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The Murder of Ellen Chute Part 2

June 15, 2020

Recently I posted about the murder of Ellen CHUTE, maiden name Boyle, who died violently, at the hands of her husband, Richard CHUTE, in November 1871. You can read the transcript of the Inquest into her death in my last post here. That post was very long, due to the many witnesses who were called to testify. During the weeks after the murder of Ellen, numerous articles appeared in The Benalla Ensign, calling for changes to the way doctors were paid, to enable a better outcome in cases such as this. Articles and editorials were reproduced in many newspapers all over the country.

From the Inquest

At the end of the evidence the foreman said it was the opinion of the jury that great neglect had been shown in not having the post-mortem examination made earlier; and in consequence of that neglect they could not ascertain the actual cause of death. The jury then returned a verdict of “Wilful murder” against Richard Chute, who was committed for trial at the next Circuit Court at Beechworth.

Quote from the Coroner:
The Coroner’s living desire is to express their opinion that there was neglect in the case of some, in not having a post mortem made of the body of Ellen Chute, sooner.

Newspaper reports of post mortem delay

from ‘Benalla Ensign, Saturday November 18 1871
It would be well in all cases of suspicious death, if the police were instructed to take more than ordinary precautions, to keep the body in a state,fit for medical examination. Decomposition sets in so rapidly during the heat of summer, as in a very few hours, to destroy important medical evidence, and this might be very much retarded by free application of antiseptic to the clothing, and in the immediate neighbourhood of wounds. Every police station ought to be provided with a supply of properly prepared solutions of carbolic solid, to be used whenever there is a difficulty for procuring medical assistance, and ingredients for its application ought to be issued from the proper department.

The recent inquest at Violet Town pointed out the necessity of some such regulation, for according to the medical testimony, the body was so far advanced in decomposition, as to prevent the recognition of the character of the wounds said to have been inflicted on the head of deceased, and no injury to the brain could be traced, as that organ was thoroughly decomposed. It is true, that the rough edges of a wound might be altered, by the application, but then its material character would be preserved distinctly, and the cause of death could be satisfactorily ascertained. It must be obvious that it will be far better to preserve the main features of a wound sufficient to cause death, than by delay, as in this case, leaving the cause of death utterly beyond scientific explanation.

Besides, there is something revolting in the mere fact of the body of a woman festering during the heat of three summer days, merely because she happens to be murdered by a husband who suspects her fidelity. We do not wonder that the jury should speak so boldly upon the matter of this neglect. For neglect there has been, no doubt; and there is no difficulty in tracing it to the police. But yet, if the police had pressed upon the doctor, the necessity for his attendance, it is extremely doubtful if he would have gone earlier, as he knew Mr. Butler could not be at Violet Town before Tuesday afternoon, let him work as hard as he could. Had Dr. Nicholson gone to Violet Town on Monday, and made the post-mortem, he would have had to go again on Tuesday to give evidence. But a wise paternal Government only allows a doctor two pounds and two shillings for making a post-mortem, and its 6d a mile for travelling expenses, and were he compelled to stay away two days in accomplishing the work he would receive no more. Here, then, is the cause of the horror; and it is, we hope only necessary to direct the attention of the Ministry to it, to have the anomaly done away with. If it is right to pay a medical man for one day’s work, it must be equally right to pay for his services, should they extend over two days. Fortunately, in this case, there is no doubt as to the cause of death, as that death was witnessed by two persons, and admitted by the accused; but the horrible sight of last Tuesday, was most harrowing even to the feelings of those not related to the mutilated corpse.

A few weeks later the following editorial appeared in The Benalla Ensign on Saturday, December 9, 1871



BENALLA SATURDAY, DEC. 9, 1871, page 2
An investigation having taken place into the circumstances attending the deferred post mortem on the body of ELLEN CHUTE, lately murdered at Violet Town, it was disclosed that Dr. Henry, the Coroner, was absent in Melbourne without leave, thereby infringing the Civil Service regulations. Whether in consequence of this, that gentleman has been called upon to resign, or has voluntarily done so, we cannot say, but Dr. Henry has sent in his resignation as Coroner, which will cause a vacancy on the licensing bench, the doctor being a magistrate ex-officio,and, should either Mr. Butler or Mr. McKellar be absent on the 19th inst. the licensing meeting cannot be held – unless the magistrates elect another licensing J.P. in the meantime, which we urge they ought to do.

A good deal of sympathy will he felt for Dr. Henry in this matter, for though it is true that in accepting the office, he accepted its responsibilities, yet as the remuneration only consists of fees, it seems hard that the same strict rules should apply to a gentleman willing to serve the public without salary, as to one whose sole income is derived from the State purse. The peculiar position was recognised by Dr. Heath, Dr. Henry’s immediate predecessor, who had the office thrust upon him by the late Government, without being even consulted. But Dr. Heath did not believe in “working for nothing” as he himself described it, and told the Government so, and when Mr. Watson declined to guarantee him payment for services rendered, he threw up the office of Coroner.

That it is necessary to have a Coroner resident here need not be argued. The case of ELLEN CHUTE, strongly proves it; and that fearful spectacle can best be obviated in the future by appointing a a resident Coroner, at such a reasonable and fair salary as shall entitle the Government to his services, whenever required; but to expect a gentleman to hold himself in readiness at all times, to travel to any part of the district, and never to absent himself from his residence with out leave, merely for the honour and glory of the thing, is so utterly inconsistent with one’s ideas of meum and tuum, that it must be apparent to the shallowest observer,

*Meum and Tuum: Meum is Latin for “what is mine,” and tuum is Latin for “what is thine.” If a man is said not to know the difference between meum and tuum, it is a polite way of saying he is a thief –









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From → Family stories

  1. Inquest Reports can be so informative – thank you for sharing this story

  2. Congratulations! Your blog has been included in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thank you, Chris

    As always, very interesting..

  3. mollyscanopy permalink

    This has been a fascinating series — not only for the details of the case but for the ancillary issues of lack of refrigeration and lack of a professional full-time coroner/chief medical examiner. Poor Ellen Chute, such a tough life and only to be honored after her death by possible measures to improve future inquests. Excellent work on your part to discover and share her story.

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