Monday, October 21, 2013

Who was Dr Palmer Benbow?

While there are fictional elements in this dramatization of the Pyjama Girl mystery, it is based on true events, facts, and people.

I’ve put together these biographies from a variety of sources, including research by Richard Evans, Bruce Pennay, Alec Morgan, and Robert Coleman, as well as interviews, old newspaper articles and court documents.

Born in Ararat* in western Victoria in 1885, Dr Thomas Alexander Palmer Benbow spent enough of his life in America to have developed an accent. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1914, and then worked in England, Australia and overseas, including on cruise liners.

He was a rich man and there was some mystery about how he came into money. Caroline Ford, from the Ford car manufacturing family left him money in her will—although before she died she sought legal help to reduce to amount she was to leave to him. It does seem possible that was a conman, or at the very least, a gold digger. He had a persuasive personality, which we can see in his dealings with Commissioner MacKay, Lucy Collins and Jeanette Routledge. His time working on cruise ships would have allowed him to make friends with elderly people, who may have given him money, or agreed to leave him an inheritance. 

On returning to Australia, Benbow worked in Potts Point Sydney and took an interest in forensic science. Becoming something of an amateur detective, proposing a solution to the pyjama girl case. For some reason, he impressed MacKay and was given a car, men and war-time petrol rations. Benbow settled on Quins shack as the murder scene, and found Lucy Collins, who provided testimony about having seen a girl beaten. Later, after tracking down Jeanette Routledge, Benbow advanced the theory that the girl was none other than Philomena Morgan. Benbow’s evidence included a broken bedstead that he claimed was the murder weapon (what he said was blood was in fact rust) and photographs in which he showed the similarity in geometry between the face of Philomena Morgan and the Pyjama Girl, but there was little evidentiary value.

Transcripts show an argument between the two in which Mackay more or less accuses Benbow of fabricating evidence to suit his theory and Benbow responds that the detectives aren’t doing enough. 

But Benbow would not give up; even in the final trial, when the court found Linda Agostini, and not Philomena Morgan was the victim, he asked to present new evidence—but the judge would not hear him.

*Incidentally, my parents are both from Ararat. But my Grandma checked and there's no relation to Benbow.

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