Saturday, January 18, 2014

DARWIN’S HOUDINI-Continuing biog of Crusading Editor,”Big Jim” Bowditch .

Bowditch  was mentioned  nationwide  in  connection with  the hunt for a man dubbed Darwin’s Houdini ,  Arsenue Calma , who  escaped  from  prison on several  occasions.  His  repeated escapes led  to an inquiry into the running of Fannie Bay Gaol  which  resulted in  some  bizarre revelations about things that went on in the  tin - walled calaboose.   These included the fact that  female  prisoners  entertained  male  inmates and some warders ;   ingredients  for home  brew could be bought on the premises.

Calma  escaped twice  in l955. On July  12,  l956 , while serving four months  for breaking , entering and stealing, he was placed  in  solitary confinement . The very next day, his cell was found to be empty.  He had  scaled the  wall  in his cell to a  narrow  window  12 ft above the floor and squeezed  through bars feet  first .  At one stage he was  hanging , jammed against the  bars by his ears and  painfully tore himself loose.  Each time he  escaped  the community was warned that he could be dangerous.  
By Peter Simon
In those days prisoners serving long sentences were sent south. In  Melbourne’s Pentridge prison , Calma had met a Catholic priest who helped him develop  commercial  art  skills.  In one escape   he  simply ran  straight up the  prison wall  and did a back flip over  the  barbed wire  at the  top .   After each escape  he  hung  around  Darwin  and was often seen  from time to time.  Frustrated  police  chased  him all over  the town.   He was arrested with another man , but  managed to  talk his way  free.

During his time  on  the  run he  did many  daring and audacious  things, like joining the  drinkers in  an   RAAF   mess and  wrote a letter to the  Assistant Administrator, Reg Marsh, offering to give himself  up if he  could serve  out his time in Darwin as he was “ engaged  to an inmate ”.  Bowditch  took a close interest in Calma after  about his  third escape  from custody . Despite a large manhunt , he  remained at large.   Police nearly  caught  him  several  times. 


Calma let it be known he had been up a tree listening to police  describe in  colourful language   what  they would do to him when they  caught  the fugitive.  On one occasion he was in a hut at  Stuart Park  when  six armed  police  surrounded the  building.  He jumped into  a wardrobe  and peeped out the keyhole .  

Suddenly,  he darted out of the wardrobe  and escaped in a hail of  bullets.  Police claimed they  fired into the air , but Calma subsequently said he had been hit on the foot.   Bowditch ,  who went out to the hut , also claimed the  police  fired at Calma . One officer had even  told Bowditch to sniff  his recently fired pistol  and  said the escapee would soon be  captured or shot.   Bowditch  wrote a piece critical of the way  police  used firearms  in  built up areas . Severe  restrictions  were  then placed on the use of firearms  in  the  town .
Feeling  that  Calma was  more likely to be shot  dead  than  captured  alive , Bowditch discussed the  manhunt with relatives  and  friends of the fleeing man .  Relatives  said Calma’s  personality had changed after he had been  knocked down in a pub brawl in  Pine Creek and  badly kicked and beaten about the head  by  several men .  They told  Bowditch Calma had been  taken to hospital and had  never been the same since, being involved in   violent  events, including the stabbing of  the  best man at a  wedding .  Bowditch discussed with several  doctors  the likely impact  of the beating  on Calma . In Alice Springs, seeking  an explanation  for  the behavior of an old  woman he was trying to help,  Bowditch  had  suggested likely  reasons for her  actions to  a medico . The  doctor had responded  by  calling him “ Dr Bowditch ”.
Convinced that Calma needed psychiatric  treatment, Bowditch  spoke to  a man in  the Workers’ Club  who knew Calma.  Eventually  Bowditch received  a message  saying Calma  would like to  meet him.  Arrangements were made for Jim to  pick up a man  about midnight  at Stuart Park  and he would then be taken to the escapee.   Apprehensive about what he might encounter, Bowditch put his Service revolver  ,  a rusty .38 Smith and Wesson  in a coat . When his contact drove up , Bowditch slid in alongside the driver and threw his coat in the back . 

However, the  gun hit  the  door  handle  and  made a loud noise.   The driver   picked up the coat  and took out the gun.  He then accused  Bowditch of  a double cross.   After some quick talking, an apology and   a  handshake they were on their way to the rendezvous.  Just to show he  was not planning anything untoward  Bowditch threw the gun into long grass  next to the road  and  could not find it  when he went back  later on hoping to recover  the firearm. 

Calma was hiding in  a stormwater  drain in scrub  in a gully behind  the Haritos  store . A voice asked,  “Who’s that ? ”When told it was Jim Bowditch,  a torch came to life.  There was  Calma- no shoes, no shirt , thin and wiry . They shook hands  and spoke for about  an hour . Calma laughed  and  joked about the  police chase.  Calma “raved on a bit”  about his  sentence . Bowditch tried to get through to him the futility of being on the run.  He urged him to  come and see his old friend  , the lawyer Dick Ward .
Calma said he  would like a day to think about the proposition and to come back at the same  time  the next evening  . Before  slipping away into the darkness , he asked Bowditch not to mention  what  had transpired that night.   During the following day  Jim  wanted to discuss the situation with Ward , but did not want to put him in  a difficult position   Bowditch went  back to the rendezvous  point  on his own that night  and waited for an hour before Calma  turned up .  Calma  was a bit uneasy, and they smoked   and talked . Finally , Calma  said “ Let’s go. I’ll do what you want. ”. 

It was about  2am  when they arrived at the  Ward residence .  The lawyer  just opened the door  and said, “ You must want to see me .”  Bowditch told  Ward that he had Calma with him . They drank some beer  and Ward undertook to represent  Calma .  Ward   rang  Fannie Bay Gaol and said he  was bringing in  the escapee .

They drove to the prison and officers surrounded the car.  Calma  caused  Ward to smile  when he said, “ If you want to speak  to me , speak to my  mouthpiece. ” Calma then shook hands with Ward and Bowditch and was  taken inside  the prison.  Southern newspapers  spoke of Bowditch contacting the “ Darwin underworld ”to arrange a secret rendezvous  with the wanted man.

Despite evidence  brought about the change  in Calma’s   personality  following the  beating , the court did not  take much notice of  what  was said.  He served out the remainder of his sentence a  model prisoner . Calma was good  at drawing  and also made  numerous things, including  boats out of  matchsticks . When he was released from prison  he came and saw Bowditch , and thanked him  for his help. NEXT: The  great  food  bowl  of  Asia  flop .