I thought I was done for this week’s newsletters to get ahead until I realised I’d skipped this one, Family Legend, a story that needs to be told to fit in with the context of our family history. In the early days of researching my families history, I heard a story, family legend, about my great-great-grandfather, John Snook being murdered. Warning: this is a long read.
As with all family legend’s, there’s often an element of truth in them, however, as a family historian, they are worth investigating and sometimes those stories can lead you down a rabbit hole or as was the case this time, it was a true story and a lot of information about it. John Snook was shot and subsequently died from his injuries, by William Conroy, the nephew of James Herbert’s second wife, Mary Conroy and step-mother of James Albert Herbert. We learnt in James Herbert snr’s story, how he died at sea in 1875, leaving Mary a grieving widow.
(See where John Snook fits into our family tree HERE. Note: Mary Conroy isn’t showing on this tree as she is the 2nd wife of James Herbert 1821-1875]. So genetically I am not related!)
The Fremantle Hall was opened on the 22nd of June 1887 and on the following evening of the 23rd at a children’s fancy dress concert, while Mayor Congdon was proposing a toast, William Conroy, the landlord of the National Hotel, came to the door and asked for Councillor Snook. The Mayor in courteous terms asked him to cease his interruptions, which request he complied with.
Snook, who was acting as one of the stewards, told Conroy that he could not be admitted, but Conroy persisted in his demands but without avail and eventually was turned away much to the amusement of a number of boys, who were congregated outside the building. It was stated that Conroy was under the influence of drink at the time, a condition which intensified the jeering of the boys. Conroy, caused no further trouble and went home. The children left the hall at midnight, and some of the elder people still present indulged in a couple of dances and supper. At about half-past one o’clock, Conroy returned and looked into the supper room for Councillor Snook. After a few words had passed between them Conroy drew from his tailcoat pocket a revolver and deliberately fired a shot at Councillor Snook’s head. The ball entered the unfortunate man’s mouth and exited close to his right ear. The Mayor and a supervisor seized Conroy and wrested the revolver from him. Conroy appeared to faint, but this state of affairs did not last long. When he came to, the mayor asked him if he knew what he had done, and he replied in the affirmative. Drs Hope and Barnet were quickly on the scene and did everything possible for Mr Snook. The police were not too long in arresting Conroy, whom they handcuffed and took to the lockup.
The papers noted that Conroy and Snook were related to one another and it is stated that there was some family difference between them at the time. He’d gone to Melbourne not long ago to make arrangements for sending his sister to an English lunatic asylum. Conroy and his sister being the relatives of Mary Herbert nee Conroy.
Conroy was brought up at the Fremantle police court the next morning on a charge of wounding Mr John Snook with intent and was remanded for a week.
“Councillor Snook is in a very precarious condition, although the doctors have not given up on him.”
The newspapers ran riot over the next several months with the following headlines; News of the Day; Another Shooting Case At Fremantle; Port Police Court; Trial of Conroy; The Fremantle Shooting Case; Death of Cr. Snook; Supreme Court – Murder; The Court re-opened; Condemned to Death; Conroy’s Sentence Confirmed; The Condemned Man Conroy; Execution of William Conroy; Recommended to Mercy.
In The West Australian newspaper, Conroy is described as “well known in Fremantle, is not a native of the colony, but has relations living here. He is of short stature, has a round face with a shaven chin and short moustache and whiskers.”
“Mr Snook at half-past five this evening is doing as well as can be expected, although his condition is precarious.”
During the initial trial of William Conroy, he stated that he was “well aware of what I have done; I am sorry for it. Is the old man dead? Mr Hughes had invited me to the Town Hall, and when I went for admission Mr Snook pushed me away and would not let me in and I felt annoyed.”
On Tuesday, 27th September 1887, The West Australian reported “the news of the death of Cr. Snook will take the public by surprise. It is now three months since the deceased gentleman was shot at the Fremantle Town Hall by William Conroy. Councillor Snook, who was a native of Somersetshire, was also an old colonist, having arrived in Western Australia in the year 1853 by the ship Palestine. Immediately on landing, he obtained employment in the firm of Bartram & Carter, better known now as T.H. Carter & Co. From that time until within a few months of the day of his death he remained in the same employ, only relinquishing his post to retire with a pension from his employers – the worthy reward of honourable and faithful service. In public matters Mr Snook displayed an energy and an interest worthy of the highest praise, and, as will be remembered, it was when attending the children’s Jubilee Ball in his capacity as a Town Councillor, that he received the injury from the effects of which he has at last succumbed. He was a member of the Town Trust, and subsequently of the Municipality ever since its establishment some twenty odd years ago. When the Volunteer movement was first started in the colony in 1861, Mr Snook was one of the first to join, and again, when the force was remodelled in 1872, he was still to the front. At the time of his death, he was Quartermaster Sergeant to the Fremantle Rifle Volunteers, an office which will die with him, it not being intended to renew it. In politics, Mr Snook was one of the best type of Liberals. As a member of the Fremantle Reform Association, one of the last of Mr Snook’s public services was to get the names of a large number of additional names placed on the Register of Voters and in this task he displayed an amount of hard work and interest that would have been highly creditable in a man of half his years. It is mainly owing to his exertions that the store employees of Fremantle owe their weekly half holiday and early closing in the evenings. In the Literary Institute he took a warm interest, and up to the time of his last illness was one of the chief promoters of the popular fortnightly concerts held there during the winter months. He was in every way one of the best of a very desirable type of colonist, a man who, by the exercise of his own industry and talents, won himself a position of honourable independence and respect, and who, in the press of his private duties, did not forget that he also had other calls on his time and ability as a townsman of Fremantle and a colonist of the land of his adoption. He died at the age of 69 years and 7 months, and leaves a family of 11 behind him. The funeral took place yesterday and was largely attended.”
The trial of William Conroy went on for quite some time as you could imagine. In The Daily News Friday 7th October 1887 the following evidence was then called for the defence:- Mary Anne Herbert deposed: The prisoner is my nephew – my brother’s son. He has been in this Colony for about ten years; after coming here he sent for his two sisters – but they have both returned to England. The younger one lives with me, but I was not able to manage her; she was not in her right mind and was very troublesome, so we sent her to Melbourne about two years ago under the care of the stewardess, Miss Brereton. She is now in a place of safety in Bristol, at least so the letters received say. When living with me she used to walk about all night, and everyone who saw her could tell from her countenance that she was not right in the head. The other sister left the Colony between four and five months ago because she did not like the place. I do not know of there being anything wrong with her, she seemed restless. My aunt-my father’s sister – died in a lunatic asylum at Stratford-le-Bow. I have often noticed the prisoner peculiar in his demeanour while he was living with me at Fremantle; he would sometimes cry without apparent cause – at least he would never give me any reason for it. But I did not like to talk about it – he appeared to be very sensitive and required steadying.
Cross-examined: I could not see anything wrong about the prisoner’s younger sister. The other sister Ellen was about nineteen years of age; but although she was strange in her manner I never consulted a doctor about her, yet she would be always asking for medicine. I am not certain of the prisoner’s age; I believe he is about twenty-nine, but I do not know how old he was when he came here in 1877, nor can I tell you what age he then appeared to be. It was during the two or three months he was out of a situation that he cried the two or three times I have spoken about.
By his Honor: I have never known of the prisoner having had any business transactions with James Albert Herbert. I have done business with him – I lent him money on security, but he always paid the interest regularly. I cannot say exactly whether he owes me any money at the present moment or not.
Many witnesses were called including the Colonial Surgeon of Fremantle, Henry Calvert Barnett. He had been the superintendent of the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum for about fifteen years. He, therefore, had considerable professional experience in insanity. He had heard all the evidence in the case and was of the opinion that the prisoner was liable to suffer from insanity and homicidal mania. If a man were mentally deranged he would not, in his (the doctor’s) opinion, be answerable for his actions.
The Victorian Express of Saturday 15th October 1887 reads “Murder. William Conroy, charged with the murder of John Snook, pleaded not guilty. Sentenced to death.”
William Conroy was immediately removed to the Perth Gaol and placed in leg-irons and clad in convict costume. When he was placed in the condemned cell he completely broke down. Owing to his nervous condition the Colonial Surgeon directed that he be supplied with a number of luxuries not included in the prison dietary scale. He has butter and jam at will with his bread at breakfast and tea, an extra allowance of meat with vegetables and a small bottle of beer for his dinner, and is also supplied with tobacco. He passed his waking hours in reading religious books, meditation and prayer. It was added that the prison authorities had not discovered the slightest signs of insanity in Conroy’s behaviour either before or after his trial, during the whole time he was in the Perth Gaol.
When William Conroy was notified by the Sheriff (Mr J B Roe) the awful tidings, Conroy first received the news with comparative composure, merely saying that he hoped and expected his sentence would have been commuted to one of imprisonment for life. But afterwards, as the effect of the terrible news worked on his mind, he completely gave way and bemoaned his fate in a heart-rending manner. Petitions were sort after to plead for Mercy, but all to no avail.
At eight o’clock on the morning of the 18th November 1887, William Conroy was hung for the wilful murder of Mr John Snook. I won’t add the details here, his end is quite horrific and not carried out in the most humane manner, however, more can be read here in the newspapers on Trove, at the National Library of Australia website. William Conroy’s body was taken by his aunty, Mrs Herbert and he was buried at the Fremantle Cemetery. William was the last person to be hung at the Perth Gaol.
Another claim our family has to the opening of the Fremantle Hall is of my great grandmother on my father’s side, sang at the opening. No doubt she would have been in the vicinity when John Snook was shot. My story of Zenobia Campbell is here.
Sources: The Herbert’s of Rockingham and Fremantle by Raymond John Herbert jnr.
National Library of Australia newspapers – trove.nla.gov.au
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Conroy_(murderer)
Fremantle stuff – https://fremantlestuff.info/people/snook.html (includes a picture of a building that Snook may have built at 63 South Terrace.) https://fremantlestuff.info/buildings/snook.html
The Fremantle Town Hall – 1920s and 2005