Found dead

Hastings, 23 February 1866.
By Shirley Davies – Hastings-Western Port Historical Society

It is fascinating how many stories there are at Hastings and surrounds. This is one of them that has fascinated me. I would like to call all those people with detective skills and who can stretch their thinking to read this.

The title of the article was what was written on the cover of the Inquest report of an early death which led to a burial in the Tyabb Public Cemetery at Hastings.

It was of Peter Orsini who was buried on 27 July 1868. His burial was No 7 in the Tyabb Cemetery Register. The entry has his name as Peter Osine but this has a line through it and the surname Orsini written in.

Peter Orsini’s tombstone at the Tyabb Cemetery.

He was aged 24 but there is a 3 in small print above the 4. His residence was given as Star Point (later to be renamed Hastings) and his occupation was fisherman.

The burial ceremony was by Mr. Thomson, C of E – most likely Mr Herbert Edward Thomson of St Peter’s Church of England, Mornington. The mode of travel of his body to the cemetery was by spring cart.

In 1865 there were four trustees of the Tyabb cemetery and their graves now have markers: William Lawson Patterson, John O’Neill, Anthony Spencer and James Hall. The first known person to be buried in the cemetery was Alexander Mackay on 6 May, 1866.

Peter was buried in Denomination C, the Catholic section, and was one of the first burials in this section. At that time the four main religious sections were not clearly marked and it seems likely that the grave digger may have made an error for, although Peter’s grave is in the Catholic section, he was buried by a Church of England minister.

The inscription on the tombstone reads: ‘To the memory of Bro. PETER ORSINI Corsican…Aged 24 years…Accidentally shot…July 18th 1868.’

Across the top of the tombstone are the letters A O F and below them it reads: ‘Court Queenscliff No. 4124.’ At the bottom is the inscription ‘ Nath Brown Geelong’, who was presumably the stonemason.

The inquest papers are very fragile and were not able to be seen by a member of our Society who was researching the Orsino family.

Ancient Order of Foresters in procession down Hesse Street, Queenscliff.

Sebastiano Orsino had been born in Sicily in 1843 but by 1869 he had a fisherman’s hut at Hastings. He married Emily Taylor at St Peter’s Mornington in 1869. Sebastiano and his brother, Salvatore, are believed to have left Sicily after Garibaldi first went there c1859. Our member could find no trace of Peter in her research of the family.

Due to my contact with another researcher who had earlier obtained Peter Orsini’s inquest papers, I was able to give these to the Orsino researcher, but noted down information in it. The information disclosed that there was powder residue on his hand. The witness statements of fellow fishermen who knew him testified that he was intending to go to Bittern to shoot some ducks. Therefore, gun residue would have been on his hand.

Peter was found in Bittern shot through his heart, lying on his back, with his hat over his face. I wondered whether he had been standing when he accidentally(?) fired a shot that hit his heart and how did he turn his gun around from pointing skywards to his heart area? Did he immediately fall on his back – with his hat that was found over his face? What are the chances of this? As I do not have any knowledge of guns, I suppose it could happen, but it set me thinking about this. The verdict was accidental death.

Also, who would have had the money to pay for a tombstone? Not his fishermen friends, and if Peter was of the same family as Sebastiano Orsino, who was just managing to earn a living fishing and setting up a home to marry, not him. And what about the “Bro” on the marker?

An Ancient Order of Foresters certificate.

The answer to this riddle lies in the markings at the top of the tombstone. The letters A O F stand for the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Court Queenscliff No. 4124 indicates that Peter was a member of that particular lodge (or ‘court’ as the Foresters termed it). The Foresters were a friendly society which, like other similar societies, could be trusted when needed in times of illness, distress or death.

Accordingly, the Queenscliff court of the A O F would have been responsible for the expenses incurred with the untimely death of Peter Orsino and his membership also explains the appellation of ‘Bro.’ It also accounts for the fact that a stonemason in distant Geelong was engaged to make the tombstone; distant from Hastings, perhaps, but quite handy to Queenscliff.

I have found no information of a brother or parents of Peter Orsini nor anything in shipping records.


What sort of gun would he have used and how would he have been holding it for the shot to strike his heart?

Would his hat have fallen off and onto his face?

What would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes stories) make of this?

Rest in peace, Peter.

Found dead.

Footnote. This article first appeared in the June Newsletter of the Hastings – Western Port Historical Society. It is republished with their kind permission.

Peninsula Essence –  August 2020