March 12, 1872
Sydney, New South Wales
The body of John Bridger (pictured) is found floating in the Parramatta River
As a laborer rowed down the river, he spotted something floating in the water. As he drew closer he discovered it was a decomposing body and notified the authorities. The corpse had been weighed down by a stone of “about a hundredweight” (100 lbs. or 65 kg), secured by a rope tied around the victim’s feet. Though the rock was heavy and initially would have proven more than adequate to submerge a fresh body, as the remains began to generate gasses and bloat, it was able to come closer to the surface. An autopsy revealed the victim had received seven serious head injuries before death.
Investigators believed they were looking for two suspects, predominantly due to the weight of the stone. Before they focused on the killers, however, they were able to name the body based upon documents he carried, identifying the corpse as that of John Bridger, an Englishman who had recently come to Australia looking for employment. Authorities tracked Bridger’s movements and found he had responded to an advertisement in The Sydney Morning Herald, purchased by a person identifying himself as T. Y. C. “A steady man required for Country Store, drive pair horse waggon. T. Y. C., Herald Office,” read one ad while another stated, “Clerk wanted, active, intelligent, for country store; liberal salary to competent person. T. Y. C., Herald Office.”
Authorities, armed with a list of missing items belonging to Bridger, asked the local auction house if any of the sales matched those on the list. The auction house confirmed the suspicion, describing the two men who had placed them for sale, and investigators waited for the men to return for their earnings.
George Robert Nichols (30) was questioned when he came to collect the sales of the auctioned items. His known friend and former cellmate, Alfred Lester (20), was soon arrested after rousing suspicions at a jeweler while trying to pawn a pocket watch. It was quickly noted Lester was wearing clothing bearing the initials W. P. W., which, police believed, may have belonged to a missing Englishman named William Percy Walker who had not been seen for a week.
Police began to search for Walker’s body in the Parramatta River, believing he had probably been dispatched in a similar manner as Bridger. Upon noticing a “fatty substance” on the surface, they soon found human legs protruding from the water. The corpse had been weighted with a large rock connected by a rope to his neck, and his skull had been bludgeoned. Possessions on the body, including a diary and rings, identified the remains of Walker. Detective Elliot, who had been working the case, noted the ropes used on both bodies were identical and the knots appeared to have been made by the same person. Additionally, Walker’s hotel room was searched and a newspaper clipping of job postings by T. Y. C. were found, as well as a handwritten letter offering Walker a job made in Nichols’ handwriting.
The Crown decided to prosecute Nichols and Lester for the willful murder of Walker first then, if they were unable to obtain a conviction, they would try the men for Bridger’s murder. The jury deliberated for 25 minutes before finding both men guilty of Walker’s death and they were sentenced to be hanged.
Nichols wrote a confession while awaiting his execution. In it, he explained he and Lester had half-jokingly planned to rob and murder men, a plan they would initially laugh off, though the idea became more real the more the topic was raised. Nichols went on to explain Bridger had been given brandy tainted with the opioid laudanum to sedate him, though Bridger complained of the bitter taste and did not finish the drink. Nichols and Lester changed their plan to attack Bridger as he slept, and came ashore under the pretense of waiting until daybreak to continue their journey. Once Bridger was asleep, Nichols shot him in the head though the bullet failed to kill him. “Oh, Mr Clark,” Bridger exclaimed, referring to Nichols’ alias of Thomas Y. Clark, “you have deceived me.” Bridger was then knocked unconscious with a strike to the head with a pistol. A rope was tied around his feet to the stone though he regained his senses before being tossed overboard. He pleaded “put me on shore! Put me on shore!” before he was pushed into the river to drown.
“The murder of Walker was done in much the same way but with the following exceptions,” Nichols continued in his confession. “The poison was administered in ale, which we learnt was Walker’s favourite drink. Neither dose taking the desired effect, we laid down to sleep as before until the tide rose … When I fired, Walker rose and cried, ‘Mercy! mercy! My mother! My mother! Spare my life, and I will give you all I have!’ I struck him repeatedly upon the head with the life-preserver. Walker was then thrown into the water on his back, his feet being in the boat. He was crying out ‘murder, murder,’ when we put his head under the water, where we kept him until he was silenced in death … He was then cast into the water, and he sank.”
Nichols and Lester were hanged together on June 18, 1872.
The contractor hired by the government to bury the bodies of executed inmates happened to own a hotel, and took the bodies of the hanged men to display in one of his rooms, and charged visitors a fee to view the corpses. The police heard of the exhibition which was promptly shut down the day after it began, and the men were buried in a cemetery as planned.
Adams, Michael. “Murderer lured victims to their deaths with fake job ads.” News Australia. February 1, 2019. Accessed: March 12, 2020. https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/murderer-lured-victims-to-their-deaths-with-fake-job-ads/news-story/9b18060b5067c4f0446c0895c87f1956 (image source)
Morton, James and Lobez, Susanna. Kings of Stings: The Greatest Swindles from Down Under. Victory Books, 2011
Odell, Robin. The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010
“New South Wales. Horrible Discovery at Sydney.” The Derby Mercury. May 29, 1872
“Mysterious Murder — Body Found In The Parramatta River.” The Sydney Morning Herald. March 14, 1872