– Based on a True Story –
The scruffy rope tied around Robert’s ankle pulled tight and he was dragged off a chunk of rock that was once the cliff-edge above. The rope sucked him across a flat patch of slippery green and then underwater. Soon in the distance, the rope-end burst free at the surface, dancing for a few moments before disappearing into a trail of bubbles. It was the fourth shark to get away that day. Robert Rice Howard surfaced with a knife in his hand and gasped at the salty air. He didn’t mind being in the water with the sharks. Some of the locals were certain he wrestled them to land without all of his hooks and ropes. His wide trenchant hands waved back and forth, keeping him afloat as he bobbed up and down with the ocean, waiting to haul himself onto the rock-shelf. A wobbled, splash-ridden image of his face on the ocean’s surface caught his eye and he pushed away his gaze.
It was the 7th of January, 1906 and Robert had avoided the newspaper that day but the date was everywhere – in the sky, on the water, under the trees, over the sand dunes. Robert timed the ocean’s rhythm and he pulled himself out in a barrage of white. As he sat back down on his rock, his eyes rolled along the slight curve of the horizon. “We all pulled it. We all pulled tha’ rope. We all killed those boys”, he murmured.
A rope with a fresh chunk of pierced meat swung out from Robert’s hand and plopped into the ocean. The shifting blues and greens of the sea had become the backdrop for his wandering mind, peering at his former self – the tall and handsome twenty-nine year old, fresh off the boat from London; the gentleman living the good life with his young family in Sydney’s Paddington; the cabman with the most called-upon horse and carriage service in Darling Point and the only cabby the Duke of Edinburgh had entrusted to take him on his discreet nightly outings.
On his last day as a cabby, Robert had been preparing a horse, a much younger horse than his usual, ‘Lady’, to pull the carriage. Robert stepped behind the horse’s tail. Lady wouldn’t have minded but this young horse panicked. The horse’s hoof kicked up and hammered just below Robert’s eyes, shattering his nose and crushing his cheek bones.
The next job offered to him was the only job offer he received and it was a job that all others had refused – the town hangman. Robert’s work took place in the sandstone gaol on top of the hill in Darlinghurst and he became known as the ‘gentleman hangman’ mostly because of the black frock coat and white necktie he wore to every execution.
Lady, his only true companion, made her way back from the pub with quiet hooves and with two glasses of beer fixed to her saddle. Robert had trained Lady to walk across the sand dunes and up the hill to Dunlop’s Cliff Hotel House at the south end of Bondi Beach. Since his accident, Robert’s thirst for beer had grown but his injuries left him without a nose so Dunlop, the pub owner, thought there was a better way for Robert to drink his beer. Other pub owners did too and in Taylor Square Robert was told, “I’ would do m’ business no good if I gave men glasses into which you’d dipped y’ nose – if y’ ‘ad one”.
When Dunlop saw Lady out the front of the hotel, he would take Robert’s empty glasses and the money out of the saddle-bag. He’d replace it with two fresh beers and send Lady back on her way.
Robert adjusted his position on the rock, flicked at the ropes and scanned over the sand. For a brief time the area was all his and he lived alone amongst the streams, the rocky outcrops, the green gullies, the lagoons and the pale rust-streaked sand dunes. His sandstone cottage up on the headland at the northern end of the beach was his refuge. A convict called Ben Buckler had fallen from the cliffs years before and his name still haunted the area.
Robert squinted to see Lady standing in the shadow of a cluster of gum trees, resting from a long morning of helping to haul in sharks, his livelihood. Robert placed his thick thumb and middle-finger between his hairy lips and blew a piercing whistle. Lady looked up, stepped out of the shadow and continued back with the beers towards the north end of the beach.
When Robert hung ‘The Baby Killer of Burra Street’ and ‘The Blue Mountains Murderer’, the community was satisfied but it was different on the morning of the 7th of January, 1877. Four of the fifteen men involved in the crime were arrested and all were under twenty. They were said to have been part of the throng who pinned down and violated the young Mary Jane Hicks one evening. The four boys claimed they were innocent – George Duffy, Joseph Martin, William Boyce and Robert Read – ‘The Mount Rennie Rapists’. The Sydney Daily Telegraph printed that the crime was unparalleled and worse than the savageries of barbarism. The Sydney Bulletin labeled Mary Hicks a prostitute.
At 9 o’clock on that morning, the four young men were led out onto the platform. Robert Rice Howard was wearing his usual black frock coat and white necktie. He heard Reverend Father Byrne announce the boys’ fate to the mass of spectators. Robert stood in front of the teenagers and one-by-one he tied a white cloth over their eyes as their lips stretched and trembled in prayer. He walked each of them to the centre of their allotted double trap-door, adjusted their ropes and checked each knot, pulling each rope-end till the squeak stopped. Then he shifted each lever, one at a time, opening the wooden trap-doors to let each boy’s feet drop.
The following day, Robert saw that Truth had added the story of the four youths to their series: Robert Rice Howard’s Fumbled Executions. It was reported that the youths had suffered torturous and drawn-out deaths after being strangled, rather than properly hung, by ropes that were too short. In the past, Robert had also prepared ropes that, in the end, were too long and it had become common for many shillings and pounds to be wagered on such outcomes.
A white streak in the blue sky glided in front of the sun and the sensitive gnarl beneath Robert’s eyes sensed a sharp cool breeze. He pulled at the rope in the water and shuffled his feet on the rock. Lady still hadn’t returned and he peered out across the beach. Robert’s ear caught the voices of youthful shouting and laughter. He went looking for Lady and as the voices grew he heard Lady moan. From the top of a dune, Robert saw Lady surrounded by four teenagers.
“Don’ stand behind ‘er!”, he yelled.
They looked up at him and froze. One screamed out, “It’s Nosey Bob!”, and they all scattered before regrouping farther away. One of the boys stood in front, turned his back to Robert and bent over.
“Smell tha’ one could ya? ‘ey?”, one of them shouted across at Robert.
The sand squealed as Robert ran over to Lady and the four boys fled over the dunes with fading cackles. Lady had some beer froth over her mouth and the two empty glasses were lying next to her in dark patches of sand. Robert picked up the glasses and went over to wash the sand off in a nearby lagoon. He scooped up some water in his hands and splashed his face, letting out a wheezy muffled groan. With the glasses back in her saddle and a few more coins to purchase a fill, Robert sent Lady back to Dunlop’s.
Robert walked back along the tumbling sand towards his baited hooks. ‘The Bondi Estate’ was once a much quieter place, owned by Edward Hall and Hall’s son-in-law, Francis O’Brien. Much had changed since the turn of the century when a local reporter went against the ‘no daylight bathing’ law, setting in motion a big change down at the beach.
In all the time it took Lady to return from Dunlop’s Cliff pub, Robert’s rope hung in the same curve between his ankle and the water. Soon one fist followed the other and he pulled the rope into loops at his feet, eventually throwing the scraggly piece of bait back into the ocean.
Robert gazed across the bay at Waverly Cemetery where his wife, Jane, lay resting and his eyes settled on his miniscule patch that waited by her side. He went over to Lady’s saddle-bag and saw that the publican had obliged with a second round of beers. Robert raised a glass up and out to the horizon and took a sip. It was the last year he would endure a 7th of January.
Robert “Nosey Bob” Rice Howard took his last breath in his cottage up on the cliffs at Ben Buckler Point, North Bondi, on the 3rd of February 1906. The morning after his funeral, Truth published a poem in memoriam:
“The Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast
and breathed on the face of the foe as he pass’d;
Then the eyes of the sleeper closed up on his ‘nob’
and out went the light of “Nosey Bob!”