local bobby blunders were “a rotten system of policing”
In a move that would later be criticised, William rushed to a nearby hotel in Gatton to seek out the local bobby as opposed to going to the station itself. According to William, as he was not familiar with Gatton he fled there in order to ask where he could find the town’s police sergeant. This action resulted in a stampede of up to 40 people, who overheard the terrible news of the murder and flocked to the scene, potentially destroying crucial evidence. After the sergeant, a man named William Arrell, arrived at the scene, he promptly made his way up to the Murphy household to deliver the tragic news, and then went on into the town to send a telegram to the commissioner of the police informing him of the incident. The telegram took two days to arrive on the commissioner’s desk because it wasn’t marked as ‘ urgent’ – Arrell had been wrongly informed that the police didn’t have the authority to send ‘ urgent’ telegrams. Back at the scene of the crime, the commanding sergeant’s attempts to move morbid onlookers on were largely ignored.
By the early morning on 28 January, Queensland Police Inspector Frederic Urquhart came to Gatton and took over the case. His arrival was delayed by rumours that the murders were a hoax. After his arrival, appeals for witnesses were made. Multiple reports came in of a mysterious man seen loitering by the sliprails in the hours leading up to the murders. He was regarded as strongly built, had a dark coat on and a hat pulled down to obscure his face, although it was noted by some that he had a moustache. The general consensus of the Gatton community was that more than one person had been responsible for the murders – a view shared by top detectives.
The three suspects identified were William, who had found the bodies, Richard Burgess, who was an itinerant and violent convict, and a new man in town called Thomas Day. Suspicion also fell on the family of the deceased girl Michael had allegedly refused to marry after impregnating her – the explanation was offered that they were so devastated that they had the Murphy sisters raped and killed as punishment for Michael’s sins, before killing him too.
Urquhart became convinced that the murders were the work of Richard Burgess, a man who in his own words was “born to be hanged”. He had only been released from his latest stint in prison the month before the murders and was spotted in the vicinity of Gatton over the Christmas period. When invited to pick men out of a lineup, witness Margaret Carroll – one of many who saw a man loitering in the area that night – could not say with certainty that Burgess was the man they had seen that night close to the sliprails. Her son John, however, was certain it was Thomas Day he had spotted. The third and final suspect, Thomas had arrived in Gatton on 15 December 1898, supposedly having travelled all the way from New South Wales. He quickly started work with A. G. Clarke, the local butcher, and boarded in a hut on Clarke’s property, located right next to Moran’s paddock. Up until the murder Thomas Day had sported a moustache, but the day after the murders he shaved it off, and disappeared from Gatton forever ten days later.
Nevertheless, Burgess was arrested on suspicion of murder on 6 January although, much to Inspector Urquhart’s dismay, there was no evidence that he committed the Gatton murders and there was much public outcry over his treatment as a suspect. By this point months had passed since the murders, and considerable time had been lost by police investigating the wrong culprit.
With all leads turning cold, an inquiry into the investigation and the Gatton police was held on 6 March. Under intense interrogation the memory of John Carroll wavered and he admitted that perhaps it had been Burgess he had seen after all. The Royal Commission noted the series of blunders in the police’s investigation: “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.”
and Thomas Da y w as seen w ashing boiling a suspicious b loodstained
murder s jumper in the da ys after the above- right More than 1,000 people attended the slain Murphys’ funeral at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Gatton. The three siblings were then buried in the Gatton cemetery below In his case summary, Inspector Urquhart, who headed the investigation, said, “We have failed because from the very outset we had no chance of success”