The Drunken Detective c.1896
by Michael Shelford © 2017
Thomas Dunn was a detective under the temporary employ of Customs in 1896. He had a thirst for liquor and was determined in his efforts to quench it.
In the last few decades prior to Australia’s 1901 Federation, the responsibility for enforcing Victoria’s liquor licensing laws lay in the hands of the Customs Department. During this period, evidence in regard to breaches of licensing regulations was collected through the use of revenue detectives.
Revenue detectives were usually private contractors engaged by Customs. Their methods were of a surreptitious nature and thus kept hoteliers, wine saloon keepers, restaurateurs and other purveyors of intoxicating fluids in a constant state of watchful anticipation. They posed as customers to gain entry to licensed and unlicensed premises, often using inventive disguises including that of the sailor, soldier and clergyman. Once inside an establishment, they were known to use the tactics of the agent provocateur - actively encouraging a proprietor or staff member to break the law so that there was a case to prosecute. The infractions could include anything from trading without a license through to selling relabelled, watered down or otherwise inferior beverages. The remit of the revenue detector also extended to gathering evidence of the improper behaviour of premises such as trading outside of licensing hours or allowing convicted criminals and ‘women of ill repute’ to frequent the premises.
The job was a pretty good racket for those who enjoyed a tipple as they often got to sup on the public purse for weeks or months on end and were paid quite handsomely for the privilege. They were generally strangers to the district which meant there was less chance of their cover being blown. They were often alcoholics with a criminal record which made them typical of the type of customer expected at certain establishments. Once the matter got to court they were not always the most reliable of witnesses. Their criminal past was regularly unveiled by the defence and their recollections as to what had occurred during their drunken evidence gathering expeditions often turned out to be hazy.
One such revenue detective was Thomas Dunn. A formerly respectable citizen, he had fallen from grace due to his use of fraudulent cheques and was subsequently employed by the Customs Department in 1896. His role was to work on licensing cases under the direction of the famous Customs officer: Detective Inspector John Christie. It wasn’t long before Christie began to notice character traits in Dunn which suggested that he was not a man particularly suited to the role. He exhibited an extraordinary thirst for the product he was investigating, resulting in a constant state of extreme intoxication. Detective Christie dispensed with Dunn’s services within 2 weeks of having hired him.
Though Dunn had lost his job at Customs he wasn’t ready to give up his responsibilities. He continued striving to ensure that Melbourne’s liquor supplies were up to standard by posing as a Customs Officer and visiting the many hotels and bars about the suburbs. The drunken former detective found that publicans were quite prepared to do their civic duty by providing samples of their booze for his evaluation.
Things went well for the first month but inevitably someone was going to become suspicious and question his credentials. The first business to notify the authorities was the Tankerville Arms in Fitzroy. Dunn had attempted to use his influence as a faux Customs agent to coerce bar staff into providing him with a couple of free bottles of liquor to take away. They refused to acquiesce and instead reported the matter to the police.
Whilst the authorities were investigating this potential misdemeanour, Dunn entered the Village Belle Hotel in Abbotsford and represented himself as an officer of the Excise Department. He announced that he wished to test the stock and was subsequently presented with 4 clean glasses. He began by sampling a light rum and a dark rum. He then tested a large nobbler of JDKZ Gin and one of Hennessy’s Brandy, drinking each specimen neat and commenting that he found them to be true and correct. He was especially enamoured with the dark rum, telling the barmaid that it was 45% proof and that it could take a little water if the establishment wished to increase their profit margin. At this point the licensee arrived and Dunn introduced himself and again explained his purpose. He had verified the hard liquors but would also need to test the tap beer. He directed the publican to pour him a long glass which he promptly drained before requesting another, one glass not being sufficient to properly sample the quality. The licensee became suspicious and asked why a hydrometer was not being used to test the liquors. He also suggested that it may be an opportune time for Dunn to produce his certification. Dunn explained that he did not have his equipment or paperwork with him but to save the establishment going through the same rigorous tests again he called for a pen and paper. Once the requested items had arrived he proceeded to write: “I certify to you that I have examined the liquors in your bar, and have found them all correct, Thomas Dunn, Customs House.” He then handed the document to the incredulous publican who responded by sending for the police. When Dunn learned that he was being detained awaiting the arrival of the men in blue he threatened to hit the licensee with a loaded stick. His evaluation of the purity of the spirituous liquors was soon proven to be correct though, causing him to slump into a seated position.
In court, he claimed that he had never been given notice of dismissal by Detective Christie and so, still believed himself to be in the employ of Customs House. An official letter from Detective Christie to the court persuaded the judge otherwise and Dunn was found guilty on 2 charges of imposition and 1 charge of attempted imposition. He was sentenced to 9 months hard labour at Old Melbourne Gaol. He was granted freedom by remission after serving 7 ½ months of his term.
As this was Thomas Dunn’s only prison record in the State of Victoria, it could be assumed that the punishment had a sobering effect.
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.