MRS GRIGGS’ DEATH AT OMEO – CHERCHE LA FEMME!

 FOR  PART ONE OF THIS STORY, CLICK HERE.

When the  Methodist minister’s young wife died unexpectedly at Omeo on January 3rd 1928, shock was quickly followed by disquiet. Locals reflected  on  (and gossiped about)  the Rev. Griggs’ ‘friendship’ with  Lotti Condon, the  pretty young daughter of  a wealthy grazier.   Acting on the rumours, it was decided that Mrs Griggs body should be exhumed and forensically examined.  Shockingly, traces of arsenic were found and Ronald Griggs was subsequently charged with murder.

 

Ronald Grggs

Murder suspect Ronald Griggs

 

Lottie Condon, the misstress iin the Omeo murder case.

The mistress, Lottie Condon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A coronial inquest was held at Omeo. Between sessions the accused man was held in an old, log built cell, dating from the town’s mining days.

A little less comfortable than the parsonage.

Among those to give evidence  against Griggs was Ethel’s younger  sister, Edna

One day when my sister was in Tasmania I found her crying. She said Ronald had been keeping company with Lottie Condon. She told me that she found him stroking her hair and when he sent her (Mrs Griggs) back to her room he went behind kicking her as she went. He asked her to apologise to Lottie Condon…..

Edna said that her sister confessed she’d had a rotten time since her marriage, but  had always tried to keep up a brave front for her family’s sake.

There had been one beacon of hope for Ethel.  She said that she and her husband  would soon be leaving Omeo to work  in the  overseas mission fields. Presumably she was praying for a fresh start,  where Ronald might  forget Lottie Condon. In retrospect, there was no likelihood of the marriage surviving. Ronald had told Lottie Condon that his wife was only returning home to collect her belongings.  He said  Ethel  would go back to teaching, and that he and Lottie could make a life together.

Giving evidence in his defence, Ronald Griggs revealed just how far his relationship with Miss Condon had gone;

I admit that I did promise to marry Lottie Condon when my wife got a separation. Lottie Condon’s statement is true that there had been misconduct. I admit that the death of my wife looks suspicious, but I have in no way been the cause of it. On two separate occasions Lottie Condon came to the Omeo parsonage on horseback, and on each occasion she came into my own bedroom. She was then stopping at Mr John Payne’s house. She used to come out after the Paynes had gone to bed, and return before they were up. I have on more than one occasion discussed with Lottie Condon  how we were going to be together.

The Condon family did their best to protect  Lottie from the press…. and the public. They were devastated by her affair with the minister they had welcomed into their home, and  trusted.  An article in the Tasmanian Advocate revealed their sorrow at Ethel Grigg’s death;

 March 2  1928 – Fred Condon, a brother of Jack Condon, has been collecting money during the past few days to erect a tombstone over Mrs. Griggs’ grave, there being a good response,  people of all denominations contributing. Mrs Griggs, while at Omeo, was an energetic church worker, and her grave has no mark, except for a glass-covered wreath from the residents of Railton, Tasmania.

The accused had  free access to arsenic at two properties  in Omeo.  One was that of the Condons,  and Griggs was a frequent visitor. He  had repaired his motorcycle in the garage where John (Jack)  Condon stored  a tin of  arsenic.  Also, he was the only person to serve his wife food after she returned home from Tasmania.  The assistant to the  Coroner  Mr Jones stated;

Mrs Griggs complained of being sick after her husband had prepared a meal of bread and butter and tea. She went to bed and was much better in the morning,  when her husband gave her breakfast.  She was again taken ill, but she  was not so bad as to keep her husband from attending to  his duties as a minister.

Mrs Mitchell, a friend and neighbour,  had visited Ethel before she died and  confirmed the account given by Mr Jones.

Against her husband’s assertion that Ethel had been very sick on the trip across Bass Strait, the ship’s stewardess testified that she had been laughing and playing with her baby and was only slightly seasick. Most people were in those days, before  ships were equipped withstabilizers.

Following the inquest, Griggs was put on trial at Sale. To the relief of her family, Lottie Condon did not have to appear in person. Despite what appeared to be convincing evidence and a clear motive, the jury  found they were unable to reach a  unanimous verdict.   It was said that  a single juryman  held out,  because he did not believe in capital punishment.

Ronald Griggs then faced a second trail  at the Criminal  Court in Melbourne, beginning on April 16. The tabloid Truth Newspaper had a field day. What could be more titillating than a minister from the moralizing  Methodist Church being involved in a sex scandal, let alone standing  trial for  his wife’s murder?

Newspaper report of Omeo murder, Truth Newspaper.

Lurid headlines.

 

At the  Melbourne trial, Lottie had to  appear in person and be grilled on  the sordid details of her affair with the defendant. They had even slept together  secretly at  the homes of parishioners.  She admitted that the  relationship had begun as early as December 1926.

Lottie Conlon

Lottie Conlon

 

Ronald Griggs, Lottie Condon and Ethel Griggs.

The three people involved in a triangle that led to tragedy. Left to right.. .Griggs, his mistress Lottie and his wife Ethel

Annie White showed great  strength after the shocking  death of her daughter. She gave evidence at  the inquest and the two trials. She refused to let her son-in-law  give the impression that Ethel was depressed and likely to take her own life. The self-serving letters Griggs sent to her after Ethel died were read in court, and gave a good indication of his character;

Mother dear – just a few lines to thank you for your beautiful letter received just after I posted my last one. All you said helped me very much. I do not feel that I can write very much yet awhile. I am feeling a lot better than I did, but it was a very big shock. Folk have been more than kind. That has helped, and there is great comfort in knowing that Ethel was a Christian, and we have the Christian hope.

Death is just the portal of that heavenly home to which we are all drawing nearer day by day. I am sending a few things that I think you will value. Her bible and hymn-book you will value, I know. I am sending Edna her bag. The other few things you can divide up as you think fit.

Mother and father arrived here on Friday night. They are not able to stay very long, but it will be a big help to have them here if only for a week.

The final  paragraph was  a  twist of  a knife in Annie White’s  heart. Griggs  knew how desperately Ethel’s mother and sister wanted to take care of  little Alwyn. It must be remembered that they had just spent several months with the baby in Railton;

I do want to thank you for or offering to take Alwyn, and I know you would love her,  and be to her all that you promised you would, but, after thinking things over very carefully, I am going to let mother and father take her home with them for a few years. I do not want to part with her forever, and would very much like to keep  her now, but of course, I could not manage it.

During his summing up, Justice McFarlane commented;

One could not help feeling resentment and indignation at the letter which Griggs had written to his mother-in-law, with it’s sham and hypocricy .

Griggs was defended by the  blind K.C., George Maxwell,  then in his seventies.

 G.A. Griggs

The eminent barrister could not see the jury members, but  nevertheless he connected with them. His powerful advocacy in the case  had a significant  effect on the verdict, and would long  be remembered.  Sir Robert Menzies in The Measure of the Years, wrote,  ‘Maxwell was the greatest criminal advocate I ever heard. His power was in the address to the jury, which was quite hypnotic.’

It is worth noting that Ronald Griggs’ parents did not attend either of the trials.

The jury  was reminded  by Justice McFarlane  to consider all the evidence and not to convict Griggs purely on the basis that he had been unfaithful to his wife. They returned a verdict of Not Guilty. It seems a dreadful failure of justice. Ethel’s parents must have felt it was yet another betrayal of their beloved daughter.

In July, the details of Ethel’s estate were published.  She left £424, including an insurance policy valued at £200.  One third was left to her husband, and two thirds to her child.

Of course, Ronald Griggs was responsible for his wife’s death regardless of whether it was murder or suicide. After the trial, he moved to South Australia and tried  to find  employment  on a shearing station. When  that failed he re-entered  the church by means of fraud;

Under the name of Graeme Maxwell, it is alleged that Ronald Griggs……..obtained an engagement with the Home Mission Committee of the South Australian Presbyterian Church.  Early in June a man who gave the name of Maxwell applied for the position in the church in South Australia, representing that he matriculated in the Melbourne University, and he was engaged on probation for three months.

The Home Mission  then referred his credentials to Victoria, his matriculation certificate also being forwarded, as it appeared to carry traces of the name originally written having been erased, and another name substituted.

A fortnight ago, information was received from Victoria to the effect that they believed Maxwell’s name was Griggs, and in consequence his engagement was terminated. 

Psychologists would no doubt have  a lot say about Griggs using the name of the barrister who saved his neck! Following this debacle, he  moved to Western Australia.

Griggs had served  overseas  towards the end of WWI, but his local branch of the Returned Soldiers and Sailors League were ashamed to have him as a member.

Ronald Griggs  remarried in 1934 and is believed to have died in the 1970’s.

Lottie Condon’s parents too,  were broken by the whole business. They sold their large property and left the area. Lottie moved interstate to Sydney, where she trained as a nurse. She married and had a large family. She died in 2001, aged 94.

Little Alwyn  Griggs was raised in Tasmania, and never saw her father again. Happily, she maintained a close relationship with both sets of grandparents. She lived with Mr and Mrs Griggs, attending school in Huonville. She was with her grandfather Herbert Griggs when he died suddenly at  his apple orchard at Franklin in 1941.

Alwyn  later married William Jago in the Railton Methodist Church, where her parents had married in 1926.  I was delighted to read that the  reception was held nearby, at her Grandmother Annie White’s home.

 

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. COMPLETE THE LITTLE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’

 

 

14 Comments
  1. What an amazing story. They say fact can be better than fiction. I can see a novel in that story. Well done.

    • Pauline

      Well, I’m not a novelist, Michelle, but thanks. It’s an interesting reflection on human behavior that’s for sure.

  2. There is a book out called ‘Lottie’ written by Reg Watson.

    • Pauline

      The book is actually by Reg Egan, Angela. It is highly fictionalized. You can read it on-line. There is also a factual account of the trial edited by A.J. Buchanan.

      • That is the correct surname Egan. I don’t know why Watson came up. Silly auto correct on phones don’t help. And as I was in the cemetery I didn’t bother to proof read. Yes book fictional but many truths. Yes have read the factual account.

  3. Loving your interesting historical accounts Pauline! Keep them coming!

    • Pauline

      Thanks Cheryl. And thanks for taking the trouble to leave a message.

  4. Another lovely short story. Keep them up and i will keep reading.

  5. Fantastic read Pauline. I love your blog. Little snippets of Aussie history that are so tucked away only you could find them! Keep them coming. I love them.

  6. Have now read two of your delightful blogs/stories and look forward to more.

    • Pauline

      Hi Connie, thanks so much for taking the trouble to leave a comment. If you go to my home page you will find lots more on all manner of subjects. I’m supposed to be writing a serious biography, but I keep getting distracted!

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