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A Nightmare on Nickson Street

The massacre of the Woolloomooloo Rose in Surry Hills.

Massacre of the Woolloomooloo Rose

Bloody handprints smeared the glass window, which George Rose peered through. The small bedroom on the other side was in a terrible state with furniture knocked over, books and picture frames scattered everywhere, and blood - lots of blood. The walls and ceiling splattered with it. On the bed, the white linen-soaked red, lay the contorted lifeless figure of a woman. George observed a man in the corner of the room, leaning out the bedroom window and looking over the backyard. The man was covered in blood. He was puffing on a white cigarette smeared red. With each draw, the cigarette smouldered, and the man inhaled a lung full of smoke. 

“Richard!’ yelled George. “Why did you do this in my house?” The smoking man took a deep draw and slowly turned around, raising an open palm in George’s direction. He smiled at George, and beneath his red-stained toothy grin was a vile deep wound stretching along his throat from ear to ear, bleeding profusely. The man exhaled, but the smoke did not pass through his lips; instead billowed out of the gaping wound.

Notes from massacre of the Woolloomooloo Rose

On the evening of March 28th, 1906, the house at 66 Nickson Street, Surry Hills, was the scene of one of the most vile and horrifying murders ever reported to that date. When police arrived at approximately 6:50 pm, they discovered a room that resembled “a killing yard.” In a bedroom on the first floor were the mutilated remains of Rose Arnold, a woman in her twenties, a former tenant of the house. Lying by her side was Richard Riley, dying from a deep open wound. The room showed the signs of a violent struggle. At 7 pm, Richard was rushed to the casualty ward of St Vincent’s Hospital. Rose lay on the bed untouched until the coroner arrived at 8:45 pm. 

It was revealed to detectives that the suspect was a resident of the house and a tenant of Mr George Rose. George owned and occupied the house with his wife and two-year-old child. He told police that Richard Riley took over the room from the victim a few weeks earlier. Rose Arnold had occupied the room in November the previous year but had to move out after she got a job at a hotel in Woolloomooloo.

At that time, Richard would frequently visit Rose. On the night of the murder, both Richard and Rose arrived at the home together at approximately 6:10 pm. They were in great spirits, laughing and playing with Mr. and Mrs. Rose’s small child. Riley went upstairs to his room; George and his wife offered Rose some tea; however, Rose insisted on going upstairs to see Richard before having tea. She ran upstairs to the room. Moments later, they heard screaming, “Help!” “Mrs Rose, call the police!” “Murder!”.

George and his wife ran upstairs but stopped when they heard two gunshots from the room. A deathly silence that followed unnerved Mrs Rose, who returned downstairs to comfort her scared child. George banged on the bedroom door and received no response. He ran to the balcony to look through the window.

After discovering the grizzly crime scene, he took his wife and child out of the house and went to Surry Hills Police Station on Bourke Street. He returned to find dozens of street residents crowded in front of the house. Moments later, they all shrieked and gasped as several more gunshots rang out from within. Approximately half an hour later, the police arrived.

Drawings from the murder on Nickson Street

Richard Riley Interviewed

Doctors treated Richard Riley, and then he was interviewed by detectives in the hospital ward. Due to the deep laceration of his throat having severed his windpipe and vocal cords, he was unable to speak. Gesturing for a pencil and notepad, he wrote up a statement that would disturb the nation.

“I die. I am satisfied. My love I Kill. Dick Riley, New York. My right name is E. Sexton.” 

After writing about his sister in England, he proceeded with… 

“I am a bad man, but I love my girl, Rose Arnold”. 

The doctor asked if he had shot himself; Richard wrote

“I try a lot, but I fail; and then I cut my throat. I fire two at her and then fail. I cut; I walk about; I don’t know how, but I am bad.”

Richard Kelly details

Richard Riley was believed to have been an American who arrived in Australia on the R.M.S Sonoma, on which he was a galley cook. 

The coronial inquest was delayed until May for Richard to recover. A stream of witnesses provided evidence that painted a picture of the relationship between Richard and Rose and the events leading to her violent murder. Many vital events occurred in the former President Lincoln Hotel on Forbes Street and Cathedral Street in Woolloomooloo.

The Lincoln Hotel

It was here that Richard would visit Rose while she worked as a barmaid. She would refer to Richard as “my boy,” and it appeared they were in a relationship. However, Richard was very jealous and violent towards her when she showed other men attention. On one occasion, he threatened to bottle her, and on another, he pulled a revolver out and threatened to shoot a patron who was talking with her.

Rose ended the relationship, and the word got back to Richard that she was seeing another man. Richard confronted Rose about this, and when learning of the relationship dissolving, he convinced her to come to his room at 66 Nickson Street and collect some of her belongings. 

Victim Wounds

Doctors were brought in to describe the injuries found on the victim and the suspect. Rose had a cut on her throat that was four inches in length and a depth to the vertebral column. Her fingers and palms were cut to the bone, indicating she fought vigorously to hold back her attackers. She had a bullet wound in her face and a second bullet wound in her left upper arm; the bullet passed through her arm into her chest.

She was covered in cuts and bruises. It was ruled that the shot to the head and her throat wound were both lethal. Richard Riley had a bullet wound in his jaw and a cut on his throat four inches in length.

These wounds were self-inflicted. The evidence suggested that Richard ambushed Rose as she entered the room, attempting to cut her throat. She was a woman with an athletic build and was rather tall. She managed to fight off his attack, resulting in her grasping the Bengal razor and the blade cutting into her fingers.

Richard managed to draw his revolver and fire several shots; some missed, but two hit her at point-blank range. When she went down, he finished her off with the blade to the throat. Afterwards, he raised the revolver to his head and fired. He failed to kill himself, so he proceeded to carve his own throat with the razor.

The pain was so overwhelming that he gave up and stumbled around the room, bleeding profusely. He reached the open window, leant against it and lit a cigarette. The coroner referred Richard to stand trial for wilful murder. 

Trial Attempts

There were two attempts at a trial.

The first was on June 12th 1906, when Richard’s defence team declared that he could not stand trial due to insanity. Two NSW government medical officers stated that Richard believed Rose Arnold to still be alive and hallucinated meeting with her on a nightly basis. Furthermore, Richard had abandoned his American accent and adopted a French accent—a disturbing revelation. The jury returned a verdict that Richard was insane.

The judge ordered he be returned to the Darlinghurst Lunatic Reception House on Forbes Street and held until he was able to stand trial.

In May 1907, more than a year after the crime was committed, Richard Riley was determined sane and released from Parramatta Asylum to stand trial. The witnesses and evidence were presented to the jury. The defence argued that Richard had a mental illness brought on by a head trauma he obtained several years earlier. Richard took the stand and told of his love for Rose, his extreme bouts of jealous rage and how wounds he received as a Natal carbineer in the Boer War in South Africa caused this. This story was initially doubted, but evidence was brought forward proving his military service and the head injury.

Regardless of this, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder. Richard was allowed to speak and went on a tirade about how he and his supporters had been persecuted, and he had been forced to stay in the Parramatta Asylum with English convicts.


The judge passed down a sentence of death by hanging in Darlinghurst prison. Upon hearing the sentence, Richard leapt to his feet and to the jury, he yelled, “That's all you can give me. I am done then, but if it is in my power, I'll haunt those people who persecuted me!”

Lucky for the jury, Richard Riley’s sentence was commuted, and the New South Wales government ordered him to be held “at the Governor’s pleasure.” 

Richard Riley was a complex and mysterious figure. Who was he? Where was he really from? What motivated him to commit such a horrendous act on someone he claimed to love? Did he have hallucinations, or was it just an act? After more than a century, we aren’t any closer to solving this crime.

If you are interested in the darker side of our history, check out our story on the ghost sites of Sydney here.


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