BATTLER would have probably been a fair tag for Ernie Maher.
The former featherweight boxer of the 1920s, who according to some records won eight out of 23 fights, was one pug who felt the effects of his time in the ring.
He was known as Slack while still holding the gloves, but the nickname was probably even more apt in his middle-age than when he was an athlete.
Slack used to drag one of his feet when he walked ‘‘like a horse digging its toe into the ground’’, as it was once described.
And he had awful constant shakes because of nerve damage, his son Keith once said, commenting that the only time they stopped was when his father put up his hands as though to fight.
His voice slurred and was hard to comprehend, even more so when he was excited.
There was definitely no concussion rule back when Slack Maher had a crack.
But it was these boxing hangover traits that also played a part in an extraordinary tale of early-day loan sharks, illegal two-up rings hidden in bushland, and murder.
Slack Maher called ‘‘Hollywood’’ home, a shanty town out the back of Jesmond which popped up during the Great Depression and continued through the 1950s and 1960s.
It housed a bunch of families battling to make ends meet. Some worked. Some didn’t.
Many of the men folk used to spend way too much time at a two-up school nearby, not far from where the Skyline drive-in movie theatre was later built.
They came from everywhere to punt.
It was here where Slack Maher made his coin, lending the losers money until their next pay. With a slab of interest, of course.
And it was also where he was murdered.
On the night of July 12, 1951, detectives got more involved in what had been a missing persons case. It had been a day since Slack Maher had failed to arrive home after an afternoon at the two-up, and his family was worried.
The scuttlebutt was as thick as the bracken ferns throughout Hollywood as the cops joined Slack Maher’s brother, Mick Maher, and others to look for him.
Mick Maher was to tell police: ‘‘I think he must have been bumped off.’’ The suggestion was always that it was over cash. Slack Maher was known to take between £30 and £50 with him to the two-up school – a serious amount of cash back then.
It was decided, after Mick Maher had apparently told police the bush had been searched and nothing found, that they would start again in the morning.
Just after dawn, Mick Maher turned up at a detective sergeant’s house at New Lambton and said they thought Slack might be in a dam.
The detective, and a few other officers, joined Mick Maher near Jesmond Park.
An inquest was to later hear that Mick Maher, in the presence of James Ernest Minter, said to them: ‘‘This man tells me he was going into the park yesterday and heard Slack’s voice raised and arguing the point and shortly afterwards heard two shots.’’
Mick Maher was not to know, but in the months to come that same witness almost had him convicted of murder.
As the party came to the waterhole, the eagle-eyed cops spotted seven ‘‘bloodspots’’. They followed a track towards Slack Maher’s home, and found a twig which appeared to have a significant blood stain on it. Was this where he was shot?
They went back to the seven blood drops and saw marks made by horse hooves. And they followed the blood trail ‘‘three-quarters of a mile’’ to a mine shaft.
A court would later hear evidence from a detective who was standing with Mick Maher at the top of the shaft before the brother said: ‘‘I’ll make a long forecast. I’ll take a shade of odds that when he comes up he will have two slugs in him.’’
Another copper said: ‘‘This is a bad blue, Mick.’’
Mick Maher replied: ‘‘My oath it is. It should not be very hard to find the culprit. He lent a bloke £30 at the school on Tuesday. The bloke was to meet him in the park on Wednesday and pay him back. There is no doubt he met him and paid him with a slug through the head.’’
The cop said at that point there had been no mention of a slug in the head. But when Slack Maher’s body was lifted from the mine shaft, they found one bullet in the head and one bullet in his arm.
The witness sounded right. Maybe Slack Maher was shot twice after an argument over monies owed.
At the time of his death, Slack Maher had about 12 blokes on his books as owing.
It was to be another week or so before the witness, Mr Minter, was to tell police more.
Slack Maher was arguing loudly, all right. With his brother, Mick, it was alleged.
Some 12 days after Slack Maher was shot dead and dragged via horseback to the mine shaft, Mick Maher was charged with the murder.
The following month, a four-day inquest was heard in a packed Newcastle courtroom.
This is how the Newcastle Morning Herald reported Minter’s evidence at the inquest: ‘‘While crossing the football ground, [Minter] heard Slack Maher’s voice on his right. It was loud. He watched Mick Maher take five or six paces along the track towards Hollywood. Minter said he could not see Slack Maher.
‘‘Walking back to the edge of the old tramway cutting, he saw Slack Maher standing about 30 yards away.
‘‘Michael Maher was standing about three yards from his brother. They were arguing. He heard Mick Maher say to Slack: ‘I have a case coming up in Sydney and I want some money for it.’
‘‘Slack Maher said: ‘I gave you money before. You refused to pay it back and I won’t give you any money.’
‘‘Mick Maher then said: ‘I want money urgently and I don’t care how I get it.’
‘‘[Minter] heard Mick Maher say the case was over a boy he had in Sydney. Minter said he walked 10 paces to his left and looked back.
‘‘He saw Mick Maher put a .22 rifle to his shoulder, Slack Maher was walking away from Hollywood.
‘‘Minter said he turned and heard one shot. Glancing back, he heard a second shot and saw Mick Maher going back towards Hollywood. Slack Maher had disappeared. Minter said he could see above Mick Maher’s chest.’’
Huge evidence. But there were discrepancies.
Slack Maher’s son, Keith, said no one could understand his dad and it would ‘‘be still more difficult to understand his father when he became even more excited, even at close range’’.
Was Minter telling the truth?
The inquest ended and Mick Maher was formally committed to stand trial for the murder of his brother in November.
The same evidence was given at trial.
But questions arose: Why did it take Minter so long to tell anyone? He even still went to the two-up game after apparently seeing his mate shot dead by the bloke’s brother.
The biggest piece of evidence was Mick Maher’s alibi. He didn’t have one when first asked by the police.
But he turned up later and gave a blow-by-blow description of what he had done. Including that he went in a truck to get cement at Georgetown and some mortar that he took to Lambton.
He had helped a mate with a house, then went to Carroll’s Hotel at Lambton until closing time, arriving home about 7pm.
And he had at least two blokes who vouched for him under oath. The defence would have known that the forensic pathologist had determined that Slack Maher was killed between noon and 6pm.
The jury returned after 40 minutes deliberation and found Mick Maher not guilty.