Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Campbelltown's Day of Horror: the Richardson-Lack Massacre

Campbelltown is famous as the murder scene of Fred Fisher in 1826, however the 1849 murder of three people and the ferocious attack on another was one of the most brutal ever seen, not only in Campbelltown, but the entire colony. The murders appear to have been forgotten by the town as if it wanted to erase the whole episode from its collective memory. With the help of Trove and the research of Alan Jarman, a descendant of the victims, I have attempted to recount the story of one of Campbelltown's most infamous events.

At 4.00am on the morning of January 20, 1849 James Richardson murdered his wife Elizabeth and step-daughter Sarah Sophia Lack. He also murdered Sarah Sophia's infant child and attacked her 4 year old niece Sarah Lack who, although she survived, was left with terrible injuries. Newspaper reports of the day and official documents from State Records help build a picture of what happened.

James Richardson had been married to Elizabeth for a number of years. She had been married twice before: firstly to a John Frazier and then to Robert Lack. James Richardson was her third husband. Elizabeth and James had an unhappy marriage and for about 6 weeks had been living apart. During their separation James became jealous due to a number of persons visiting his wife and children. For a succession of nights he had kept a watch on the cottage.

Richardson had decided to go to Adelaide on the day of the murders, probably to get away from his troubles but changed his mind. On the morning of January 20 he stated that he'd been watching the house armed with a gun-barrel when a man was let in by his wife. After hearing conversations from inside that made his blood boil he broke open the door of the house with an axe that he had retrieved. According to the Sydney Morning Herald report he "struck at the man with the gun-barrel; that the man struggled with him and threw him down, and took the gun-barrel from him and ran away with it".

Elizabeth Richardson, Sarah Sophia Lack and her infant were killed instantly with the axe. Four year old Sarah Lack had her head stove in by a heavy candlestick that Richardson had brought with him. She survived the attack but was to suffer both physically and mentally for the rest of her life.

Richardson quickly buried the murder weapons in a nearby paddock. Then at about 4.30am he went to the house of the Chief Constable of Campbelltown and gave himself up. After locking Richardson up the policeman proceeded to James Graham's house and together they proceeded to the scene of the murder. Receiving no answer to their calls, they went in and saw two women and a child lying dead, and a great quantity of blood about the floor. They later located another 4 year old girl with a large wound behind the left ear.

An inquest was held at 3 o'clock that same afternoon with a jury of twelve. After seven hours of investigation, a verdict of wilful murder was recorded against James Richardson. He was then committed for trial at the Criminal Court in Sydney.

James Richardson was executed on the morning of Monday May 7, 1849 at Darlinghurst Gaol. He was described in Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer as a "slight-built mild-looking man, about 5 foot 2 inches in height, and always had an irreproachable character up to the time of the murder for which he committed".

It appears however from witness statements that Richardson's character was questionable. A local man John Keighran who was foreman of the jury on the inquest, gave a character description in a letter. He refers to comments made by a Thomas Rixon who mentions that he had taken liberties with his step-daughter Sarah when she was 14 years old. There is also a theory passed on through the generations that the infant belonging to Sarah Sophia was in fact James Richardson's child. Perhaps it was this inappropriate behaviour that caused the conflict between Elizabeth and her husband? It was reported that Sarah Sophia Lack screamed to Richardson "please don't hurt me on account of the baby".

The story of the man entering the house is debatable. Was Richardson lurking because of his wife's infidelities, or because if he wanted to see if young Sarah was entertaining other men?

Elizabeth, Sarah Sophia Lack and her infant child were all buried in St Peter's cemetery in unmarked graves. Four year old Sarah Lack lived a long life despite the scarring from the events of that morning.

Using original drawings made by the Chief Constable, Alan Jarman was able to accurately pinpoint the exact locations of the sites involved. The stone cottage where the murders took place was located where the front garden of today's Campbelltown Council Civic Centre is located. There is also a drawing made of the cottage that shows where each body was found.

Thanks to Alan Jarman for sharing his research with me.

This is the scene of the murders today in front of Campbelltown Council's Civic Centre.

Update: After further advice from Alan Jarman this site above is the exact spot where the murders occurred.

This is the plan of the cottage where the murders took place made by Chief Constable McAdam (click on the image for a larger version)


  1. Elizabeth Richardson (nee Lack, Frazier & Eggleton) was the daughter of first fleeter, William Eggleton whom I mentioned in a comment just now regarding the convicts book. Such a sad story :(

  2. Elizabeth Eggleton was my great,great grandmother. I now live in USA, but will be visiting in March 2017. Planning on visiting this site.

    1. Elizabeth was my great great grandfather's sister!

    2. A very belated thank you Andrew. Haven’t made it to Campbelltown yet...

  3. Nice to hear from you Barbara! Please drop into Campbelltown Library if you get a chance. Perhaps I can help you find the site if you are having difficulties locating it. Andrew

  4. Is Sarah Sophia Lack related to Herbert & Hilda Lack of the Lack Hotel???

    1. Yes she is Bev. Sarah Sophia Lack was Herbert Lack's great aunt.