The Murchison Murders

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Snowy Rowles standing beside James Ryan's car, photographed by Arthur Upfield.[1]

The Murchison Murders were a series of three murders, committed by an itinerant stockman named Snowy Rowles, near the rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia during the early 1930s. The case was particularly infamous because Rowles used the murder method that had been suggested by author Arthur Upfield in his then unpublished book The Sands of Windee, in which he described a way to dispose of a body and thus commit the perfect murder.

Search for a plot[edit]

Arthur Upfield had already written three novels,[2] but was working as a fence boundary rider on the Rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia. He had decided to write another detective novel, but with a plot difference: there being no body for the detective to find. Unfortunately, he could not think of a way to dispose of a body.

He mentioned this difficulty to a colleague, George Ritchie. Ritchie devised a disposal method: burn the victim's body along with that of a large animal, sift any metal fragments out of the ashes, dissolve them in acid, pound any remaining bone fragments into dust, then discard the remains into the wind. But Upfield then had a problem: the method was a bit too efficient, leaving the fictional detective of Upfield's book no way to detect or prove the murder. Upfield challenged Ritchie to find a flaw in the method and offered him £1 if he could. Ritchie, however, was unable to do so.

The plot of the novel hinged on this point and Ritchie one day met Snowy Rowles, whom Upfield also knew. Ritchie mentioned the problem to him. All of Upfield's friends and colleagues were soon aware of Upfield's difficulties with his plot.

On 5 October 1929, Upfield, Ritchie, Rowles, the son of the Inspector of the fence, and the north boundary rider for the fence, were all present at the Camel Station homestead when the murder method for Upfield's book was again discussed. Upfield himself was clear that Rowles knew of the murder method before this date, but the meeting and discussion were later used as evidence in court to prove that Rowles was aware of the method.

James Ryan and George Lloyd disappear[edit]

In December 1929, Rowles was in the company of two men: James Ryan and George Lloyd. On 8 December 1929, Rowles, Ryan and Lloyd departed from Camel Station.

Several days later, George Ritchie arrived at Camel Station stating he had met a prospector named James Yates. Yates had told Ritchie that he had seen Rowles driving a car. Rowles had told Yates that Ryan and Lloyd were walking through the scrub, though Yates did not see them himself.

On Christmas Eve, 1929, Upfield was with a colleague in the small town of Youanmi when he met Rowles. Rowles told Upfield that Ryan had decided to stay in Mount Magnet and had lent Rowles his truck. Rowles told another person that he had purchased Ryan's truck for £80.

Louis Carron disappears[edit]

A man named Louis Carron had arrived in the Murchison area in 1929, having come from Perth with a friend. Carron, a New Zealander, had found a job at Wydgee Station. In May 1930, Carron left his employment in the company of Snowy Rowles.

Rowles cashed Carron's pay cheque at the town of Paynesville, east of Mount Magnet. Carron's friend sent a reply-paid telegram to Rowles at Youanmi asking for information about Carron, but Rowles did not reply.

Investigations begin[edit]

Carron had kept regular correspondence with his friends, and it was for this reason that his disappearance was noticed. The area at the time had a large transient population, and for a man to appear or disappear from the area was in no way remarkable. Indeed, it was not until police detectives started investigating Carron's disappearance that it was noticed that Lloyd and Ryan were also missing, and like Carron, had last been seen in Rowles' company.

Upfield's attempts to find a plot for his novel The Sands of Windee were well known, and detectives were soon aware of the murder method outlined. They found the remains of Carron's body at the 183-mile (295 km) hut on the rabbit-proof fence. Among other items found were a wedding ring that would later be positively linked to Carron by a New Zealand jeweller and his wife.

Arrest, trial, and execution[edit]

A police officer, Detective-Sergeant Manning, was sent to arrest Rowles. When doing so, he immediately recognised Rowles as a man named John Thomas Smith, wanted for escaping from Dalwallinu in 1928 after having been jailed for burglary. Manning was able to send Rowles back to prison and thus had more time to complete his investigations.

Rowles was only tried for the murder of Louis Carron. Following the murders of Ryan and Lloyd, Rowles had strictly followed Upfield's fictional method for the disposal of evidence, leaving a total lack of physical evidence that could be used in a court. In the case of Carron, he had omitted one of the steps, thereby allowing several items to be found and identified.

Like Rowles, Carron had assumed a new name, previously having been known as Leslie George Brown. His wife, Mrs. Brown, had attended a jeweller in Auckland to have a wedding ring recut. The jeweller's assistant had accidentally used a 9 carat solder to rejoin the ends of the 18 carat ring. The jeweller would normally have fixed this mistake but had been too busy to do so. The result was a distinctive mark on the ring from a different-coloured solder, which made the ring unique and identified it as Carron's. (Upfield used the "mended ring" device later in The New Shoe.)

Evidence was given about Rowles' behaviour and his knowledge of the fictional murder method. Evidence was also presented to the court about various lies Rowles had told about his movements. There was little doubt that Rowles had committed three murders and the jury returned a guilty verdict in only two hours. Rowles was hanged for murder, at Fremantle Prison, on 13 June 1931.

Further reading[edit]

Besides his novel The Sands of Windee, Upfield wrote an article about the real-life case entitled The Murchison Murders.

In 1993, author Terry Walker wrote a book Murder on the Rabbit-Proof Fence documenting the eerie case.

  • Walker, Terry (1993). Murder on the Rabbit Proof Fence : the strange case of Arthur Upfield and Snowy Rowles. Western Australia: Hesperian Press. ISBN 0-85905-189-7. 
  • Upfield, Arthur (1934). Bernard Cronin (ed.), ed. The Murchison murders. Sydney, New South Wales: Midget Masterpiece Publishing. 
  • Upfield, Arthur (1931). The Sands of Windee (First published ed.). London: Hutchinson. 

Telemovie: 3 Acts of Murder[edit]

In 2009, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a telemovie based on the Murchison Murders, starring Robert Menzies as Upfield and Luke Ford as Snowy. 3 Acts of Murder was directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Rowan Woods and screened on ABC on 14 June 2009 at 8.30pm and again in September 2013 and October 2014.

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