The Mystery of the 1902 ‘Double Suicide’ in Balwyn
It is a hot evening in late February 1902 when 17 year old Jessie Shallcross receives a visit from a young man. As a domestic servant, it was her scheduled night off but the young man has turned up unannounced at her employer’s door. His name is Reuben Newbigen and he insists that she go out with him.
Jessie is a cheerful, round-faced girl; short by today's standards - only 5'1". She lives with her stepmother at the home of their employers, the Nathan family, at 149 Drummond St, Carlton. Although she only arrived from Deniliquin ten months earlier, the Nathans are already very fond of her and happy with her work.
To the Nathan family, 26 year old Reuben Newbigen showed a clear devotion and attentiveness to their girl. However, they felt his morose and despondent nature was at odds with Jessie’s happy disposition.
Jessie had, on occasion, confided some fear of Reuben to her stepmother Gertrude. When Gertrude asked why Jessie still went out with him, Jessie could not summon a reason. Lately though, it seemed to Gertrude that Jessie had begun to tire of the constancy of Reuben’s attention. She had recently befriended a young horse-cart driver, Alfred Cameron and had taken a few walks with him. Should she secure Alfred, Gertrude thought, no doubt Reuben would leave her be. If not, well she and Jessie would soon be moving to Queensland to be with her much-loved father, so she could always escape him that way.
Unfortunately for Jessie, this was a time before words like stalking, violence against women and coercive control had entered our language and public discourse. Before research showed that the most dangerous time for a woman in a domestic violence situation was when she tried to leave. This was when a woman's value was only seen through the eyes of male attention. Should that attention become undesirable to a young girl like Jessie, she may have believed only another male laying claim to her could relieve her of the unwanted suitor. After all, she was only 17 and it was 1902, not 2023.
Despite the heat that night, Reuben’s unexpected arrival and her misgivings about him, Jessie donned her coat and hat and went out with him.
She never came home.
A few days later, on Monday, 3 March, Gilbert Sharp, a farm labourer for the Myrtle Park dairy in Balwyn, discovered Jessie's body lying stiff in one of the dairy’s fields. It had been there for several days. Next to her, his arm linked with hers, with the telltale signs of strychnine poison around his mouth, was Reuben Newbigen.
Balwyn in 1902
It’s pretty safe to say that not much happened in Balwyn back then. According to the one history I could find on the suburb, Donald MacLean’s Balwyn 1841-1941, Balwyn’s establishment was a ‘placid and happy story of steady development undisturbed by great civic struggles and unmarked by great personalities.’ So little happened in the 100 years he wrote about that his history is a mere 23 pages long. And that includes the standard retelling of John Gardiner’s arrival in Boroondara and a whole story about Hoddle’s adventures in sub-dividing Melbourne and how he thought breakfast was a waste of time.
In 1902, the pretty hills of Balwyn are occupied by dairies and orchards, with farmhouses sporadically placed in between. The people live in country conditions with no sanitation, dependent on tanks for water. There are a handful of shops where Balwyn and Whitehorse Roads meet but there is no train station and the tram will not arrive until 1913. To get to the locations of their deaths, Reuben and Jessie needed to walk several kilometres from Camberwell Station up the dusty, unlit dirt track that was Burke Road.
Myrtle Park was not the pristine green playing fields it is today. The dairy owned by Mr Holmquist occupied most of it. On Thursday 27 February, farm labourer Gilbert Sharp was bringing some horses in from a paddock when he noticed two people lying on the ground near a hedge in the distance. It was quite a warm day so he assumed they were merely taking a rest and walked on by, thinking nothing more of it. It was only the following Monday, when he was on the hunt for an errant cow in the same paddock that he noticed the people again. They had not moved from their previous positions. His suspicions rising, he walked over to them to investigate. He quickly realised it was a man and a woman, they were quite dead and there was a dead body of a cocker spaniel dog too.
Mr Sharp then rushed back to tell his boss, Mr Holmquist. Having looked over the bodies himself, Holmquist then summoned the police.
The police investigation
The preliminary investigation of the police pointed to a double suicide by poisoning. Two handwritten notes on the bodies, addressed to their mothers and apologising for ending their lives, reinforced this view. Jessie’s note referred to bringing shame on the family. This, the police decided, formed a motive for her suicide. The police considered this statement code for a sexual relationship out of wedlock, or perhaps an illegitimate pregnancy.
Reuben had a white handkerchief tied around his mouth, as if to stop himself from vomiting something up. The police also found a quantity of a white powdery substance that the coroner later ascertained to be strychnine near both the bodies. Only a tiny amount is needed to kill a person. They theorised that Reuben and Jessie had tested the strychnine on the dog first before ingesting it themselves. A nearby beer bottle indicated that perhaps one or the other had drunk the poison or used the beer to chase it down.
To the Victorian Police, even if one had killed the other, they were both dead so little effort was required to hunt down a killer.
Double suicide, the decision of two people to die together, (also known as a suicide pact) is quite rare. In a 1961 study of suicides from 1955-58, J Cohen found only 0.6 percent were genuine double suicides. A later study of 722 suicides between 1974 and 1993 found only nine suicide pacts resulting in the deaths of 18 people. Of these, most were long-term married couples (30 years plus) and depression played a significant role.
According to psychiatrist Alan Norton, the man in the partnership was far more likely to be the initiator, the one with the mental illness and the one who exerted ‘very considerable’ pressure on the other party to enter into the pact. However, since everyone who knew what really happened is now dead, there can be a very thin and often blurred line between double suicide and murder-suicide.
Suicide pacts are not a well-studied field in psychiatry, even today. Unfortunately for the victims, the media is more than happy to fill in all the ‘gaps’ in the motivations behind them. Perhaps it’s the whole Romeo and Juliet vibe of it all but the mystery and ambiguity that can surround a suspected double suicide or suicide pact is catnip for the media.
Nowhere was this the case than the mystery surrounding the deaths of Reuben Newbigen and Jessie Shallcross. Within a few days, the story had spread as far as Queensland and Western Australia.
Suspicions raised at the inquest
Back in 1902, a coronial inquest could be held within a few days. Almost immediately, it became clear the coroner did not readily accept the ‘double suicide’ explanation. The local media too began airing their suspicions about Reuben Newbigen.
In the first instance, Jessie’s physical examination revealed that not only was she not pregnant, she was still a virgin. This immediately threw doubt on the motive for suicide contained in her note. Then, close scrutiny of the two notes left on the bodies revealed that they seemed to have been written by the same person. According to the Argus, ‘both missives were written on two portions of the same cigarette packet and the stump of lead pencil which was used was found in the man’s vest pocket. The most reasonable assumption therefore is that the notes were written by him.’
Reuben’s death was readily determined a suicide. It was Jessie’s death that was in question, particularly whether Reuben had caused it.
Mrs Nathan, Jessie’s employer, told a story of how Jessie had shown a strange white powder to her young daughter. ‘If you put just a little bit on your tongue it will kill you,’ the little girl said Jessie had told her. Mrs Nathan then searched Jessie’s belongings. Finding the powder, she questioned Jessie. Jessie told her that ‘Rube’ had given it to her and she was well aware of its poisonous nature. The next time Reuben called on Jessie, Mr Nathan confronted him. ‘Oh, that was only a bit of bluff,’ Reuben told the shocked man. ‘It is only powder and it would not do her any harm if she did take it.’
The problem for Reuben was that he worked at the pharmaceutical company, Felton, Grimwade and Co. According to John Forrest, his employer, he had ready access to dangerous chemicals. Although Newbigen’s mother and brother would not speak ill of him at the inquest, Forrest considered him rather dull, stupid and not very intelligent. He was competent enough at his job, Forrest said, but ‘I think he was moody and gloomy. I think he was a bit of a ‘butt’ and maybe resented it. He was sober and industrious at his work but he could not be trusted to do important work.’
Perhaps, as an Argus reporter speculated, he had tried to use the power to impress on Jessie what a power for harm lay in an innocent-looking packet of white powder.
According to his mother, on the night he called on Jessie, Reuben had taken the train from their home in Richmond to town. He had then walked to Drummond Street and somehow persuaded Jessie to take the train to Camberwell. He knew the area well, she told the inquest, because he had been employed by a manufacturing chemist to sell drugs and patent medicines from door to door in and around Camberwell. Yet why Jessie would have agreed to go to Camberwell with him, then walk the three miles to Balwyn in the middle of the night remained a mystery.
One suggestion was that Reuben may have taken Jessie so far from the station to make it hopeless to attempt to catch the last train back to Melbourne. He knew how isolated and desolate Balwyn was so he used this to place her in a compromising situation and render her helpless.
The inquest then turned to the question of the handwriting on the suicide notes.
By this time, even the Chief Commissioner of Police believed that the Reuben Newbigen had written both the notes. Several examples of both of their handwriting were entered into evidence but nobody would say conclusively whether Reuben or Jessie had written both the suicide notes. See for yourself (Notes on the left, Reuben in the middle, Jessie on the far right):
In the end, around a week after Jessie went for that fateful walk with Reuben, the coroner returned an open verdict. He concluded that she had died from ingesting strychnine but refused to rule on whether she had taken it herself.
The open verdict meant that Jessie could have a proper burial at Kew Cemetery. I could not find a headstone for her but this picture shows the approximate location of her grave.
Information about the burial of Reuben is not forthcoming across the entire Melbourne metropolitan cemetery trust. This was a time when there was still considerable objection to suicide victims – or committers of self-murder as they were also known – being buried on consecrated ground. It is quite possible that he was not granted a traditional burial.
So it seems that Reuben Newbigen chose to take Jessie for her last walk to Balwyn because it was exactly what historian Donald MacLean said it was: quiet, peaceful and isolated.
 MacLean, Donald, Balwyn 1841-1941 (Melbourne: Gregson, 1942).  Norton, Alan, 'Double Suicide,' British Medical Journal 288 (1984) 346-7.  Ibid.  Brown, Martin, Elizabeth King, and Brian Barraclough, 'Nine Suicide Pacts: A Clinical Study of a Consecutive Series 1974-93,' British Journal of Psychiatry 167 (1995) 448-51.  Norton, 'Double Suicide.'  "Balwyn Poisoning Case," Argus, 3 March 1902.  "Balwyn Poisoning Case: Handwriting Not yet Identified," Argus, 4 March 1902.  "Balwyn Poisoning Case."  "The Balwyn Tragedy," Geelong Advertiser, 5 March 1902.