Ruby remembered with racist headlines

This story has been written as a snapshot of media attitudes and language regarding First Nations people in the 1940s. It highlights how much things have changed, and how much they haven’t. None of the attitudes reported in any way reflect my personal views.

Ruby Jackson’s final resting place lies at the end of a long line of unmarked graves in the indigenous burials section of the Southern Cross cemetery, WA. 

The fact that there was a separate sections for indigenous internments already says something about attitudes of the day. But this grave is one of only two to have headstones, making it unusual. It turns out Ruby’s death was also far from usual.

Reportage of the events leading to her death was most likely standard for the times, but through the lens of seventy-odd years, is derogatory and racist.

Article image from the National Library of Australia’s Newspaper Digitisation Program

The article above continues:

‘’Peculiarly she met her death after not being long out of hospital following a spider bite.

“Her brother is ace Southern Cross footballer Perry Jackson, a shearer (who paid for her gravestone).

“Ruby Jackson collapsed and died on the front verandah of a ramshackle house adjacent to the railway station and to the aboriginal compound in which there were a large number of natives.”

Article image from the National Library of Australia’s Newspaper Digitisation Program

“A large sheath knife in possession of police is stated to have entered her left breast and penetrated a lung.

The Coroner’s Court, meeting on April 20/21, heard that a group had been drinking since early on the morning of April 7.

Neil Champion, Ruby Jackson and Verna Ford, and later Perry Jackson and an Alec Ellis were present.

About 1pm Champion went to sleep in an adjoining room. About two hours later he was awakened by Perry Jackson, who wanted to fight, said Champion. Champion refused.

Jackson then picked on Ellis, who ran, chased by Perry Jackson and his sister Ruby.
Ruby Jackson carried a stick, about 18 inches long and the thickness of a broom handle.

But the fight was called off and they returned to the vicinity of the house.
Ruby Jackson, said Champion, got a mug of water, threw it in Verna Ford’s face.

Champion went outside to shake hands with Perry Jackson, he said. While outside he
heard a scream. And again.

 He turned and saw Ruby and Verna in trouble. ‘Ruby hit Verna with a stick,’ he testified.

 “Verna moved away and I got in between them. Verna had a knife in her hand. Perry
Jackson knocked me down, told me to let the women go.

‘Ruby went towards Verna. Verna put her foot in a hole in the verandah and fell backwards. Ruby fell on top of her. I lifted Ruby up, took the stick off her, I helped Verna up. She still had the knife. I threw it into the hole in the verandah.’

The women went inside, said Champion. He heard someone say: ‘Ruby has fainted.’

He rushed to her, found her lying face down on the verandah, saw blood on the floor. When he turned her over he saw a stab wound in her breast. He told the coroner he thought Ruby had fallen on the knife.

Ruby died within 20 minutes.

Speaking to the inquest, Dr M Little said the wound, only about an inch long, was several inches deep, and penetrated the left lung by about two inches.

He said the wound slanted up and was caused by a stab from lower down. As considerable force would have been needed he doubted it was caused by falling on the knife.

Stationmaster Robinson was one of the first to reach the scene.

 The Coroner’s court heard Verna said to him…

“ Every time they drink they fight …Why do they drink? It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it … I couldn’t help it… ‘

accused murderer Verna ford

“Verna Ford, her dusky features paled to a chalky hue under the strain of the past week, her lips trembling with nervous, suppressed emotion, was committed for trial at a date and place to be fixed, charged with the murder of Ruby Jackson’

However, after a two-day trail by the Court of Native Affairs in June that year, Ford was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, placed on a personal bond of £25 to be of good behavior for 12 months and to come up for sentence if required.

There were some interesting sidebars to come from the story.

Tribal law broken

 “If, as the police alleged, Verna Ford, 20, stabbed Ruby Jackson, 16*. then it was said she not only broke the white man’s law, but tribal law.

When fighting it is against tribal law to spear or stab above the legs.

In evidence, Police Sergeant Tully said he had had experience with hundreds of natives and always found that native women, when settling differences, fought with sticks.

 ”He knew of no instance of women fighting with sharp-edged weapons. Although the women in the present case were half- castes, they were classed as natives.”

*Several articles gave Ruby’s age as 16, others as 26, or “about 27’. Her gravestone says she was 27.

Alcohol providers charged

Meanwhile, one April Leeman (male), was charged on two counts of selling intoxicating liquor to natives – once to Neil Champion and again to Alec Ellis. Leeman lives close to the native reserve adjoining the house where Ruby died.

Neil Champion claimed to have bought a bottle of wine and three bottles of beer from the accused on April 6, taken them to the house and hidden them under the bed. Ellis later bought more alcohol with money Jackson had given him.

Leeman had been drunk for several days at the time, and claimed the alcohol was stolen from his home.

He said liquor had been stolen several times previously from house, but did not report it to the police, because he got no co-operation from them.

Cross examined by the Sergeant, he said he was too drunk to remember whether he drank the liquor or gave it away, but knew he didn’t sell it to anyone.

Leeman was later overheard at the reserve telling Ellis he would shoot him if he told anyone what he had done.

Hotel employees gave evidence Leeman had bought wine and beer several time over the Monday and Tuesday (April 5 and 6). Leeman was found guilty on both counts, and as he had no money to pay fines, was sentenced to three months on each charge.

Southern Cross, Western Australia

SOURCES: Mirror, Saturday 19 June 1948,  p1, Saturday 17 April 1948, p1

The Daily News, Tuesday 20 April 1948 p7

The Herald, Wednesday 21 April 1948, p3

The Southern Cross News, Friday 30 April 1948, p4

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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