Murder in Willunga in 1855

Event Dates:

27 January 1855

On 27 January 1855, the Adelaide Observer newspaper proclaimed that a “Dreadful Act of Violence” had occurred at Willunga. The crime itself related to the stabbing of a Willunga farmer, William Thomas. The stabbing had been committed by his employee who was an American. After a quarrel, the American had “seized a bowie knife, and threw it … with such violence that the blade entered between his shoulder blades and produced a wound which it was feared would terminate mortally”.

Poor Mr Thomas died, and the police commenced hunting for the knife-wielding American. In October 1855, a Mr John Smith was caught by a Inspector Gardiner up near Burra. Mr Smith was said to have been of good repute. He was brought to Adelaide, his identity was confirmed, and he was committed to trial. But while the interested public was waiting for the trial to commence, John Smith escaped from gaol. He was caught again near Walkerville. It seems that some sailors at the gaol who had been sentenced to hard labour had helped Smith by causing confusion among the guards and giving him a boost over the fence of the stockade.

On 8 December 1855, John Smith alias James Dixon was charged with the murder of Mr Thomas. Now, this alias is a new development, and there is no indication from where the name “James Dixon” originated. He pleaded not guilty. But the trial had to be deferred as Mary, the widow of the deceased, could not attend the trial because of illness. She had already remarried in July 1855, but she still had to be involved as a witness in the court proceedings for which the accused was bound over. Later, on 30 January 1856, she was delivered of twin daughters.

Mr Smith was not deterred from his lack of success in escaping the clutches of the law. On 26 February 1856, the Adelaide Times reports that “Smith made another attempt to escape by endeavouring to cut through the bars of his cell with some sharp instrument that he has secreted.” Mr Smith was then placed in solitary confinement. The Times noted that “he appears indifferent in his manner; but these efforts to escape show his uneasiness of mind”.

The trial of John Smith alias James Dixon finally started on 5 March 1856, with Justice Cooper presiding. Justice Cooper directed that the irons restraining the accused were removed, observing that when a man was put on trial for his life, it was quite proper that he should stand as free as circumstances would allow. During the court proceedings, we finally find out the facts of the case. It was shown that the prisoner was the servant of the deceased. The deceased lived with his wife in a two-roomed hut. The deceased and his wife slept in the bedroom, and the accused slept in the kitchen. The deceased and the accused went out in the morning and, according to one witness, both came home on the night in question slightly intoxicated. Smith entered the bedroom of the Thomas to be ordered out by Mr Thomas who was lying down. The prisoner refused to go and Mr Thomas gave him a push. Smith seized Mr Thomas by the throat and pushed him to the ground. Mrs Thomas ran out to call a neighbour, Mr Chambers, who testified that Thomas was black in the face from the choking. Mr Chambers, a blacksmith, loosened Smith’s hold, and Chambers and Smith went outside to fight. Chambers threw the prisoner down 3 times and the prisoner yielded, but then Smith and Thomas started to struggle over a gun. Thomas managed to get possession of the gun, so Smith went inside and came out with a knife, with which he stabbed Thomas.

Two doctors were called to assist Thomas, and Smith ran off. Unfortunately, Thomas died a week later from his injuries. The defence counsel did not dispute the facts of the case but asked for the judgement to be manslaughter on the grounds that the accused had been intoxicated, and had had some provocation. The jury retired for 10 minutes. Their decision was crucial for Smith – if they made a finding of murder, then John Smith would be executed. The jury returned their verdict; they found Smith guilty of manslaughter.

In passing sentence, Justice Cooper noted that Smith had shown a sad want of control over his passions, and that this lack of control had been exacerbated by a terrible habit of indulgence in drink, “an evil of such prevalence in the colony”.  Justice Cooper prevailed on all present ”not to indulge in what leads to such an awful crime”. Justice Cooper sentenced Smith to penal servitude for the rest of his natural life. According to the Adelaide Times, “The prisoner heard his sentence without the slightest emotion, except that of joy at having escaped conviction of the capital crime.”

So, what happened to James Dixon, alias Smith after his release? Smith alias Dixon disappeared until 1895, when a swagman called Harry Lyon, alias Dixon, alias John Smith was arrested for drunkenness, indecent language and assault and robbery at Mt Barker. He was fined £5, but not having the money, Harry had to spend a month in the Adelaide Gaol. If this is the same man, it is clear that he did not take Justice Cooper’s words to heart.


1855 ‘ECHUNGA DIGGINGS‘, Adelaide Observer 27 January, p. 5. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,
1855 ‘CORONER’S INQUESTS‘, Adelaide Observer 3 February, p. 4. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,
1855 ‘POLICE COURT—ADELAIDE‘, Adelaide Times 21 March, p. 3. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,
1855 ‘KOORINGA‘, South Australian Register 17 October, p. 2. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,
1855 ‘WILLUNGA: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 23‘, South Australian Register 25 October, p. 2. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,
1856 ‘LAW AND CRIMINAL COURTS‘, South Australian Register 13 February, p. 3. , viewed 09 Feb 2024,

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