“For years Rusten House has lain forlorn and largely forgotten, its empty corridors and darkened rooms echoing with a history filled with equal parts heartache and happiness,” writes NICHOLE OVERALL
IT was literally a chance encounter: an unscripted moment in time when an accident and what initially appeared to be the act of a good Samaritan would lead to the handing down of Canberra’s first – and only – criminal sentence of death by hanging.
When this dramatic verdict was delivered at 9pm on February 24, 1953 the capital, although by then 40 years old, was in many ways still in its infancy, described as little more than two suburbs with a creek running through the middle, boasting a population of less than 30,000.
One of its citizens was 28-year-old returned serviceman, Vincent George Dixon, who had spent two years as an Army gunner in World War II, apparently lying about his age, making him only 18 when he was court-martialled and discharged in 1943.
Almost a decade later, Dixon was a drunken itinerant – married and living at the temporary workers’ community of Westlake, which until 1965 existed at the edge of Yarralumla, but today is nothing more than the ghostly echo of a suburb.
On the night of November 29, 1952, an intoxicated Dixon was heading to Civic following an argument with his wife. Driving through the otherwise deserted streets near Hotel Kurrajong, his attention was captured by a plea for help from a badly injured young woman lying on the side of the road.
It quickly became clear the woman, a 20-year-old trainee nurse from Queanbeyan, and her unconscious male companion, had been thrown from a nearby mangled motorbike. Dixon offered to drive her to the Canberra Hospital, suggesting they could then organise for an ambulance to come back for the man.
Suffering fractured ribs and a broken pelvis, the nurse accepted the offer. It didn’t take long though for her gratitude to change to concern as she became aware Dixon was heading in the opposite direction of the hospital, towards Red Hill.
When he pulled off on to a side road and the car came to a stop, she began to scream.
“If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll choke you,” her abductor threatened.
When this failed to produce the desired effect, he instead brought down a heavy object on the side of her head. Unbelievably, he then apologised and began to cry. According to the nurse’s later statement, his apparent remorse didn’t stop him from sexually assaulting her, and it was only when he was done that he drove her on to the hospital.
At his trial in the ACT Supreme Court three months later Dixon, pleading not guilty, tried every angle of defence: he’d never seen the nurse (who remained nameless throughout and ever after); he wasn’t anywhere near Red Hill; she must have had relations with her boyfriend; before finally admitting he did engage in sexual activity with her, but it was consensual.
For Mr Justice Simpson, all of this further pointed to the man’s guilt. In addition, Dixon had a track record – he’d served 18 months in prison for the attempted rape of his own sister six years earlier.
The jury would reach its decision in just under two hours and at the passing of the sentence, the judge would declare: “I agree with your verdict [of guilty], gentlemen.”
Aside from “trembling lips”, Dixon was said to be otherwise devoid of emotion.
No one had been hanged for rape in Australia for 20 years and Dixon awaited a decision of the Executive Council of either a date and place for his execution or an appeal against the sentence.
Neither came. Instead, exactly one month later – March 24, 1953 – the Governor-General, Sir William McKell, commuted it to imprisonment “for the term of his natural life”.
Even though capital punishment would not be abolished in the capital until 1973, no death sentence was ever carried out in Canberra; if Dixon’s had gone ahead, it most likely would have occurred in Darwin (as Federal Territory).
Dixon was transferred to Long Bay Gaol, his shack at No. 42 Westlake demolished at his request and, as he vowed at the time, that if he were freed he would never return to Canberra. Save for a handful of newspaper articles, he – and his victim – were never heard of here again.
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist and social historian with a predilection for bringing to light the unsolved mysteries and conundrums of the capital region. She will soon launch a podcast series in which this dramatic case will feature.