Of Murder and the Quality of Mercy

For reasons that now escape me, I started my part-time studies at WA University in 1959 with two years of German language and literature. My lecturer and guide was Dr Maurice Benn, the newly-installed head of German. A few years later, Mr Justice Hale in the WA Supreme Court put on his black cap with one corner facing forward (actually, it’s just a piece of black cloth, of Tudor origin), and sentenced Dr Benn to hang by the neck until he was dead for wilful murder. I’m writing about Dr Benn to clear some more debris from my cranial attic.

Benn seemed born to dwell in cloisters, writing tracts for other lovers of classic German literature. We junior students instead snickered at his too-short trouser legs showing colourful socks. He would declaim German poets with deep feeling, like Rilke’s “Carousel” (Das Karussel) with its catch-line, ‘Und dann und wann ein weisser Elefant” referring to the merry-go-round journey of the white elephant.

Why do the few things I recall from uni days include that line recited by Dr Benn? He was kindly and tolerant of stupid freshers. We gathered at lunchtimes to sing German folk (Die Lorelei) and student songs (Annie of Tharau), which continue as ear-worms in my head. I liked proximity to girls, then an alien species, and I managed to date a co-chorister harmlessly for a month or so.

For this article’s sake, I phoned her from Melbourne after a gap of 60 years to see what she remembered of Dr Benn and, surreptitiously, of myself. This is a common fantasy among codgers, but rarely implemented. I connected after dialling only two numbers. She remembered zilch of Dr Benn and zilch of myself.

Dr Benn marked my essays with more care than I ever spent writing them. I struggled with Goethe’s novel Sorrows of Young Werther, despite Dr Benn’s help. Young Werther shot himself over his love for Charlotte, married to another. It was the late 18th-century’s Fifty Shades of Grey. All over Europe young men dressed like Werther and suffered what they called “Werther fever”.[1] In England, Thackeray got the continental ambience right:

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter…

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

We students had scant curiosity about our lecturers but I’ve now found some fragments about Benn. He was born in Glasgow in 1914 and the family came to Perth in 1928. Benn played piano and viola chamber music with his brothers George (violin and viola) and Tom (cello). George suicided in 1939 and Tom joined the blue-collar ranks of the Communist Party.[2]

In 1939 Maurice Benn (right) was on his way to London on a Hackett Studentship. The war broke out and he returned to Perth (one version is that his ship turned back before reaching London).

He enlisted in the navy in 1941 (he wasn’t as prissy as we thought) and in 1949 helped set up the local Goethe Society (student annual dues: 35 cents). The founders filled Winthrop Hall with 600 people for the bi-centenary Goethe concert late that year. Try replicating that today!

He finished his studies in London and Zurich and returned to UWA in 1952 with a nervous German bride, Irene (left) – he had married her a year earlier after a German study tour. He was 38, she 24.

Benn’s home was in Portland Street, Nedlands, an arrow-shot from the campus. The Benns longed for a child and, after eight years, Irene had a son, Bernard Wolfgang, the same year I enrolled with Maurice. Sadly, the boy’s brain was awry. He was described in court as a small wild animal, uncontrollable and not even recognising his parents. He seemed destined for an institution, and adult life at Perth’s archaic Claremont Asylum — in language of the day, “the loony bin”. For Irene, dealing with her child’s fits and ferocity was a nightmare.

The crisis came on February 8, 1964. Benn, by then 49, told the jury of eight men and four women that he was overcome by the irresistible idea of killing Bernard, who was four and a half but assessed as having the mental capacity of a one-year-old. Benn feared Irene would break down or take her own life. He wrote her,

My dear Irene, I didn’t dare tell you before… But the Doctor told me [Bernard would never] lead a normal, happy life … he will have to go through his whole life in a state of mental derangement … I must save him from such a terrible fate at all costs … and you from complete collapse.

He signed it “With love” and left it on his study table.

Then he took a .22 rifle he had always kept in the study (I still find that incongruous). The boy was asleep in his cot. Benn testified, “I thought it would save the boy from a terrible kind of life, that I would save my wife. It seemed I just had to do it. I remember pointing the rifle at the boy’s temple. I remember the shot and I saw blood coming from the boy’s temple.”

Then he rang the police to turn himself in.

The court reporters found him calm and sincere. He believed he’d done the right thing but accepted that he’d be punished. Irene, 36, testified she was having a shower that night and heard a very strange noise. She called but Maurice didn’t reply. She put on her husband’s dressing gown and again cried very loudly, “Maurice”.

He stood between the bathroom and the boy’s room and had a very strange expression on his face—as if he were mad.

“And then he said, ‘I have shot Bernard.’ I don’t remember what happened then,” Mrs Benn recalled. “I screamed all the time.”

Benn’s barrister was K.T. Hatfield and solicitor was John Wheeldon, later the most Communist-minded of all in Whitlam’s ministry. They pleaded temporary and overwhelming insanity for Benn, but the judge was having none of it. Killing was killing and Benn knew what he was doing. He told the jury to take all emotion out of the equation.

The jury misunderstood further instructions to mean that any recommendation for mercy had to be unanimous, so they brought in ‘guilty’ with no rider for mercy.[3] Hence came the sentence of death by hanging. Irene collapsed. Later she told the press, “Maurice is no criminal; he did it because he loved both of us.”

For a fortnight the noose dangled over Dr Benn, then Premier Dave Brand’s L-CP government commuted death to ten years’ hard labor, or about seven before parole. Benn didn’t actually break rocks; “hard labour” began with clerical work in the Fremantle prison store. His cell included a bookshelf, table, chair and a higher-wattage lamp for studying from 5pm to ‘lights out’ three hours later. He was also allowed to have books in foreign languages.

At the time, parents of unfortunate children got little aid. Some still isolated their offspring at home to protect them from other kids’ taunts. Letters to papers nationally in the wake of the Benn conviction included a number from parents saying they had contemplated killing their own children. Some hinted that parents had killed such children in staged accidents. As one woman put it, “Every one of us would have been relieved to see our child die. Perhaps the only reason that our husbands have not stood trial for murder is due to one of two things — the good fortune to have had a sound spiritual background, or the lack of courage to commit euthanasia for fear of the consequences.”

The secretary of a Slow Learning Children’s branch wrote that “mongol” children should be compulsorily admitted to State care: “I know the heartbreak of losing one’s children would be of comparatively short duration – time heals all things. Release these unfortunate parents from their burden by law, and we should never have a crime like the Benn case on our conscience again.” He was immediately sacked. There was even a letter seeking legal changes to permit some infant children “to be put to rest” via court orders. But others countered that mercy killings of the unfortunate would be no better than Hitler’s culling of the unfit.

Perth’s high-brow community assumed cabinet would set Benn free after minor prison time, but their megaphone diplomacy only fed the Brand ministry’s anti-intellectual paranoia. Academia rallied to Benn’s support, led by UWA Chancellor Sir Alex Reid.[4] UWA quickly found Irene a job tutoring in German, which brings myself back into the story a bit.

The West suspected the job was a sinecure for the murderer’s wife and since I had the title of Education Writer, I was briefed to track her down for a ‘gotcha’ interview. The newsroom’s chief of staff tightened the screws on me for an Irene Benn scoop because of an incident way out of left field. Father E. J. Stormon was rector of the gracious Thomas More Residential College overlooking Matilda Bay. On March 23, a fortnight before Benn’s verdict, an 18-year-old newbie called David refused the traditional initiation. A dozen lads from good Catholic families bounced him in his room two nights later and painted his face with silver nitrate, causing second-degree burns later needing hospital treatment. They bound him hand and foot and drove him 25km east to the industrial wilds of Kenwick. There they stripped him, painted his genitals with black shoe-polish and left him in his underpants (or singlet, take your choice) in a shallow creek, to struggle back to Crawley.[5]

David’s mother blew the whistle on the college, but cruelly blew it to our afternoon sibling Daily News rather than myself.  Father Stormon explained that it was just a prank that got out of hand: no brutality intended but some irresponsibility shown.[6] The perpetrators “were of good character and respected by other students and staff”. They were sorry about it and Stormon hoped the incident was now closed, after he fined the boys an undisclosed amount.[7]

So I had to go to the Arts Faculty, which I knew well as a part-timer, to flush out Mrs Benn. The staff would spot me, alert Irene, and she’d go to ground. Pursuing Irene was bad for my soul; I had pleasant memories of her husband. Eventually I lived down being scooped on boot-blacked genitals and my chief of staff found fish to fry other than Irene Benn.

For nearly five long years Irene visited Maurice each second Sunday, mostly at his low-security rehab centre at Karnet, 70km south of Perth, where he was the librarian. He was failing in health, not just physically but mentally from lack of intellectual company. His book manuscript on the 19thC poet Hoelderlin[8] was accepted by Oxford University Press, London, shades of Mel Gibson’s movie The Professor and the Madman.[9]

 UWA librarian Leonard Jolley, a fellow-lover of German classics and possessor of a whiplash tongue, joined Sir Alex in the fight to free Benn and also provided the inmate with a vital flow of arcane literary texts and critiques.[10] Unusually, the state’s top gaoler, Colin Campbell, comptroller-general of prisons, strongly urged Benn’s early release. Another advocate for Benn was his probation and parole officer, Dr Bill Matsdorf, historian of the Kimberley Jewish homeland project. Matsdorf was so disgusted with Benn’s treatment that he moved permanently to Israel.

In early 1968 the Parole Board recommended Benn be freed, but cabinet stubbornly announced a deferral for 12 months. He was released on parole in December from Karnet, where he’d become more guest than prisoner. All-up he served four and a half years. He and Irene were provided with a secret home-stay in the hills and Benn became a UWA Senior Research Fellow on salary of $9,900. In March 1969 they left for a sabbatical in Europe, unbeknownst to the press. He died of a heart attack in 1975. In 2011 a large gift of German books went to the UWA library from the collection of Maurice and Irene Benn, who survived him by 38 years, passing away in September 2013.


MY personal story has one last sequel. My cousin, Phil Allen, was head English teacher at Perth’s selective Modern School. I visited for my class’s 50-year reunion in October 2007, and Phil invited me to address a class of his high-achievers about journalism. I thought he wanted a talk on clear writing/journalese and prepared accordingly. On the spot, however, he told the kids that I’d wow them about my colourful career.

I’m not a good ad-libber for 35 minutes and after some pleasantries about the art of shorthand, I described how in 1957 we’d found a girl’s knickers in the gym and run it (or them?) up the school flagpole. I hadn’t realised how verboten such tales are among modern high schoolers. Then I stumbled my way into the Dr Benn story. Searching for words to describe the son Bernard’s wildness and the fatal torment imposed on the father, I mis-described the murdered child in slang as “hopeless”.

It turned out that one lad had a kid brother who was seriously autistic. He was anxious about the impacts of his brother on his mother’s mental health, and I’d just recounted how a parent had chosen to kill. The lad told all to his mother that night, and she was rightly appalled. She got on the phone to Phil and gave him a blast.

Phil did some fancy moves to extricate himself from the Benn story’s tentacles I had wrapped him in. Moreover, he hadn’t even sought approval for my class visit. But his career survived. We also survived the knickers story, one of his 13-year-old students merely describing me on her feedback paper as ‘immature’. Phil and I remain pals, but he never invited me back to his class.

It feels good now to have unloaded all this Benn material. Next time we complain that it’s tough with COVID-19, recall Maurice and Irene Benn and their son Bernard.

Tony Thomas has a new book,  published this month, Come to think of it – essays to tickle the brain. Get your copy on-line here from Connor Court


[1] Napoleon carried a copy of Werther during his Egyptian campaign

[2] Dylan Hyde: Art Was Their Weapon – The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild. Fremantle Press, 2019.

[3] Later and ironically the jury asked to add their names to a public petition for mercy

[4] In those days academics didn’t behave like sheep

[5] Said UWA Vice Chancellor Stanley Prescott: “The enforced submission to meaningless, often degrading. sometimes damaging initiation rituals is grossly offensive.”  This was strong meat as both Prescott and Stormon sat on the UWA Senate.

[6] Fr Stormon’s specialties included “Romance and Religion in the Divine Comedy”.

[7] David’s face healed without scars, so that was all right then.

[8] In happier days at UWA in 1962, he published a book on Hoelderlin and the Theban lyricist Pindar: Hölderlin and Pindar (Anglica germanica. no. 4.)

[9] He also published with Cambridge, perhaps also working on that manuscript in prison: Maurice Benn, The Drama of Revolt: A Critical Study of Georg Büchner (Cambridge University Press, 1976)

[10] An acerbic character, Jolley later won a year-long defence against a defamation suit by Labor’s then union official John Dawkins, who had organised a strike by nursing aides at a hospital the frail Jolley often had to use. Dawson sued Jolley and The West for publishing Jolley’s letter that Dawkins “wouldn’t know a bedpan if he was hit over the head with one.”

4 thoughts on “Of Murder and the Quality of Mercy

  • DG says:

    Thanks for the note about old girlfriends. Now I don’t have to look up mine…I expect they will remember zilch of me too! What a relief.

  • johnhenry says:

    I don’t know how much regard you hold for this piece, Tony Thomas, but I intend to print it and keep it permanently. Such superb writing on many grounds, not the least of which being gentle reminisce.

  • brandee says:

    Tony, you always tell it well, and your story of the academic who taught German and whose wife was Irene reminded me of my student years at Newcastle [-on- Hunter] University College in the early 1960s.

    At NUC Professor Brin Newton John was a university administrator who taught German, was married to Irene {second wife] and was the father of Olivia Newton John who remained in Melbourne with her mother.

    The Professor was instrumental in establishing a humanities course for engineers which was a wonderful overview of Western Civilization and culture with about a dozen topics each with a specialist presenter. Fortunately the course commenced just before ‘progressive’ thinking had much influence but even then on campus there was a disparagement of aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira for being too western in his ‘white fella style watercolour’ proficiency.

    Brin Newton John loved opera music. He was Welch born and his first wife who was German was attracted to his fine singing voice.
    Daughter Olivia in a biography claims to have been a student with no particular aptitude for any subject except music.

  • pdc says:

    Yes, johnhenry, it’s a very touching piece and Tony Thomas has done well to remind us of the aching horror of the Benn’s story in this time of coronavirus …
    As a UWA student around the same time as Tony T (although I wasn’t studying German) most of us were aware of the tragic Benn story. This article adds many previously little known details.
    I can add that after a long period of deep despair, Irene (Mrs Benn) — with the help of a few selfless friends — managed to rise above her trauma and for several decades until her death found purpose, affection and respect within the local arts community.

    Re John Wheeldon, for the record: after a fairly long ‘dalliance’ with Socialism John Wheeldon did a Mark Latham. Or should that be the other way round? Anyway, JW became an enthusiastic Conservative, including contributing occasionally to Quadrant.

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