A most peculiar case was reported in newspapers both locally and around the country during April and May 1932. The articles relate to events occurring on the night of Good Friday, 25 March. The chain of events (as much as can be pieced together from the bizarre accounts of witnesses), are as follows.
William James Hatfield of 10 Mitchell Street in Northcote appears to have been the victim of repeated vindictive arson attacks over a period of several months since the beginning of the year. The final attack woke him at 5.15 am on 25 March when he discovered a fire burning against his kitchenette wall at the back of the house.
Looking out the window he saw his 20 year-old neighbour Herbert Deane, hot-footing it across the yard and using a ladder to leap the fence into the next door property. Some extravagant reports claim that Deane was brandishing a blue kerosene can, while others make bigger news of the pile of metal, rags and wood used to barricade the kitchen door closed and set the fire. Hatfield did have to put his shoulder to the jammed door to open it and let his daughters escape.
By 5.20am Walter Smythe, the local officer at the Northcote Fire Station, was responding to the call from Mitchell Street. He found the side gate tied closed by rope and another piece strung across the alleyway down the side of the house. Smythe’s assessment was that it could have been a tripwire attempting to catch someone as they escaped the house. Of course Hatfield had mentioned that he had been on the look out for intruders for weeks and may have laid the trap himself in order to catch one but if he admitted this in court it was not reported. The papers and the court seemed determined to point the finger at the young Herbert Deane.
The investigating police officer Detective Banner examined the shrubbery against the fence between the two properties and concluded that the damaged plants on Deane’s side could have been the result of a person landing on them. Deane was positively identified by William Hatfield and his daughter Jessie as the man they saw running away from the fire and the young labourer was arrested and charged with arson.
In his defence Deane said he had been asleep, sharing a room at the time with his father. He was woken by breaking glass inside the house and found that a beer bottle had been thrown through a window. In the reflection he saw the Hatfield’s house on fire. Where the Hatfields and Deanes of Mitchell Street the victims of repeated vandalism by an unknown young thug, resembling Herbert Deane, or did a neighbourly feud get out of hand? Hatfield claimed that he had no particular issue with his neighbour and that he and Deane had not spoken for years so the idea of a feud seems unlikely but it was raised as a possibility by Deane’s representative in court, Mrs Rosanove.
So how did the trial end? A jury took two hours to deliberate over the scant evidence and returned with the incredible verdict of guilty. Even more shockingly the judge, Mr Justice Wasley, was in favour of sentencing Herbert Claude Deane to death. Arson on a house occupied by a sleeping family made the crime a capital offence. Sentencing was deferred to the Executive Council and in the meantime William Hatfield passed away. It seemed that months of stress and sleepless nights watching out for vandals had taken its toll on his health and he died suddenly at home in May 1932.