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Was Carl Webb stalking Jessica Harkness?

Two posts in two days – how outrageous – but a few notions have come to mind that need airing, in particular the possibility that the reason for Jessica’s move to Adelaide may have been because of her fear of Carl Webb.

Carl Webb was without doubt a highly unsavoury character. A violent man prone to threatening and beating his younger wife Dorothy. A sullen, suicidal bad-tempered gambler who finally threw her out of her Melbourne home some months after Jessica Harkness became pregnant.

She too was in Melbourne about that time, living with her parents in Mentone and enjoying a relationship with Prosper Thomson to the extent that his family DNA showed up in their granddaughter, Rachel.

They then moved to Adelaide where she was no longer known as Harkness after having changed her name to Thomson despite not being married to Prosper, an unsurprising move some say as having a child out of wedlock in those days was a social embarrassment for both the Harkness and Thomson families, though possibly not for Prosper and Jessica as they were living in a city far from home and family so there may have been another reason for her to assume his name prior to marrying him.
It can also be noted that throughout the proceedings Jessica provided false information to the police with regard to her name. This was something she would have not done lightly as the consequences for lying to the police would have been serious, particularly in the case of a suspected murder with the body found so close to her home.

She gave birth to her son Robin in July 1947 and in all probability falsified his birth certificate, giving her name as Jessica Thomson, however this is unproved.

The South Australian Telephone Directory issued in November 1947 contained an entry for Jessica that read  Thomson J E Sister .. 90a Moseley Glnlg … X 3239

Carl Webb deserted his wife in 1947, his subsequent whereabouts unknown.

Now it all gets a little murky

“Jessica’s neighbour told police a man had come to some flats next door the previous year (1948) and enquired for a nurse. She could not remember the month.  It was after this incident that the body was found on the beach at Somerton, not far from the woman’s home.”

Was the caller Carl Webb?

All it would require of him to find Jessica would be to know what name to look for in the Adelaide Directory, meaning he would have known about her name change, something she may have done before leaving Melbourne for Adelaide.

Meaning he knew Jessica when she lived in Melbourne.

Was Carl Webb the the reason she fled the 700+ kilometres from Melbourne to Adelaide, far from her home, family and friends, pregnant with a child who would not have many chances to see his grandparents?

Was she in fear of this violent, suicidal man? A man she thought she had escaped?

Is that why she appeared so shocked to see his likeness in the bust?

But this is all very hypothetical … just more of the same  .. though years after Feltus interviewed Jessica he retained strong memories of how it went for the documentary Dancing with the Dead.

“She seemed like someone who was running away from something,

or running away from being found – or identified.”

What scared her so badly she appeared never to have recovered?

Because there was the often quoted remark her daughter Kate made on 60 Minutes decades after Carl Webb was found dead.

She had a dark side, a very strong dark side.


23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Clive #

    In Melbourne, I wonder if Carl crossed paths with Prosper in some shady (no questions asked) work. Was Carl the man who wrote to Jessie in Melbourne?

    October 22, 2022
  2. Something we will never know, Clive, nevertheless we can keep questioning everything ..

    October 22, 2022
  3. thedude747 #

    Maybe Jess was the centre of a bizarre love triangle between PT and Carl who connect in Melbourne through dodgy dealings. . She gets pregnant and both are potential dads. She chooses PT in the end who woos her with dreams of a new life by the sea and little old Adelaide. PT being the more stable option and the move to Adelaide serves two purposes both escaping the stigma of the un married mother and cuts Carl out off the picture.

    October 23, 2022
    • Be nice if the neighbour remembered what day the caller asked if a nurse lived next door .. like November 30.

      October 23, 2022
  4. misca #

    The whole investigation was so shabby, they didn’t even document who the neighbour was. It’s laughable.

    October 23, 2022
  5. Jerry Klindt #

    @misca – Well, yeah, there were plenty of instances where the police appear to have been rather disinterested or careless. But the police weren’t there to satisfy the curiosity of us blog posters far in the future. It isn’t illegal to ask whether a nurse lives in the neighborhood. The stranger looking for a nurse (whether it was any nurse or a specific nurse) wasn’t a police matter. Months had elapsed before some slight connection to the unidentified body was possibly established, and memories of some long-ago trivial interaction had faded by then.

    October 23, 2022
    • a lurker #

      The police appear indifferent and careless because they didn’t realise this was a 75 year mystery. They had another John Doe (they’d picked up a few stiffs off the beach that year). They knew someone would identify him – they almost always do.
      By the time noone came they’d missed the window on a lot of evidence. Now you either have to admit you were a bit complacent, or you need to cover up your failures….and in doing so introduce inconsistency and contradictions.

      October 24, 2022
      • Jerry Klindt #

        Good points. The police got off to an immediate bad start by deciding that the body was E.C. Johnson, of Arthur Street, Payneham. It would be interesting to know how that mistake was made. You would think they must have sent somebody to Johnson’s house before giving his name to the newspaper. I guess if nobody was home when they got there they took that as confirmation.

        October 24, 2022
  6. Guzz Rating #

    A simplistic scenario on the initial meeting??? Jessica had the hots (at first) for Boxall. This waned when she decided to hitch her wagon to Prosper. By chance, she bumped into a stranger, Webb, in Melbourne and at first sight she thought it was Alf Boxall. At this point the “you have a doppelganger in Sydney”, polite small talk, starts. Jessica gives him a copy of this daft book of poems (remember, she does that sort of thing…it’s what she does). Jessica thinks nothing more of it and goes to Adelaide, but Webb’s smitten (he’s obviously not interested in his own marriage…he’s depressed…maybe owes gambling debts…an escape to Adelaide might get him out of the “brown and smelly”) So he takes a chance and begins looking for her. Finds the house…knocks on the door and Jessica makes him feel as welcome as a fart in a space suit. He’s humiliated, the last throw of the dice has gone “tits up” and he decides “that’s it”, takes something to top himself with then finds a nice pleasant place to die. nb.,, I know how simplistic this sounds and that it in no way explains the baffling question of why the police (Leane in particular) didn’t want the public to know Webb’s identity. You would have thought the police were duty bound to at least contact Webb’s wife and family…no matter how much the family despised him.

    October 23, 2022
  7. a lurker #

    But why the phone number? If he knew she was Thomson and had looked her up, wouldn’t the address make more sense than the phone number?

    TBH when I started reading the post, my first thought was that you were going to suggest that she became Thomson to hide from Webb…ie that the name change was part of moving to Adelaide and becoming a new identity. Did anyone ever find record of her Nursing Qual – I remember some chat about it, but thought people only found the other Harkness from SA’s West.

    I keep wondering whether this is just an overlap of multiple unrelated but shonky in their own way stories. Jessica and her name changes; Prosper and his bodgey cars; and the itinerant Webb (we can throw Boxall into that mix for goof measure). Obviously Prosper and Jessica’s stories are intertwined through their relationship, but suppose Webb is relatively unknown to them….
    – Jessica (and Prosper) are up to some shonkies.
    – Webb wants a limo, and jots down Prsoper’s number from the papers
    – Police come a’knocking and Jessica is trying to hide _their_ shonky dealings (no concern for Webb or his story – in fact limited knowledge of him)
    – Seeing the plaster cast freaks her out because she knows he was a customer of Prosper’s (and perhaps suspects he was involved somehow). She went there expecting just to see Joe Plebian, but instead recognises the bust – which really catches her off-guard

    All the other stuff (rumours her daughter started about ‘higher authority’) might just be more recent embellishment and the apparent need for us to extrapolate a story.

    October 24, 2022
  8. Clive #

    Possibly seeing he was a customer of Prosper’s may have given Jessie the jitters, she may have thought someone else was in Adelaide and, ready to bump off Prosper? Someone else who Prosper had dealings with and, not the kind of individual to argue with?

    October 24, 2022
  9. What boils my water is detective Brown’s decision not to follow up the second phone number written on the back cover, a business number. There’s something on the nose there …

    October 24, 2022
  10. TheSlyDog #

    How would have Brownie checked out the phone numbers to identify the subscribers back in ‘49? Police getting access to this information by contacting the operator or phone system provider? Was PMG around back then?? There MUST have been notes taken about this checking, jotted down in the normal way, U-hmm, on files that have since been lost… I can’t believe that the address and subscriber of the famed number x3239 were only verbally passed to Det Carney for follow up.!!

    October 24, 2022
    • a lurker #

      You could ring the number.

      October 31, 2022
  11. There would have been a central authority for allotting phone numbers and publishing the directory … can’t find out what they were called.

    October 24, 2022
  12. dude47 #

    That information is lost forever which sucks as it could have been the key to everything.If I remember rightly Feltus only found x3239 after a million hours trawling through old phone books or was it he had the number but no the name PB?

    October 24, 2022
    • Whatever the old lad had, he wasn’t able to get his hands on the notes that described how Leane found the name and address of X3239.

      October 24, 2022
      • misca #

        This is a VERY interesting point. Feltus went on and on about how difficult it was for him to find out whose number it was but never how they found out. There must have been a name!

        October 24, 2022
  13. TheSlyDog #

    In the most basic of approaches… Brownie may have picked up the phone and simply dialled each number and spoke to whom ever picked up!

    October 25, 2022
    • misca #

      For sure they rang the number. Why not? Simple stuff. But why did they focus in on her and not her husband who would have seemingly been the more interesting person attached to said number?

      October 25, 2022
      • Because she opened the door when Canney came a- knocking … pity it wasn’t Prosper.

        October 25, 2022
      • a lurker #

        @misco Because Prosper was out of town when they rang and organised a visit, and they never thought to ask “who else lives here?” (Does anyone else live here?).

        Although it’s worth noting that Feltus found the number in her name – so possibly they already knew she was the subscriber.

        October 31, 2022

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