Track­ing the gat­ton triple mur­derer

Who­ever killed the three Mur­phy sib­lings took great de­light in their task, leav­ing the scene de­void of clues and seal­ing their no­to­ri­ety as Aus­tralia’s Gat­ton slayer

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Tanita Matthews

The sense­less killing of the Mur­phy sib­lings has be­come an Aus­tralian cold case leg­end. Why did they have to die?

De­cem­ber 2018 will mark 120 years since the per­plex­ing triple homi­cide of three sib­lings in ru­ral Queens­land, Aus­tralia. In the dark­est hours of the night, some­where be­tween 10pm and 4am on 26 and 27 De­cem­ber 1898, one or more per­sons over­pow­ered three sib­lings near their home, and left a star­tling scene for de­tec­tives and neigh­bours the next morn­ing. A sig­na­ture of the mur­derer was left at the scene, some­thing that has never been re­peated in Aus­tralian crim­i­nal his­tory. The unique meth­ods used to slay three peo­ple so spec­tac­u­larly have never yielded any an­swers about what went on in the town of Gat­ton that fate­ful night. The mur­ders of Michael, No­rah and Theresa ‘ Ellen’ Mur­phy con­tinue to stump po­lice, lead­ing to wild the­o­ries of po­lice cor­rup­tion and con­spir­acy the­o­ries about how a killer got away with mur­der.

gat­ton’s fer­tile Ground

The town of Gat­ton was, in the late 1800s, very much a work­ing class so­ci­ety thriv­ing on the fruit of hard- work­ing labour­ers, farm­ers and ser­vice­men. Stephanie Ben­nett, au­thor of The Gat­ton Mur­ders: A True Story Of Lust, Vengeance And Vile Ret­ri­bu­tion, de­scribed the city 85 kilo­me­tres south­west of the Queens­land cap­i­tal of Bris­bane as “a lively town” where many of its in­hab­i­tants were young im­mi­grants. At such a time, “the ear­lier set­tlers of one or two decades pre­vi­ously had pro­duced large fam­i­lies.” The Mur­phys were one such fam­ily.

Prior to the ar­rival of the Mur­phys, ru­mours of Aus­tralia’s pros­per­ity had spread far and wide, reach­ing the ears of men, women and chil­dren starv­ing and un­em­ployed in the cold cor­ners of the globe. A young Mary Hol­land and Daniel Mur­phy had boarded sep­a­rate boats from poverty- rid­den Ire­land in the 1860s flee­ing the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter- ef­fects of the Great Famine, be­fore ar­riv­ing in the Queens­land colony in search of a bet­ter life. The pair were just two of 6,000

Ir­ish set­ters that had ar­rived in Queens­land by the mid 1860s with help from the Queens­land Im­mi­gra­tion So­ci­ety, which af­forded them pas­sage and a chance at a new life down un­der. Daniel Mur­phy found work as­sist­ing in the lay­ing of the rail­way line be­tween Ip­swich and Toowoomba. Not long af­ter ar­riv­ing in Queens­land, Daniel met Mary Hol­land. The pair got mar­ried in 1866.

Through­out the course of their mar­riage, the pair pro­duced ten healthy chil­dren and had a ster­ling rep­u­ta­tion as a hard- work­ing fam­ily. By 1898 the Mur­phys and their four girls, Polly, 32, No­rah, 27, Theresa, 18, Cather­ine ( com­monly known as Katie), 13, and six sons, Wil­liam, 31, Michael, 29, Pa­trick, 24, Daniel, 21, Jeremiah, 20, and John, 13, were com­fort­able fi­nan­cially and re­spectable mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. Many who were fa­mil­iar with the fam­ily knew Mary ruled the roost and that, de­spite most of her chil­dren be­ing adults, she was “the boss of the house”. Her daugh­ters lived in con­stant fear of her rage and, in a bid to avoid her harsh tongue, made sure they obeyed the fam­ily’s strict Catholic ethos and were con­ser­va­tive young women.

Such anger had been ve­he­mently dis­played in the mid

90s, when Mary’s old­est daugh­ter Polly mar­ried Protes­tant im­mi­grant Wil­liam McNeill in a non- Catholic church and, to add more shame to the fam­ily, gave birth to a child two

Michael was deemed to be a wom­an­iser, and word around town was that he had re­cently im­preg­nated two lo­cal women who were friends

of the Mur­phys

months later. Mary dis­owned her daugh­ter and, al­though Polly was an adult liv­ing away from home, her mother made it clear that her daugh­ter’s pres­ence in the fam­ily home was un­wel­come from that day forth. It wasn’t un­til Polly’s health took a bad turn in 1897 that Mary’s cold shoul­der thawed. With Polly be­ing treated in hos­pi­tal, Mary and her daugh­ters looked af­ter Polly’s chil­dren. They tol­er­ated Wil­liam’s pres­ence in the home by al­low­ing him to make the trip from Toowoomba, where he lived and worked, to visit them ev­ery sec­ond week­end, mak­ing up a room for the young cou­ple on their farm home when Polly was re­leased from hos­pi­tal. The Mur­phys be­gan to slowly ac­cept her hus­band into their lives.

Whis­pers Among Sis­ters

Wil­liam also came from a big fam­ily, but it was hard for the Mur­phys to find com­mon ground with the new ad­di­tion to their clan. One of seven chil­dren, Mary dis­liked Wil­liam not only be­cause of their dif­fer­ence in re­li­gions but be­cause he was ‘ black- Ir­ish’, a de­scen­dant of the Span­ish traders who had set­tled in south­ern Ire­land from the days when the Span­ish Ar­mada had crashed onto Ire­land’s shores in 1588. Of all the sib­lings to mis­treat Wil­liam, Michael gave him the hardest time of all. With the fam­ily back to­gether fol­low­ing Polly’s ill health, the clan was liv­ing in the fam­ily’s rented farm ten kilo­me­tres south of Gat­ton in Black­fel­lows Creek.

All the daugh­ters be­sides Polly were un­mar­ried and helped Mary in the home. Wil­liam, Jeremiah and John oc­cu­pied them­selves on the farm along with their father, work­ing five kilo­me­tres away on a newly ac­quired ‘ scrub farm’. The el­dest of the sons also worked there on the farm, as well as on con­tracted jobs such as road work and fenc­ing. Pa­trick worked at the Gat­ton Agri­cul­tural Col­lege as a labourer. Daniel was a po­lice con­sta­ble in Bris­bane, and their sec­ond el­dest son Michael was stay­ing at an ex­per­i­men­tal farm in West­brook roughly 50 kilo­me­tres away in Toowoomba, where he had found work only a stones throw from his brother- in- law and old­est sis­ter.

A hand­some and seem­ingly well- liked char­ac­ter, Michael had served as a con­sta­ble dur­ing the vi­o­lent strug­gles of the Shear­ers Strike in 1891 and was a part- time vol­un­teer Mounted In­fantry sergeant. But un­mar­ried and in the prime of his life, idle gos­sip in Gat­ton painted Michael in a dif­fer­ent light. Michael was deemed to be a wom­an­iser, and word around town was that he had re­cently im­preg­nated two lo­cal women who were friends of the Mur­phys – women who per­haps had grown in­fat­u­ated with Michael only to re­alise he wasn’t go­ing to make an hon­est woman out of them.

Al­though Polly had dis­graced the fam­ily pro­duc­ing a baby a few months af­ter mar­riage, to be a sin­gle mother in the late 19th cen­tury was con­sid­ered the great­est shame.

One of the women, Kate Ryan, gave birth to a child who was still­born. The other, May Cook, was sent for an abor­tion – a pro­ce­dure of the most dan­ger­ous kind, as medicine had not ad­vanced enough to war­rant ster­ile equip­ment and clean con­di­tions. She died a short while later from sep­ti­caemia, on 27 De­cem­ber 1896. This date would be­come sig­nif­i­cant when, on the sec­ond an­niver­sary of her death, the Mur­phy fam­ily were served their own heavy dose of tragedy.

No Mir­a­cle On Trent Hill

Christ­mas Day 1898 was a joy­ous oc­ca­sion for the Mur­phys, but alas it would be the fi­nal cel­e­bra­tion they would have to­gether as a fam­ily. As de­vout Catholics, it was a time to

cel­e­brate their re­li­gion and revel in the com­pany of fam­ily.

The fam­ily spent the fol­low­ing day at the races at Mount Sylvia. Most of Gat­ton had turned out for a chance to en­joy the oc­ca­sion. Dur­ing the course of the day, it was men­tioned to Michael that an event was hap­pen­ing in the town less than ten kilo­me­tres away – a lo­cal dance – and he of­fered to chap­er­one his sis­ters Theresa and No­rah to it that evening.

Re­turn­ing home to their farm at around 6.30pm, Michael, No­rah and Theresa ate din­ner and be­gan to get ready for the dance. Wil­liam of­fered Michael the use of his sulky cart to take the girls into town for the event, which was due to start around 9.30pm that evening. Board­ing the sulky, the three of them made their way down Trent Hill Road, the main lane lead­ing into Gat­ton. On the way they passed their brother Pa­trick, who was walk­ing home to the Agri­cul­tural Col­lege in Gat­ton as he had work in the morn­ing.

When the three of them ar­rived at the vil­lage hall, they re­ceived the un­for­tu­nate news that the event had been can­celled. With lit­tle else to do on Box­ing Day they de­cided they would re­turn home and al­most im­me­di­ately dou­bled back to­wards the farm. Al­most home, they once again came upon their brother Pa­trick at around 9.20pm. The sib­lings in the sulky paused for a brief mo­ment to talk to Pa­trick be­fore they went on their way home again. At this mo­ment in time Michael, No­rah and Theresa were per­haps a kilo­me­tre away from the sliprails to Mo­ran’s pad­dock, near their home.

Lo­cals close to the pad­dock re­called hear­ing screams into the night and mul­ti­ple loud gun­shots at around 10pm. But the sounds had dis­solved into the town’s bleak dark­ness, and think­ing the two to be un­re­lated, no one was wor­ried or raised the alarm. For one rea­son or an­other, the Mur­phy sib­lings never made it past the pad­dock that night. Al­though no one can be cer­tain, the like­li­hood was that the screams were the shrill sounds of the Mur­phy girls be­ing re­peat­edly raped and then mur­dered.

Ter­ror In The Morn­ing

As day­light broke that dreary De­cem­ber morn­ing Mary grew con­cerned that her chil­dren had not re­turned from their night out. She sent Polly’s hus­band Wil­liam out to search for the party. The thought crossed Wil­liam’s mind that per­haps the wheel on the sulky had given them cause to stop only a lit­tle way down the road. He spot­ted tracks about three kilo­me­tres out­side of Gat­ton on Trent Hill Road. As he came to the sliprails near Mo­ran’s pad­dock he no­ticed the tracks lead­ing up to the open field – they were those of his sulky’s wonky wheel. Stand­ing at the clear­ing a vi­o­lent and dis­tress­ing scene stretched out in front of him – a macabre and dis­tinc­tive tri­an­gle of those who died in a vi­o­lent af­fray.

Michael and Theresa lay in a blood­ied heap prac­ti­cally back to back less than a me­tre from each other. No­rah was

8.5 me­tres east to this; her ca­daver lay on a rug that had been neatly spread un­der­neath her. Their sulky cart and horse, which had been shot through the head, lay more than five me­tres from Michael and Theresa and 11 me­tres from No­rah. The women’s hands were tied with hand­ker­chiefs, and the legs of each vic­tim had been ar­ranged with their feet point­ing to the west.

Michael had been shot. While he was found ly­ing on his front, his head was turned to the side. At first it ap­peared that he had been blud­geoned to death, but on closer ex­am­i­na­tion it be­came clear he had been shot in the back of the head be­hind his right ear. His hands were folded be­hind his back, al­though there was ev­i­dence to show they had been tied up ear­lier. His sis­ters had both been beaten and raped be­fore they were blud­geoned to death. Bruises on their thighs were ev­i­dence that they had re­sisted and put up a fight against their as­sailant.

top Deeply re­li­gious and ex­tremely hard- work­ing, the Mur­phy fam­ily were well known in the Gat­ton com­mu­nity, al­though there were ru­mours af­ter the mur­ders of three sib­lings from a trou­bled fam­ily

an

The dea th of Ma y Cook from

gnated her, abor­tion, af­ter Mic hael im­pre

. Was caused her f am­ily grea t dis­tress

plot rev enge it enough to dr ive them to on the Murph y f am­ily?

ho­tel Michael first w ent to a nearby

h brought to re­port the mur­der s, whic

, de­stro ying around 40 peo­ple to the scene po­ten­tial ev­i­dence in the process left Ac­cord­ing to Aus­tralian crime his­to­rian Stephanie Ben­nett, Michael Mur­phy made an enemy when he was trav­el­ling to Lon­greach years be­fore his death, who then plot­ted Michael’s vi­o­lent demise in re­venge

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