29 August 2015

The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

Ernest Austin was sentenced to death in 1913 for the vicious murder and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, Ivy Mitchell of Samford, and he was executed at Boggo Road. The crime was particularly atrocious as he had raped the girl and then cut her throat. The people of Samford never did forgive Austin, and his crime haunted Ivy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Ernest Austin, 1913. ('The Truth')

Austin found a kind of infamy as the last prisoner to be hanged in Queensland. He has also found a place among the pantheon of alleged Boggo Road ghosts, and there are rather fantastical versions of his death and afterlife currently being circulated on a number of paranormal-themed websites. There are some serious issues with these stories.*

'But there's a conspiracy theory to hide the truth!'

The story - from a 'ghost tour' company - goes that as he stood upon the scaffold awaiting death, Austin shouted out that he was proud of his crime and that his victim ‘loved it’, and then he laughed heinously, mocked the assembled witnesses, and told them he would return from the grave and cause even more suffering:
"As the executioner released the trapdoors beneath his feet, the murderer began to laugh, all the way to the very end of the 13-foot rope. Even then he tried to force out one last little chuckle from between his lips. It was said that the laughter was often heard in the early mornings in the cellblocks."
The historical record actually tells a very different version of events. Austin’s execution was witnessed by several reporters and officials, and although there were some minor discrepancies in their reports on the event, they all told a very different story to the later version. His last words, probably spoken under the influence of morphine, were reported in one newspaper as:
"I ask you all to forgive me. I ask the people of Samford to forgive me. I ask my mother to forgive me. May you all live long and die happy. God save the King! God save the King! God be with you all! Send a wire to my mother and tell her I died happy, won’t you. Yes tell her I died happy with no fear. Goodbye all! Goodbye all!" (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1913)
A very similar account appeared in the Truth newspaper, this one reporting that ‘God save the King’ were his actual last words. Did the reporters lie? One person defending the ‘evil laughing’ story to me claimed that the reporters were part of an official cover-up of the disturbing events on the gallows, as the authorities were trying to maintain public support for hanging and did not want the awful truth of what Austin had really said getting out.

However, the Courier and the Truth took opposing editorial stands on capital punishment, so why write the same story? Surely it would have suited the anti-hanging writers at the Truth to print a story with Austin laughing at his executioners, showing the failure of the death sentence to impress any sense of repentance upon him. The angle they instead took was to portray Austin as a ‘feeble-minded degenerate’, someone with a ‘mental deficiency’ who was raised in a home for neglected children and lived an institutionalised life that had made a monster of him. Their headline proclaimed ‘THE STATE SLAYS ITS OWN CREATION’. Blame for the crime was apparently to be shared with government authorities, his Frankensteinian creators.

The illogical conspiracy theory (with zero evidence) used to defend this ghost story can be safely ignored.

'But old timers say it's true!'

In later years, Austin was re-created as a supernatural demon. It has been claimed - again, from 'ghost tour' people - that prisoners would see a face appear outside their cell door, and when they looked into his eyes they somehow knew it was Austin and that he had made a deal with Satan to deliver their souls in exchange for his own. Having locked eyes with the prisoner, the ghost of Ernest Austin would then come through the door and try to strangle them, driving some to madness… or so the story goes.

I have spoken with many former prisoners and officers, and while some of them have a weird story or two about 'ghostly' happenings, none of them knew anything of this 'soul-stealing Austin' story. This includes people who, during the 1960s, were confined in the dormitory area of 1 Division that in earlier years had been the gallows area itself. Not only did people not see or hear anything spooky there at all, the prisoners weren't even aware that the place was supposed to be haunted. Quite simply, the story did not exist, much less the ghost.

He haunts the wrong part of Boggo Road!

One of the mysteries of this story is that Austin is said to haunt No.2 Division - a place he never set foot in. In 1913, No.2 Division was actually a prison for women. Austin was confined and executed in a cellblock in a completely different part of the prison reserve, one that was demolished back in the 1970s, but his spirit somehow moved to another building to conveniently haunt part of a ghost tour route.

Be gone, demon!

So how did this Austin story come to be? How did it gain currency after the closure of Boggo Road despite strong contradictory evidence? One plausible explanation is that the story was well suited to the theatrical tenor of a commercial tour. It just takes one person to refer to someone else repeating it, and the ‘evil Austin’ ghost story spreads on the Internet, as the desire to tell a sensational story overrode a proper reading of the historical record.

The transformation of Austin from a vicious but all-too-human murderer into a (literally) satanic monster is an injustice to historical enquiry and an insult to intelligence. The existence and propagation of this story also demeans the memory of Ivy Mitchell. Not to mention overshadowing the historical importance of the abolition of execution in Queensland (the first part of the British Empire to do so). We can only hope that the debunking of the phoney phantom of Ernest Austin will help this ridiculous aspect of the story fade into history.

'They Don't Know What Death Is': Ghost Hunting at a Suicide Scene

WARNING: The following article contains details relating to the death of an Aboriginal man in custody at Boggo Road prison in the 1980s.

Brisbane's Boggo Road Gaol has been home to a number of cheap and tawdry events in recent times, including ghost hunts, ghost tours and even parties with a 'haunted house'.* I've explained the incredibly disrespectful aspect of these 'hunts' before. In short, people have died in terrible circumstances in the Boggo Road cellblocks, and well within living memory. Those people have living relatives and friends whose dearest wish is for the dead to be left alone to rest in peace.

Unfortunately, there are some in the paranormal industry who refuse to let a bit of common decency stand between themselves and a dollar, and so they dismiss the concerns of the deceased person's loved ones. This is the case at Boggo Road Gaol, and this is why the Queensland Government had to step in and ban 'ghost hunts' there.

One of the most powerful statements against the immaturity of the paranormal industry came from an ex-officer, long since retired, who carries with him the vivid memories of being a 'first responder' to suicide and murder scenes inside the old prison. He, and several other officers, have described to me in detail the experience of coming across a dead body inside a cell, the sight and smell of it, and how it stays with you.

'They don't know what death is', he told me when he heard about 'ghost hunts', 'And now they're making a fucking mockery of it'.

I don't personally class any one type of death in custody as being worse than another, but the insensitivity of commercial ghost hunts at Boggo is particularly highlighted by Indigenous deaths there, which have been the subject of major reports in the past.

One of these was the 'Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody', which took place during 1987-91 and investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal prisoners around Australia during previous years. These included cases at Boggo Road. The report went into great depth on the background stories of the individuals concerned, looking at the life circumstances that led to their eventual incarceration and death. Most of the material is now available online at this website. In some cases the names of some deceased persons are not included, in accordance with Indigenous customs.

The following text is an extract from the report on an unnamed man who died inside the F Wing of Boggo Road in December 1980. It is taken from the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody website and describes his final night and the circumstances in which he was found the next day. As I warned before, it does contain some explicit details.
The Man Who Died in Brisbane Prison on 4 December 1980: Events That Occurred in Custody
...While he was on remand the deceased received visits from three of his sisters and a brother and mail from his mother. During the visits by family members the deceased did not discuss the charges against him or at any stage profess his innocence. He did not complain of any harassment or ill-treatment from police, prison officers or other prisoners, or request any medication or assistance. Similarly, at no stage did he give any indication that he might attempt to kill himself.

At 4.30 pm on 4 December 1980, Prison Officer Jack Krikorian escorted the deceased and five other prisoners from 7 Yard to F Wing. He then placed the six prisoners in their respective cells and locked them up. When he locked the deceased in cell 4 Krikorian noticed nothing unusual about his manner. According to Krikorian the deceased did not appear to be depressed. He was then left alone in his cell.

At about 10.00 pm that evening, a prisoner, Christopher William Hudson, who was in cell 2, which adjoined that of the deceased, heard gurgling sounds coming from the deceased's cell. There is no evidence that Hudson attempted to draw anyone's attention to what he heard.

At 6.05 am on 5 December 1980, Prison Officer John Robert Adam, who was performing duty in F Wing, began to release the prisoners from their cells and noticed that the deceased did not come out of his cell.

Adam went to the cell and found that the bed had been pushed against the door. When he gained entry he saw the body of the deceased hanging from the bars of the cell window by a rope made from strips of sheet material twisted together. It was in a noose around his neck and tied to the last two bars of the cell window. Adam tried to find a pulse but without success. The position of the deceased's body was consistent with his having jumped from the bed with the noose tied firmly.

At about 6.07 am Chief Prison Officer Frederick Henry Colebourne was advised by 1/C Prison Officer Phillip Anthony Latimer that a body had been found hanging in F Wing. He directed Latimer to assist in lowering the body and he contacted Prison Officer William Ronald Martin, a medical orderly at the prison hospital. He asked Martin to attend at F Wing.

On his arrival at Cell 4 Colebourne observed:

'Senior Prison Officer Collins and I/C Prison Officer Latimer in the process of lowering the body of a person from a position at the rear of the cell, onto a bed; the body appeared to be stiff and my observations at this time would lead me to believe that the death had occurred some considerable time before the body was discovered. The body of the person, now known to me as [deceased 's name] was examined by Prison Officer Medical Orderly, Mr R. Martin.'

Martin went to F Wing and entered cell 4 where he saw the body of the deceased on the bed with the rope of sheeting tightly knotted around the neck. Martin felt for signs of life but the body was cold and stiff. He notified the hospital to inform the Government Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth John Morrison, and then instructed the Senior Prison Officer Neville Raymond Collins to lock the cell door until the doctor arrived.

At 7.20 am Dr Morrison arrived and examined the body. He noted in the deceased's prison medical record: '... Deep ligature mark. Knot on right side. No petechiae noted. Face swollen. Cold. Life extinct ... '. Dr Morrison told investigating police officer, Constable Jeffrey Gordon Thorpe, that in his opinion death had occurred at about 10.30 pm on 4 December 1980.
One important point I have made in the past is that people like this died while in the custody of the Queensland Government, and inside a government facility. That is why I felt it particularly inappropriate that the Queensland Government gave the go-ahead for commercial 'ghost hunts' to take place there in 2014 and, by means of rents charged, draw indirect income from them. Fortunately a change of government led to a change of heart and the ghost hunts have since been stopped.

I have published the report extract above because F Wing has been used for commercial ghost hunts in which people pay to use bogus equipment to 'hunt ghosts'. It shows that beyond the corny schlock-horror approach to ghost tours in places like this, these incidents involved real people.

I have already requested that a refurbished Boggo Road historical site feature some culturally-appropriate marker of respect and remembrance for all those who died and suffered within the walls of the old prison. They should be allowed to rest in peace.

23 August 2015

My Night Alone in a Boggo Road Cellblock

What happened when I spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock?

I once spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock. In fact the entire prison was empty apart from me. The 'lights out, gates locked, 3:15 a.m.' kind of empty. As far as I know, I'm the only person to have ever done this.

The answer to the first question that always comes after I mention my little sleepover is 'no, I didn't see a ghost'. There again, while there won't be some Edgar Allen Poe-ian narrative here, it actually turned out to be an interesting test of the limits of my skepticality.

It was October 2003 and the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had organised a special Centenary Day to commemorate the passing of 100 years since No.2 Division opened as a women's prison in October 1903. To mark the event I had designed my first big museum exhibition, '100 Not Out: A century of escapes from Boggo Road', which used escape tools from the museum collection to tell the story of escapes from the prison. This exhibition took up the whole ground floor of D-Wing, including the cells, and took months of planning and construction by the museum volunteers. Being the first project of its kind that we had attempted, it turned out to be a great learning experience as there were a number of hiccups along the way. In fact, come the evening before the Centenary Day it was still not quite finished, so I volunteered to stay back until it was all in place. Darkness fell, and after turning out all the lights except for our office and D Wing, the other volunteers left, locking the big prison gates behind them, and I was alone.

I anticipated the work would take a few hours to finish, but after a few hours of glueing industrial felt onto backboards, laminating text boards and applying the finishing touches to various display cabinets, it was clear I would have to stay much later. Maybe even right through the night. All by myself in a Boggo Road cellblock. Which shouldn't be a problem as I don't believe in ghosts. I've never seen or heard anything in my life that couldn't be explained in a rational manner.

Even so, as the night wore on and I got into the wee small hours working away alone in that cellblock, it felt rather spooky, but only because I let myself start thinking about scenes from movies like the 'Sixth Sense', the original 'Woman in Black', and the original 'House on Haunted Hill'. I also remembered some paranormal investigation report I once read about the prison, reporting some 'dark energy' they had 'sensed' on the top floor of D Wing. If I turned around suddenly, would there be some horrible thing standing there staring at me? Would there be a dark shape on the top landing, watching over me? A little girl sat on the steps? A man hanging from unseen gallows? After walking over the grass circle outside, would there be faces watching from the upstairs cellblock windows? Of course not, but it's much easier to imagine such things in a setting like that than in a supermarket at lunchtime. It's an inherent quality of old deserted buildings, especially at night, that we are culturally conditioned to fill the blanks in the familiar scene with stock characters.

And so it was that at one point during that night, around 3 a.m., I found it increasingly hard to focus on the work at hand because of the niggling feeling that I was being watched (in my defence, this was after about 18 straight hours of work). The cellblock felt colder and colder and quieter and quieter, except for the light classical music playing on my radio. I managed to half-convince myself that somebody was on the top floor walkway, looking down at me. Once or twice I looked up suddenly, to settle my suspicions one way or the other, but saw nothing in the darkness up there. In the end I walked quickly over to the powerboard and switched on every light in the cellblock, on all three floors. Then I switched stations, from classical music to bogan rock and turned up the volume. Maybe enough to deter any ghosts, or at least mask any sounds they might make so I wouldn't hear. I soon managed to refocus on the work and it didn't take long for my rational mind to take over again, especially as dawn and the deadline loomed.

Imagination can have a powerful effect on emotions. Some people get easily frightened and tense on our nocturnal cemetery tours because their minds are running through spooky scenarios. While some see a darkly quiet scattering of headstones and trees, peaceful under the moonlight, others imagine a bustling supernatural landscape of shadows among the graves, the woman in black staring back at them, and lost souls wandering the pathways. Manipulating the imaginations of particularly gullible people to make them tense is what some ghost tours attempt to do, even if it means telling lies to get there ("someone saw a ghost right here during last week's tour"). In my experience, people in this induced state of mind are too quick to slap the 'supernatural' label on anything slightly out of the ordinary.

When I finally put the finishing touches to the exhibition, the sun was rising in the sky, admittedly to my relief. The front gates opened again and the first volunteers entered to set up the museum for the soon-to-be-arriving public. I said goodbye and headed home for a few hours sleep. 

And there it was. As far as I know, I'm the only person to ever spend the night completely alone in Boggo Road prison. I saw nothing (not that I looked too hard), heard nothing, and I didn't get paid $10,000 by Vincent Price for surviving the night alone in a haunted house. However, I did learn that even a skeptical mind can play tricks on itself when placed in a stereotypically 'spooky' situation, and some of us are not as always as rational as we like to think we are.

08 August 2015

The Saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip

In the Queensland winter of 1941, as the Second World War raged overseas, the 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were distracted by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor. News spread far and wide and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’.

The saltwater and freshwater lakes on the old Dyvenor station cover a wide area, some being about a mile wide and between 10-20 miles in length. Unusually heavy rain in early 1941 had greatly expanded their capacity and they provided sanctuary for many birds, including black swans and thousands of gulls (it is now part of the Lake Bindegolly National Park and home to over 200 species of birds). It was after these big rains that tales began to emerge of an elusive animal creature being seen in the waters.

Locals soon formed a range of opinions on what this animal might be. Ideas included seals, turtles, wild pigs, musk ducks, and the obligatory ‘bunyip’, which was a water-dwelling creature of Aboriginal mythology. Some said the creature had a body between three to four feet long, while others claimed it to be the ‘size of a bulldog’.

Lake Bindegolly National Park.

The shire clerk told the Courier-Mail reporter that about 20 people had glimpsed it. Two men, one a postal inspector and the other a station manager, had chased it in a boat at dawn before it disappeared into some rushes. One of them had attempted to photograph it, apparently unsuccessfully. He claimed it showed up in the negative but was indistinguishable in the print. They saw the creature from about 90 metres away in weak dawn light and described it like this:
‘It was nothing like anything I’ve seen… The head was black and at least a foot long, and the animal was grunting and splashing a lot. From the size of the head I would say it was about 6 feet long. I was told that many years ago a seal was seen in the Dynevor chain of lakes.'
One of the men, JG Utz, also said that 'its head, which raised about 12 to 18 inches above the water, reminded me of a seal'. The news was picked up in Adelaide, where a newspaper reported that about a dozen people swore they had seen ‘a strange animal frolicking in the Dynevor Lake’, with most descriptions matching that of a seal. An implausible suggestion for how a seal would be in a saltwater lake over a thousand kilometres from the coast was given, in that ‘a seagull, one of thousands which flock to the lake, played stork and carried a baby seal from the coast!’

After months of scepticism about earlier sightings, the new reports prompted search parties from Thargomindah to head to the lake, eager to solve the mystery. Mr G. Gooch, owner of Thargomindah station, proposed to place a net across the neck of water where he had seen the creature in the hope of catching it. He also claimed that ‘the bunyip resembles a seal, but it was impossible to say what it was’. He told Queensland Country Life that the Thargomindah bunyip was ‘no mere figment of imagination’ and that he intended to capture it and ‘confound the sceptics’.

The shores of the lake became a drawcard for dozens of travellers on the Cunnamulla-Thargomindah road, and they watched out for the creature near Broken Dam, part of the lake system. Many early-morning bunyip-spotters claimed to have seen it, although it always seemed to vanish before they get close enough for an accurate description.

On 17 August, the Sunday Mail reported that ‘The Thargomindah ‘bunyip’ - now a well-recognised local identity - startled residents this week by appearing with a mate’. There was now speculation that there may be in fact a whole family of the creatures.
‘Last week two of the animals showed themselves at the same time to a party of sightseers. ‘They were as alike as two peas, and we weren’t seeing double,’ said one of the party. ‘They were black, about 2ft. 6in. long, with heads like dogs, and very prominent ears. They swirled away as soon as they spotted us. Probably one was male and one female, but we couldn’t tell from where we were, about 50 yards away. They looked just the same.’
One week later a search expedition armed with guns and cameras was delayed while a local Warrego by-election was contested. Another recent sighting had the creature as having ‘a head like a mastiff and a tail like a duck’.

James Annand, Mayor of Toowoomba, then claimed to have shot at a ‘bunyip’ at Felton, near Toowoomba, some 40 years earlier.
‘As an alternative, he describes it as a moss duck. ‘The moss duck is a queer creature,’ the Mayor said. ‘It has a very large head and short neck. When it appears above water the head is doubled into the breast, giving the appearance of a large, shaggy animal’s head, surmounted by two pointed ears. Those who know the bird have never seen it fly. It dives and reappears anything from 20 to 50 yards away. It is very rare, and possibly the bunyips reported in Broken Dam, near Thargomindah, are moss ducks.’’
There is no such thing as a ‘moss duck’ and I presume what was referred to here was a Musk Duck. The male of this species grows to about 70cm long and has a distinctive large, leathery lobe underneath the bill

Musk Duck.

Despite this, Mr Utz was adamant that what he had seen was not a ‘moss duck’. He saw it twice and still guessed that it was a seal. He told one reporter:
‘What impressed me most about the animal was that it showed much shrewdness and curiosity. On each occasion I saw it, the animal waited until I had crossed the water before it broke the surface to have a look round to see what was going on.’
All the publicity surrounding the alleged bunyip led to concerns about hunters converging on the lakes, so in September the state government appointed G Gooch and JD McLaren as ‘honorary ranger for the Dyvenor Lake bird and animal sanctuary’ or - as was reported in some newspapers – ‘Keepers of the Thargomindah bunyip’. From now on, the bunyip could only be shot with a camera, and Gooch led search parties intent on photographing the beast.

Carnavon’s Northern Times then reported another interesting description of the creature.
‘Mr. R. R. Smith, of Thyangra, who claims to have seen the ‘bunyip,’ said it was about three feet long, two feet six inches around the body, representing a football in shape, but tapering to the head and tail… The head was like that of a pug dog, but more pointed, and appeared to have strings or fibres hanging down from the upper lip. Its colour was mousy brown, with a definite polish, and it seemed to be rather inquisitive.’
Sightings seem to have stopped around September 1941 and interest in the saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip soon waned. It was never seen again, and the search parties gave up their pursuit of it.

In retrospect it is safe to assume that what was seen was either dingoes or foxes out to raid the nests of water birds, or other species of birds attracted by the expanded post-rain lakes. Whatever it was, it would be a natural explanation. Unlike Lowood and their hoax bunyip, the locals have not used the ‘Thargomindah Bunyip’ to promote the area, although a Sydney newspaper article of 1941 predicted that could well happen:
‘Should the Thargomindah bunyip prove to be genuine and not merely of the fabulous kind, the little town-ship (which is already notable for having its very own electric street lights) will certainly become very famous Indeed. Tourists will doubtless flock there in gratifying numbers and a monument may even be erected to the bunyip's honour in the main street.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1941)
It wasn't to be...