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The Murchison Murders were a series of three murders, committed by an itinerant stockman known as "Snowy" Rowles (born John Thomas Smith), near the rabbit-proof fence in Western Australia during the early 1930s. Rowles used the murder method that had been suggested by author Arthur Upfield in his then unpublished book The Sands of Windee, in which he described a foolproof way to dispose of a body and thus commit the perfect murder.
Upfield's search for a plot
Upfield had already written three novels, 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 too efficient as it left Bony (Upfield's fictional detective) with 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 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 an inspector of the fence, and a 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 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.
Ryan, Lloyd, and Carron disappear
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, Ritchie arrived at Camel Station claiming he had met a prospector named James Yates. Yates had told Ritchie that he had seen Rowles driving a car; Rowles 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, who told Upfield that Ryan had decided to stay in Mount Magnet and had lent Rowles his truck. Rowles later told another person he had purchased Ryan's truck for £80.
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 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.
Investigation and trial
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 was a wedding ring that would later be positively linked to Carron by a New Zealand jeweller and Carron's wife.
Detective-Sergeant Manning was sent to arrest Rowles, and immediately recognised him as John Thomas Smith, a burglary convict who had escaped from Dalwallinu in 1928. Rowles was sent back to prison, giving Manning more time to investigate.
Rowles was only tried for the murder of 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 - destroying all metal remains with acid - 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, which the jeweller would normally have rectified, but had been too busy to do so. The result was a distinctive mark on the ring from the different-coloured solder, which made the ring unique and identifiable as Carron's. (Upfield used the "mended ring" device in a later novel The New Shoe.)
Evidence was given about Rowles' behaviour, his knowledge of the fictional murder method and was also presented to the court regarding the various lies that Rowles had told about his movements.
There seemed little doubt that Rowles had committed three murders, and on 19 March 1932 the jury returned a guilty verdict after only two hours of deliberations. Rowles was sentenced to death. Rowles' attempts to appeal against his conviction were rejected, and he was hanged at Fremantle Prison on 13 June 1932.
Besides his novel The Sands of Windee, Upfield wrote a book 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 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.). 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
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 filmmaker Rowan Woods and screened on ABC on 14 June 2009 at 8.30pm and again in September 2013, October 2014 and August 2015.
- Picture of Rowles standing beside James Ryan's car National Library of Australia accessed: 24 January 2010
- "Rowles Executed". The West Australian. 13 June 1932. p. 9.
- Arthur Upfield Biography - List of UK and US first edition books accessed: 24 January 2010
- "Sentenced to Death". Kalgoorlie Miner. 21 May 1932. p. 5.
- "No Appeal". Cairns Post. 28 May 1932. p. 11.