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. Ronald Griggs was arrested by dapper Detective Inspector Daniel Malfahey, and subsequently charged with murder.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
In 1949 Alwyn married Fred Lovell. The ceremony took place at 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.
MORE ON THE MURDER FROM THE ABC. CLICK HERE.
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