Research Brief 5
The festive period may be the season of good will, but this annual spirit of benevolence is not particularly apparent from the annals of criminal history. While court business is suspended across the holidays, crime is decidedly not. Just like the rest of the year, a variety of offences against property, the person and public order have historically been committed on or around Christmas. The only difference has perhaps been the perception of such events as particularly poignant due to the disjunction between the tragic suffering of those touched by crime to the general merriment of the season.
Over-indulgence in such Christmas jollity has in fact repeatedly emerged as a cause of crime, or as an offence in itself. On 28 December 1902, the Brisbane edition of the Sunday tabloid Truth thus bewailed the drunkenness that had prevailed among holiday revellers:
In a random stroll down Queen Street on Christmas morning, just as the churches were emptying themselves of their variegated human contents, smug, self-righteous, and satisfied with this world and its good things, this scribe counted 43 drunks in various advanced stages of intoxication, from the dipso whose eyes were just beginning to get bleary to the prostrate Bacchanalian who was sleeping off the effects of Christmas Eve potations “deep as Odin’s Horn,” his bloated face upturned to the sunshine. The police appeared to take no notice. They have probably long since arrived at the conclusion that the average Britisher’s highest, holiest and noblest notion of celebrating the birth of Christ is to enter some frowsy grog saloon and fill himself up to the larynx with mixed liquors, and then go out and lie down in the nearest alley and sleep off his potations.
Christmas scenes from the slums were a regular feature in yellow journalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Images of respectable parents taking their children to see the display windows of department stores were contrasted to alcohol-sodden mothers and fathers dragging their children into public hotels, or sending them out to pickpocket the crowds to fund further intoxication.
While such descriptions involved a great deal of hyperbole, police court records clearly indicate that numbersof individuals were arrested for drunkenness or public order offences over Christmas. Temperance crusaders were especially active in visiting holding cells on Christmas day, in the hope that those separated from their families as a result of their drinking would be particularly amenable to repentance. Newspapers likewise injected an even more moralistic tone than usual in their reports of the proceedings of these lower courts across Christmas, although they could also use the time of year to generate humour about defendants’ predicaments. For instance, in 1903 Truth wrote up the court appearance of repeat offender Ada de Lacy in the manner of the society papers, advising her ‘numerous friends and acquaintances’ that Miss de Lacy would not be able to ‘receive any visitors during the approaching festive seasons’ as she would be taking the ‘cure’ at the ‘Boggo-road retreat’ (Brisbane’s prison) for a month.
However, on 26 January 1924, Perth paper The Daily News observed that ‘Christmas criminality’ was not entirely composed of misdemeanors, but that the so-called festive season had regularly ‘been marred by news of outstanding crimes’. Intoxication, as well as the economic and social stresses associated with the Christmas season, seems to have been a particular inducement to thefts. A man tried in 1951 for breaking and entering a shop in Perth on Christmas day blamed his act squarely on such causes. In a letter to the judge he described how he had first formed a drink habit upon arriving as a ‘friendless stranger’ in Western Australia only to seek ‘company and solace in the bar’. Receiving a short sentence for a minor theft convinced him to stop drinking. He kept this resolution until Christmas-time, whereupon he suffered a relapse and smashed open the window of a shop while intoxicated. In 1916, another man who found himself alone on Christmas day while on a visit to Melbourne from New South Wales sought to relieve his loneliness by a visit to a Carlton brothel. This proved a similarly poor way to celebrate, with one of the women later tried for stealing eighteen pounds from his pockets.
Christmas has also witnessed its fair share of violence. On 25 December 1858, the New Norfolk district of Tasmania was shocked by the news that local William Davis had killed a Frenchman named Cassavant who had been travelling through the district. The motive appears to have been robbery; Davis was known to be perpetually broke from spending all the money he had on drink. On 16 February 1859 Davis was hanged in Hobart alongside John King, whose offence had also coincidentally occurred on Christmas day. However, while Davis had victimised a stranger, King had been convicted of murdering his wife as they drank together at the Bull’s-Head Hotel. The couple had been arguing briefly when Davis pulled a pistol from his pocket, shot her in the head and then exclaimed ‘There, that will settle you’. Alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, both female against male, although more commonly male against female, has historically been and remains today a frequent accompaniment to Christmas.
The Prosecution Project wishes the public a safe and happy holiday season.
Author: Dr Alana Piper, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
To cite this research brief: Alana Piper, ‘Christmas, crime and spirits’,The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 5, https://prosecutionproject.griffith.edu.au/christmas-crime-and-spirits (10 December 2014, viewed 19 July 2016).