Secrets of Fremantle Cemetery

All cemeteries have intriguing and interesting histories and inmates. Fremantle Cemetery, Western Australia is no different. The cemetery was established in 1899 and contains the remains of some of Western Australia's earliest pioneers and settlers. As well as hundreds of 'ordinary' citizens, Fremantle Cemetery has share of famous and infamous 'internees'. The heritage trail is an intriguing walk and reveals some of the more interesting gravesites.

One of the infamous characters is Martha Rendell who was the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia. Interestingly, over half a century later, serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was interred in the same grave.

Rendell was born in 1871 and was the common-law wife of Arthur Morris. Morris had separated from his wife and had custody of his five children. Neighbours attested to her mistreatment of the children with one girl, Annie, being thrashed so severely that she could not walk.

Rendell set out to kill Annie first. Annie was 7. Rendell's method was to lace the child's food with something that would give the child a sore throat. She would then swab the back of the throat with hydrochloric acid, claiming it was medicine. After Annie's death, the same procedure was followed with Olive who was 5. In both cases, the death certificate gave the cause of death as diphtheria. Olive died in 1907. The next youngest was Arthur who was 14. He died in 1908. Rendell asked to be present at the autopsy and stood calmly by. In 1909, she turned her attention to the second son, George. After the first swabbing of his throat however, George bolted to his mother's place some streets away.

By this time neighbours were suspicious and went to the police who were able to locate George. George told the police his step-mother had killed his siblings and was trying to kill him. Eventually the bodies of the three children were exhumed and diluted hydrochloric acid found on the throat tissue. Rendell and Morris were both charged with murder. Morris was acquitted because, although he purchased the spirits of salts, he had not been aware of the crimes. Rendell was sentenced to death. Despite these horrific acts, Rendell never showed any remorse at any point.

Moondyne JoeCredit: Wikimedia

A colourful character who has his last resting place in Fremantle Cemetery is Joseph Bolitho Johns (above) who was born around 1826. He was better known as Moondyne Joe and was Western Australia's best known bushranger. He was born in Cornwall, England and sentenced to ten years penal servitude for burglary and stealing. He believed that because he put up 'spirited resistance' on arrest, he was given an unfair sentence. He arrived in Fremantle in 1853 and in 1855 received a conditional pardon. He then settled in the Avon Valley in the Darling Range east of Perth. The aboriginal name for the area was Moondyne.

He made a living partly by fencing off springs in the area and trapping escaped stock, often receiving a reward for their return. However when he trapped and branded a stallion, he was convicted of horse-stealing. He broke out of the Toodyay lock-up, stole the horse again, together with the magistrate's new saddle and bridle and took to the hills.

Some time later, because of his past, he was accused wrongfully of a crime and convicted. From this point, his crimes became more frequent. Moondyne Joe was particularly adept at escaping from incarceration. Eventually, at Fremantle Prison, an escape-proof cell was made for him, built from stone and lined with jarrah sleepers held by over 1000 nails. Governor John Hampton told Johns that if he escaped again, he'd be forgiven, so confident was the Governor of the arrangements. Johns was set to work breaking stones which were brought into the prison yard. The pile of stones grew till it obscured the guards' view of Johns. He set about weakening the wall of the yard. In 1867, he escaped through a hole. Eventually he was again given a ticket of leave and died of senile dementia in the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum on 13 August 1900. Such is Australia's taste for likeable rogues that his life and times are celebrated in Toodyay each May with the holding of the Moondyne Festival. His name is given to a cave that he discovered near Karridale and which he sometimes used as a hideout.

Russian Jack lies in a pauper's grave with no headstone or plaque. His origins were unknown but he was well-known in the inland gold camps of Western Australia. The tough kindly prospector has been recognised with the erection of a sculpture in Halls Creek in 1979. Russian Jack's loyalty to his mates typifies the Australian tradition of 'mateship'.

Possibly born about 1864 in Arkhangelisk (Archangel) Russia, he arrived in Derby, Western Australia in 1886. His name appears on documents as John Frederick Kirkoss but no-one knew as anything but Russian Jack. Jack was two metres tall with a 122cm chest. His forearms were like the thighs of most men. His strength was legendary. He could pack away 3 pounds of steak, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread and a pound of butter at a sitting and still be unsatisfied. He constructed a wheelbarrow with shafts 214cm long with a wide wheel and would regularly push his loaded barrow through the sandy deserts as he went searching for the elusive gold.

There are numerous stories and anecdotes of Jack's kindness and good deeds. Many times he came across prospectors stricken in the outback and would load them on his barrow and take them to safety. He was a hard drinker. Once in Cue he staggered out of town inebriated but with a full load on his barrow. Balanced precariously on the top was a loose tin of firing caps which were in danger of falling off and exploding.

Russian JackCredit: Wikimedia - Author Nachoman-au

For Jack's own sake, the local policeman decided to arrest him. With great diplomacy, the constable gave Jack a cup of tea and once he dropped off to sleep, he hand-cuffed Jack to a huge tree stump which served as the gaol. However the constable was called away unexpectedly and forgot about Jack. When he returned he found Jack in the bar with the tree stump beside him. He had already carried the stump across to the police station to ask for a drink of water. Finding no-one there he drained the water-bag hanging from the verandah then went to the bar for shade and a drink.

Many times the big Russian would load his barrow with another's belongings as well as his own and help the traveller to the next town. Many times, he pushed the barrow with a sick or exhausted man on top of the load. In 1904, he succumbed to pneumonia at a private hospital and died on April 17. He was only 40.

Heath LedgerCredit: Wikimedia

A recent cremation at Fremantle was that of actor Heath Ledger. Ledger died in New York City on 22 January 2008. Ledger had received numerous awards for his film and TV acting and died from an accidental drug overdose. His name is commemorated in the Heath Ledger theatre, a 575-seat theatre which is part of the new State Theatre located on the corner of Roe and William Streets in Northbridge, Perth.

What stories does the cemetery in your town hide?