SYDNEY'S BURNING

(essay)


There is no doubt that some members of the IWW were incendiarists or would-be incendiarists. Tom Barker says as much in his recently published reminiscences: warehouses and big places did go up in fire. It was very easy for anyone who got in with the stuff. After all, there was nothing new about fire-dope. It was just a mixture of phosphorus and calcium [sic] bi-supplied. It was a well-known method of making fire, wrapping these components together in a wet rag and then, by and by, when it dried out, the phosphorus set up spontaneous combustion. There was no secret about it. It had a long history behind it in Ireland, where they called it "Fenian fire". It had been used in Australia by shearers over many generations to get rid of faulty accommodation. If the owner wouldn't put in decent buildings and sleeping quarters, when the boys left to go onto the next station they took some of this stuff, rolled it up in wet newspaper or cloth, and about two days after they had gone something happened. When they came back next year there were brand new buildings waiting for them. That was a method of cajoling the cocky into doing what the law required him to do.

We had many little groups amongst us who were doing various things, and those things were deadly secret and they kept them to themselves, so that you might be God Almighty in the organization, but you wouldn't know half a dozen things that were going on. There was a chemist, Scully, who ratted on the IWW, who made the mixture. Others, there was no doubt at all about it, had some knowledge of it.

This was known to the labour movement at the time. The People, the paper of the Socialist Labor Party, wrote on December 14, 1916, immediately after the conviction of the Twelve: "Once more the tactics of the Chicago faction of the IWW has led the members of the working class to jail." Yet the labour movement came to the defence of the Twelve — at first only a minority, but gradually the defence campaign came to embrace the whole movement.

It was partly the belief that, as the People said, "Even admitting that these men were guilty of the act of which they were convicted, the penalties imposed were out of all proportion to the deeds alleged to be committed ... It was partly that the labour movement believed that the Twelve had been prejudged by "certain sections of the Public, Press, Pulpit, and especially Politicians", and crucified by war hysteria and the propaganda needs of the conscription campaign.

And it was partly the belief that the case against the Twelve was a frame.

Of this last, there can be little doubt. But how was the frame accomplished? And precisely who was framed?

Firstly, who was framed? In one sense every one of the Twelve, for, as Henry Boote wrote: "the evidence on which these men were convicted was rotten through and through". But some of them were involved in incendiarism, or at least in preparation for incendiarism.

If we take the confessions of Scully and Davis Goldstein to Judd as bearing some relation to the truth, this is the picture: Grant: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. Larkin: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. King: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. Moore: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. Reeve: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. Besant: exonerated by Scully and Goldstein. McPherson exonerated by Goldstein. Beatty: exonerated by Goldstein. Glynn: exonerated by Scully. Fagin: incriminated by Scully. Teen: incriminated by Scully. Hamilton: incriminated by Scully.

(Goldstein's statutory declaration named only those whom he believed to be "absolutely innocent of the crimes upon which they are convicted". The presumption was that he believed the others — that is, Fagin, Teen, Hamilton, and Glynn, against all of whom he had given evidence — to be guilty. Scully's statement to Mutch and Connolly exonerated the six listed above and incriminated Fagin, Teen, Hamilton, Besant, and "Morgan [probably Mahony], and the others". However, Besant was included in Scully's list of those who "did it" in error, as Scully later pointed out; it is probable that the name should be Beatty, against whom he did give evidence. Whether Scully's "others" was meant to include McPherson is unexplained, but it seems unlikely, in view of his comments about the way in which the evidence against McPherson was rigged.)

That leaves a hard core of Fagin, Teen, and Hamilton, and the possibility of some degree of participation or knowledge on the part of Beatty, Glynn and McPherson. The others are definitely out. And now we are getting closer to the truth.

How was the frame-up organised? I believe what happened was this. Detective Moore was the police expert on subversive activities. In July, he hired Joe Brown to spy on the IWW for him; early in August, Brown reported talk of arson in IWW circles. About August 21, Detective Fergusson was assigned to assist Moore — Moore said "in inquiries about the IWW"; Fergusson said "on military inquiries and German inquiries", and denied that he was investigating "fires or anything like that".

Despite Fergusson's disclaimer, it seems likely that Moore told him about the whispers reported by Joe Brown. Fergusson thought of his friend, Mac McAlister, whom he knew to be a wharfie of strong left-wing sympathies (although he denied that he knew McAlister to be an IWW sympathiser). Fergusson asked McAlister for information; McAlister said that there were rumours around the waterfront about IWW incendiarism; Fergusson asked for more — and perhaps at this point offered to put McAlister on the payroll as an informer. McAlister was already on the IWW rolls, although he was unfinancial; but he was not a particularly active member, and was certainly not a trusted member of the inner circle. However, he liked grog and money, and, in Scully's phrase, he was "tired of hard work". He fell in with Fergusson's proposal.

McAlister obliged with a story about a mysterious Russian named "Androvitch" who was allegedly the source of supply for fire-dope. ("Androvitch" was never found, and probably never seen, despite the police stories about hunting for him night and day.)

McAlister may also have said at this time, as he and the police claimed, that a man named "Andrew" had first promised him, and then supplied him with, some fire-dope. But this cannot be taken as established. So far as I can discover, there is no documentary evidence for the existence of "Andrew" before September 17; nor is there any document to establish the existence of the bottle of fire-dope which McAlister was said to have received from "Andrew" on September 4 before the Government Analyst's report of September 21. Unfortunately, as discussed earlier, all the documents which might have provided contemporary support for these vital pieces of evidence had been lost.

Whatever the truth of this, the police certainly wanted more evidence, and McAlister set out to provide it. He produced the story of the drawing of lots, which introduced the fictitious character of Mahony. The police said that he gave them this story on September 7, but once again there was no independent documentary evidence for this — it was missing. However, the police provided confirmatory evidence with Detective Leary's story of shadowing McAlister and Tom Moore away from the IWW rooms on September 7, and overhearing Moore say to McAlister that "twelve of the bastards must be let go together". This story was concocted by McAlister and the police. There is absolutely no evidence to connect any one of the Twelve — or indeed anyone else _`51; with any of the twelve unsuccessful fires which occurred between September 8 and 12. It seems unlikely that the successful fires of June, July and August and these unsuccessful attempts could all have been the work of the same men, for why should the arsonists have lost their skill? What then had happened?

The fact that, of all the business premises in Sydney, the police warned only four of the danger of arson, and that of these two were the scenes of unsuccessful fires, suggests that this whole series may have been a police provocation, designed to bolster a case that was still lacking in substance. However, Mr Shand argued persuasively before Mr Justice Street that this would have involved a grave risk of serious fires, and provocation could therefore not be considered.

The evidence of Harry Scully suggested another explanation. He claimed that Joe Fagin had told him that fifty or more lots of fire-dope had been distributed among trusted members of the IWW on Sunday, September 3. It is possible that this was a defective batch of dope, and that the dope so distributed was planted without effect on various premises the following weekend. (It is also possible that McAlister's concoction about “Androvitch”, and perhaps “Andrew”, was designed to provide an acceptable explanation for a bottle of fire-dope which he had acquired with guilty intent on September 3.)

However this may have been, the forgery case gave the police their first real lever.

Davis Goldstein financed the forgeries and the police had evidence of this. He had been an official of the IWW and was still a supporter; he was well known to and trusted by the leading members of the organisation. His brother Louis was not a Wobbly, but could be used to put pressure on Davis. The police let it be known that a deal was possible. Louis cracked easily; he was ready to give evidence, but knew nothing. However, he persuaded his reluctant brother to talk. Davis provided the first solid evidence of incendiarism: he acquired a bottle of fire-dope from Jack Hamilton. (In order to strengthen his evidence on this, the police later concocted a story that Hamilton had handed the dope over in the street.)






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