HISTORICAL CRIME: It was a bloody duel between husband and wife that would end with one of them shot dead in the heart and a surprising conclusion decades later that wouldn’t be believed if it wasn’t all so true, writes Sarah McLean.
Saturday August 16, 1952. It was looking like another ordinary morning on the Baldwin farm at Mountain Hut Road near Amphitheatre, Victoria. But as the morning unfolded, it would turn from ordinary to life-changing in an instant for Richard Baldwin, his wife and their 11 children.
On that Saturday morning, years of violence and abuse would finally catch up with the 65-year-old Richard. Not in over 40 years of marriage would he have expected the gun to be turned on him; that his wife would finally take a stand and bring an end to the years of violence and hurt she and her children had been subjected to.
Two people. Two rifles. This is the story of the shooting of Richard Valentine Baldwin by his wife, Eleanor Rose Baldwin – a shooting first declared murder.
For over 40 years, Eleanor and the children lived with Richard, who was depicted by newspapers of the time as a man who always carried with him a violent temper. Eleanor had married Richard, who was three years her senior, in 1910 when she was just 20-years-old. Although Richard reportedly would eventually live in a separate house on the property, this didn’t mean that the family was safe from his outbursts and various attacks. Richard was a man who ran a tight operation.
If someone stepped out of the ordered, strict lifestyle, attempted to stand up to Richard, or simply tried to protect other family members from his violence, they themselves would come under attack. As one son, Athol Ray Baldwin, later confirmed to the courts, Richard channelled his anger towards his mother and siblings through the use of rifles, bits of wood, physical violence, and in one extreme case, fire.
Another of their sons, Lawrence, revealed to the court that Richard repeatedly kicked one of his sisters until she lost consciousness. He proceeded to drag her into one of the paddocks on the farm, before burying her under a pile of leaves and setting them on fire. Eleanor quickly stepped in to rescue her daughter – even if it meant risking her own safety, not only in the face of fire, but also assault.
Eleanor was later attacked by Richard for this brave rescue; for committing an act that went against his attempt at asserting his authority and dominance. Richard insisted that his daughter would be fine and refused to let Eleanor take the girl to a doctor.
Such acts would continue throughout the couple’s marriage. Although Eleanor eventually grew sick and unwell, Richard denied her medical attention. It was later heard in court that Richard considered his wife and family as “chattels to abuse, threaten and assault”.
So, on the day Richard met his end and the violence ended with Eleanor, was it an act of self-defence as the courts ruled it? Or a case of the wife finally getting her revenge? The evidence provided at the time suggests both.
Initially, when police were called to the property and found Richard lying in an adjoining laneway, a bullet wound through his heart and two rifles beside the body, the evidence did not look good for Eleanor.
Violent marriage: The couple in 1927 when Eleanor was aged 36. The couple had been married since 1910 and are pictured with their eldest child, Sylvia, who was 15-years-old at the time of the photograph (Image: Ancestry.com / Supplied)
As reported at the time, on that morning Richard and Eleanor had been engaged in an argument. Eleanor, who was aged 62, walked away from Richard before returning with a rifle, instead of a bucket to milk the cows as she told him. After this detail was put to the court in late August, the judge was quick to charge Eleanor with murder.
As an article in Adelaide’s The Advertiser would a month later state though, “The fatal shot, the court was told, had ended 22 years of terror for the whole family, which had been at the mercy of Richard Baldwin’s wild fits of rage, during which he fired shots at his wife and children and beat them with any object he could pick up”.
To the prosecutors, a shot straight through Richard’s heart – the place where Eleanor had suffered the most hurt over the years – this was a crime committed with malicious and felonious intent. The trial progressed through several other hearings in September. It was here that more evidence would come to light, the court finally willing to see the shooting from Eleanor’s eyes.
Over that month, judges, police, and the jury found out more about the Baldwin family and life with Richard. Eleanor’s children, Athol and Lawrence, spoke for their mother and others in the family, revealing the amount of abuse they had been subjected to at the hands of Richard. More information was provided about the shooting as well, a shooting that played out like a duel to the death. And in the last week of September 1952, Eleanor stepped closer to freedom.
On the morning of August 16, it is alleged that Richard began abusing Eleanor after she had failed to retrieve the newspaper for him the previous night. The two continued this ‘discussion’ outside, Athol accompanying his mother. Tensions grew, with Richard telling Eleanor and Athol to either “pack up and leave” or be shot. Athol, who was only 17-years-old, challenged his father, but Richard continued with the threats – “I’ll get a rifle and drill you,” he said.
A newspaper report from 1952 about the charging of Eleanor Rose Baldwin with murder (Image: Trove / Supplied)
During this time, Eleanor had left father and son, to supposedly retrieve a bucket. She returned with a rifle. Eleanor took this opportunity to put some distance between her and Richard. Richard fired his rifle at the pair. Scurrying away, Eleanor and Athol raced down to one of the paddocks and sought cover behind some trees.
As Richard began to give chase, Lawrence pulled up in the laneway. Thinking it was the perfect distraction, Eleanor emerged from cover and returned to the house with Athol. But another son to step in for Eleanor didn’t stop Richard.
With only a fence standing between him and his wife, Richard attempted to take a swipe at mother and son. For Eleanor at this point, the situation had become a duel, a kill or be killed situation. She had to make a choice. Taking up the .22 rifle, she took aim and fired. She shot Richard.
Richard only made it a few steps before collapsing. Upon muttering that he had been shot, Eleanor replied, “You have been looking for it for a long time”. With that shot, years of abuse finally come to an end for the Baldwins.
Interestingly, Eleanor herself never took the witness stand or gave evidence during any part of her court trial. Although she had been silenced for years, her voice was not needed on that day.
The court had heard enough.
On September 23, the chief Justice of Victoria’s Supreme Court, Sir Edmund Herring, directed the jury to acquit Eleanor. He claimed the circumstances were “extraordinary”.
And just like that, Eleanor was finally acquitted of the murder charge, with everyone seeing the shooting from her perspective: a woman wronged for decades who took the only action left to her to save the life of her young children and herself.
“In Self Defence”: How the Horsham Times on September 26, 1952 reported the acquittal of Eleanor Baldwin (Image: Trove / Supplied)
Yet, this tale had one final twist to come.
For when it was Eleanor’s turn to meet her maker two decades later, in 1973, at the grand old of 82, there was a macabre reunion of sorts.
In the end, Eleanor ended back with the man who caused her all that hurt.
Believed to be at her own request, Eleanor was buried by her children alongside the man she had shot dead straight in the heart. The man who had caused her such torment.
Even though she was responsible for his death, she couldn’t leave him forever.
“In God’s care”: The gravestone of Richard and Eleanor Baldwin (Image: Ancestry.com / Supplied)
“In loving memory of our dear father Richard Valentine Baldwin,” the gravestone of the couple reads at the top before continuing. “Our dearly loved mother Eleanor Rose McMasters.”
Although she had changed her surname following Richard’s death, it seems Eleanor had not forgotten him despite the decades of violence and humiliation meted upon her and their children.
Perhaps, in some way, she had forgiven him.
Maybe she felt guilt at ending her abuser’s life.
In any event, according to the words on the gravestone the couple both happen to be “in God’s care” now.