The slippers of death

One hundred and forty-six years ago on Saturday the 3rd of March 1877, two Ipswich policemen Constable Neal McCabe and Constable William Smith left Ipswich by train at around noon. They were on escort duty taking prisoners to Brisbane. After handing over the prisoners, they boarded the last train that night to return to Ipswich. Little did they know that they were about to be involved in one of the most remarkable police shootings in Queensland history. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

Joining the constables on the train was Patrick Clancy who was the stationmaster in Brisbane. He was returning home to his wife Kate in Ipswich and was familiar with the revolvers that both constables carried because he was a lieutenant in the Queensland Volunteer Rifles. A few years after the events that were about to unfold, his body was found near Caloundra after decomposing for a month, and his widow was promoted to matron at the Toowoomba insane asylum.

In the same carriage as the constables was Alexander Patterson. He was a seemingly innocuous clerk with the Cribb & Foote department store in Ipswich.

Also watching was John Perrett from Bundamba. Perrett was a West Moreton Shire councillor and came from an old pioneering family. Perrett’s Hill at Bundamba was named after his father.

John Perrett

Then there was James Payne. He was the porter at the Bundamba railway station. Within a couple of years, Payne would find a body floating in the river at Bundamba and give evidence that helped get his brother-in-law cleared of a charge of assaulting a young girl.

Shortly before reaching Oxley station, a dispute arose between the two constables over a pair of canvas slippers that had been left on a seat. McCabe picked them up to look at them. Smith snatched them from him. McCabe took them back. The slippers changed hands in this way another two or three times, with McCabe maintaining that he had them first.

Oxley station

Smith jumped up and grabbed McCabe by the whiskers and pulled out a handful. He then grabbed McCabe by the throat. McCabe stood up and in turn took hold of Smith by the throat. Smith fell to the floor of the carriage, and McCabe began throttling him with both hands, and then sat on him. McCabe began striking Smith on the face with his fists.

Patterson, the clerk from Cribb & Foote, entered the fray and tried to pacify McCabe. But McCabe just continued punching Smith. McCabe then stood up and twice tried to stamp on Smith’s face. By this time, the quarrel between the two constables over the slippers had been going on for five or six minutes.

That’s when Smith, while lying on his back on the floor, fired a shot from his revolver. The bullet struck McCabe in his left arm between the elbow and the shoulder. Even after the shot was fired and with blood flowing profusely, McCabe didn’t stop punching Smith and he continued sitting on him until the train pulled up at Oxley station.

Smith was taken into custody by a senior officer and returned to the Brisbane lock-up where he and McCabe had earlier deposited the prisoners that they’d escorted.

Constable McCabe, however, before being taken to the Ipswich Hospital, stopped off at the Commercial Hotel in Ipswich where perhaps he and the witnesses needed to refresh. It’s there that he was examined by Dr Donald Gunn, who was one of the earliest doctors in West Moreton, and whose stepdaughter was said to be a descendent of Sir Francis Drake. Dr Gunn said that the wound was a serious one and endangered McCabe’s life.

This most extraordinary police shooting was referred to the Queensland Supreme Court where Smith was charged with shooting with intent to do grievous bodily harm. It was heard by Justice Alfred Lutwyche who the first judge of the Supreme Court Bench of Queensland.

Justice Alfred Lutwyche

Smith’s defence was simply, “I shot him because he was trying to choke me.”

After just ten minutes, the jury returned a verdict of “Not guilty.” His honour Justice Lutwyche remarked that Smith had had a very merciful jury.

There was no report about what happened to the slippers which went close to causing death.


Photo credits:
Slippers of Death – Harold Peacock 2023
John Perrett c1882 – Ancestry uploaded by Bill O’Sullivan 2013
Oxley Railway Station 1876 – State Library of Queensland
Alfred Lutwyche c1865–1880 – Queensland Art Gallery


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