Tagging the murderous

When James and Elizabeth Dewar were murdered in 1860,   Detective Robert Bain was sent to...
When James and Elizabeth Dewar were murdered in 1860, Detective Robert Bain was sent to investigate. PHOTO: COLLECTION OF TOITU OTAGO SETTLERS MUSEUM
Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator Peter Read unlocks the identity of the owner of a late 1800s tag.

Some time ago, while hunting through Toitu Otago Settlers Museum’s collection for items relating to policing, I came across an artefact that piqued my curiosity. It’s a small, metal disc with the inscription "Detective Bain. Police Station. Maclaggan St. Dunedin" — a key tag perhaps. So I set about trying to unlock (ha, ha!) the story of the man behind the tag and here’s what I’ve found.

Robert Bain became a detective in Dunedin in October 1874, after previously being employed as a special constable and Town Belt ranger for the City Corporation. He served as a detective here for 14 years until failing health prompted him to head for the warmer climes of Victoria in 1888.

During those 14 years, Det Bain investigated hundreds of instances of criminal behaviour — way too many to detail here. But perhaps his most infamous case was what is commonly known as the Cumberland St tragedy.

On March 14, 1880, smoke was discovered coming from a house in Cumberland St. Inside, James Dewar (alias James Grant) was found dead. He had suffered a fatal wound to the head. His 9-month-old daughter was also dead, suffocated by smoke, while the child’s mother, Elizabeth Dewar, lay mortally wounded. In a couple of hours, she too would be declared dead. A bloodied murder weapon, an axe, was discovered inside the house. Robert Bain, recently promoted to first class detective, was quickly dispatched to the scene and placed in charge of a murder investigation.

Following a tip-off from a maidservant about the unusual movements of one of the lodgers at the hotel where she worked, Det Bain began to suspect career criminal Robert Butler of having committed the murders. Butler, who had come to Otago from Melbourne in 1876, had recently been released from a four-year stretch in jail for burglary. Bain had been closely supervising Butler since his release, initially visiting him twice a day and making several attempts to find him gainful employment.

Butler was located near Waikouaiti and, despite brandishing a revolver at the arresting constable, was taken into custody. Blood-stained clothes, allegedly those Butler had been issued with when released from prison, were found discarded in a secluded part of the Town Belt.

In the trial that followed, Butler conducted his own defence. He threw doubt on the circumstantial evidence that had prompted his arrest. He challenged the actions of police during his interrogation. Then he gave a final address to the jury that lasted more than six hours. The jury, after one hour of deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.

This must have been quite a blow for Bain, especially as it came hot on the heels of a previous claim for wrongful arrest. But it wouldn’t be the last murder case that the detective would get to investigate. Several more alleged homicides would require his deductive reasoning and attention to detail before his career was over.

Bain’s health began to fail later in the decade. In August 1887 he was said to have been confined to his house for six months due to a serious lung condition and in 1888 he left Dunedin. He was soon chief detective in Bendigo — a place he had become acquainted with as a digger back in 1854. But a year or two later he was back in Dunedin working as a private investigator. In 1901, still working as a private eye, the ex-detective was punched and beaten with a stick when investigating illegal bookmaking at the Dunedin races. Then aged in his late 60s, Robert Bain was well into the twilight of his career.

He died in Dunedin in 1913, aged 80.

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