A FRENZIED bite to a stranger's nose was just a bit of "horseplay", a lawyer tried his best to argue in an unsuccessful attempt to save his client from the law.
It didn't work, and by the end of the trial the young man had been sentenced to five years imprisonment, a stretch in solitary confinement and 40 strokes of the lash.
This is the story of a vicious, animal-like attack and a judge with the dubious honour of being crueler than a criminal.
The sorry affair started when 22-year-old Walter William Baker and two friends started jostling a woman in Pall Mall on June 2, 1902, the day the British Empire won South Africa's Boer War.
Thousands of patriotic men and women descended on Bendigo's city centre to celebrate the empire's triumph.
In Pall Mall, a man called Gilbert Smith Rule was walking with his young son when he saw Baker and his friends threatening the woman.
Rule began remonstrating with Baker, who rushed him, caught him by the leg and threw him on his back.
Then Baker dived and sank his teeth into his victim's nose.
It would leave a permanent scar, a court heard two weeks later.
Baker's lawyer tried gamely to argue it was just a boisterous act on a joyful occasion, and that his client had never meant to bite.
He might have laid the love of empire on a little too thick as he argued Baker could not possibly have bitten Rule deliberately.
"[The lawyer] said it was incredible that a young English lad would be guilty of such a cowardly and brutal offence," the Bendigo Advertiser wrote in its account of the trial.
The lawyer's chief problems were that there were multiple witnesses to Baker's crime, and a doctor who had examined the wound and said it was far too serious to have been an innocent accidental.
The jury found Baker guilty.
The judge described the attack as "brutally degrading", "fiendish" and "disgusting to humanity".
It also turned out Baker had a bit of a history of biting people during fights.
So why were people so shocked when the judge sentenced Baker to, among other things, 40 strokes with a cat-o'-nine-tails - a special type of whip with nine tails, not one.
It is not like floggings had been outlawed that time, after all. That would not happen until the late 1940s.
A judge could have demanded as many as 50 lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails, as long as the man was over 16-years-of-age and a doctor was on hand to monitor the prisoner's health and postpone if needed.
Victoria even had its own "public flagellators".
But there was something that disturbed many Bendigonians about the case.
Church leaders and a group calling themselves the "mothers of Bendigo" quickly began circulating petitions. Jury members met to discuss whether they should speak out in favour of the man they had found guilty.
Howard Nathan is a former Supreme Court judge who also helped reform judicial officer standards during the Cain government.
He says it is important to remember that for much of Victoria's history lower level judicial officials were not highly trained.
"Magistrates were very close to amateurs," Howard said.
"They were irascible, incompetent, bigoted - and some were wonderful, humane, caring and above reproach."
Juries often managed to save people from some punishments - especially executions - by exonerating them or finding people guilty of lesser charges, he said.
"It's the concept of 'pious perjury'," Howard said.
In fact, one of the reasons many convicts were sent to Australian colonies a century earlier was because juries often deliberately found people guilty of lesser crimes to save them from execution, he said.
Baker's case had been heard on a Friday and letters to the editor had begun pouring in to the Advertiser's offices by the following Monday.
Some argued the courts' broader shift away from corporal punishment undermined society's capacity to reform.
"Those monsters who delight in making others suffer can only be brought to a sense of their own cruelty by being made to suffer in like manner - that is, through their skin," one flogging advocate wrote.
Others argued that whipping was a cruel throwback to a bygone era, and that anyone who disagreed "should have lived when the rack and thumb-screw were in use".
Still more people had a somewhat blunter reason to oppose the use of the whip.
"To flog an imbecile into reason would be fruitless," one writer drily observed after learning of Baker's criminal history.
In the end, Bendigo residents presented a petition signed by 2200 people to Melbourne authorities.
They had a partial win. Authorities ended up reducing the sentence from 40 to 15 lashes on a bleak July day.
That was the going rate for flogging sentences at the time, Howard said.
Baker only found out his change in fortunes at the last moment, as he stood in Melbourne Gaol's "flagellation chamber".
"A smile of gratification crept over the young man's [Baker's] countenance when [jail governor] Mr Cody announced that the flogging which he was about to receive had been reduced from 40 to 15 lashes," the Advertiser reported.
Baker's smile vanished moments later when he was pointed to the "triangle" he was to be tied to and ordered to remove his shirt.
And perhaps fittingly for a biter, Baker "turned very pale when the flagellator proceeded to place the 'gag' in his mouth".
The "gag" was a short piece of leather Baker was to put in his mouth so he didn't bite his own tongue.
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"On the word being given, the flagellator seized his cat-o'-nine-tails and proceeded to inflict the awful punishment," the Advertiser reported.
"Baker received the first five plows without a flinch, but judging by his cries afterward to his Maker and those in attendance to have mercy on him, it was evident that he could no longer refrain from manifesting his his pent-up energy."
"When Baker was released from his triangle and marched off to his cell he was unable to stand erect."
Perhaps the lashing really was the thing that transformed him into an upstanding pillar of society.
The only thing anyone in the flagellation chamber could say for sure was that Baker clearly regretted biting off more than he could chew.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series WHAT HAPPENED?
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