Monday, December 7, 2015

Jugglers? Murderers? or Both? The case of the Indian Jugglers

 An account of the Indian Jugglers Cassim and Abdallah, who were convicted of murder in 1863

In January 1863, James Lane, an employee of station owner James Fagan made an odd discovery at White Sawpit Creek, near Queanbeyan in New South Wales.


Hanging on a twig he found a battered coat, inside of which was a piece of chalk, two empty gold bags, a pack of cards and a play bill advertising Madhoul and Co of Bombay and Madras. Leaving the coat on the tree,  James took his finds back to one of his fellow employees. They returned to the creek, and James' odd discovery soon became a gruesome one. Upon further investigation, they found a heavily blood stained shirt, several human bones, which had been  eaten by feral animals, a skull with several deep cuts on it, spurs , trousers and a hat.  It seemed clear from these discoveries that an evil deed had been committed at Sawpit Creek.

Suspicion soon fell upon two Indian Jugglers, Mahomet Cassim and Mahomet Abdallah. They were brothers from India who in August to October 1861 had been performing with Burton's circus. Advertised  as "renowned Indian performers from the Court of the Rajah of Mysore', they had performed acrobatic tricks with knives attached to their bodies, cut apples on their hands with swords and probably juggled knives, hence their appellation as jugglers. In November of 1861, they were seen in the Queanbeyan area accompanied by a third man whose name was unknown.

Cassim and Abdallah were quickly arrested for murder of their unnamed Indian companion.
They had been in Australia for several years. They tumbled and juggled their way across the country, until on reaching Lambing Flat in New South Wales, they met a compatriot, who promised that he could increase their earnings by hiring halls for them to perform in. They were interested in this proposal because their English was so poor they were having difficulty in obtaining employment. Soon their new friend was acting as their manager and interpreter as the three travelled around the countryside.

In October 1861 they were working with Burton's Circus in Goulburn as headliners. So it was that the trio arrived in the area around Sawpit Creek. In November, according to witnesses, they had asked to perform for the shearers who worked in the area.  They did so  and  stayed in a hut on a nearby property.

According to witnesses at their trial, one day the three men headed out to look for their lost horses.  Apparently they walked towards the creek, but only two men returned.

Further witnesses stated that Cassim and Abdallah had left the area by horse drawn carrier. During the journey towards Queanbeyan, Cassim had stated that they had been robbed by their friend who had disappeared. Another witness said that Cassim  stated that he would 'cut off the man's head' if he found him.

The trial failed to produced conclusive evidence that the bones, the hat and the coat had belonged to the man accompanying the Indian jugglers. A doctor testified that the cuts on the skull probably came from an Indian broadsword and other witnesses declared that the coat and hat discovered resembled that worn by their companion.

Despite the paucity of evidence, Cassim and Abdallah were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging for murder.

The case caused some controversy. The lack of solid evidence was noted by the press and a letter was written to parliament requesting a review of the trial. The men's lack of English skills, their inability to testify or question those who accused them was cited as  causes for the review. One doctor stated that the skull was too weathered and old to be that of the missing man. Furthermore, a fellow prisoner with Indian experience wrote a letter to the newspapers citing Cassim's claims of innocence and pointing out the flaws in the trial.

Due to these protestations, Abdallah's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Cassim, deemed to be the leader of the two, was still condemned to death.

Cassim wrote a letter to the governor protesting his innocence. He also requested that he be shot instead of hanged because this was a more appropriate end according to  his religious beliefs. He further asked that his remains be taken care of by a man of his own religion from Sydney, as there were no Imams available in Goulburn Gaol.

On the day before his death in June 1863, Cassim and Abdallah sewed traditional clothing for the occasion. When the day dawned, Cassim donned the simple robe and a hat He embraced his brother tearfully and bravely walked towards the gallows. After the drop, his body twitched for three minutes or more, the unusual length of time was said to be due to his acrobatic profession.

Were the brothers guilty of murder? The circumstantial evidence certainly pointed towards it, but they would probably have been exonerated if they hadn't been jugglers of a different race. Their real crime was their itinerant employment, their shady occupation and their cultural difference. 

Surprisingly, some of the press supported their innocence. However, the government, the law and the conservative society of squatters could not overcome their prejudice. Even in death Cassim was not permitted the dignity of his own religion, his body was carted off and buried in the Church of England cemetery near Goulburn. His brother remained in prison and his fate was not recorded.

In 1867 a young boy minding sheep  found some items of Indian silver lying in the gravel and dirt of Sawpit Creek. The tokens were identified as belonging to the man who had accompanied the Indian jugglers. This find was said to be conclusive proof that he had been murdered by Cassim and Abdallah.

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