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The Gatton Murders

Infamous in the realms of Australian crime history, The Gatton Murders occurred over 100 years ago. The murders of three siblings on December 26, 1898, were never solved. Here Unsolved Casebook takes a look at the case.

The Murphy Family

The village of Gatton was located in the southeast of Queensland, Australia. It consisted of a small, but growing population. By 1898 around five to six hundred folks called Gatton home.

8 miles from Gatton was a farm at Blackfellows Creek. The farm was the home of the Murphy family, which consisted of the parents and there ten children. Amongst the ten children were Michael and his younger sisters Norah and Theresa, who was also known as Ellen.

By the Christmas season of 1898, Michael was no longer living with his parents on the farm. He had employment in the town of Westbrook working for the government on a farm. However, Michael travelled home to spend the Christmas period with his loved ones.

The Cancelled Party

The day after Christmas Michael, who was now 29, agreed to accompany Norah, 27, and Ellen, 18, to a party. The party was to be held at the division board hall in Gatton. Michael borrowed a sulky and a horse from his brother-in-law and the trio set off to enjoy the festivities.

The Murphy siblings travelled to Gatton from Blackfellows creek. At around 9:10 pm they arrived at the dance hall to find the lights out and the man who had arranged the party closing the doors.

With no reason to remain, Michael turned the cart around in disappointment and headed back to the family farm.

The siblings would not complete their journey.

The Missing Murphy’s

The next day the rest of the Murphy family rose early for morning milking. They soon realized that the trio had not returned. Becoming anxious Mrs Murphy asked the siblings’ brother-in-law William M’Neill to go out to look for them.

The sulky Michael had borrowed belonged to William so he knew it had a wobbly wheel which left behind a distinctive trail. William spotted the tracks along Tent Hill Road on his search roughly four miles from the farm. He found that they left the road and went along a slip rail into a wooded pasture.

William followed the trail and finally came across the three siblings just two miles from Gatton. Initially, William thought they were sleeping. However, as he got nearer he realized the true horror of what he had discovered. The Murphy siblings had been murdered.

The Gatton Murders Crime Scene

Michael and Ellen’s bodies were found laying back to back just a few feet apart. The body of there sister Norah was nearby on a bloody rug.

Norah and Ellen had both had their hands tied with handkerchiefs. Marks suggested Michael’s hands had been tied too at some point. They weren’t upon discovery and it has been disputed whether this was the case at all.

Michael according to M’Neill also held a purse in one of his hands. Other witnesses who later arrived on the scene stated the purse was lying near the body but not in Michael’s hand. 15 shillings Michael was known to have had the night he went out was missing from the purse.

The horse which had carted the sulky the trio travelled on was also found at the scene. It had been shot in the head.

Reporting Of The Murders

Horrified at his discovery William M’Neill rushed off to Gatton to get help. In a strange decision, M’Neill first visited a hotel. Here he notified guests of the terrible scene he had just uncovered before making his way to the police station.

It was around 9:15 am when William M’Neill informed acting Sergeant William Arrell about the murders of Michael, Norah and Ellen Murphy. The duo made their way to the crime scene.

Once at the scene of the Gatton Murders, Sergeant Arrell surveyed the area for half an hour. He decided this was a case that would be better handled by the Brisbane Police HQ.

An Incompetent Start To The Investigation

Whether due to ineptitude or inexperience Sgt. Arrell at no point made any notes during his visit to the crime scene. He made no efforts to interview any of the people now at the scene. Arrell also didn’t make any attempt to secure the site and protect any potential evidence.

William’s prior visit to the hotel also did nothing to help the investigation. Once word had spread of the discovery a rush of curious and inquisitive people made their way to the murder site. Potential evidence at the site of the Gatton Murders was destroyed or contaminated by the growing number of curious onlookers.

The bumbling start to the investigation continued. A breakdown in communications meant that the Brisbane police department didn’t receive news of the Gatton Murders until the following morning.

Arrell had at least asked for the crime scene to be secured in the meantime. Unfortunately, the people he asked to perform this duty for some reason failed to follow the orders in another show of incompetence.

The Original Post Mortems

The bodies of Michael, Norah and Ellen were finally taken to be examined by Dr. Von Lossberg and he performed the autopsies on the victims. He stated the murders had taken place sometime between 10 pm on December 26 and 4 am on the 27th. The examination also revealed the true brutality the killer or killers had inflicted on the Murphy family siblings.

Norah had been so savagely beaten around her head that her brain was actually protruding from the skull. As if that wasn’t enough there were signs she had also been strangled.

Norah had been raped during the horrific ordeal too. The coroner grimly adding this may have been done with the brass handle of a riding whip.

Ellen had been bludgeoned to death. Though the wounds weren’t as brutal as those of her sister they still showed an extreme level of brutality had been used. Ellen had also been raped in the same way as her sister.

Michael also appeared to have been bludgeoned to death like his younger sisters. This was later shown to be inaccurate. The bodies were then allowed to be buried, despite no formal order for burial.

Victims Of The Gatton Murders Exhumed

Once Brisbane officers arrived to start work on the case they quickly questioned the standard of the post mortems. The exhumation of the bodies was ordered.

A new post mortem found that Michael Murphy had, in fact, died as a result of been shot in the head. The bullet was even still lodged in Michael’s skull. Michael was bludgeoned after his death, disguising the bullet hole in the progress.

Doubts were also raised about the claim that the women had been raped with the brass handle of a riding whip. Unfortunately, due to how decomposed the bodies of the girls were when exhumed it was impossible to tell.

The shoddy work of Dr Von Lossberg would later be a focal point of a Royal Commission review about the standards of Australian policing.

Investigation Into The Gatton Murders

Police interviewed over a thousand individuals in relation to the Gatton Murders. Tales of arguments with workers and within the Murphy family itself were mentioned. So too was the rumour of incest in the family.

Two women who lived near the site of the killings also stated they had heard gunshots and screams. These, however, either went nowhere or were just disregarded altogether.

Murmurings also began to surface around the police involvement in the case. Rumours of a police cover-up were not uncommon at the time, with several whispers even suggesting there direct involvement in the murders themselves.

1899 Royal Commission Looks At The Gatton Murders

In 1899 the Royal Commission looked into the shortcomings of the investigation during its review into the standards of policing.

Dr Von Lossberg

During this inquest, Dr Von Lossberg failed to take any responsibility for his own shortcomings.

Firstly he stated that he had not told anyone he had completed the post mortem, despite evidence to the contrary. He stated he had merely given the bodies a quick examination as he was suffering from blood poisoning.

Von Lossberg also claimed that he knew Michael Murphy had been shot but had decided to keep the knowledge to himself.

The Apathy Of The Murphy Family

The behaviour of the Murphy family during the inquest into the Gatton Murders also left questions hanging over them. Only Daniel Murphy, who himself was a police officer at Brisbane Headquarters, seemed to try his best to help the inquest.

Daniel, however, wasn’t present on the night of the murders of his brother and sisters. He didn’t live with the family, so it was the other family members the commission wanted to hear from.

The family though seemed reluctant and only appeared after a stern demand and the threat of a summons. It was noted that the family showed complete apathy towards the inquiry, almost as if they would rather just forget about the murders of Michael, Norah, and Ellen.

Richard Burgess

One suspect at the time of the Gatton Murders was Richard Burgess. Burgess was a bush drifter who had been released from prison shortly before the murder. He had served time for assaulting a woman the previous year.

Always in trouble with the law in one way or another, Burgess found himself charged with the theft of a saddle not long after the Gatton Murders. Burgess was detained whilst they tried to link him to the slayings.

Whilst held in custody it became clear Burgess had been in the town of Gatton on December 10. The question for police was whether or not he was still there at the time of the Gatton Murders.

Several witnesses made claims that seemed to point to Burgess as the killer. One farmer stated Burgess had told him Michael had been shot in the head before this detail was common knowledge. Another said Burgess had told him about there been three dead bodies found in Gatton, again before this had become common knowledge.

Despite hopes that they had found the killer Richard Burgess was eventually able to provide police with an alibi. A reliable eye witness could place Burgess over twenty miles away from Gatton on the night of the killings.

Thomas Day

Evidence that was given in front of the Royal Commission inquest pointed the finger at a man named Thomas Day. The twenty-two-year-old was a stranger to Gatton who had only recently moved to the area. Also known as Theo Farmer, Thomas Day was an itinerant labourer who at the time of the Gatton Murders worked for the local butcher AG Clarke.

Police had spoken to Day, as they had almost everyone in the town. He was found to have a jumper that was covered in blood which Day said was animal blood. In 1898 there was no way of disproving this but still, Day was asked not to wash the jumper by his boss just in case. The next day Thomas Day washed and scrubbed the jumper clean.

The hut in which Thomas Day lived was located just three hundred yards from were the bodies of Michael, Norah and Ellen were found. More than one person said that they had seen Day prior to the murders walking late at night near where the killings took place.

Thomas Day wasn’t considered a suspect by police at the time and just two weeks after the Gatton Murders occurred Thomas Day left Gatton never to return.

Suicide And The Note

In 1900 Thomas Day under the alias Theo Farmer died at Sydney Hospital. He died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left behind a note referring to the Gatton Murders:

“Just a few words wishing to inform the public about the Gatton murder, which I suppose or hope will be found out when I am no more. I am going to my long rest, but still before I leave the world I wish to state what I know for a certain fact…”

The Western Australian newspaper Sat 27 Oct 1900.

The letter then apparently went on to give a statement relating to several individuals around the murders. Unfortunately, this wasn’t published so it is unknown who Thomas Day possibly pointed the finger at, but he did finish the letter with this note:

“I know the public may wonder but I do not wonder, as I am quite sure the case was to be kept quiet among the police, which I think is about time they were shown up. So hoping the Gatton affair will go ahead.”

The Western Australian newspaper Sat 27 Oct 1900.

Joe Quinn

In 2013 Stephanie Bennett named Joe Quinn as the man she felt was responsible for the Gatton Murders in her book (the book is available here).

Bennett came across Joe Quinn whilst researching the names of criminals in the Gatton area. As she dug deeper into the man she became convinced he was the man responsible for the Gatton Murders.

Joe Quinn, who had over 300 aliases according to Bennett, was a swagman (basically a labourer who walks from farm to farm) who had a habit of being on the wrong side of the law. He also was a key player in the strike movement (the shearer’s strikes), that was until a run-in with Michael Murphy.

Bennett makes the claim that Michael Murphy revealed Quinn to be a known felon whilst Quinn was masquerading as a barber. Quinn never forgave Murphy and whilst in prison he swore he would murder him.

Four years later she claims Joe Quinn, with the help of a local gang, took the ultimate revenge. Interestingly she names one of the gang members as Thomas Day.

Although an interesting theory it was hard to find much in the way of facts to back up many of the claims made.

The Gatton Murders Killer Was Known?

As it was the Jack The Ripper case which began my fascination with unsolved crimes I thought I would end this post with this final story.

In 1901 the Singleton Argus newspaper wrote that the man responsible for the Gatton Murders was known and locked away in an asylum. This will sound familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Jack The Ripper case:

Alleged Solution of the Mystery.

Gatton mystery is, of course, no mystery to the Queensland authorities, says a contributor to an exchange. It will be remembered how the police suddenly stopped all investigation.

No useful purpose could be served by proceeding with the matter. The why and wherefore need not be published.

A sequel of the horror is the insanity of a certain person who has been in an asylum for some time. The fact was charitably kept from the knowledge of the general public. It is, however, reassuring to know that the perpetratorof the triple murder is a lunatic.

This is probably the last that will be heard of a tragedy that shocked Australasia and received a world-wide notoriety

Singleton Argus Sat 24 Aug 1901

Further Reading And Sources

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