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
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
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, 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