RED-FACED police watched their court case implode in embarrassing fashion 175 years ago this week.
Their failure allowed Bendigo man George Thomas Minor - who was either a respectable businessman or a criminal deviant, depending on your point of view - to walk out of the dock.
It triggered a police inquiry and today raises questions about just how fair the legal system was, and whether police were using it to extort innocent residents.
The case began when an unfortunate constable, last name of Irvine, spied two men, George Thomas Minor and Hans William Matthieson, one of whom was carrying a carpet bag.
It was 10am on Thursday May 31, 1866.
Irvine would later tell a police magistrates court that he suspected they had stolen property.
"Instead of proceeding along Pall Mall, they [the suspects] went through the Reserve [the modern day Rosalind Park area], after holding a 'consultation' at the corner," a Bendigo Advertiser court report outlined several days later.
Irvine followed the pair down another street and arrested them.
Minor "indignantly denied being in any way connected with dishonesty", the Addy reported.
He was a cordial maker and said the bottles in the carpet bag were goods he was taking to a customer.
"His reason for going through the Camp Reserve was that his friend Matthieson had on a pair of boots more dilapidated than fashionable, and he preferred the seclusion of the Camp Reserve to the more public thoroughfare of Pall Mall.
"By order of the Magistrate, the carpet bag disgorged its contents on the floor of the court and an array of full bottles were presented," the Addy reported.
All were cordial bottles.
At this point in the trial, police officers raised the possibility of the bottles being full of black market alcohol.
So the magistrate ordered his court orderly to do a taste-test, confirming the contents were cordial.
One of Irvine's superiors grudgingly conceded there was no reason to hold the prisoners.
"The men left the Court casting indignant looks at the constable who had arrested them," the Addy reported.
Police exonerate police officer
It is unclear 175 years later whether the strange events in the courtroom that day was a case of police ineptitude, an honest mistake or something else entirely.
No court transcripts exist and the best records of 19th century cases are often abridged versions in newspapers.
But Irvine and Minor had had run-ins before.
The businessman brought against the copper for using unnecessary violence in apprehending him in 1860, according to an Addy story.
Minor said Irvine had beaten him outside his High Street store and home, which was burgled later than night.
Irvine and his colleagues disputed that and said Minor had been drunk, abusive and bordering on violence.
The Bendigo Advertiser took a side in that dispute, with its editor blasting the court for a perceived bias.
"It may be assumed that in a Sandhurst Police Court no man has any chance of justice against a policeman," he thundered in a printed editorial.
The Addy's editor argued that of course Minor was angry, he was being arrested at the door to his own shop when he could have been told simply to go home and sleep the booze off.
"Thanks to [the court], Constable Irvine is still at liberty to arrest unoffending citizens, and have them lodged in the watchhouse for answering him sharply," he continued.
Legal historian and former Supreme Court justice Howard Nathan said there could have been something very sinister in the feud between Minor and Irvine.
"These sorts of stories about the inadequacies and frank injustices of the judicial system in the 19th century are but the tip of an Antarctic iceberg," he said.
Nathan cannot rule out that police may have been targeting Minor as part of some sort of extortion attempt, or as retribution for a refusal to pay off officers.
The Addy today has no evidence that Irvine was corrupt, but Nathan said one typical hallmark of police corruption at the time included certain crimes that relied heavily on officers witnessing incidents.
He suspects that is one reason why crimes like public drunkenness, prostitution and exposing oneself in public were "paradigm examples" of the early court system's business.
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The 1860s were a time of poor police pay and minimal independent oversight of charges, Nathan said.
Adding to the problem was that Australian courts often had shortages of highly trained legal experts available to cast judgements.
So they drafted in members of the public - usually well-to-do and pompous, Nathan said - without in depth legal training or experience.
"For them, to uphold police evidence was a civic virtue that kept the community safe from perdition," Nathan said.
Perhaps by coincidence, police dismissed a witness's account of the night Minor said he was abused by an officer in part by arguing a witness "kept brothels, and hired houses for improper purposes, and had been fined and sent out of the district".
The Addy learned several days later that senior police officers began an investigation into the 1866 arrest.
Officers later dismissed Minor's complaint as groundless, though the Addy did not report the thinking behind the decision.
Police catch up with the man who walked free
Minor's days as a respectable citizen in the eyes of the courts were numbered, though.
Police brought new charges in 1868.
This time, Minor was accused of running a business on High Street where alcohol was being sold without a licence.
The police chucked in a few other measures too.
"From the evidence of the prosecutor it appeared that the house kept by the defendant was the resort of the most disorderly women in Sandhurst," an Addy story from 1868 declared.
"Frequently from the inside could be heard very filthy and disgusting language. Other constables also gave evidence of the character of the women who frequented defendant's house."
Minor lost his freedom.
"A sentence of six months' imprisonment, with hard labor, was passed on the defendant," the Addy reported.
Minor appears to pop up again in the historical record several times, according to research supplied by the Bendigo Regional Archives Centre.
A man by his name was jailed for three months in Beechworth in 1872 for exposing himself.
He died alone destitute in a NSW asylum in 1889.
Whether or not Minor really was a seedy sex criminal might not be known without further historical evidence.
"We are looking here at truncated accounts of a couple of cases which only reveal a much, much wider problem with administration of the law at the time," Nathan said.
"While there were egregious lapses of morality and probity, they have very largely been mitigated [by later legal and police reforms].
"And out of all of that, we have built a civil, increasingly tolerant ... society."
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This story was the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's history series WHAT HAPPENED? Our thanks to the Bendigo Regional Archives Centre's Sue Walter for help researching this story.