August 26, 1925. In Perth’s crowded Government House Ballroom, a dashing young fellow, Cyril Gidley, is merrily dancing with a young woman at the local hospital’s annual charity ball.
Dapper in his new dinner suit, with white gloves and silver watch, Cyril, 25, has no idea his life is about to end.
Suddenly, a young woman in a dazzling blue gown approaches Cyril, waving a revolver. She fires a bullet straight at Cyril, who collapses onto the dance floor. Within minutes, he is dead.
The woman with the gun, Audrey Jacob, 20, is quickly surrounded, the weapon, taken from her. She’s led away by police, as the startled band starts playing God Save The King and horrified guests are ushered out into the night. A devastating ending to the ball, and one that will set tongues wagging for years.
Audrey is soon charged with the murder of Cyril, a British maritime engineer. The dead man, it runs out, is her ex fiancé.
What had driven Audrey to turn a revolver on the man she’d once loved, savagely ending his life? If convicted, the young artist faced death by hanging. And considering she fired the gun, surrounded by witnesses, it looked certain her days were numbered.
This shocking crime and the murder trial, held in Perth close to 100 years ago, made headlines around Australia.
A journalist who’d attended the ball and witnessed the shooting first-hand, said of the victim’s last moments: “I saw a dreadful smear of blood on the young man’s face, increasing, as I looked, to a trickle.. His eyes were half open and there was a sense of wandering terror in them.”
Audrey, he wrote in Perth tabloid, The Mirror: “was pallid and dazed, with a look of ‘What have I done? What has happened?’ She was unnaturally calm and almost trance-like.”
But astonishingly, despite having fired the fatal bullet surrounded by witnesses, Audrey Jacob ended up being found not guilty of Cyril’s murder.
She walked free, to the cheers of onlookers packing the courtroom. She clearly killed her lover – so how did she manage to get away with it?
Historian Leigh Straw says it’s all thanks to the young woman’s brilliant lawyer, Arthur Haynes. A media-friendly show-pony, he managed to make the jury feel sorry for Audrey, depicting her as a poor young woman wronged by a cruel and manipulative ex fiancé.
Explains Leigh, “Haynes persuaded the jury it was an accidental shooting, brought on by the act of Cyril ignoring Audrey and publicly slighting her.”
Haynes also told the court that Cyril had once raped Audrey.
Their romance had started so well. Audrey and Cyril, who worked on a boat, The Kangaroo, had met in mid 1924. It was love at first sight, with Audrey breaking her engagement to another man to be with Cyril. On October 8, 1924, they announced their engagement in the Perth newspapers. But later tensions arose, and they broke off the engagement weeks before the shooting.
Arthur Haynes declared Audrey’s parents had not approved of Cyril – with justification.
“He told the court young Cyril had managed to drive a wedge between Audrey’s parents, and had even informed Audrey’s mother that her father was cheating on her, resulting in her father moving out of home,” says Leigh.
Audrey’s mother told the court Cyril became domineering and harsh towards her daughter.
The crown argued that Cyril was the one who was scared. After his death, a note was found in his belongings, in his handwriting, saying Audrey had “threatened me with my life.. this note is in case she does keep her vow.”
But Audrey’s lawyer told the jury there was no proof Cyril wrote the note, and to ignore it.
Asked why she had had a gun, Audrey told the packed courtroom her mother had sent her the weapon for protection as she lived alone in the city. The night she’d spotted Cyril at the ball, dancing with another woman and ignoring her, she’d fled back to her rented room and taken the gun, intending to kill herself. But somehow, she’d found herself back at the ball, approaching Gidley.
He’d said to her, “Excuse me, I’m dancing,” she recounted.
Then, “Something snapped in my head. I don’t remember anything more,” the accused woman told the court.
The jury believed the striking young woman, deciding she wasn’t responsible for firing the fatal bullet into his chest.
“I think because she was caught with the gun in her hand, the police and prosecution didn’t dream Audrey would be acquitted, and were taken off guard by the talented defence lawyer, ” Leigh tells The Starfish
She’s just written a book about this extraordinary WA tale, The Ballroom Murder. “This case may be less well known in Perth these days, but it remains one of the most remarkable in Australia’s criminal history.”
As for the acquitted Audrey Jacob, “She ended up marrying a rich American and spending the rest of her life in the US. But so much of her life remains a mystery. She does have a daughter though, and relatives still live in Australia. If anyone reading this knows anything more about her, I’d love to hear from them!”
The Ballroom Murder by Leigh Straw (Fremantle Press) is out now.