murder is clear. Anything for money: that is Carpio.”
O’Halloran, apparently unwilling to let a condemned man spend his last minutes condemning another, intervened again. “Very well, sir,” said Hagen, “I will not say much more.”
When the hood was fitted for the second time, Hagen kept the executioner in check. “Draw the rope tight,” he said, “put it firmly round my neck. Steady! Not too tight.” A moment before the lever was pulled, Hagen uttered his final words: “Gentlemen, I am going. I am away now.”
* * *
At 9 a.m. the two ‘Manilamen’ were brought to the scaffold. Pablo was agitated and muttering, but was settled somewhat by a Roman Catholic priest. He accepted the hood quietly. Simeon, like Hagen, indicated that he wanted to speak. He attempted some pidgin English, but the only words clearly heard were never fully understood. “Me kill white man,” he declared, “Pablo he give me schooner for £600.” All traces of English soon disappeared, but the animated statement continued. It was difficult to know what purpose it served, since the words were unintelligible to all but the man standing beside him.
Suddenly, Simeon said something that greatly offended Pablo. After a sharp retort, the two argued heatedly in Tagalog. All pleas to settle were ignored; for a few moments, the two men seemed utterly oblivious to their p319circumstances. The absurd theatre proved too much for the executioner, who broke down and cried. According to one newspaper man, he kept one hand on the lever while struggling to wipe tears from his face with the other.
As the condemned men exchanged insults in a language no one understood, chief warder Webster noticed that Simeon had somehow managed to get one of his bound hands around the rope. Webster called for silence, stepped in, and broke Simeon’s clasp. From that moment forward, the precise sequence of events is unclear. It seems that both the chief warder and the bleary-eyed executioner were equally determined that Simeon should not clutch the rope a second time. When Simeon did indeed move to save himself, two plans were enacted simultaneously: the chief warder stepped forward onto the trapdoor, and the executioner pulled the lever. Espada and Marquez went to their deaths, and the chief warder further still, to the stone floor twelve feet below.
After a communal gasp, the silence of the astonished was broken by the clatter of boots on metal stairs. Prison staff rushed to the aid of Webster who, semi-conscious and bleeding from the head, was rushed to the prison hospital.
* * *
For Ernestine Hill, the ‘tellable’ tale of the roseate pearl ended with the execution of Hagen, Espada and Marquez. She wrote:
The pearl itself was never traced. Doubtless it was carried to Singapore in a cake of soap, the binding of a book, the elaborate construction of a Japanese woman’s hair, or in the hollow of an Asiatic slipper, underneath the little toe—for all of these are time-honored hiding-places for stolen jewels of the sea.
For Ion Idriess, however, the story does not end at the gallows. The reader of Forty Fathoms Deep is subjected to a stream of florid imaginings, each more ludicrous than the last. The pearl, we are told, remained in the wasp’s nest for fully three years, because old Sulu could do nothing while two equally obsessed men knew that he had it. The jealous contenders, diver Castillo Toledo and man-about-town Gomez, are clearly fictional. Idriess claims that after Toledo was drowned in the great storm of December 1908, Sulu was freed to sell the pearl to Gomez and to fulfil a long-held wish: to return to his homeland. The account of Sulu’s arrival in Manila leaves little doubt that both Broome and non-fiction have been left far behind.
When the steamer arrived, old Sulu could hardly walk down the gangway, his knees were trembling so, his heart was beating painfully—he could barely see. With a set smile on his lined old face he walked gropingly along the wharf. He stretched out his foot to step upon his native land and fell—dead.
p320The carnage of the pen continues. New owner Gomez wakes to find that the pearl has been stolen from a pouch around his waist. His reaction to the discovery of his loss also warrants quotation, with similar imputation.
Very late next morning, Gomez awoke. Dazedly. He lay for a time staring up at the roof, his senses gradually returning. Automatically, his hands felt for the tiny bag. With a cry he leapt from the bed. Trembling in every limb he stared down at his middle, his eyes glaring, his mouth opening pathetically. Slowly he turned towards the door. Then throwing his arms above his head, he ran screaming through the house. He ran amuck. Ten minutes later he committed suicide.
By Jack Idriess’s accounting, the roseate pearl had been the undoing of seven men. That four were real and three were invented seemed inconsequential. He wrote:
I never learnt who actually stole the pearl from Gomez. Rumour spread, particularly after the drowning of Toledo, that there was a curse upon the pearl; that he who possessed it died; and that it would return to the sea. Maybe three coloured men living could connect the particulars; but they keep the secret, superstitiously awed by the fact that the curse worked out so truly. Perhaps it is as well that the history should simply fade away.
That history has faded to fiction stands as the most reasonable conclusion. But there are questions to be answered and observations to be made before that verdict is delivered.
In pure fiction, one imagines, the pearl would emerge perfect from the sea. But the pearl of Forty Fathoms Deep does not. We are told that it came to light with tiny marks and spots, that it was cleaned January or February of 1909, and that by deft touch it came to perfection with the loss of three ‘skins’ and only a grain or two of weight. Jack Idriess could easily have written the cleaning of the pearl out of his story altogether, but he was clearly unwilling to do that. The most plausible explanation is that the source of that information was none other than the pearl cleaner Thomas Bastian “T.B.” Ellies, who was still active in Broome when Idriess arrived there in 1933.
The citizens of Broome were wary of visiting writers; they had been burned before. But Jack Idriess was welcomed; many had read his early books, especially Gold-Dust and Ashes, Lasseter’s Last Ride, and The Desert Column. If Broome found Jack Idriess relaxed and personable, it was partly because the gathering of stories for a pearl book was not his primary reason for being there. He had been invited to join a police patrol to the remotest parts of the Kimberley; it was that rare opportunity that had brought him to the far north. But until the end of the wet, that adventure—and the gathering of material for Over The Range—would have to wait.
p321Although lingering in Broome was not part of Idriess’s plan, he quickly discovered that there was material for several books in the fact and folklore of this remarkable town. Research began well, but in the course of three months some of his most valued informants stopped talking. Some of the pearlers, it appears, became convinced that Jack was working for the government, gathering evidence of illicit pearl trading. By similar suspicion, he also lost the support of Japanese ‘big gun’ Nishioka, who apparently decided that he was a naval secret service officer sent to spy on the Japanese pearlers.
As some sources dried up, the support of T. B. Ellies became ever more important, not only as an unrivalled primary source, but also as the arbiter and reconciler of conflicting stories. For this critical service, Ellies was well rewarded in Forty Fathoms Deep: he was hailed as a pearl cleaner of almost magical abilities, and as the very soul of discretion.
It now seems possible that T.B., in his conversations with Idriess, admitted to having cleaned the roseate pearl and, having made that admission, described in detail the pearl and the work he had done. Once that information was received, it could hardly be discarded or reworked, even if the cleaning of the pearl created problems elsewhere in the narrative.
Pearl cleaner Thomas Bastian Ellies, known to all in Broome as “T.B.”.
p322It is also plausible that Ellies agreed to tell Idriess what he knew about the pearl, on the strict condition that he not be identified as the person who had cleaned it. A fair reason is not difficult to make out. When the pearl is supposed to have been cleaned, in January or February of 1909, Ellies was on the payroll of Rubin & Davis, who recognised his extraordinary talent and paid a handsome retainer to monopolise it. If Ellies cleaned the pearl at that time, he was clearly in breach of the terms of his engagement. In short, he was ‘moonlighting’.
The text of Forty Fathoms Deep contains circumstantial evidence that there was such a gentlemen’s agreement between Ellies and the author. Idriess’s account of the skinning of Bernard Bardwell’s double-button pearl is a rich and evocative homage to T.B. and his marvellous hands. In sharp contrast, the skinning of the roseate pearl—of far greater importance to the narrative—is glossed over in a few uncomfortable lines:
Gomez had cleaned his pearl. In the heart of his ramshackle boarding-house, within four iron walls he had stood and gazed while a coloured expert skinned the gem. Taking only three skins from it, it had unfolded as a perfect round with a soft rosae glow; a magnificent thing, warm and beautiful; a pearl of perfect loveliness putting to utter shame the corrugated walls of the dingy room.
It is reasonable to conclude that the “coloured expert” was T. B. Ellies, and that Jack Idriess’s obfuscation was deliberate.
* * *
The works of Ion L. Idriess are careful composites of fact and fiction. It is a characteristic of his storytelling that real people and places, even photographs, are used to confer authenticity upon the whole. Although real people keep company with figments of the author’s imagination, there are rules governing the interaction. For the most part, historical figures are portrayed faithfully and respectfully, as if in gratitude for what might be called “credibility services rendered.” The guiding principle is that good reputations are not to be damaged by invention.
Readers of Forty Fathoms Deep may be surprised by the late appearance of the very real Abraham de Vahl Davis and the ill-fated steamship Koombana. Many will suspect that facts are once again being called in support of fiction: mere accessories to an elaborate contrivance by which a cursed pearl will be returned to the sea. But once again, we are stopped short of outright dismissal by the observation that the author is neither enjoying nor exploiting the licence of fiction. Rather, he seems to be struggling with elements of a story he has been told. Paradoxically, it is Idriess’s clumsy attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable that lends some late credibility.
The two elements that defy reconciliation are: firstly, that the roseate pearl had been cleaned; and secondly, that Abraham Davis bought it in p323good faith. Idriess knows that Davis, a great pearl expert, would have recognised that the pearl had been cleaned and therefore was not recently fished from the sea.
By his own unwritten rules, Jack Idriess’s challenge was to tell the story without besmirching the character of Abraham Davis. The sale had to be presented as legitimate; there could be no insinuation that Davis bought the pearl knowing it to be ‘snide’. Idriess’s solution—if ‘solution’ be fair description—was to ignore the problem altogether.
Then a man wished to see Mr Davis privately. He was a pearler, had just come in from outside and had a magnificent pearl. He had fished it himself south down the coast.
Davis bought the pearl in all good faith; everything apparently was all clear and above board. This was a recognized pearler selling a pearl he had fished from the sea himself. But of all the gems that had passed through Davis’s hands this alone was priceless. He congratulated himself that he had arrived at Port Hedland just when the pearler had sailed in.
Once again, in a few awkward lines, an important element of Forty Fathoms Deep is dispensed with. It is as if Jack Idriess, accomplished storyteller, is mumbling into his chest.
A fresh look at the author’s dilemma leads to a surprising conclusion: the reputation of Abraham de Vahl Davis was never threatened by the story that Jack Idriess had to tell. Rubin & Davis of London & Broome had a reputation for legitimacy and guarded it jealously, but the firm did occasionally receive stolen pearls.
On June 16th, 1909, at the Broome Quarter Sessions, pearler Simon K. Dean faced a charge of having “received one pearl, well knowing the said pearl to have been stolen.” On the second sitting day, Abraham Davis took the stand as a prosecution witness. He was first asked to describe the pearl to the court. “It was a high round button pearl of 64 1/16 grains,” he said, “in its natural state.” When asked to clarify what he meant by “in its natural state”, Davis explained that an experienced buyer could tell if a pearl had been cleaned. “Pearl merchants call a cleaned pearl a ‘made’ pearl,” he added.
Under cross-examination Davis explained that the pearl had been offered to his firm in September 1907. He and the accused had been unable to agree on a price, so it was agreed that the stone should be sent on consignment to London. An advance of £400 was paid to Dean, and Davis took possession of the pearl.
Davis, it appears, had procedures to cover circumstances such as these. When he told the court that he and Dean had been unable to agree on a purchase price, it was true, strictly speaking. But there is little doubt that the prices he offered reflected his confidence in the legitimacy of the p324seller. He probably had some doubts about Simon Dean and made sure that no outright purchase would be agreed to. The ‘trick’, if there was one, was to lead the seller toward a consignment arrangement without arousing any suspicion that his integrity was in question.
To accept a pearl on consignment involved a trade-off. If the stone fetched a high price in London or Paris, the owner would enjoy the greater windfall. But for the deal-maker, the initial outlay was a small fraction of the anticipated return and the risks were greatly reduced. Moreover, a year or more might pass before a European sale was finalised. There was plenty of time for inconsistency to surface, or for a new offer of outright purchase to be made.
We can now deal confidently with the question of whether Abraham Davis would have accepted this pearl of exquisite beauty but questionable provenance. The answer is an unequivocal “Yes!”
* * *
That Abraham de Vahl Davis was in Port Hedland on the night of Tuesday, March 19th, 1912, is nowhere disputed. He was returning to Broome for the start of the 1912 pearling season. He was travelling north by Koombana, viewing and buying pearls as he proceeded. It was later reported by several newspapers that he had carried £2,500 in cash for purchases along the way. At times, Koombana’s purser Hedley Harris must have felt more like a bank teller, so frequent the requests for access to the safe.
At different ports, business was conducted in different ways. At Shark Bay there was no deep-water jetty. Clients came by lighter to the ship at anchor, for meetings in cabin or saloon. Port Hedland offered greater convenience. Firstly, there was always more time. Because Koombana could only enter or leave the harbour on the highest tide of the day, an overnight stay was unavoidable. Secondly, the jetty was a short walk from the town. Davis could come to a meeting empty-handed and, if a deal was struck, return to the ship to withdraw money.
All trading ended on the morning of Wednesday, March 20th, 1912, when Davis boarded Koombana for the last leg of a long journey.
* * *
There is an intriguing aspect to the pearl cleaning issue that enriches our story at its very end. If Abraham Davis recognised that the pearl offered to him had been cleaned, he must have suspected that it was T. B. Ellies who had cleaned it. After all, who would entrust such a stone to anyone else? By eyeglass, he may even have recognised the master’s deft touch. And if the skinning was so light as to leave no signature, that would lead to precisely the same conclusion.
Carrying the precious pearl and his expert’s understanding of it, Davis would have boarded Koombana with a new lightness of step, eager to be back in Broome. Certainly, this was a gem he would enjoy holding, admiring, and unveiling to a small circle of friends, but one private p325showing must surely have preceded all others. Without doubt, he would soon have called upon T.B. in his tiny workshop.
What would Davis have said or asked? Quite possibly nothing at all. It is easy to imagine that he would have closed the door behind him, sat down, placed the pearl on felt between them, and left the soul of discretion to do the talking.
* * *
From this ant-like exploration, one certainty emerges. To the intrigue of Broome in its pearling heyday, new writers will come and new readers will follow. And yet it is here that the trail of the roseate pearl is lost. Through the foreshore camps and the laneways of Chinatown we are led onward in translucent optimism, forever enticed. Finally, we accept that the truth will not be lifted from the pages of Forty Fathoms Deep, or indeed from these pages.
If there be some consolation, it is that seawater may one day drain from a rusted safe raised from the seabed, and that by its opening the final acquisitions of Abraham Davis may be revealed. Until that day the truth, or part of it, will remain with Koombana at the bottom of the sea, tightly pressed for long silence in silt and folded iron.