Gatton murders

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The Murphy family. Pictured are Daniel Snr. and Mary Murphy (seated), with 8 of their 10 children behind them:
(left to right) John, Jeremy, Patrick, William, Polly, Norah, Theresa 'Ellen' and Catherine.

The Gatton Murders, also known as "The Gatton Tragedy", "The Gatton Mystery" and "The Murphy Murders", is the name given to a still unsolved triple homicide that occurred 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the town of Gatton, Queensland, Australia. Michael Murphy, aged 29, and his younger sisters, Norah (Honora), 27, and Theresa 'Ellen', 18, were killed between 10pm and 4am on 26–27 December 1898, while returning home from a proposed dance that had been cancelled. Michael had been shot and bludgeoned, Norah strangled and bludgeoned, and Theresa 'Ellen' bludgeoned twice.

Background[edit]

The Murphy family owned a farm at Blackfellow's Creek, some 8 miles (13 km) from Gatton and 61 miles (98 km) west of Queensland's capital, Brisbane. The 1901 census listed the population as 449 souls. While today's Gatton is a small town (2006 census, 5295) located between the cities of Ipswich in the east and Toowoomba in the west, in the late 19th century the town was a major stopover point on the road from Brisbane to the Darling Downs, and with two major bridges and a railway line, the town was a rapidly expanding service centre for the district. Being more centrally located than Brisbane, there were even discussions regarding the relocation of the state capital to Gatton if the Lockyer Creek could be made navigable.

Michael and Daniel Murphy had both left home, Michael working on a government experimental farm near Westbrook, while Daniel was a Brisbane police constable. Michael had returned home for the Christmas holidays and on 26 December (Boxing Day), 1898, had taken his sister Theresa 'Ellen' to the Mount Sylvia Races in nearby Caffey. At 8pm, Michael and his sisters Norah and Theresa 'Ellen', left home to attend a dance due to be held at the Gatton Hall. Arriving at 9pm, they found that the dance had been cancelled and began the return journey home, but failed to arrive. Early the following morning, Mrs. Murphy asked her son-in-law William M'Neill to go to Gatton to find out why they had not returned. Michael had borrowed M'Neill's sulky for the outing and while on the Tent-Hill road to Gatton, M'Neill recognised his sulky's distinctive tracks (the result of a wobbling wheel) turning off the road through a sliprail.[1] M'Neill followed the tracks along a rough winding trail through wattle scrub for around .75 miles (1.21 km) before finding his missing relatives.

The crime[edit]

Michael Murphy, pictured in 1898.

M'Neill found the victims in a field 1.2 miles (1.9 km) from Gatton. Michael and Theresa 'Ellen' were lying back-to-back, within 2 feet (0.61 m) of each other. Norah lay in the same east/west orientation, on a neatly spread rug, 28 feet (8.5 m) to the east. Both women had their hands tied behind their backs with handkerchiefs. Forming a triangle, the sulky faced south, 17.5 feet (5.3 m) from Michael and 36 feet (11 m) from Norah. The horse had been shot in the head and still lay between the shafts. Their legs were arranged with the feet pointing west. This signature behaviour has never been repeated in Australian crime and, like the Gatton Murders themselves, remains a mystery.[2]

Inexplicably,[3] M'Neill then contacted Acting-Sergeant William Arrell, who was in charge of the Gatton police station, who later arranged for police from Brisbane to attend. This led to further delays, with the investigating officers not arriving until 48 hours after the discovery of the bodies.

The bodies were moved to the Gilbert's hotel and at 4pm Dr. Von Lossberg, the Government Medical Officer at Ipswich arrived and between 4-5pm began an autopsy. Michael had been shot and struck with a blunt instrument on the right side of the head. Theresa 'Ellen' had her skull fractured by two blows to the left side of her head. The wounds and position of the bodies when found indicated that Michael and Theresa 'Ellen' were sitting upright and back-to-back when struck. Norah had also been struck on the left side of her head, pulverising her skull to the extent that her brain was protruding. In addition, Norah had a harness strap tied around her neck, tight enough to have caused death. It is alleged that both women had been "outraged" (raped).[citation needed] In the absence of semen, based on the evidence of Sergeant Arrell that he found a pool of blood, which turned the soil to mud and stuck to the underside of the rug on which Nora's body was found, it appears that both women were raped with the brass-mounted handle of a whip. An extensive police search for the whip met with negative results.

Michael's purse[edit]

M'Neill later testified that, although Michael's hands were not tied when he first saw the body, it appeared that his hands had been tied behind his back at some point, with one holding an open purse. However, all other witnesses stated that Michael's hands were not tied, but that a breeching strap lay nearby, and that an empty purse was lying a short distance from the body. When his body was removed from the site at about 1.30pm, Michael was now found to have the breeching strap between his untied hands, with the empty purse held in one. Known to have had 15 shillings (2010: $100) in the purse the night before, it was speculated that someone may have untied Michael to access the purse: "Either Gilbert, one of the party, or M'Neill took the purse."[4] This has never been explained.

Exhumation and contradictions[edit]

The original post mortems were conducted by the Government Medical Officer Dr. Von Lossberg, with Sergeant Arrell supervising. From interviews with people who had seen the bodies, Chief Inspector Stuart determined that Michael may have been shot in the head, but this was not found by Dr. Von Lossberg, despite claims that he had been asked to look for a bullet. Stuart ordered that all three bodies be exhumed and it was found that the original post mortems were no more than superficial examinations. Although decomposition was advanced, it was now found that Michael had indeed been shot in the right side of his head then subsequently struck on the same spot with a blunt instrument, so that the later wound partially obscured the bullet hole. The bullet was recovered from the skull.[5]

Mr. Wiggins, J.P. testified that he had ordered the burials without an order for burial because he believed the post mortems had been completed and assumed that Von Lossberg had not carried any orders with him. Wiggins assumed an order would be forwarded from Ipswich. Sub-Inspector Galbraith testified that Von Lossberg had told him that he had completed the post mortems and that he had asked if Von Lossberg had found a bullet. Galbraith stated that Von Lossberg had told him that he had found what looked like a bullet hole with no exit wound but could not find a bullet in the skull. Dr. Von Lossberg testified that he had told Galbraith that he had not performed a post mortem at all because he was suffering from blood poisoning and for him not to have the bodies buried. Clerk George Baines testified that he was present at this conversation and that Von Lossberg had not mentioned not completing the post mortems, his blood poisoning, or the request for Galbraith not to bury the bodies. Von Lossberg replied that he had never seen Baines before in his life and that even if he had been present "what passed was said in a whisper."[5]

Failure of the police investigation[edit]

M'Neill contacted Sergeant Arrell at 9.15am on 27 December. Both men rode to the crime scene where they remained for 30mins before Arrell returned to Gatton to send a telegram to the Brisbane Commissioner of Police. Arrell took no notes while at the site, did not interview anyone present and made no effort to protect the site from the large number of people who had congregated. In Gatton, Arrell requested that the telegram be marked "urgent", only to be told that the police had no authority to send urgent telegrams; this was incorrect and Arrell was later criticized by a Royal Commission for not knowing he had that authority and also for waiting for the reply instead of returning immediately to the site with arrangements for the reply to be sent to him. The telegram was delivered to the Brisbane police headquarters at 12.52pm, however, because it was a holiday, it was not opened until 9am the next day (28 December).[6] In actual fact, Arrell delegated Thomas Wilson, a magistrate, and William Devitt to look after the crime scene while he sent the necessary telegrams to the Commissioner in Brisbane and the Government Medical Officer at Ipswich. Wilson and Devitt did not discharge the duty entrusted to them by Arrell and allowed the crime scene to be contaminated.

Suspects[edit]

Several people, including itinerant workers and family members, came under suspicion for the crime, but after a five-month investigation, no one was charged with the murders. The failure of the Queensland police to solve the crime led to accusations of cover-ups and rumours of incest within the Murphy family; these claims were also subsequently never resolved.

Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day was the prime suspect for the Gatton murders. He died known as Thomas Furner in the Sydney Hospital on October 25, 1900, knowledge of which the police and governments in Queensland and New South Wales withheld from the public.[7]

Aftermath[edit]

The crime caused shock and outrage across the country. The ineffective investigation, alleging the police released one possible suspect without comprehensive interrogation, later became a subject of a Royal Commission in late 1899.

1899 Royal Commission[edit]

The Royal Commission was largely concerned with shortcomings in the Queensland police force in general and to a lesser extent the failures of the police investigations into both the Oxley murder of 14 December and the Gatton murders on 26 December.

Daniel Murphy, a brother of the victims who was a police officer at Police headquarters had received a telegram from a family friend on 27 December informing him of the murders. Murphy applied for three days leave, had it granted and attempted to catch the 1pm train to Gatton but missed it. Returning to headquarters he went to the Criminal Investigation Branch but no action was taken by detectives as a rumour was circulating that the murders were a hoax. Murphy then caught the 5pm train to Gatton. When Inspector Urquhart, head of the C.I. Branch in Brisbane, opened Sergeant Arrell's telegram he took no action as he had heard the rumours of a hoax and had not been officially informed that there had been a murder. At 4pm Urquhart was informed that the murders were not a hoax, but as the information did not come through official channels did not inform the Commissioner until 9pm. The Commissioner ordered Urquhart to immediately take two detectives to Gatton, but despite a train leaving Brisbane at midnight, the team did not leave until 7:30 the following morning (29 December).[6] The Royal Commission found this sequence of events incomprehensible, indicative of the existence of a rotten system of policing and a culpable indifference on the part of the Inspector [Urquhart] to his duty to the public.[8]

Thomas Day[edit]

Some evidence given before the Royal Commission pointed towards an itinerant labourer, Thomas Day, who had not been considered a suspect by the police investigation. Day lived in a hut around 900 feet (270 m) from the murder site. One local woman claimed she saw a man on foot chase the Murphy's sulky as it passed on its way to the dance. This man had been standing opposite sliprails blocking the little-known access road that led to the murder location, but she was unable to identify him. Day had been seen by a number of people on earlier nights, walking along the road. Another witness claimed that he had seen Day washing blood from a pullover a few days later. Moreover, Constable Robert George Christie gave evidence at the Royal Commission that he suspected it was Thomas Day who was handed the revolver used in the Oxley murder by Edward Litton Carus-Wilson, and that it was the same revolver used in the Gatton murders. In 1906, a revolver with four spent chambers was found in the Swamp Paddock on the Gatton side of Clarke's butchery where Thomas Day was employed. Four shots were fired in the Oxley and Gatton murders. The actual name of the prime suspect for the Gatton murders was Theo Farmer who used the aliases of Thomas Day and Thomas Furner.[9] It was rumoured after the Oxley and Gatton murders that he, and Edward Litton Carus-Wilson, the prime suspect for the Oxley murder, were related to some "might magnate".[10] There was no "mightier magnate" than William Farmer who left Australia for England in 1874, which was the year Theo Farmer was born.[11]


Several modern writers, including Australian author and crime researcher Stephanie Bennett, have suggested possible culprits. On August 1, 1918, Premier William Arthur Holman of the NSW Government confirmed the death of Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day and Thomas Furner in 1900 when he wrote a letter to Hugh Robert Denison about publishing an illustration in The Sun Newspaper.[12]

Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day was the prime suspect for the Gatton murders. Two weeks after the murders, Day asked the police if he was wanted for further investigation and was told that he was not. The records show that he later enlisted in the military but deserted in May 1899. The following year, a Thomas Furner was admitted to the Sydney Hospital in New South Wales suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. After his death on 25 October 1900, he was identified by Inspector Urquhart as Thomas Day. He died known as Thomas Furner in the Sydney Hospital on October 25, 1900, knowledge of which the police and governments in Queensland and New South Wales withheld from the public[13][14][15][16]

References[edit]

  1. ^ A sliprail is a section of fence where the rails can be easily removed to allow vehicle access to paddocks.
  2. ^ Whiticker, Alan J. (2005). Twelve Crimes That Shocked the Nation. ISBN 1-74110-110-7
  3. ^ M'Neill called at the Gilbert's "Brian Boru" hotel in Gatton (now the Imperial Hotel) and informed the patrons of the murder, leading to a rush of up to forty people to the scene, which possibly destroyed much of what little evidence there may have been. M'Neill later testified before the Royal Commission held in late 1899 that he called at the hotel to ask where he could find the police sergeant. The Commission criticized him for not going directly to the police station.
  4. ^ 1899 Royal Commission: Notes
  5. ^ a b 1899 Royal Commission: Post Mortem evidence
  6. ^ a b 1899 Royal Commission: Testimony
  7. ^ Suicide note dated October 20, 1900, found on Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day and Thomas Furner, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050 & Medical Report by City Coroner J. C. Woore dated October 28, 1900, death of Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day and Thomas Furner, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050 & Letter from W. A. Holman to Hugh R. Denison dated August 1, 1918, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050 & Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on July 26, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3 & Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on August 9, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3 & Suicide in Sydney, The West Australian, October 27, 1900, page 5, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23846480 & Suicide in Sydney, Western Mail, November 3, 1900, page 8, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33195336.
  8. ^ 1899 Royal Commission: Recommendations
  9. ^ Suicide in Sydney, The West Australian, October 27, 1900, page 5, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23846480 & Suicide in Sydney, Western Mail, November 3, 1900, page 8, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33195336.
  10. ^ Some Mighty Magnate, Truth, April 3, 1904, page 5, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article199294546.
  11. ^ Farmer, Sir William (1832–1908), Australian Dictionary of Biography, at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farmer-sir-william-3498
  12. ^ Letter from W. A. Holman to Hugh R. Denison dated August 1, 1918, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050. Two documents in the form of Agenda Items for Cabinet Meetings of the NSW Government on July 26 and August 9, 1918, confirm that Holman's letter is authentic Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on July 26, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3 & Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on August 9, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3.
  13. ^ Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050
  14. ^ Medical Report by City Coroner J. C. Woore dated October 28, 1900
  15. ^ Death of Theo Farmer alias Thomas Day and Thomas Furner, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050
  16. ^ Letter from W. A. Holman to Hugh R. Denison dated August 1, 1918, Queensland Police Service, Reference SDC-EXECSEC15031610050 & Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on July 26, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3 & Agenda for NSW Cabinet Meeting on August 9, 1918, State Records Authority of NSW, Series NRS 12061, special bundle 4/6259.3 & Suicide in Sydney, The West Australian, October 27, 1900, page 5, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23846480 & Suicide in Sydney, Western Mail, November 3, 1900, page 8, at http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33195336

Further reading[edit]

  • Behnke, Stephen G. (2011) The Gatton Tragedy Collection. Privately published
  • Bennett, Stephanie B. (2004) The Gatton Murders, A True Story of Lust, Vengeance and Vile Retribution, Pan Macmillan. ISBN 1405035749
  • Hall, Rodney (1988). Captivity Captive, Faber. ISBN 0571150934
  • Reed, Lyle F. (2008) As plain as day: the 1898 Gatton murders. Privately published. ISBN 9780646508467