Sunday, 11 March 2012 09:18



The 2002 feature film Black and White, directed by Craig Lahiff, was made about his case, and featured David Ngoombujarra as Max Stuart; Robert Carlyle as Stuart's lawyer David O'Sullivan; Charles Dance as the Crown Prosecutor Roderic Chamberlain; Kerry Fox as O'Sullivan's business partner Helen Devaney; Colin Friels as Father Tom Dixon; Bille Brown as South Australian Premier Sir Thomas Playford; Ben Mendelsohn as newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch; and John Gregg as Rohan Rivett. The film won an Australian Film Institute award in 2003 for David Ngoombujarra as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The final scene of this film was the last scene from the 1993 docudrama Blood Brothers – Broken English, directed by Ned Lander. The makers of the movie were divided on whether Stuart had killed Mary Hattam.

The film's producer, Helen Leake has reported that Stuart's response to seeing the film was, "It ain’t half bad, but it’s a long time to wait between smokes."

Father Dixon was later to comment "Thank goodness Stuart was not a Catholic". If he had been, Stuart denying the murder would have been regarded as a confession and Dixon would not have been able to mention his doubts over Stuart's guilt with anyone. The church holds that the seal of confession would be inviolable even with Stuart's life at stake.



Thomas Dixon was born in Sydney, the 15th of 19 children born to Irish/English parents who had immigrated from Liverpool in England two years earlier.

Dixon was schooled by nuns before entering Christian Brothers College. At the age of 12 he entered a seminary of the Missionarii Sacri Cordis (Sacred Heart Society or M.S.C.) where he eventually took his vows. In November 1941, he was appointed to run a mission in Rabaul in East New Britain. However, while enroute Pearl Harbour was attacked and he was instead asked to travel to Palm Island, 65 km (40 mi) north-west of Townsville, on the east coast of Queensland to relieve an ill priest for three months. Dixon remained on the Island for seven years teaching.

In 1949, Dixon transferred to Toowoomba, Queensland where he taught English, French and Algebra at a Catholic school. At the end of the year he was appointed to the Thursday Island mission that also served Hamilton Island. Here he taught the local population which was a mix of Australian Aboriginals, Papuans, Samoans, Filipinos, Malays and Sinhalese. On Hamilton Island Dixon designed and built a mortarless stone church with stained glass windows made from beer bottles.

Santa Teresa

In 1954 Dixon was re-assigned to a mission that M.S.C. had founded near Alice Springs, Santa Teresa. Founded to service the Arrernte Aboriginals, nuns ran the mission school and clinic while lay brothers worked as handymen. Dixon was responsible for the church and learnt to speak Arrernte in order to preach to them in their own language. He introduced not only Mass to local Aboriginals but also the Cabbage to their diet. The indigenous women and children were largely permanent residents at the mission while most of the men moved around following seasonal work. Almost all the children and many of the women were baptised as Catholics however, the men tended to be baptised Lutherans as they were more accustomed to attending the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission, 160 km (99 mi) east of Santa Teresa.

As many of the Aboriginals lived in huts made from corrugated iron, Dixon organised the local men to build houses to replace them. Local stone was chipped by hand with the locals given rations while they worked on their own home with an additional cash allowance when they worked on some one else’s. Within two years every family lived in a stone house.

In 1956, Dixon moved to Adelaide where he was appointed as Curate for the Hindmarsh Parish that M.S.C. had begun after receiving permission from the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide.

Involvement in the Stuart case

In 1959 Rupert Max Stuart was on death row awaiting execution for the murder of Mary Hattam. Stuart had already visited with a Salvation Army officer and a Lutheran pastor when Father John O’Loughlin, the Adelaide Goal’s junior Catholic Chaplain met him. Stuart was not very communicative due to his limited English and O’Loughlin mentioned this to his friend, Father Tom Dixon who lived in a presbytery in nearby Hindmarsh. As he could speak Stuart’s native language, Dixon decided to visit and help prepare Stuart for death.

Stuart insisted he had not killed the girl and Dixon initially suspected he was looking for sympathy. By May 14, the execution was eight days away and Dixon had become convinced that Stuart was telling the truth. He contacted J. D. O'Sullivan, Stuart’s solicitor who gave him a copy of Stuart’s confession. After reading it, he concluded that Stuart could not have dictated it. Dixon had read a book on Arrernte grammar written by T.G.H. Strehlow and asked him to check Stuart’s language for comparison with the confession.[1] Strehlow had been born at the Hermannsburg Lutheran mission where his father was the pastor and had spoken Arrente before being taught English. As it turned out, Strehlow had grown up with Stuart and knew his parents well. Strehlow visited Stuart on May 18 and for the first time his alibi was heard in English after being translated. On the matter of the police confession, Strehlow wrote:

"In my ten years of varied experience of evidence given by Aboriginals, part Aboriginals, police officers and white residents of the Northern Territory, I had never seen a document even faintly resembling the one I was now looking at. Far from bearing any resemblance to any statement ever made by an Aboriginal or part Aboriginal person....(the document) could have been composed only by some person who was well versed in legal procedure and in the practice of giving court evidence."

On May 20, Stuart applied for leave to appeal to the High Court based on Strehlow’s findings and Justice Reed granted a stay of execution with a new date of June 19 set. On June 18, a further extension to July 7 was granted to allow time for a decision, which was handed down on June 19. Leave to appeal was denied.

On June 22, Dixon contacted Dr. Charles Duguid, who ran the Aborigines’ Advancement League, to discuss Stuart’s situation. On June 27 a meeting of the League, university teachers, clergymen and representatives of the Howard League for Penal Reform was held in Duguid’s Magill home where Dixon and Strehlow gave a talk. It was decided to mount a campaign to keep Stuart alive and the distribution of petitions for commutation were arranged.


For further information on the Stuart case and Fr Dixon's role and the aftermath (including help he received from Pat Dodson after coming out of jail), CLICK READ MORE.
The crime and the case

On Saturday 20 December 1958, Mary Olive Hattam, a nine-year-old girl, disappeared near the South Australian town of Ceduna (pop: 1,200), 768 km (477 mi) from Adelaide. Hattam had been playing on the beach between Ceduna and Thevenard with her brother Peter and their friend Peter Jacobsen. The two boys had left at 2:30 pm to collect a tub to use as a boat but had been distracted and failed to return. At 3:45 pm Jacobsens father, who had been fishing, pulled his boat up at the beach where Hattam was playing but there was no sign of her. Hattam's father went to the beach at 4 pm to collect her and then called on some neighbors to help search without success. As evening fell Roger Cardwell, who ran the local deli and was married to Mary's cousin,[notes 3] alerted the local police and Ceduna citizens who were at the time watching Dial M for Murder in the local Memorial Hall. A search commenced and Hattam's body was found in a small cave at 12.30 am. According to the attending doctor she had been raped, mutilated and murdered between 2.30 pm and 8 pm.

The 27-year old Rupert Max Stuart, an Arrernte man, and teenager Alan Moir had been in Ceduna on 20 December, running the darts stall for the funfair operated by Mr and Mrs Norman Gieseman. Both had gone out drinking during the day and Moir returned late that night, losing consciousness several times due to intoxication. Stuart had been arrested for drinking alcohol at 9:30 pm and was in police custody. This was because at the time, 'full-blooded' Aboriginal people were forbidden to drink alcohol by law.

When picked up on Monday, Stuart was working for the Australian Wheat Board at Thevenard, 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) east of Ceduna. During interrogation Stuart admitted being drunk and travelling from Ceduna to Thevenard on Saturday afternoon but denied the murder. Police took him outside and made him walk barefoot across sand, after which the two trackers confirmed Stuart's tracks matched those on the beach. Stuart later confessed and, although he could not read or write, signed his typed confession with the only English he knew, his name in the block letters that had been taught him by his sister, misspelling his first name as "ROPERT".

Following his confession, Stuart was brought to trial in the Supreme Court of South Australia, with the case opening on 20 April 1959.

There were footprints found on the beach and it was claimed these matched those of Stuart. A taxi driver testified that he had driven Stuart to the murder scene on the afternoon of the crime. Hair belonging to the murderer had been found in the victim’s hand and had been visually compared to Stuart's by police. The hair from the crime scene was introduced as evidence, however no attempt was made by either the prosecution or defence to match them to Stuart’s own hair (the hair has since been destroyed so cannot now be tested). The case against Stuart relied almost entirely on his confession to the police. Stuart had asked to make a statement from the dock but he could not, as he was unable to read the statement prepared from his version of events. Permission for a court official to read the statement on his behalf was refused so Stuart was only able to make a short statement in pidgin English: "I cannot read or write. Never been to school. I did not see the little girl. Police hit me, choke me. Make me said these words. They say I kill her." This led the prosecutor to inform the jury that Stuart's failure to give evidence was proof of guilt. Stuart had no choice but to refuse to testify.

O'Sullivan advocated that police had forced Stuart into the confession, due to Stuart's poor command of the English language. However, the jury was unconvinced by the argument and Stuart was convicted. In line with the law, Judge Reed sentenced Stuart to death on 24 April 1959. Stuart's application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of South Australia was rejected in May 1959. His appeal to the High Court of Australia in June 1959 failed although the High Court observed that certain features of this case have caused us some anxiety.

The prison chaplain was unable to communicate with Stuart due to his limited command of English and called in Catholic priest Father Tom Dixon who spoke fluent Arrernte from his time working in mission stations. Dixon was suspicious about the sophisticated upper class English used in the alleged confession, for example: "The show was situated at the Ceduna Oval." Stuart's native language was Arrernte, he was uneducated, could not read and only spoke a slightly advanced pidgin Arrernte-English known as Northern Territory English. Anthropologist and linguist Ted Strehlow, who had been brought up in Arrernte society and had known Stuart since childhood, also had doubts and after visiting Stuart at Dixon's request on 18 May, was the first person to translate Stuart's alibi from his native tongue. Stuart claimed that he had taken Blackburn's taxi to the Thevenard hotel where he had paid an Aboriginal woman £4 for sex and had remained there until arrested that night. Strehlow also tested Stuart's English. He later swore an affidavit to the effect that the confession could not be genuine, enabling the appeal to the High Court. Ken Inglis, then a lecturer at Adelaide University, wrote in July 1959 of the doubts of Father Dixon and Ted Strehlow in the Nation, a fortnightly magazine. There was further reporting on the case in the Sydney Morning Herald and then Adelaide afternoon newspaper, the News, took up the issue.

Stuart's execution date was set for Tuesday, 7 July and the Executive Council, chaired by Premier Thomas Playford, was due to sit on 6 July to reply to any petitions presented. The Advertiser had devoted all its correspondence pages to Stuart with 75% of writers in favour of commutation. Petitions with thousands of signatures supporting commutation had already been received, but that morning the first petition supporting the execution arrived by telegram. The petition, circulated in Ceduna, Thevenard and the surrounding districts had 334 signatures. The Executive Council sat at 12:30 pm and considered the petitions for 20 minutes before issuing a statement: "The prisoner is left for execution in the due course of the law. No recommendation is made for pardon or reprieve." Stuart was told of the decision and given a cigarette. He was then informed that the execution would take place at 8 am the following morning. Father Dixon was requested to keep Stuart calm and he visited him that night. Asked if he was afraid, Stuart replied he would not be if Dixon stayed through the night and Dixon agreed. Not long after, Stuart was informed that during the afternoon, O'Sullivan had lodged an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London and Justice Reed had issued a 14 day stay; however, this appeal also failed. [18]

Royal Commission 

By the time the Privy Council had rejected Stuart's appeal, Father Dixon had questioned the funfair workers, none of whom had appeared at the trial, and returned with declarations from Mr and Mrs Gieseman and one of the workers, Betty Hopes. Gieseman claimed that Stuart had left the funfair at 9:30 am but had returned for lunch at 1:45 pm. He then worked on the darts stall until 4 pm when Stuart left with Moir. Moir then returned drunk at 11 pm while Stuart did not return until the following morning. Gieseman's wife confirmed this account. Hopes claimed she had worked with Stuart on the stall from 2 pm to 4 pm and gave him 2 shillings (20c) to buy her some chocolate when he told her he was going to the shop. News of the declarations resulted in a petition calling for the case to be re-opened. This in turn led to a petition demanding the death sentence be carried out. The controversy forced Premier Thomas Playford IV to call a Royal Commission.

On 22 June 1959, Father Dixon contacted Dr. Charles Duguid, who ran the Aborigines’ Advancement League, to discuss Stuart’s situation. On 27 June, a meeting of the League, university teachers, clergymen and representative of the Howard League for Penal Reform was held in Duguid’s Magill home, where Dixon and Strehlow gave a talk. It was decided to mount a campaign to keep Stuart alive and the distribution of petitions for Commutation of sentence were arranged. The meeting was mentioned in a small report in The News, an afternoon newspaper, but didn’t mention the participants. On 30 June the morning newspaper, The Advertiser, printed a letter expressing concern over Stuart’s conviction. On 1 June, The News printed a small story with the headline, Petitioners Run a Race with Death. By now supporters and opponents of the death penalty were debating in the two newspapers' Letter to the editor sections, but there was little concern expressed over Stuart himself.

When Dr. H. V. Evatt, leader of the opposition, intervened, the news was featured on the front page of the News’ 3 July edition. The campaign so far was for commutation, but Evatt argued for a retrial. Printed alongside Evatt’s statement on the front page was one by the South Australian Police Association intended, it said, to inform the public "of the real facts". This statement claimed that Stuart was not illiterate and spoke "impeccable English". It also claimed that Stuart was legally classified as a white man and cited a record of offences that are not offences when committed by an Aboriginal person. It also recounted a trial in Darwin where Stuart had defended himself, personally cross examined witnesses in English and given evidence himself. O’Sullivan, Stuart's solicitor, wrote a reply refuting the Police Association claims which was published the next day, citing the fact that Stuart’s police record included seven convictions for "Being an Aborigine, did drink liquor," and pointing out that the President of the Police Association was Detective Sgt. Paul Turner, the most senior of the six policemen who had obtained Stuart’s contested confession. The Law Society expressed outrage and stated that the Police Association statement bordered on contempt of court and would prejudice any jury hearing a future appeal. The Society strongly suggested the government fund a further appeal to the United Kingdom Privy Council. O’Sullivan was denied access to records of Stuart’s trials to check the English that Turner claimed Stuart had used, and the government also refused to prevent Turner from commenting publicly on the case. As a result, the Sunday Mail, then a joint enterprise of the News and Advertiser, printed prominently on its front page O’Sullivan's "suspicion" that the government was determined to hang Stuart and was supporting the Police Association in order to do so.

Stuart was released on parole in 1973. He was then in and out of jail for breaking provisions of his parole that banned consumption of alcohol until 1984, when he was paroled from Adelaide's Yatala Labour Prison for the sixth and final time. During his time at Yatala Prison, Stuart learned proper English, became literate, began painting in watercolours and acquired other work skills. In between being returned to prison a number of times for breaches of his parole between 1974 and 1984, he married and settled at Santa Teresa, a Catholic mission south-east of Alice Springs.

In 1985, Patrick Dodson, then director of the Central Land Council, appointed Stuart to a part-time job. This appointment transformed Stuart, giving him respect and giving rise to his successful rehabilitation. Stuart shared his knowledge of Aboriginal law and tradition, which he had gained from his grandfather as a youth, and became an Arrernte elder.

Stuart has subsequently become an active figure in Central Australian Aboriginal affairs, in particular with the Lhere Artepe native title organisation.

Stuart was chairman of the Central Land Council (CLC) from 1998 to 2001. In 2000, as chairman of the CLC, Stuart welcomed the Queen to Alice Springs and made a presentation to her. in September 2001, Stuart was cultural director of the Yeperenye Federation Festival. In 2004, Stuart was the Public Officer for the CANCA Aboriginal Corporation, a role derived from his employment with the Central Land Council.

Publications on the case

Books on the case were written by Ken Inglis, one of the first to publicise the doubts about the case; Sir Roderic Chamberlain, the Crown Prosecutor; and Father Tom Dixon, the priest who raised concerns about Stuart's confession.


The first chapter of the 1993 four part Blood Brothers documentary series, Broken English - The Conviction of Max Stuart was directed by Ned Lander. It is a docudrama which contains interviews with key figures in the Stuart case that alternates with dramatised recreations. Lawrence Turner plays Max Stuart with Hugo Weaving, Noah Taylor and Tony Barry co-starring.

Originally intended to be a documentary on the case based around Father Tom Dixon, Dixon died during production and the film was restructured as a docudrama. Historian Ken Inglis, who participated in the Stuart case as a journalist and wrote an account of the trial and appeals, praised the documentary as accurate, but noted that "anything which could have suggested that Stuart was guilty... was left out of the film." The weight of evidence, he said, tilted toward guilt rather than innocence.