Quite often murder mysteries of the past fascinate even today. The fact that most would be solved in today’s world of DNA testing and improved policing techniques make the stories even more intriguing. One crime in particular, which happened in a small town in Queensland, Australia, still resonates with many people today. The seemingly pointless murder has harboured conspiracy theories, police incompetence and rumours of a family with skeletons in their closet. Perhaps these are the reasons this hideous crime is the subject of numerous books and articles.
This is an edited piece I wrote a few years ago. When I wrote it I set out with no goal of solving the murder. However by the end of it I do offer a theory as to what I believe happened. It is a complex story so I have broken it up into three parts.
Gatton is a town some 85km South West of the Queensland capital of Brisbane. It is like most rural towns in Australia. The people are genuine, hospitable, hardworking and have a certain bluntness that might elude the city folk. One thing that does set Gatton apart from most towns though is the fact that it harbours a secret. A brutal and seemingly senseless crime happened on the night of the 26th December, 1898. Three members of the same family were butchered just outside of town. Few murders have fascinated the Australian public like the Gatton murders. The fact that even now, a hundred and eight years after the gruesome events, the murders remain strong in the Australian psyche is testimony to that. Michael (29), Norah (27) and Ellen (18) Murphy were brutally murdered on Boxing Day night 1898. The story goes that Michael was chaperoning his two younger sisters to a dance that was to be held in Gatton town hall. They arrived in Gatton around 9.30pm only to discover that the dance was cancelled. They then turned around and headed back home down Tent Hill Road. Only they never made it home. Their bodies were found in a paddock the next morning only a few kilometres outside of Gatton. Michael had been shot in the back of the head and his sisters were raped before they had their heads bashed in. Those are the facts. The rest remains a mystery and many questions remain unanswered. Who killed them? What was the motive? Why were there no signs of a struggle? How did the killer(s) get away? Who was the man seen by the road on the night of the murders? Many theories have been put forth and it seems every few years another person comes forth claiming to have the answer. This is all speculative of course and the mystery remains. The truth is we might never know what happened on that fateful night over a century ago; and this is what keeps us intrigued.
The Murphy’s were a large family that had been in the area of Gatton for some twenty odd years. Daniel and Mary Murphy (the parents of the victims) had ten children; six boys and four girls. At the time of the murders their ages ranged from thirteen to thirty-three. Typical of Irish immigrants the Murphy’s were hard working and their time in the area had earned them a solid reputation with other residents. In and around the time of the murders Michael was staying and working at a farm in Westbrook (a town 50km west of Gatton) and was home a few days for Christmas. He had served as a constable during the shearers strike in 1891 and by all accounts was of a most noble character (Fitzgerald, 1924). Norah lived at home and apart from a brief spell living in Brisbane had never lived away for long. A quote in the Toowoomba Chronicle might describe Norah best ‘She was a girl who loved her parents and was respected by all who knew her. There were many in the district who will always keep green in their memory the kindness shown them by the late Miss Norah Murphy’ (1898). Ellen was the second youngest daughter of the Murphy’s. She was conscientious student and was never in any trouble. She was reserved and well mannered (Gibney 1977, pp15-17).
THE EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE MURDER
On Boxing Day the Murphy’s attended a race meet at Mt Sylvia where Michael had heard about the dance that was to be held in Gatton. They had all returned home for dinner approximately 6.30pm that night. After dinner, Michael, Norah and Ellen got ready to go into Gatton for the dance. William McNeil, the husband of the oldest Murphy daughter, Polly, lent Michael his sulky (carriage) to take into Gatton. Michael and McNeil harnessed the horse onto the sulky and with that three were off to the dance. The trip from their farm in Blackfellows Creek to Gatton is approximately nine and a half kilometres. They had passed their brother Patrick Murphy who was on his way home to the Agricultural College in Gatton as he had work in the morning. When they arrived in Gatton they found the dance had been cancelled, thus they turned around and headed back home. They once again came upon their brother Patrick around twenty past nine. After a brief conversation, presumably about the cancelled dance, both were on their way. This would be the last time Patrick would speak to his siblings again. This conversation was around a kilometer away from the sliprails which led to Moran’s paddock, the scene of the murders.
DISCOVERY OF THE BODIES
When it was realised the next morning that Michael, Norah and Ellen had not returned home, Mary sent William McNeil to look for them. William who had lent the trio his sulky was concerned as the sulky had a wobbly wheel and he was afraid that there might have been an accident. He quickly picked up the trail up Tent Hill Road which was easy due to the faulty wheel. He noticed that the track led into the entrance of Moran’s paddock (McNeil saw that they had entered the paddock coming from Gatton and not from the Murphy household). Upon entering the paddock he found the grisly sight of his extended family butchered. In a state of frenzy William rushed into town. He stopped at the Brian Boru Hotel, spoke to the proprietor before going off to find Sergeant Arrell of the Gatton Police (Gibney, pp.24-8).
It must be noted that in my research of the murders, McNeill’s actions immediately after the discovery of the bodies have been criticized. Why he went over to the hotel prior to informing the police has come into question. The answer is quite a simple one. McNeill, it must be remembered was not from Gatton. He lived and worked in Toowoomba and only visited the family on weekends. McNeill when walking into the bar had only inquired about where to find the sergeant. Naturally he was in a frenzy about discovering Michael, Norah and Ellen dead. It was only natural that the people inside the hotel at the time might enquire as to what had left William McNeill in such a state.
Next, we will look at the botched police investigation and some of the suspects.
(END OF PART 1)