From the storied rough-and-tumble times on the goldfields to current events, crime has gripped Ballarat throughout its history.
True crime from other areas has caught the imagination of the public in all mediums, including television.
The Underbelly series focusing on the recent gangland war in Melbourne had much of the population gripped by a story already known to most and by characters who frequented front pages of newspapers around Victoria.
The most recent instalment of that series was a dramatic portrayal of the life and criminal career of Leslie “Squizzy” Taylor – a man who was no stranger to Ballarat.
Squizzy’s exploits in Melbourne are now stuff of myth – often blurred by the man’s own self-promotion at the time – but he also had a regional Victorian link.
The Age’s chief crime reporter John Silvester recently described Squizzy as more of a “great publicist” rather than a criminal mastermind.
“He’d struggle to make a list of this country’s top 100 crime brains, but he mastered the dark arts of self-promotion, the first in a long line of ‘celebrity’ crooks, even before Hollywood created the gangster template,” Silvester wrote.
“Where most serious criminals try to keep a low profile, Taylor and his type go out of their way to gain recognition – despite that policy invariably increasing police interest and gangland jealousy.”
From 1917 to his death in 1927, Squizzy was the biggest name in crime in Australia – he was murderer, thief, bootlegger, illegal bookmaker, arsonist, blackmailer and occasional informant.
He also rigged juries, bribed police, planned armed robberies and jailbreaks.
But, as the man who researched Squizzy for the Underbelly series found, the diminutive gangster didn’t confine himself to Melbourne.
Andy Muir, who also wrote a novelistic adaptation of the story, spent 11 months combing through the life of the man police called “the turk”, visiting houses he lived in, canvassing media interviews from the time and checking public records.
Muir said he discovered Squizzy visited places like Ballarat regularly and quite early on in his criminal career.
“In fact, Squizzy’s first ever jail sentence came in 1908 for pick-pocketing at the Burrumbeet races,” he said.
“He’d been arrested for other minor things before that, but Burrumbeet was the first time he was sent to prison.”
Nine years later, Squizzy was the biggest name in crime in Australia.
Muir said in Ballarat, Squizzy wasn’t a stranger.
“From my research, the reality is he travelled quite a lot in Victoria,” he said.
“He definitely came to Ballarat – regional race days were a big passion of his.”
Muir said following World War I, two-up gambling schools gained prevalence around Victoria and were, largely, run by Squizzy’s associate Henry Stokes.
“Squizzy would travel around Victoria taking cuts from these sorts of games,” he said.
“There were some reports of it happening in Ballarat ... there were also some accounts of Squizzy heading to places like Ballarat when things got a bit hot in Melbourne.”
But as journalist Silvester wrote, when things got hot and the attention was poured onto Squizzy, he thrived even more.
“Squizzy wore silk shirts and a coat with a velvet collar and would talk to the press, who treated him as a celebrity rather than a killer,” Silvester wrote.
“He sported diamonds and had precious-metal embossed teeth. Fittingly, the Bourke Street rat was, as they said, as flash as a rat with a gold tooth.”
It seems the streets of Ballarat were far from oblivious about Squizzy’s flashy ways or his life’s motto, which read:
“While you live, live in clover,
“For when you’re dead,
“You’re dead all over.”
But Squizzy’s visits to Ballarat were not the city’s first brush with “big name” crime.
An Irish immigrant by the name of Andrew George Scott arrived at Mount Egerton, near Ballarat in 1869.
The son of an Anglican clergyman, Scott began preaching at the local church.
Later that year, a masked Scott held-up the Union Bank and made the manager sign a note saying he was “stuck up” by Captain Moonlite – deliberately misspelling moonlight.
With the police believing the bank manager faked the robbery, Scott – or Captain Moonlite – fled to Sydney with the stolen £1000.
With the manager languishing in prison awaiting trial, he told police he recognised the masked bandit’s voice as that of Scott, the local preacher.
Moonlite used a rubber cheque to buy a yacht and set sail for Fiji, but was stopped but water police and spent 12 months in a New South Wales jail.
Meanwhile, the bank manager was acquitted and became determined to convict the real criminal.
So, as Moonlite walked from jail he was charged with the Mount Egerton robbery and sent back to Victoria.
After seven years in jail at Ballarat he was released in March 1879 – but he was far from reformed.
Following his release, Scott again assumed the name Captain Moonlite, recruited several gang members and walked to New South Wales. There he took 35 people hostage and was captured in a shoot out with police.
He was hanged in 1880 – the same year as Ned Kelly.
But even before Captain Moonlite’s infamous deeds, the Ballarat region had plenty of crime thanks to it’s bulging population of gold-seekers.
Some wanted to dig, some wanted to steal.
So it was on May 10, 1867, that Smythesdale bank manager Thomas Burke travelled the area buying gold from various hotels.
Two men on horseback set out to rob Burke and found him in the Pitfield area. One distracted him while the other shot him from behind. He died instantly. The two offenders dumped his body and made off with the gold.
The publican at the Break ‘O’ Day Hotel (now Corindhap) was charged with the murder along with an employee.
They were both hanged at the Ballarat Gaol on August 7, 1867.
Ballarat historian and ghost tour operator Nathaniel Buchanan said he had found more than 13,000 references to murder in his research.
Mr Buchanan, who runs a nightly tour of the Old Ballarat Gaol, said 13 hangings occurred there, a lot for any country town.
“It is the largest number of executions outside of metropolitan Melbourne,” he said.
“Most our of tour revolves round murders.”
So each time you read a story about a crime in Ballarat, don’t assume the city has “gone backwards” – there’s stories throughout the city’s history of murders, bush rangers and gangsters swanning about the streets well before the current Ballarat Magistrates Court was even built.