31 August 2016

Slim Halliday: Man or Spider-man?

Arthur Ernest 'Slim' Halliday, convicted murderer and infamous Boggo Road escapologist during the 1930s-1960s, is the subject of some incredible tales, some tall, some true. Like the time he bent a solid metal cell door back with a winch made from bits of wood and bed sheet. Or the time he burned a hole in roof of the mattress workshop in a bid to escape. Or when he made a replica gun from bits of leather. These are some of the true tales.

Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, Brisbane, 1937 (BRGHS)
Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, 1937. (BRGHS)

There is, however, one particular story that is as tall as it gets. During one of my first visits to Boggo Road I took a tour with a highly-respected former prison officer who told our group all about 'Halliday's Leap', the place where Slim Halliday jumped off the roof of E Wing cellblock in 1940 and landed on the top of the perimeter wall before making good his escape. At the time I totally believed it - such is the authoritative power of the tour guide - but after I worked at the museum and spent more time in the area, I realised that the story and the numbers just didn't add up.

The legendary leap would have involved jumping from a three-storey cellblock roof onto the top of the red-bricked outer prison wall, a near-impossible feat involving a drop of eight metres over a width of four metres. The curved top of the wall itself is no more than 30cm wide and is over seven metres high – not the safest landing spot for someone jumping from a great height. Imagine jumping off the roof of a two-storey house, aiming to land perfectly on a 30cm-wide ledge, without breaking your legs or spine or falling over when you do land, because that ledge is seven metres off the ground - and someone with a rifle on the neighbour's roof will shoot you if they see you. It is, basically, a feat requiring all the abilities of Spiderman, and Slim may have been a lot of things but he was no superhero.

Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).
Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road. (BRGHS).

I delved into the official records at Queensland State Archives and a very different story emerged, but one that was no less impressive. To run through it briefly; Halliday had planned this escape for months, secretly making and hiding escape ropes, grappling hooks and wire cutters in the prison workshops. One day he slipped unnoticed from a line of prisoners and scaled the 10-foot high fence of the exercise yard to gain access to the Track that ran around the inside of the perimeter walls. He climbed onto the workshop roof and dropped down through a skylight that gave him access to the inside of the workshop, where he cut through wire mesh walls with the hidden wire cutters to get to his escape ropes. He climbed up onto the roof again and hooked the longest rope over the outer wall, at a place he had worked out to be a blind-spot from the towers. He dropped the shorter rope down the side of the workshop and climbed down onto the Track, then climbed up over the prison wall using the first rope before changing his clothes and making his escape.

Did Arthur 'Slim' Halliday REALLY jump from a cellblock roof to escape from Boggo Road?
A – Location of ‘Halliday’s Leap’
B – Workshops
T – Towers
No.2 Division, Boggo Road, in the 1940s. (BRGHS)

Slim Halliday's escape route from Boggo Road Gaol, 1940. (BRGHS)
Halliday's escape route 1940. (BRGHS)

There is no room in this article for the tale of the massive manhunt, shoot-outs and high-speed car chases that led to Halliday’s recapture, which is all covered in detail in the book The Houdini of Boggo Road. Of more relevance here is how the myth of 'Halliday's Leap' grew. One clue comes from discussions with local residents who were children when the escape happened. When news of the breakout got out, local parents ordered their children to stay home, but the kids had other ideas and formed themselves into 'posses', excitedly roaming the local streets in nervous pursuit of the escaped prisoner. They circulated a story that Halliday had jumped from a roof during his escape, and in the process of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this became a cellblock roof. This story took hold, and 50 years later it had become accepted even within modern prison officer circles.

Halliday escaped over the blind spot at this section of the wall again in 1946, and it gained the name of 'Halliday’s Leap’ quite early on. Following yet another escape attempt by Slim, this time in 1953, a newspaper ran an article with the headline 'HALLIDAY’S LEAP HEADACHE FOR BOGGO ROAD STAFF: WEAK SPOT IN THE PRISON WALLS'. However, the blindspot had in fact been fixed in 1947 with the erection of a new stand-alone guard tower (called E tower) in the prison grounds to the southeast of the workshops. The workshops and Halliday’s Leap were later demolished as part of the prison modernisation of the early 1970s. The myth of Halliday's Leap has only been demolished in more recent years.

The Greatest Last Meal of All Time!

I recently thumbed through an interesting book called Texas Death Row, a compilation of information about the people executed in Texas in the modern era. Each prisoner’s last meal request was listed, and what stood out for me was how the vast majority of them wanted hamburgers or fried chicken, with fries, ice cream, cola, milk shakes, etc. It was a clear reflection of the culinary tastes of the Texan criminal class.

Unfortunately there is not too much in the records to show what the residents of the Boggo Road condemned cells had to eat, but every once in a while one of the newspapers would mention it in passing.

Under the Murder Act of 1872, condemned murderers were allowed only bread and water in the usual 48-hour timespan between sentencing and execution. Catholics were also allowed wine of the Sacrament. This changed in later years, and condemned prisoners were given special privileges, including ordering whatever food they wished (within reason). For example, Chinese man Wong Tong, who was hanged at Boggo Road in 1886, was fond of plates of boiled rice and milk, tinned fish, and boiled meat. He also drank tea and the occasional glass of brandy. His compatriot Tim Tee, hanged in 1886, was quite particular about his last meal, requesting two boiled eggs on the condition that they were not boiled for more than two-and-a-half minutes.

Others were less fussy. Ernest Austin, who gained considerable weight during his time in Boggo Road by eating a 450g block cake every day, settled for a last meal of bacon, eggs, and a bowl of hominy (the rough prison porridge made from cracked wheat and water).

George Gleeson, hanged in Boggo Road Gaol in 1892 (Queensland State Archives)
George Gleeson, 1892.
(Queensland State Archives)

By far the most extravagant request was made by George Gleeson, who was hanged for murder in 1892. He had an Indian mother and a white American father, and was a cook by trade. He used the full extent of his culinary imagination to dream up this fantastical meal on the Thursday before his execution:
  • 2 lbs of rump steak, to be cooked as a bread steak, with walnuts and poached eggs. 
  • 1½lbs green peas, 1lb carrots, 1lb turnips, 1lb beans and a cauliflower. 
  • A suckling pig, stuffed with pork sausages, bread crumbs, onions, pepper, salt, thyme, sage, parsley, butter and the yolks of two eggs. The sauce for this was to be made of brains of calf or sheep, a little flour, pepper, salt, parsley and butter. 
  • Cucumber and boiled egg salad. 
  • A boiled cabinet pudding, made with 12 eggs, 1lb sultanas, 1lb raisins, 1lb currants, candied lemon peel and lemon essence. To be served with custard. 
  • Plum pudding, made with 1lb suet, 6 eggs, a bottle of rum, 2lbs flour, loaf of bread, small packet of baking powder. 
  • A selection of bananas, oranges, pineapples and American apples. 
  • 1½lb pound cake 
  • 6 bottles of lemonade 
  • 6lbs white loaf sugar 
  • 3 packets of cigarettes 
  • 2 dozen quill cigars
Such a request was of course beyond the means of the humble kitchen and staff, not to mention the prison budget. It is probably also beyond human ability to actually eat this much food anyway, and even Monty Python's Mr Creosote would struggle with it.

There again, maybe George planned to eat himself to death.

29 August 2016

A Cooktown Shark Story

A vivid description  of the capture of a huge shark at Cooktown in 1878.

The following vivid account of the capture of a huge shark at Cooktown in 1878 is taken from the Western Champion, 1922:

'In the early days of Cooktown a couple of old "whalers" had established a sort of boiling-down business, at the foot of Grassy Hill, in a bight from which road material had been excavated, and in 1878 made a good return in catching sharks and boiling the livers for oil. They also treated the dugong brought from outside the same way. These sharks went from four to seven or eight feet; the larger the beast the greater and more profitable quantity of oil, of course.

In August it was noised abroad that there was an exceedingly large shark in the harbor, playing the deuce with the fish; and the fishermen (Chinese) evidently scared out of their senses, swore in best Tartar and with many gesticulations, that the monster would rise along side their boats and open his cavernous jaws, and showing a frightful double row of teeth threaten to crunch up a boat, but the fishermen aided by fear, vigorously pulled their oars and made for the shallow water.

To secure the monster was a haul worth while, so the two "whalers" set about catching her - for the saurian turned out to be a female. The shark was seen hovering about the wharves at high tide probably looking after the dainties thrown overboard from, the steamers. Anyway a large hook, about an inch in thickness at the bend - was well baited with a high-smelling leg of beef, and a ship's hawser was attached to a heavy ring welded at the end of the hook. It was the ring off an old anchor, I think, while the hook itself  was taken from some old sailer, probably the fastening of a chain used to lift cargo. The end of the hawser was knotted round one of. the large posts to which vessels were moored and was placed a few yards on the town side from Hendiques little wharf.

The operations were completed on Saturday afternoon; I remember it well as the coastal boat had just gone out. The tide receded and came in again, no shark. How anxiously those two men watched through the night! Men (sailors mostly) would saunter down from Weir's pub., a couple of hundred yards away, up the street, and keep the two comrades company enjoying a pipe and a yarn at the same time. 

Daylight broke - a beautiful Sunday morning - and the tide was dead out. At about nine o'clock I was sitting on my verandah over looking the harbor. In front was the road leading to No. 1 wharf, and the Pilot shed and Ben Palmer's house round the point; on the pebbly foreshore to the left of the little wharf were a knot of men doubtless discussing the situation; the hawser hung loosely on the strand. But suddenly there was a cry, "We've got him!" and in an instant the excitement over the relief of Ladysmith was trivial as compared with the excitement of the moment. The hawser had become tight, and the strain was intense. The huge post was bending and the two men called out to the assembled crowd for help. I ran down to do my bit, and soon commenced one of the toughest tugs of war in history. There were about 20 men pulling and tugging at that hawser against one - but what was that one? We shall see presently.

The surface of the water was covered with streaks of blood and foam, but the unequal fight continued for - it seemed an hour, but was probably 16 minutes. I remember we did not gain much rope. Then suddenly the strain relaxed, and we all went down like ninepins. It was thought the monster, scenting the high dish prepared for her and being like Eve unable to resist temptation, came too far in on the ebb tide, swallowed the bait, and became partially stranded. But she put up a brave fight for her life until exhausted. The tide was rising quickly so we would have to hurry up if we intended loading our quarry. It was a tough job but we eventually got her ashore high and dry. The beast was far from
being dead. Her eyes, as large as saucers, looked horrible; they glared at us with a seemingly intense hatred; continually opened and shut her immense jaws - about three feet or so, while she lashed her tail, each smack on the earth sounding like a clap of thunder, while she roared like a lion. The hook was caught in the lower jaw, and as we subsequently noted was bent nearly straight; while the hawser at the ring was halt frayed through- The whalers said that had there been a drop more water the shark would have got away. 

A stick was poked between the shark's jaws and the two whalers, soon gave her her quietus. By this time the water laved the side of the saurian. She was measured and from point to point overall, went eighteen feet - a record shark for the time. It was supposed to have come from the Barrier, where it was reported there were some monster sharks. (Archie Meston, I notice, confirms this). The shark was opened, when out came a number of small sharks from a foot to eighteen inches in length. They were funny looking things like huge tadpoles, with rudimentary tails. Like lightning they wriggled into the water, and in a second were lost to view. We had scarcely a moment to look at them. It was quicker than some of the reading descriptive of a picture at a cinema show. One or two people made a dive to catch one, but instead of the substance they got the shadow. Opinions differed as to the number of youngsters - some said 18 others 19. So old Mrs. Saurian left plenty of progeny behind her; she was evidently just about to spawn. 

"Old French Charlie" paid £5 for the jaws, which afterwards formed the unique frame of a pier glass, and unless he sent it to France may probably be seen in the old hotel to this day. The liver was a monster, and yielded £50 worth of oil. All day Sunday the shark held a levee, but was of such bulk that no time had to be lost after sundown in chopping it up and removing it into deep water. 

Since then, Cooktown district boasts of having discovered the biggest snake, but that is another story.'

04 August 2016

The Fabulous Creatures of Walter Henry Bone

Walter Henry Bone is one of the forgotten illustrators of Australian children’s literature, which is rather a shame. Writing around the turn of the 20th century, he was able to apply his knowledge as an expert bushman and naturalist to creating an imaginative menagerie of animal characters. His What Became of Them? stories featured an outback world populated by creatures both strange and familiar. They were ruled over by the kindly Bunyip, referred to by the rest of the animals as ‘the King’ or ‘Your Majesty’.

Bunyip and Oopidoop. (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)

Bone’s animals were neither European nor Aboriginal, except for the bunyip, which in these stories was clearly a land animal, as opposed to the freshwater creature of Aboriginal legend. The bunyip also had magical powers with which he could transform animals, which happens in most stories, and these transformative incidents give the tales something of an Aboriginal quality, while also recalling Kipling's 'Just So Stories'.

Being a big-game hunter, soldier of fortune, naturalist, and children’s author was perhaps an odd mix. As was the style of the time, Bone's writing was a bit wordier and more colloquial than would be used in children’s books now, and although they had a fair measure of violence and death, they also had a quaint charm that seems surprising when considering the background of the author himself.

Walter Bone, Megalong Valley, c.1900. (Blue Mountains City Library)

Born in 1863, Bone attended Sydney Grammar School before setting off to Africa for a taste of adventure. He found it, and by the age of 20 he was an expert swordsman, revolver shot, and was the officer in command of the cavalry of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Sometime around 1890 he returned to Australia and became joint editor of the Blue Mountains Express newspaper in Katoomba. He was a frequent contributor to the Sydney Mail for 35 years. Bone wrote and illustrated popular animal and bush stories for children, including, Hoppity: being the life of an albino kangaroo (1933) and What Became of Them? Australian stories for children. These books continued to be reprinted until the 1950s.

Bone had a sound knowledge of bush lore and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnaean Society of New South Wales, and the Zoological Society, and he contributed articles to a number of journals. He inherited his father’s printing business, renaming it ‘W. H. Bone & Co.’, and died in 1934.

Walter Bone and his wife Frances camping in the Megalong Valley, NSW, c.1900. (Blue Mountains City Library)

Being very much a creature of his time, he unfortunately portrayed Aboriginal and African people as clownish caricatures (see here for an example), and more than anything else it is these illustrations and other casually racist tones that make a revival of his work unlikely.

The Bunyip

In Bone's world, the Bunyip was the King of the animals, and the central character in the What Became of Them? stories. He had some familiar features known from alleged 'bunyip sightings', such as a bird's beak or bill, horns on his head, and large eyes, but he was clearly a land animal as opposed to the aquatic nature of reported bunyips.

(Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)

The Oopidoop 
Not so 'fabulous', perhaps, but the Oopidoop was an important character in the stories, being the 'Great Grandfather of the Frogs' and constant assistant and friend to the Bunyip. His origins are explained in this January 1906 story.

'You can dig another hole and commence business whenever you like'. (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)

'Of course you know as well as I do that the Oopidoop is the grandfather of all the frogs. Well, nobody who ever saw the Bunyip - who, as everyone is aware, is the King of Australian creatures - could understand how it is that he is invariably attended by the Oopidoop. As a matter of fact it was only through being on very friendly terms with most of our wild animals that I learned the reason myself. To make sure that what they told me was correct, I interviewed an old black-snake (with a shotgun), and as he said nothing to the contrary, of course the story must be true.' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
The Wongawhillilew
The Wongawhillilew was a strange pterodactyl-like bird who was not too clever and wanted to become a man after coming across an Aboriginal man in the bush one day. He appeared in this December 1902 story.

'The mischievous young animals would swing on his legs.' (Sydney Mail, 31 December 1902)
"The Wongawhillilew was discovered, when quite a little thing, sitting on a stone in the pouring rain, squawking piteously with cold and wet, and when the Bunyip found it and took it home with him he anticipated some difficulty in rearing it, but being blessed with a healthy appetite and strong digestion, it recovered from the exposure, and under the tender care which the King of the Creatures bestowed upon all his subjects, rapidly attained its full growth. It was 6ft. high, had big goggle eyes, leathern wings furnished with strong hooks at the shoulders, and its long legs terminated in hands instead of claws. In colour it was green." (Sydney Mail, 31 December 1902)
The Goanthaspike
This was a large goanna or monitor lizard with a huge spike on the end of its snout, which he liked to use to play 'policeman' among the other animals. From April 1910.

'"Here, don't you call me names," the Monitor hissed venomously.' (Sydney Mail, 6 April 1910)
‘At first the bush creatures fled in frantic haste when they saw the Goanthaspike coming, but by degrees they became accustomed to his appearance, and their natural antipathy to each other reasserted itself. Quarrels and fights arose, and then the Monitor would lumber forward, and gently quell the disturbance with a mild application of his spike.’ (Sydney Mail, 6 April 1910)
The Boomerangatang
This was a kind of flying orang-utan that would spin around wildly in mid-air, boomerang-style, causing other fascinated animals to break their necks as they tried to watch him. Dozens of animals died in this manner in this September 1911 story.

'The King commanded the Boomerangatang to alight.' (Sydney Mail, 20 September 1911)
‘The first intimation of the presence of the Boomerangatang which the Bunyip received was when he was awakened, one very wet afternoon, by a succession of maniacal shrieks and chuckles that seemed to encircle the hollow tree in which he was sleeping.’ (Sydney Mail, 20 September 1911)
The Swalleremole
This massive snake ('swallow 'em whole') with armour plating and legs featured in this November 1911 story. It was eventually transformed into a much smaller creature.

'The Bunyip struck furiously at the creature's head.' (Sydney Mail, 22 November 1911)
‘It was the Swalleremole - the black snake with the crimson motor-scales - that brought the death-juice to Australia; there were no venomous snakes in our country before that. But he was somewhat different in appearance to what he is now, before the Bunyip took the matter in hand - you'll notice that at once if you glance at his portrait.’ (Sydney Mail, 22 November 1911)
The Hlpmtl
This was some sort of a giant ant with a penchant for killing animals unfortunate enough to fall into it's hole. It was featured in this December 1911 story.

'A pair of monstrous callipers closed with terrible force around him'. (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)
‘With a tremendous heave the creature emerged from the loose soil in which it had embedded itself, and crouched against the opposite side of the pit. The monarch examined it critically. 'Ha,' he muttered, 'body grey, ten feet long, flat, heart-shaped; six short legs, big head, goggle eyes, huge nippers-ah. Come here. Stop! How dare you crawl backwards. What d'you mean by it?' 'I can't crawl any other way,' the Hlpmtl whimpered apologetically.’ (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)
The Googleoggle
An ancestor of the frogs, the Googleoggle lost his ears but gained an unwanted tail after a fierce dispute with the koala (who, in turn, lost his own tail).

'"Now, get off the earth," said the Bunyip. (Sydney Mail, 25 January 1911)
'As for you,' he continued grimly, turning to the Googleoggle, 'your malice has caused the bear to lose his beloved tail and you your ears. As a punishment you shall wear his tail, and have no ears at all. Now, get off the earth!' And with one mighty kick he sent him flying into the water.' (Sydney Mail, 25 January 1911)
The Tuniuniantipec
When Australia was still joined to south-east Asia, this 'yellow monster' used to migrate down from China to devour children (i.e. young animals). There was nothing subtle about the racism in this February 1904 story. The problem was solved after the Bunyip had the wombats dig a trench that caused Australia to physically separate from Asia.

'"I believe you've eaten him yourself," said the Tuniunianipec.' (Sydney Mail, 3 February 1904)
'Our King sought the Tuniuniantipec at the full of the moon and prevailed upon him to return to his own country on condition that 10 animals should be given up to him whenever he asked for them, provided the moon was at the full. Years passed, and the Yellow Fiend grew older, and instead of full-grown animals he demanded that they be young and tender. This was done, and, so that the loss should fall upon each in turn, he brings each time a list of those who must give up their young to be devoured. Behold, people of the bush, the moon is at the full, and to-night he comes!' (Sydney Mail, 3 February 1904)
The Triantiwollipede
This bird-headed, tentacled creature had a habit of eating other animals before he was rather horrifically killed himself in this September 1902 story.

'"No, no,", said the Wallaroo, "It's all a mistake." (Sydney Mail, 6 September 1902)
'The triantiwollipede (Scarum kiddibus) is one of those extinct Australian creatures which for some unaccountable reason find no place in the books of natural history, but as there was only one, I am not surprised at it. The only mention I can find of the beast is- 
"He's all jet black, and his big fat back
Is round as a geebung seed:
So don't go nigh when you hear the cry -
“Trianti - wolli - pede!”'
- Alexander the Great.'
(Sydney Mail, 6 September 1902)
Drought Bird 
Mentioned in a story 
about Oopidoop, the Drought Bird was held responsible for causing droughts to occur.

'That night, the Drought Bird swooped down out of the sky.' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
''You see, my friends,' he went on after a pause, 'it is all the fault of the wicked Drought Bird. As you know, the Drought Bird is a huge winged creature that flies out of the sun, and drinks up all the clouds by day and the rivers and creeks by night - that's why nobody ever sees him.'' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
The Locashell
This giant insect with a fondness for soft wood trees was eventually shrunk down to become a cicada-type creature in this story from January 1912.

'He emitted a yell that made the trees shudder.' (Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)
'Almost asleep as he was, the Bunyip at first watched the thing with dreamy indifference, but as its bulk rose higher and higher from the earth, by degrees he became uneasily conscious of the two great eyes staring down into his. Unable to move, though now wide awake, he saw the huge claws groping for a firm hold upon the ground; his eyes widened, and his mouth gaped with astonishment, and - it must be confessed - apprehension, until the weird object, bending towards him, thrust forward a long, slender beak and touched him on the chest. Then he emitted a yell (and, mind you, I don't blame him) that made the trees shudder, and went over backwards.' (Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)