Jacob Borkheim - Murder

At 4 o’clock on the afternoon of 9 March 1921 Northcote’s High Street was shattered by the sound of three gunshots fired inside a pawnshop.  The shop belonged to well-respected 44 year-old watchmaker and pawnbroker Jacob Borkheim who minutes later, staggered out onto the street crying out to his surprised neighbours that he had been shot in the back.  Blood poured from his mouth as he fell to the ground dying of bullet wounds.

Sometime prior to this startling event, Borkehim had advised his wife Minnie to go upstairs to their apartment for a rest while he kept an eye on the shop.  All was quiet and Borkheim had just opened the shop safe to check on the jewellery worth 350 pounds contained in it, when three men entered the shop at number 310 High Street and carefully closed the door behind them.  The assumption of what happened next is based on circumstantial evidence.  Borkheim was held up by the men and in trying to escape was shot in the back.  After the pawnbroker collapsed on the pavement of the busy street, the men ran from the scene towards Northcote Railway Station.  A passer-by called for a policeman and Bernard Brady was caught by Senior-Constable Gordon as he waited for a train.  Two other suspects were apprehended before the night was out.

The three men accused of the murder were bricklayer Bernard Patrick Brady (29), Frank William Wright (30), a timber worker from Keel Street, Collingwood, and labourer John Henry Lawson (22).  Brady was positively identified by a cyclist who has seen him leaving the shop.  He was caught at Northcote Station where he was found to be in possession of a revolver with all but one of its chambers loaded.  Examination of the shop uncovered two of the three bullets fired embedded in the wall.  Brady immediately turned on his cohorts making a statement implicating them in the murder but this became the most damning evidence against him in the triple trial.

The court case held on Thursday 21 April began exhaustingly as the three accused challenged each prospective juror.  Lawson was the first to use his full ‘peremptory right of challenge’ by the time that seven out of the twelve jurors made it to the box.  Brady and Wright were equally eager to express their objection and in total it took an hour and 57 citizens to make the required 12 members of the jury.  The sensational murder and trial was reported in all newspapers across the country and high profile pathologist Dr Crawford Henry Mollison appeared as an expert witness.

The jury finally reached a verdict on Saturday 23 April.  All three were acquitted of murder and the youngest man Lawson was set free.  Brady and Wright however were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter but sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment.  In Wright’s case a prior suspended sentence of two years for receiving stolen goods was added to his total.  As he left the court Lawson exclaimed “Your Honor and gentlemen of the jury I thank you.”  He passed the dock where Wright shook his hand warmly.  Sentencing was carried out four days later.  Chief Justice Sir William Irvine made the statement that “in this particular crime the two offences of murder and manslaughter might be divided by an almost invisible line.  The accused very deliberately and in concert arrived to hold up and rob the unfortunate Borkheim.”

The industrious watchmaker had been in business in Northcote since his marriage to Minnie Levy in 1906.  Until the passing of their old father sometime around WWI, the couple lived at the High Street shop with Isidore, a retired tobacconist.  Shortly after the murder Minnie and her two children moved away to Elsternwick.

The following comprises an account of the sensational trial of murdered Northcote pawnbroker and watchmaker Jacob Borkheim in March/April 1921. 

Chief Justice Sir William Irvine presided over the triple trial of bricklayer Bernard Patrick Brady (29), Frank William Wright (30), a timber worker from Keel Street, Collingwood, and labourer John Henry Lawson (22).  Mr MacIndoe prosecuted for the Crown while Messrs H. Shelton and J. Barnett represented Lawson, T. C. Brennan and M. Dunlop appeared for Wright, and Messrs J. H Keating and T. B. Fogarty stood for Brady.

The trial began sensationally with the selection of jurors taking an hour and 57 citizens in order to reach the required twelve.  Next came more drama as the defence lawyers argued against each other in defence of their individual clients.  As Brady was giving evidence in his own defence with no other witnesses, Counsel for Wright and Lawson requested that Brady testify ahead of the rest of the trial.  Brady’s lawyer argued that the accused should appear on the stand in the order of their names on the presentment.  Sir William considered this be of such grave importance that he retired to consult with fellow judges.  When the trial resumed the decision was to proceed in the order of the presentment.

Wright’s story went as follows:  At about half-past 11 o’clock on March 9 he came across Lawson in the Lygon Hotel in Carlton.  They were joined by Brady and there was talk of acquiring a gun.  Brady gave them £1 to make a purchase and the pair went to Mr Solomon’s shop nearby.  As Brady waited outside, Wright and Lawson purchased a revolver.  Wright then claimed that he went home to his wife and was there by half past one.  He next visited his mother in Clifton Hill for lunch and stayed until 4 o’clock when he went straight home.  He was arrested later that afternoon on his way to Lawson’s sister’s house in LaTrobe Street.  If his story was true then Wright was not involved with Borkheim’s death in Northcote at 4 o’clock.  Wright denied knowing anything about the murder or being involved beyond purchasing and giving the gun to Brady.  Brady’s statement he said was complete lies.  When Prosecutor Mr MacIndoe asked if he every carried a revolver, Wright replied “never since soon after I came from the war.”  Wright had served in the Crimean War and his lawyers were appealing his heroic character rather than someone with mercenary firearm experience.

Lillie Watkins, Wright’s ‘common law’ wife of eight years corroborated his story adding that they had quarrelled during the time that he was at home on the afternoon of March 9.  She did not hear about his arrest until the following morning when a neighbour showed her a newspaper.  The couple had five children together.  Wright’s mother Alice Burns told the court that she was fond of her son.  “He is a good boy.  He has a temper, but he is good”, she said.  A Collingwood hairdresser Frank Richards testified that Wright was in his shop around half past three but he did not swear to the exact time and admitted that he was not sure enough to say whether Wright could have been in Northcote at the time of the murder.

Brady claimed that he had not given Wright money for the gun.  Instead he said that the men had been in Jacob Borkheim’s shop for the purpose of selling the revolver that he claimed to belong to Wright.  Brady claimed that he had taken the gun off Wright at the back of Cole’s in Thornbury and denied knowing that it was loaded.  Under questioning he admitted that he had seen Wright load it but thought that he might have removed the bullets while on the tram.  Mr MacIndoe’s questioning tried to establish that the group were up to no good from the start.  He suggested that they went to Thornbury to ‘shadow’ a bank messenger carrying a bag of money to Northcote.  Brady denied this idea.

Lawson for his part denied being in Northcote on the day of the murder.  In fact he stated that he “was never at Northcote in his life”.  Lawson claimed that he had been hanging around the blacksmith’s forge next door to his sister’s house in LaTrobe Street.  William Hamill the farrier-blacksmith in question and his friend John Douglas de Coit corroborated the story.

In summing up Wright’s lawyer asserted that the only evidence against his client came from Brady who had no witnesses to support his own story.  Brady’s word he said, should therefore be “viewed with the greatest of care”.  Mr MacIndoe stated that Jacob Borkheim had been the victim of a “diabolical murder”.  He advised the jury to decide how many of the men on trial were responsible for the pawnbroker’s death.

The verdict was returned on Saturday 23 April.  Henry Lawson was acquitted and left the courtroom a free man.  Frank Wright and Bernard Brady were found guilty of manslaughter and remanded for sentencing.  Due to the fine line between murder and manslaughter in this particular case, Chief Justice Irvine sentenced the pair to the maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment.


BULLETS FOR THE PAWNBROKER. (1951, 9 march). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic : 1848 - 1956), p.3.

15 YEARS FOR MANSLAUGHTER: BRADY AND WRIGHT SENTENCED (1921, 27 April). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, N.S.W. 1888-1954), p. 4.

MAXIMUM PENALTY: FIFTEEN YEARS FOR MANSLAUGHTER. (1921, 28 April). The Advertiser (Adelaide, S.A.: 1889 - 1931), p. 7.

NORTHCOTE CASE. (1921, 21 April). The West Australian (Perth, W.A.: 1879 - 1954), p. 7.

NORTHCOTE TRAGEDY: EVISDENCE BY ACCUSED. (1921, 23 April). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 - 1956), p. 21

THREE ARRESTS MADE. (1921, 10 March) Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, N.S.W. : 1888 - 1954), p. 1.