01 December 2018

The Chinese in Camooweal (1892)

Camooweal is a small town (population 187 during 2011) on the far north-western border of Queensland/Northern Territory. It was established during 1884/85 and - because of its position - soon found itself the scene

Years of anti-Chinese racism in colonial Queensland had resulted in Chinese immigrants - once welcomed as a source of cheap labour - being subjected to various pieces of discriminatory legislation in the areas of health, immigration, quarantine, mining and customs duties. Entry into Queensland was strictly restricted, but the road through Camooweal from the Northern Territory (which at the time was part of the colony of South Australia) soon became a back-door entry point for ‘unauthorised arrivals’. This prompted extra policing measures in the local area, including the opening of a police gaol at various times during 1897-1902.

The issue subsided after the introduction of the Commonwealth’s Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, which curtailed Chinese immigration across Australia.

Anti-Chinese cartoon in the Queensland Figaro and Punch, 14 July 1888.

The article below features a lot of opinion and finger-pointing at the government over in South Australia, and features language and a tone that are sadly all too familiar to 21st-century Australians.

Maryborough Chronicle, 23 June 1892

'The first reports from Camooweal. a small settlement near the border line between Queensland and the Northern Territory of South Australia, of an influx of Chinese in large numbers into this colony created some apprehension and a desire that every effort should be made to keep them out: but the latest reports, assuming them to he reliable, of the terribly destitute and pitiable condition of these Asiatic outcasts and the apparent certainty of starvation and death if forced back into the inhospitable colony which tempted them to leave their native land, excites our sympathy for their wretched state and indignation that this colony should be menaced with, and have to suffer from the cruel and culpable neglect, of the South Australian Government.

There is of course the possibility that the reports recently to hand of the deplorable condition of the Chinese have been grossly exaggerated for a purpose. The influx of such an abundance of cheap and docile labor is probably not at all an undesirable circumstance in the eyes of the large squatters of the far West and the Gulf country, and if a tale of woe poured into the ears of the Government could induce them to reduce the precautions for stalling off the influx, the tendency to resort to such a pathetic subterfuge would be strong with them.

On the other hand, however, if the telegrams received from the border convey the facts, not unduly embellished with touches of romance, the position becomes a very serious and difficult one for the Government of this colony to deal with. There arises a conflict between our humanity and our laws. The thought of driving back fellow creatures even though they be Chinamen into a barren wilderness out of which they had just struggled hungry and exhausted, is a painful one to contemplate, and its actual occurrence must offend and distress the average conscience.

The circumstance is the logical outcome of our own laws for the exclusion of Chinese from Queensland, and the contiguity of a colony in one portion of which such laws are not in operation or have been specially suspended. The imaginary line that divides us is far removed from the practical control of either colony, running through a tract of country that is hardly yet explored, much less civilized, and this fact adds to the difficulty of the matter. Our exclusive laws dealing with the great Chinese question as affecting Queensland seem in the case under notice to be operating with pitiless rigor and with such results as to arouse public sympathy for the homeless and despairing wretches, who implored the police to shoot them rather than drive them back to the more awful lingering death of starvation in the desolate wastes of Northern Territory, and declared their intention of returning again and again over the Queensland border, courting imprisonment where they might at least be sure of food.

But the trouble arises not from any default on the part of Queensland. It is due to the utterly callous neglect and selfishness of the South Australian Government. Our treatment of the Chinese is quite rational and justifiable. Human prejudices, when they are strong and widely diffused, need to be legislated for as well as human rights. The well being and peace of a community could not be assured unless this were done. Our laws imposing a heavy and exclusive poll tax upon the admission of Chinese for the colony were founded almost wholly upon a strong European prejudice against the 'Heathen Chinee' and all his ways, and so long as that prejudice remains a strong public sentiment our laws are justifiable. Granted this prejudice, Queensland acts fairly in all other respects to the Chinaman. Those who are already in the country enjoy ample freedom and are equally protected with Europeans by the arm of the law, and those outside are warned of the stringent and only conditions under which they will be allowed to set font upon this country, so that they are not deceived and imposed upon.

The same cannot be said of South Australia, for whose faults in this respect Queensland is evidently doomed to suffer. The Government of that stupidly apportioned colony seems to have wilfully neglected its duties and utterly disregarded the consequences upon this colony. In South Australia proper the prejudice against the Chinese is probably just as strongly manifested, or would be if an influx were threatened, as in Queensland, but unfortunately the South Australian Government has under its administration a large tract of northern country, effectually cut off by the great unknown Australian interior from the thickly and white peopled southern portion of that colony, and as almost the whole of the electors reside in the south there is a natural indifference as to the social conditions which may lie permitted to prevail in Northern Territory. As a result, this tropical slice of Australia has been developed under practically no government at all. and has been the happy hunting ground of grasping syndicates and the hell upon earth of hordes of slavish Asiatics - chiefly Chinese. This state of affairs, bad as it may be, would be no business of ours, were it not that it so seriously menaces us.

The practice that has evidently been in vogue of introducing into Northern Territory large numbers of Chinese to perform certain definite works, with no intention of sending them back to their native country, and on the completion of those works letting them go adrift, to swarm over into this colony, is not to be tolerated, and should be rigorously and effectually protested against. The condition of the majority of the Chinese in Northern Territory is deplorable, and the deceptions that have been practised upon them are monstrous. We are loath to allow the poor wretches to die along our border line, but indignant that the evil consequences of maladministration should be visited upon us and not upon the people who permitted them to arise, and whose secure distance from the scene of these troubles saves them any apprehension. Moral suasion in inducing the South Australian authorities to have a little more respect for themselves and consideration for their neighbours, and expensive defensive action on our own part are our only present remedies, pending the adoption of a scheme of federation, under which the various colonies for their own good will be more amenable to each other.'

24 November 2018

The Tiger Man of Brisbane

Charles Higgins, born in Ireland circa 1825, claimed to have come to Queensland after spending his youth in California, where he had a ‘pet’ grizzly bear, and he continued his interest in big fierce beasties after his arrival here. He had some land in Toombul where he kept ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Sammy’, two Bengal tigers that he obtained in early 1885 when they were three-month old cubs. A third tiger, their sister, died while still young. Higgins kept them chained to a stake in the paddock while he was home, but they were confined in cages while he was away. In April 1886 Higgins told a reporter from the Brisbane Courier that he had trained them carefully, and they were playful with him and sometimes lay around the house much like domestic cats. He also claimed that the tigers would follow him through the bush and respond to commands like dogs, and boys from the nearby school would also stop off on their way home to visit the tigers. This article alarmed local residents and prompted a police investigation, with a magistrate stating his belief that Higgins could be charged with murder if his tigers killed anybody while loose.

Higgins' paddock at Toombul, ca.1888 (John Oxley Library).
Two tigers lie on the ground behind behind these people.

Higgins obtained other tigers, including a female called Diana, and ‘Sir Roger’, billed as the ‘largest tiger in the Australian colonies’, and along with a range of other animals they formed part of ‘Higgins Great Menagerie of Wild Performing Animals’. By late 1887 this was based on the corner of Yundah Street and the Esplanade in Sandgate, and was open to the public. Higgins gave a daily tiger-taming performance there.

Brisbane Courier, 31 December 1887.

In August 1888 Higgins leased an allotment on the corner of George and Turbot Streets near the centre of Brisbane and kept his five tigers, five dingoes, a cheetah, a panther, a leopard, a bear, snakes and numerous monkeys there, to the despair of his new neighbour Arthur Jarvis. The wooden hoarding surrounding the allotment was insecure, the cages were not strong enough, and animals occasionally escaped, causing ‘great consternation and annoyance to the public’, especially Jarvis, who apparently lived with his family in a ‘continual state of terror’. On one occasion the workmen in Jarvis’ on-site Venetian-blind workshop ran for their lives after a tiger strolled into their workplace. Dingoes also roamed the area, and Jarvis once woke up to find a monkey in his bedroom. The Jarvis family also had to contend with large piles of rotting animal dung outside their home, making the general stench emitting from the menagerie even worse. After several months of this torture Jarvis took the matter to court and Higgins was required to move his animals to a safer place. By that time Higgins’ tigress Diana had given birth to a pair of cubs, which he separated from her and proudly exhibited. Unfortunately but perhaps not too surprisingly they died soon after, and became part of the collection at the Queensland Museum.

The most sensational incident to occur during that time was the near-escape of the tiger Jimmy, who got out of his cage while it was being cleaned one Wednesday afternoon in November 1888. Jimmy had been noted as one of the more dangerous of the tigers, and when Peter Bertram, one of the keepers, started to run away Jimmy knocked him to the ground. Panicked passers-by fled in terror, and Higgins later recalled what happened next:
“I heard... a scream and a roar, and looking round saw Jemmy after the man. The man was pulled down; got up again and managed to reach the middle of the street, and the tiger pulled him down again and opened its mouth to bite. A moment and the poor fellow’s head would have been cracked like a nut, but I jammed my arm between the jaws and shoved the man away with the other. Look at my arm.” Higgins bared his right arm and showed the healed wound, where the flesh had been cut out as though by a knife. “Jemmy held on to me for a bit, but I scolded him and he let me go. I felt sick, but got up and then started to try and get him inside. He walked about the street growling and licking the blood from his jaws. I walked after him, and regularly bundled him into the enclosure and shut the door. I hadn’t even my little whip, but at last got him to stand up with his feet against a fence; then I got his collar and chain and tied him up.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
Higgins steps in to rescue his employee.
(Queensland Figaro, 1 December 1888)

After leaving George Street the menagerie found a new home at the Queensport Aquarium in Hemmant (more about that here). This new resort had many attractions, and among them were tiger-taming performances by Higgins himself. It is not known how long the animals remained at Queensport, but when the tiger cages were blown into the river during a gale in 1892 they were reported as being empty. By this time Higgins was well into his 60s, and had retired to live at Browns Plains. He died in July 1894 after a cart he was driving along Ipswich Road overturned when his horse bolted at Chardon's Corner. Charles Higgins, tiger tamer extraordinaire, was buried in Nundah Cemetery.

He had provided an insight into his job in an interview he gave to the Brisbane Courier in July 1889, which probably took place at the soon-to-be-opened Queensport Aquarium:
“I feel... when I go into the cage with my little whip in my hand that I am the master. I feel myself stronger than ever, and as cool as I could ever be. I seem to regard the tigers as rats, and feel as if I could shake them like rats. Why, look at Jemmy and Sammy. You know they think I could thrash them both... You know Sammy is pretty quiet, but that Jemmy is very sly. When I’m in the cage I have to watch him closely. He is always trying to slip behind me to get at me. That’s when I have to keep him under my eye. It is not my eye he fears, and I don’t believe that the eye itself has any power over animals, except that they know when they’re watched. I was never nervous in my life. If I once got nervous they would be on to me like winking.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
Asked if he ever ‘anticipated a struggle’ with his tigers, he said:
“I don't drink, except perhaps a glass of beer. The people who are killed in cages either lose their nerve or are in drink. An animal knows at once if you are afraid of him, and - alluding to a terrible case in which a girl was torn to pieces by lions some time ago – that woman must have become nervous. A man sometimes under drink will go into the cage and send the animals flying round, but he forgets to be careful, and before he knows where he is a beast is on him. The great thing is to let them know you are watching them. When Jemmy tries to give me the slip I just shake the whip at him and say, ‘Ah, Jemmy, my boy, I'm watching you’.” (Brisbane Courier, 29 July 1889)
The tigers never did manage to get the better of Charles Higgins, but in the end it was the horse he should have been watching.

Local tiger attacks in recent years:
June 1994, Brisbane: A 20-month-old boy had one arm bitten off and the other badly mauled by a tiglon (a lion/tiger cross) at a circus. The boy’s father was an employee of the circus.

July 1998, Brisbane: During a show in front of 200 spectators, a tiger attacked his handler, picked him up, and carried him five metres.

September 2000 Brisbane: Two tiger handlers received stitches after they were attacked and bitten by a tiger prior to shooting a scene for the U.S. television series Beastmaster.

January 2009, Australia Zoo: A senior keeper was attacked by a male Bengal Tiger and required 18 stitches to a deep bite wound in his left calf.

May 2011, Dreamworld: An animal handler required stitches after being 'nipped' in the leg by a tiger.

November 2013, Australia Zoo: Tiger mauls zookeeper, causing 'crushed carotid artery, nicked jugular, paralysis to the left larynx and nerve damage to the left eye'.

January 2016, Australia Zoo: A tiger swatted a paw at a zookeeper, causing puncture wounds and scratches to his head and arm.

27 October 2018

A Whale Hunt Off Moreton Island

In 1954 two Humpback Whales - a male and female - paired up as they headed along the eastern coast of Australia to the warm breeding grounds of the South Pacific. They, along with thousands of other whales of their kind, had just left the frigid waters of the Antarctic after spending months there feeding up on krill. They meandered up the coast, zig-zagging and frolicking on a journey made by countless generations before them.

Male and female Humpbacks (whaletrust.org)

Unfortunately, there was a new danger in their way that year. The Australian whaling industry had recently began operations off this coastline and were targeting the migrating herds of Humpbacks. This couple had been heading north to procreate and create new life, but they were about to face a very different destiny.

A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was on board to witness the slaughter:
"One beautiful morning last week two humpbacks, a male of 39 feet and a female of 38 feet, were swimming north about a mile off-shore from the green hills and yellow beaches of Moreton Island, Queensland.

At 8.50 a.m., while they were breaking water to breathe, their spouts were seen by a Norwegian seaman in the lookout barrel of a whale-chaser, Kos II. "Two blows!" shouted the seaman, pointing to starboard. The gunner-captain of the chaser, Captain Bredo Rimstad, changed course immediately and ordered full speed.

Kos II, one of the two chasers supplying whales to the Whale Industries Ltd. station at Tangalooma, on the west side of Moreton Island about 25 miles from Brisbane, is a small, very powerful vessel of 243 tons. Her engine, which is capable of driving a 4,000-ton vessel, develops 12 knots when necessary.

The chaser is a little larger than an ocean-going tug, very low amidships (so low, in fact, that her decks are awash in moderate seas) and very high at the bow. The high bow, with its harpoon gun always aimed downwards, gives the chaser an eager, straining appearance.
The whaler Kos II, which was eventually scuttled off Tangalooma in 1974.
Captain Rimstad, because he is also a gunner, is even more important than the usual ship's master. The whaling company values his services so highly that it pays his passage to and from Norway each year and pays him about £3,500 for his work during the three month whaling season. About £3,260 of this is paid in the form of whale bonuses.

Bonuses paid to the officers of Kos II are calculated partly on production at Tangalooma and partly on the number of whales harpooned by their gunner. Consequently, at the climax of the chase every member of the crew, even the cook, does his utmost to help Captain Rimstad shoot the whale.

Captain Rimstad, a very short and slightly built man of about 45 years, has had 21 seasons of whaling in the Antarctic, one season off Carnarvon in West Australia, and two seasons off Tangalooma. He stands on the bridge during the search for the whale, wearing strangely genteel chocolate corduroy trousers, a brown and white fairisle jumper and a tan corduroy golf cap. When the chaser comes within harpoon range; usually less than 60 feet, he has run down a catwalk from the bridge and is standing alert on the gun platform.

Kos II, together with Kos VII, had rounded Cape Moreton at 7 a.m. and by 8.30 a.m. Captain Rimstad had killed his first whale of the day - a 41ft 8in male. This whale, inflated with compressed air, was floating alongside Kos II when Captain Rimstad began to chase the two humpbacks.

By the time Kos II, travelling at full speed, had reached the spot where the humpbacks had last appeared, Captain Rimstad was on the gun platform, swivelling the harpoon-gun and scanning the ocean ahead.

"Half speed!" he shouted in Norwegian. "Half speed!" the Norwegian helmsman called to the Australians in the engine room. Kos II slowed down and the search continued.

"Dead slow!" "Slow as possible!" Captain Rimstad looked back at the bridge inquiringly, the helmsman glanced up at the lookout barrel. But the only sign of the whales was a large smooth area, like an oil slick, on the surface of the sea.

"That's from their tails moving below water," explained the helmsman. "Sometimes we can follow them a long way like that, but this time they have gone deep."

A moment later, about 10 minutes after the whales had sounded, the lookout shouted and pointed to port. About a quarter of a mile away the humpbacks were breaking surface and blowing. Captain Rimstad ran back up the catwalk, the engine-room made full speed and the chase began again.

While Kos II bore down on the two whales, Captain Rimstad looked at Kos VII through field glasses. "Kos VII has a fish on the line," he said. "One on the line and one following," he added. "If you get a female first, the male will follow her right alongside. The female rarely follows the male, though."

Once again the humpbacks sounded before Kos II came within harpoon range. They surfaced 10 minutes later, this time about 300 yards to starboard.

"If they keep doing that, they'll run themselves into shallow water where we can see them," remarked the helmsman. For a quarter of a mile out from the pale sandhills of Moreton Island, the sea was a light, almost transparent blue. The whales, although they had sounded, were probably still in the deeper and darker blue water, although, if the helmsman's guess" were right, they might soon appear in the band of light blue.

Kos II chased them for an hour and a half, during which time they surfaced six times, breaking water about three times on each occasion. At one time, the chaser reached the whales as they were breaking water for the second time.

Captain Rimstad was close enough to see the morning sun making small rainbows in their spouts; but by the time he had aimed his harpoon-gun the whales were half-submerged. The white undersides of their tails rose up in the air and then cut down through the water as they sounded.

If the whales had broken water again, Captain Rimstad would have been in position to fire a 160-pound steel harpoon at one of them. The harpoon, five and a half feet long, four inches in diameter, and carrying a two-inch rope, would have buried itself in the broad rubbery side beneath the dorsal fin of one whale. Three seconds later, a time-fuse grenade on the harpoon barbs would have exploded, killing or mortally wounding the whale. But the humpbacks remained submerged. By this time, however, they were near the shallow water.

"We'll try to get him now," said Captain Rimstad when he returned to the bridge. "Steady steaming!"

"Right ahead now!" called the lookout. Captain Rimstad ran down the catwalk, took hold of the gun handle, and called: "Dead slow!"

Kos II stood by. Everyone aboard was watching Captain Rimstad. He motioned to port with his left hand, and the helmsman responded. The harpoon-gun fired with a detonation out of all proportion to its size; the harpoon and its rope struck the whale's side, releasing a spurt of blood; a muffled explosion, forcing smoke from the wound, blowhole, and mouth, sounded inside the whale's body. The whale reared out of the water and began swimming in a circle, dragging the taut harpoon rope through the waves like a moving radius.

"Following fish!" shouted the helmsman. He left the wheel and ran down to the lower deck to help bring the whale alongside. The ship's cook took his place on the bridge. Two seamen were quickly loading another harpoon. The harpooned whale broke water again, roared as it sucked in its last gulps of air, and died.

He had survived the grenade explosion for less than a minute. "Fast fish!" called the lookout. At this signal that the whale was now secure, a winch began noisily hauling in the harpoon line.
A Tangalooma gunner hits the target. (sylviaadam.wordpress.com)

The second whale, obviously a male, broke surface besides its dead mate and followed the body in towards the bow of Kos II, where Captain Rimstad crouched beside his gun.

"He's coming on starboard!" shouted the Captain. "He's coming on starboard!" The gun barrel sloped lower as the live whale swam closer. Another harpoon: explosion, rope, blood, muffled noise, and smoke. This time the whale was killed instantly.

"Fast fish!" called the seamen who were leaning over the railing. Two seamen had already brought the female under the bow and had punctured her hide with a long spear to which was fixed a compressed air hose. After pumping in air for four minutes, they secured her on the starboard side. A winch chain dragged the whale's tail up to deck level and a seaman cut three or four feet off each fluke with a long flensing knife. Unless clipped in this way, the lower fluke may act as a rudder and steer the chaser off course.

The winch had brought the male alongside; two seamen were casting a weighted heaving rope around its tail. A chain soon replaced the rope, and the same procedure of pumping and clipping began. While the two whales were being brought alongside, sharks had been inspecting the whale caught earlier in the morning and chained to the port side. The whale was still bleeding and 12 sharks - bronze whalers and white pointers, each between 12 and 15 feet long-were circling cautiously. At last a bronze whaler made a quick pass at the white and black corrugated belly, and scooped out a piece of blubber. Others snapped at the belly, lips and flippers, leaving round, white wounds on the whale's black hide.

Captain Rimstad, to whom each bite meant a financial loss in oil bonus, ran to the bridge, fetched a .303 rifle and began firing from the deck. His first bullet struck the head of a bronze whaler which had leapt six feet from the water so that it was half in the water, and half on the whale's belly. Another bullet hit the back of a white pointer which had broken surface to snap at the whale's lower jaw. The white pointer threshed the water and began to bleed freely.

After a few more shots, the sharks were ignoring the whales and attacking their wounded fellows. As soon as the third whale had been chained alongside the first whale on the port side, Kos II began the slow journey back to Tangalooma at about six knots. Sharks never attack the whales when the chaser is moving.

Kos II could have taken five whales; but a radio-telephone message from the station had informed Captain Rimstad that the factory could handle only three whales from Kos ll. Half an hour later, Kos II drew level with and passed Kos VII. Two black and white humpbacks were chained, like huge rubber surf toys, to her starboard side. The two chasers raced one another back to the station but Kos II reached the whale slips first. Captain Rimstad's crew had dropped their whales by 3p.m. and were put in the channel again by 3.30 p.m. to fish for schnapper."
A follow-up article detailing the long process of butchering dead whales at Tangalooma ended with these words:
"The second whale quivered to a halt on the flensing deck. Two men unrolled a steel tape and began to measure it. Its mate, with whom it had been swimming towards the tropics eight hours before, was a dark hulk in the water at the foot of the slipway."
18 October 2018

Beer Ahoy!

In the classic 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, the unwelcomely sober lives of the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Todday are considerably enlivened when they realise a cargo ship sinking off their coast contains 50,000 crates of whisky. Much of the comedy revolves around the attempts of the islanders to salvage the whisky and hide it from the stuffy authorities. This was actually loosely based on a real-life incident, when the whisky-carrying SS Politician sank off the island of Eriskay in 1941.

A somewhat similar incident occurred in Brisbane once, only this time involving beer and not whisky, and with a lot less hiding and more instant consumption. This was during the devastating floods of 1893, which showed that although natural disasters can bring out the best in people, others can be quick to seize an opportunity no matter what the circumstances.

The damaged building in this case was the West End Brewery, which had opened on the corner of Montague and Merivale Streets in 1886. The brewery contained a lot of rickety wooden sheds that were inundated when the Brisbane River flooded in March 1890, although not too much damage was done at that time.

The West End Brewery during the 1890 floods. (State Library of Qld)

Worse was to come in the larger flood of February 1893, and of the five breweries in Brisbane that year, West End Brewery suffered the most. The rising water reached up to the second-storey windows of the main tower, and of course all the houses in the immediate neighbourhood were submerged. Although the brewery tower survived the experience, the timber buildings were wrecked by the raging torrent. The damage is apparent in the State Library of Queensland photo below.

West End Brewery damage after the 1890 flood. (State Library of Qld).

Not only were many brewery buildings gone, so too were 500 kegs of beer, worth about $250,000 by current values. Some were carried by the waters to the railway embankment, the nearest high ground, while others washed ashore at the foot of Bowen Terrace. The results were all too predictable. Word spread quickly and large numbers of men swarmed to the riverbank. The scene was described in the Brisbane Courier:
"A great deal of drunkenness was unfortunately observable in various directions. The weather was no doubt the excuse for the over-indulgence of many; but when kegs and barrels of beer floating away from the West End Brewery were washed ashore at the foot of Bowen-terrace and others from the Phoenix Brewery were picked up in Fortitude Valley the scenes enacted were disgusting in the extreme, and men were seen drinking all they could and then quarrelling for possession of the cask containing the balance. Several of the accidents which occurred are undoubtedly the result of this and similar misconduct."
Another news report read:
“Hundreds of casks of beer from the West End Brewery were seen floating along, some of which were rescued along the banks, tho bungs knocked out, and conscienceless beings (I cannot call them men) swilled the contents till they became mad drunk.”
It is not too hard to imagine similar scenes taking place now if kegs of beer were washed down the Brisbane River, and much of it would no doubt go straight onto YouTube, complete with overloaded utes, bogan fistfights, and Yours Truly struggling down the street with a wheelbarrow full of beer.

Despite their massive losses, the West End Brewery was rebuilt as an imposing brick structure and by the following year the owners were claiming to have the largest output of beer in Queensland.

Brisbane Telegraph, 1894.

It might have survived massive floods, but the West End Brewery closed in 1913 and the premises was turned into a bottling factory.

For most Brisbanites the Great Flood of 1893 had been a tragic disaster, but for a few 'conscienceless beings' it brought manna from Heaven in the form of a bounty of free beer. What would you have done?

29 August 2018

Should Ghost-Hunting Be Banned?

Straight from the top, I will say my answer to that question is 'yes'. But...

Not all ghost hunting, but specifically commercial ghost-hunting. The kind where customers are charged a lot of money by a self-proclaimed 'paranormal investigator' to take them around an allegedly 'haunted' place with electronic gadgets that are claimed to help them detect ghosts.

If you are part of a group that enjoys paranormal investigations out of personal interest and don't charge people to join you, that's a different thing. If you are using electronic equipment, I would dispute the science behind your methods, but it's your time and your money. Also, if your investigations focus more on the 'psychic' approach instead of using gadgets, that's something else again. The mediumship field is clearly open to all manner of fakes and charlatans, but my concern here is with selling the use of gadgets.

Here are the two basic reasons I would like to see commercial ghost-hunting banned.

1. Ghost-detecting gadgets are fake and you should never pay to use them

People are being charged a lot of money to use electronic devices that don't do what they are advertised to do.

Thanks to the advent of ghost-chasing 'Reality' TV shows, the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector has become the gadget of choice for many new ghost-hunting enthusiasts. EMF detectors actually do have a place in scientific examinations of the natural background environment of a place where paranormal-style activity has been alleged to occur. As academic researchers Tony Lawrence and Vic Tandy explained in this excellent paper:
'The ways in which normal earthly events might conspire to convey an impression that a house is haunted... are numerous. Thus, all of the following may well be the more mundane cause of an ostensible haunt; water hammer in pipes and radiators (noises), electrical faults (fires, phone calls, video problems), structural faults (draughts, cold spots, damp spots, noises), seismic activity (object movement/destruction, noises), electromagnetic anomalies (hallucinations), and exotic organic phenomena (rats scratching, beetles ticking). The exclusion of these counter-explanations, when potentially relevant, must be the first priority of the spontaneous cases investigator.' ('The Ghost in the Machine', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol.62, No. 851, April 1998)
Unfortunately, instead of taking an academic or scientific approach, it now seems to be common practice for ghost hunters to attribute unusual spikes in EMF readings to a supernatural presence. Commercial ghost hunts - which sell a 2-4 hour thrill-seeking experience as opposed to serious investigations - often use EMF detectors as ghostometers. One Brisbane business advertised their guides as using 'scientific paranormal investigative techniques to detect activity'. A guide on this hunt was filmed in a marketing video passing an EMF detector over a cemetery headstone and announcing he had probably just detected a ghost.

Electromagnetic field detectors are being passed off as ghost hunting devices.
The K-II Meter. Pretty lights = dead people.

A variation on the EMF detector is the 'K-II Meter', the uselessness of which was amply demonstrated in experiments conducted by the Randi Educational Foundation.

These gadgets are real enough, but the use of them is completely misplaced and based on an unproven assumption that ghosts emit an 'energy' that can be detected and measured (to be fair, not all ghost hunters believe this). This implies a scientific understanding of what a 'ghost' is comprised of. Of course the mere existence of ghosts has not been proven in any way, so it follows that any theory as to what they are 'made of' is scientifically baseless. I recently wrote about the 'Haunting Australia' TV show, in which one ghost hunter claimed that ghosts 'have an amount of mass' that might be detected if they walked through his contraption, which looked something like a disco-light ball with a smoke machine. As you might expect, nothing was detected.

Other common gadgets include audio recorders for capturing 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP). Ghost hunters have played these recordings for me in person (and there are plenty of examples on YouTube and TV), but in almost every case it is either explained to me first what the indistinct noise is about to say, or there are subtitles on related videos. The 'seed' of suggestion is planted in your mind, distorting the listening experience. In reality they are usually undecipherable noise - just try listening to one without someone else telling you what it says first.

The article 'Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?' goes into better detail. EVP are also very easy to fake, and there seems to be industrial amounts of fraud going on judging by what is available online.

The big question is, it is ethical to to advertise these useless gadgets as being capable of 'detecting ghosts' and then charging customers money (sometimes well over $100 per head) to use them? Especially without a disclaimer explaining that these things don't actually work for the advertised purpose? In my opinion, it is hugely unethical.

The issue becomes more serious if the commercial ghost-hunt operator knows the gadgets do not do what they are advertised to. In that case, it looks like outright fraud. Of course, it is difficult for an outsider to know what the operators might really think about their products.

So, on the basis of selling the use of fake products alone, I think ghost hunting should be banned. There is, however, another valid reason to restrict them, one that applies equally to non-commercial investigations - respecting the dead and their surviving loved ones.

2. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

When it comes to the issue of respect, the line between appropriate and inappropriate venues for ghost hunts can be a fine one. Would you, for example, approve a ghost hunt at a place where someone you knew closely committed suicide? How about a house where a local family was recently killed in a fire? Or the murder site of Daniel Morcombe or any other child? What about Gallipoli? The Lady Cilento Children's Hospital?

If you have any sense of decency, the answers should be 'no'. Sometimes, however, it is not that clear cut. As ghost hunts tend to link alleged paranormal activity with the 'ghosts' (however defined) of specific people, the basic rule of thumb should be to ask yourself if the place has a special meaning to the loved ones of the deceased, and is it possible that your activities will upset them?

To begin with, I have an issue with 'identifying' ghosts. The process involves a sequence of related assumptions, each one requiring an irrational leap of logic in itself, and so the result gets increasingly unreliable with each step.
  1. Difficult-to-explain localised phenomena can be attributed to something called 'ghosts'.
  2. Ghosts represent a post-death human consciousness.
  3. That post-death human consciousness can be associated with specific dead people.
  4. Person x died in this location, therefore I can identify this ghost as being person x.
So the process of identifying a ghost as a specific person is in itself immensely illogical. But leaving that issue aside, is it even ethical to do so? If the alleged ghost is of a person who died a long time ago (say, over 100 years), it is not so much of an issue. But what if it was more recent, and relatives and friends of the dead would prefer to believe that their loved ones are resting in peace, and not some tortured soul forever wandering an old prison or cemetery? What if they don't want thrill-seekers wandering around 'hunting' the spirits of their loved ones?

The recent example of ghost hunts at Boggo Road has provided us with a good case study. The surviving heritage-listed prison buildings opened in 1903 and closed in 1989. A number of deaths happened in there during that time, due to natural causes, suicides, and - just off to one side of the eastern wall - a murder. Some deaths occurred as recently as the 1980s. These included Aboriginal men killing themselves in their cells. Some of these cases were examined as part of the 1987 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody'. The Commission decided that the material it had gathered should be made 'as publicly accessible as possible', but:
'...was aware that most of the material was less than 30 years old. It acknowledged that privacy and Aboriginal cultural sensitivities would need to be considered (eg it decided that the details of individual cases should not be released on the ground that they were too distressing to the deceased's family and friends).' [my emphasis]
The prison became a historical site in the mid-1990s, and when part of Boggo reopened on a short-term basis in 2012, the state government prohibited ghost hunts on the grounds that they were disrespectful and not relevant to historical interpretation. Unfortunately, the ghost hunt ban was overturned in 2014 by the Newman government. There was a public backlash and a petition (see the Courier-Mail's 'Stop this sick Boggo Road sideshow and leave those who died in that prison in peace') but the politician's decision stood. The hunts were only banned again after another change of government in early 2015.

I have written before about these Boggo ghost hunts, and I quoted a number of people who had contacted me. This statement came from a family member of someone who was murdered at the prison in the 1960s:
‘For years my family have been tormented with nonsense in the media and on the internet about my grandfather’s death. This was a traumatic event that affects all of us to this day. My own father wasn’t much more than a boy when Bernard was killed, and the sadness and struggle the family endured shaped the adults they became, and the children that they went on to have. The loss has been compounded in the years since by an awful man perpetuating stupid stories and rubbish about Bernard. He conducts tours and interviews focusing on my grandfather's supposed ghost... This man has even contacted me, as have a few ‘internet crazies’. It has all been very upsetting... They are also hurtful and distressing. And it makes me so angry that people are trying to make money by exploiting my family history. This man, Bernard Ralph, is still a very large part of some people’s lives.’
I also heard from relatives of deceased prisoners, as well as former officers and inmates themselves. People who lived with the reality of what death in the prison meant. The unanimous feeling was that the ghost hunts had to stop.

I'd argue that ghost hunting should not occur when it is likely to offend the loved ones of the deceased. This applies especially to commercial ghost hunts, where the intent is merely to make money. It applies even more especially in cases where those loved ones have asked you not to do it.

So in summary, I'd argue that commercial ghost hunts are an unethical rip-off because of the ridiculous equipment used, and all ghost hunts should be prohibited in places where they would be likely to upset the loved ones of the deceased.

09 August 2018

Mount Coot-tha in 1929

This description and history of Mt Coot-tha, Brisbane, is taken from the Brisbane Courier, 1 July 1929: 



Mount Coot-tha has been appropriately termed the "Mount of Beauty." All who have stood on its crest have been impressed with the grandeur of the panorama that it gives of city, river, bay, and mountain ranges. Contrasting with the natural scenery. Mount Coot-tha itself Is beautiful. Even in the long-gone days, When the place that was to be Brisbane was an unbroken vista of trees; when nothing but virgin bush was to be seen from the eminence where thousands have since looked on to and beyond the city; when smoke from aboriginal fires was the only intrusion in the picture of nature. Mount Coot-tha must have presented a wildly beautiful scene.

Mt Coot-tha, 1910. (Queensland Historical Atlas)

Mount Coot-tha was once a favourite ground of the blacks, who hunted marsupials and birds, and very often found hives of native honey there. From such discoveries the mountain owes the origin of its present name. "Coot-tha," in the native dialect, meant "dark native honey." This meaning is applied to the word in "Tom Petrie's Reminiscences," where the author gives its pronunciation as "Ku-ta"; other translations interpret it merely as "honey." The name by which the mount was known to early settlers, and by which it Is popularly called to-day, was "One Tree Hill." This was derived from the fact that an arboreal monarch once stood on the summit in solitary splendour. In the early '40's a dense forest of large trees grew on the top of the hill, and with their thinning-out, the giant tree became more conspicuous year by year because of its isolation and great size. So the ridge became "One Tree Hill." The big tree was killed by careless picnickers lighting fires at its base. Frequent blazes scorched its trunk, and sapped its life, and one day the stark old tree had to be felled.

The attractions of "One Tree Hill" as a recreation and picnic ground were recognised from the days when civilisation began to penetrate the country around Moreton Bay. Many of the first residents found it a delightful retreat. But the mountain's timbers were exploited for some years before Mount Coot-tha was definitely made a park reserve. According to the Assistant Under Secretary for Public Lands (Mr. C.W. Holland), the land was originally set apart under the Crown Lands Alienation Act of 1868 as a reserve for timber for railway purposes. A survey was made in 1874, and the reserve was found to contain an area of 1476 acres. In 1880 the reservation for timber for railway purposes was cancelled, and an area of 1500 acres was permanently reserved for a public park. A deed of grant upon trust, "for the appropriation thereof as a public park for the recreation, convenience, health, and amusement of the inhabitants of the city of Brisbane in our said colony, and for no other use and purpose whatsoever,” was issued to Sir Charles Lilley, Sir A.H. Palmer, Sir Samuel Griffith, and the Hon. H. E. King.

Subsequent changes' placed the following gentlemen on the trust, in succession: - Sir Thos. Mcilwraith, Mr. John Stevenson, Sir Hugh Nelson, Sir Alfred Cowley, Hon. Albert Norton, Mr. E.H. Macartney (Queensland's Agent General-elect), Dr. E.S. Jackson, and Sir Robert Philp. Mr. H. W. Radford, Clerk of the Legislative Council, acted as hon. secretary to the board of trustees, and took a keen interest in the reserve. Afterwards Messrs. C. W. Costin and C. R. Gregory, each in turn Clerk of the Legislative Council, acted as hon. secretary. Grants were made by the Government to the trustees for roads, erection of shelter shed, fencing, salary of caretaker, &c. The name was changed from "One Tree Hill" to "Mount Coot-tha." by notice published in the "Government Gazette" of August 10, 1883. In 1919 the trustees surrendered their trust in favour of the Brisbane City Council, which was then appointed as trustee.

With the growth of the city Mount Coot-tha reserve also has expanded. The area has grown, by additions from time to time, to a little over 2567 acres. The Brisbane City Council is about to apply to the Land Administration Board for the grant of an additional area of 35 acres of Crown land, formerly held as a quarantine reserve, in the direction of Indooroopilly, and, if it is obtained, the acquisition of another 10 acres of privately-owned land that lies between will make the total area of the Mount Coot-tha reserve 2612 acres. But the reserve has grown in other respects. Roads have been improved, a fine new kiosk at the peak of the hill has replaced the rustic structure that formerly stood there, and a pretty look-out tower has been built. Indicative of the number of vehicles that now run to the city's favourite observation point is the fact that one-way traffic is about to be introduced between the Summit and Simpson's road, Paddington.

One of the Moreton Bay fig trees that stand at the top of Mount Coot-tha was planted by King George V. (then Prince George), and his brother, the late Duke of Clarence (then Prince Albert), during their visit to Brisbane in 1882. On that occasion the late Sir Thomas Mcllwraith and Earl Clanwilliam also planted trees. To-day the historic fig trees spread a kindly shade for visitors, and add to the quiet beauty of the surroundings. Mount Coot-tha's altitude of 746ft., and its proximity to the city - it is about four miles from the General Post Office - makes it a very valuable asset to "Brisbane. But other features - the Summit and the Devil's Slide, the broken dams, and the stony gullies, where water used to run, the cool shady slopes, and the bubbling streams, the stately trees, and pretty shrubs, have endeared the whole reserve to those who love to commune with Nature. In all parts of Australia, and, Indeed, abroad, there are people who are glad' that, owing to the prevision of public-minded men. "Brisbane has Its Mount Coat-tha."

24 July 2018

The Gallows of the Old Windmill Tower

The 'Old Windmill Tower' on Wickham Terrace is the oldest surviving European structure in Queensland and one of the heritage gems of Brisbane. It has been used for a variety of purposes since its construction by convicts in 1828, being at different times a windmill (originally driven by sails, and then by treadmill) a telegraph signal station, fire brigade observation point, radio research and television broadcasting station, and now a heritage-listed historical site.

Depiction of the 1841 hanging (Telegraph, 10 March 1970)

All this history was quite interesting in its own way, but there was one incident that was heads-and-shoulders more dramatic than anything else that happened there (including the time a convict slipped to his death on the treadmill). In the winter of 1841, during the dying months of the convict settlement, two Aboriginal men - Mullan and Ningavil - were hanged at the windmill tower for being accessory to the murder of William Tuck (a convict assistant to surveyor Granville Stapylton - who was also murdered at the same time - near Mt Lindesay).

It was a fascinating case for various reasons: a graphic local example of early Aboriginal-European conflict over law and land; the horrifically grisly murder scene; the unusual decision to return the prisoners to Brisbane after their Sydney trial; and the fact that it appears the wrong men were convicted. All those details are covered in the book The Hanging at the Brisbane Windmill, but this article will focus specifically on the type of gallows used that day, because it is still not clear if the unfortunate men were hanged from the tower, or just near it. The commonly-believed story is that they were hanged from the windmill, but even then there are differing accounts of exactly what the gallows looked like. Was the rope attached to the windmill sails, or a pole sticking out of a window, or did the whole thing take place on a nearby separate gallows constructed from the dismantled sails themselves? Different records tell different stories and there is still uncertainty on this matter.

The windmill had been constructed on a high ridge next to the convict settlement with the intention of using it to grind corn, which was the main ingredient of the convict diet. The sandstone-and-brick tower was 16 metres high and encircled by a small exterior balcony about a third of the way up the side, allowing access for the maintenance of the large wooden sails. The windmill turned out to be mechanically unreliable as it was not well positioned to catch the wind, and it also required a lot of maintenance. A convict-operated treadmill built adjacent to the mill compensated for this problem.

Despite these technical issues, the windmill was reported to still be working in 1841, having been maintained by convict mechanics. Tom Dowse, who arrived in Brisbane in July 1842, recalled that, ‘We Journey’d up the hill to inspect that relict of old times - its well appointed Machenery, its revolving arms dressed with a complete suit of Sails, all in proper working order’. Dowse also reported in a March 1845 letter to the Sydney Morning Herald that the mill was still working and being used by private individuals for grinding corn and wheat.

The contemporary observations of Dowse were contradicted by the journalist J.J. Knight, who wrote in 1898 that the windmill had been 'partially dismantled' by the time of the hanging. The question of the working status of the windmill in the early 1840s is important when assessing Knight's further claim that the 'disused arms made convenient timber for a staging which for the purposes of the execution projected from the balcony’. He also wrote that 'a pole was run out from a window above, and to this was fastened the fatal rope'. This is one of the clearest written descriptions of the actual gallows used for the hanging of Mullan and Ningavil, but Knight was writing over half-a-century after the event and using oral history sources, which can sometimes be quite unreliable.

A nine-year-old Tom Petrie was a witness of the hanging, which was described in his reminiscences (published in 1904) as taking place 'at the windmill, which was fixed up for the occasion'. This phrasing suggests that the windmill itself was adapted for the purposes of the execution. Whatever the gallows looked like, we do know that they were constructed by Tom's father Andrew Petrie, who was the Foreman of Works in the settlement. Knight wrote that Alexander Green, the executioner, brought up from Sydney for the occasion, was impressed with the gallows and assured Petrie that they were ‘quite equal to the affair in Sydney’.

The balcony of the windmill, possibly used as the gallows stage, can be seen below in this detail from a sketch of the settlement, circa 1835 (attributed to Henry Boucher Bowerman, John Oxley Library).

Unfortunately, contemporary newspaper reports of the execution provide no description of the gallows, only telling us that the hanging took place 'at' Windmill Hill. The official records are also quiet on the subject.

This was only the second hanging to have taken place at Moreton Bay, the first being in 1830 when two runaway convicts were returned after trial in Sydney and executed in the yard of the convict barracks, reportedly on a scaffold made for the occasion. It is not known what happened to those gallows, but in later decades it was common practice for gallows to be dismantled and stored away after use, then reconstructed when required again. Is it possible that the components of the convict gallows were carried up Windmill Hill in 1841 to be reassembled and reused there? There is no evidence to suggest this actually did happen, but it does remain a possibility.

The next Brisbane hanging came in 1850, when two murderers were hanged on Queen Street. On that occasion, second-hand gallows were transported up from Maitland Gaol, which had recently acquired a new set.

A panoramic landscape by Henry W. Boucher Bowerman, depicting Brisbane circa 1835.
The windmill can be seen on the far left. (John Oxley Library)

So while the most descriptive evidence suggests that the windmill tower was adapted for use as gallows, either with the construction of a new attached scaffold or simply using the existing balcony, that evidence was provided decades later and there are no contemporary accounts to back it up.

One thing we can be sure of is that Mullan and Ningavil were hanged - one at a time - using the ‘short drop’ method, in which the body on the end of the rope fell less than one metre. In later years the government switched to the 'long drop', carefully calculated to give a 'quick death' by delivering enough force at the end of the fall through the scaffold to break the prisoner's neck. However, the short drop was still in use in the 1840s and the results were almost always a slow death by strangulation. Young Tom Petrie was taken to look at one of the bodies after the hanging, and his description of the face he saw clearly indicates strangulation:
‘After it was over a prisoner, taking young ‘Tom’ by the hand, drew him along to have a look in the coffin. Stooping, he pulled the white cap from the face of the dead blackfellow, exposing the features. The eyes were staring, and the open mouth had the tongue protruding from it. The horror of the ghastly sight so frightened the child that it set him crying, and he could not get over it nor forget it for long afterwards.' (Constance Campbell Petrie, Reminiscences of Early Queensland, 1904)
So ended the hanging of Mullan and Ningavil. They had been returned from Sydney to Brisbane so that their deaths would serve as a lesson to those who witnessed it, which turned out to be about 100-300 Aboriginal people as well the majority of the European population of the settlement. After the event, the instrument of the prisoner's death was immediately removed. The windmill itself was sold and dismantled for parts in 1849, and converted into a telegraph signal station in 1861. By that time Brisbane had a new prison (at Petrie Terrace) and executions were conducted inside the prison yards, away from the prying eyes of the public. Coincidentally, the first person to be hanged at that new prison was Thomas Woods, who - as one of the few remaining convicts in the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in July 1841 - had been mustered to watch Mullan and Ningavil hang at the windmill. Clearly, the intended lesson of their execution had not been learned by some.

22 July 2018

The Bloody, Bloody Hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison

There are a couple of points I always like to make on my 'Hangman's Walk' cemetery tours. The first is that hanging could be a messy and unpredictable process, despite the concerted attempts to make sure the rope broke the neck and caused a quick, 'clean' death for the prisoner.

The second point is that newspaper reporters of the late 19th century did not hold back when it came to describing gory events in minute detail. A Brisbane Telegraph article about the hangings of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison at Brisbane's Boggo Road prison demonstrates both of these points very well.

Prison photographs of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, 1887.
(Queensland State Archives)

The lovers had been sentenced to death for the murder of Thomson's husband, and were hanged one after the other on the morning of Monday 13 June 1887. Ellen, a mother of six whose hard life had aged her well beyond her 41 years, was the first to go. After a lengthy walk-through of the early morning events, the article eventually reached her last moments alive:
"The fatal white cap was placed over her head, and the ropes fixed around her neck. Her face thus veiled she said in accents calm and wonderfully clear, "Good-bye, everybody, I forgive everybody. I never shot my husband, I never did anybody any harm, I will die like an injured angel." 
A few earnest words from the clergyman, and at a signal the executioner, whose hand rested on the lever, gave one powerful pull. The massive trap door on which she stood groaned and opened, and the next moment the thin, attenuated form of the unfortunate woman hung in mid air, her small kid boots peeping out from under her black dress. 
For one moment her knees were drawn upwards, then they relaxed, and she never moved again. But what a sickening sight! Blood trickling down her body and patterning in large drops on the hard cement floor. It increases in quantity, and at length trickles down in a stream, and the whole floor is covered with a woman's blood. Examination afterwards proved that the jugular vein in the neck was severed by the rope, hence the flow of blood. Sawdust and shavings were laid down to absorb the blood, and after the body had hung about a quarter of an hour, it was lowered into a coffin which had been in waiting close by.

Hence a phrenologist*, who was present, performed a sickening operation. The white cap, which was put over the head for the express purpose of hiding the contortions of the face, was removed, and while two female warders were compelled to soil their hands with blood by holding up the head - and this in the gaze of some 20 persons - the gentleman referred to made certain measurements of the dead woman's hard by means of a tape measure.

There are cases where such investigations might be of use to science, but in the present case we can see no necessity for thus exposing to the public gaze the hideous, contorted, blood-besmeared face of a decrepid, little woman, who, from a physical point of view could scarcely lift a 28-lb weight. If such things are to be permitted, they might be done in a less public manner than they were this morning. 
Ellen Thompson specially requested that she might be buried in the dress in which she was hanged. Her wish was complied with, and as the little withered body lay in its coffin, bathed in gore, her hands clasping a crucifix which had been placed there before death, and her face besmeared with blood still exposed to public view, the sight was one that no man would ever wish again to see."
Ellen Thomson went down in history as the only woman hanged in Queensland.

Once Ellen's body was removed from the scene, John Harrison, aged 25 years, was led from his cell. He would have heard every detail of Ellen's ordeal, but he remained solid and silent on the scaffold, and was dropped the trapdoor. Once again, the Telegraph reporter imbued his writing with a dramatic flavour:
"Not a muscle moved, nor a quiver from the body, but strange to say the same occurrence took place as with the woman, namely, the severance of the jugular vein. Simultaneous with the thud, the blood spurted out and ran in a stream down the body as it hung dangling from the beam lifeless and motionless. The snow-white cap was in a moment saturated with blood. It ran down the culprit's white trousers and reddened the floor just as in the previous case, and the spectators were for the second time that morning the witnesses of a ghastly sight, which in the cold of morning made their blood curdle. 
The sawdust... which had been put down after the fall of blood from the woman served the purpose of stopping the further flow along the floor of the blood which fell from Harrison."
Most executions around this time did result in quick, bloodless deaths, so it was a remarkable coincidence that both prisoners suffered the exact same wounds. It also reflected poorly on the skills of the hangman, William Ware, who was conducting his third hanging. He would have measured the couple and taken their weights as part of his mathematical calculations to provide the exact right length of 'drop' through the trapdoor to break their necks without further injury. Maybe he overcompensated with his next execution, in which the prisoner was not dropped far enough and ended up being strangled to death by the rope.

Ellen and John were buried in adjoining graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. John was first, receiving an Anglican burial service by the Rev. Archdeacon Dawes. Later that day Ellen was interred with a Catholic service by the Rev. Father Fouhy. These graveside services meant that the ground there was now considered to be blessed. It was small compensation for two lovers whose lives - and deaths - had been anything but blessed.

Phrenology was a 19th-century pseudoscience, the practitioners of which believed that measurements of the skull and brain could reveal detailed information about personality. They occasionally had access to the corpses of executed prisoners.

29 June 2018

Did Johnny Cash Play a Concert at Boggo Road?

Did the great Johnny Cash ever play a concert at Boggo Road? It's a reasonable question to raise, as I have been contacted twice during recent months by media/marketing types wanting a chat about 'that time Johnny Cash played at Boggo Road'. He had of course famously played at Folsom and San Quentin prisons in the United States, so it seemed believable that he might have done something similar here in Brisbane.

Johnny Cash performs for prisoners at the Folsom Prison, 13 January 1968. (Dan Poush/AP) 

I was well acquainted with the 'Cash at Boggo' story, having heard it from two men who had worked at the prison and went on to help manage the museum there in the late 1990s. These were my fellow Lancastrians Donny Walters and Bill Eddowes. They recounted Cash playing there in the early 1970s and practically sparking a riot, which resulted in Donny having to unceremoniously escort Mr Cash out of the building.

I was hugely impressed with this very blokey story, but it wasn't until a few months later that I started looking for more information on it. Surely there would be some mention of it in online Johnny Cash pages, or newspapers of the time, or prisoner or staff memoirs? I dug around but found nothing. I asked Donny and Bill again but they seemed a bit evasive about providing further info, so I turned to their good friend and colleague John Banks, the museum manager.

'Hey John, do you remember when Johnny Cash played that concert here?' 'What?' I explained what the other two had told me and a bit of a smile flashed across John's face. 'Is that what they told you?' 'Yeah'. John did a little 'humph' laugh. 'I think they might've been having a pull of your leg', he said.

I phoned a couple of other former officers, but neither of them had heard anything about any concert. When I mentioned this to Donny he half-heartedly persisted with the story for a few minutes before realising the gig was up, and he laughed a bit and said 'did I tell you about that time that Frank Sinatra played at Bogga Road?' I took that as a confession. His idea of humour included making up absurd little stories about prison life to trick gullible 'outsiders' like me. He had told me another one about a secret underground office in the prison, since used as a secret-document dump and then filled over with soil and rubble. That was another story that didn't hold up to inspection. Once you got to know Donny and Bill a bit better, it was easier to pick up on their tongue-in-cheek tall tales.

Donny and Bill retired soon afterwards, and sadly have since passed away. I never got to raise the subject with them again, and generally forgot about it. That is, until this year, when I got those phone calls. The men I spoke to seemed convinced the Cash concert had happened, but didn't let on who told them about it. I said I was pretty sure it did not happen, but then did some basic research and asked around anyway. I sent an email out to a couple of hundred former staff and inmates from Boggo Road, asking if anyone knew anything about this alleged concert. Over the next week I received 26 replies from men who had been there during the 1960s and/or 1970s. Every single one of them said it never happened. If it had, they would have known about it. These are people who remember just about everything about the place. If the Salvation Army band had played there in 1973, they'd remember it.

So there is nothing in the records about a concert, and people at the prison at the time denied it happened. In the absence of hard evidence - beyond a single story told by known pranksters - it is safe to say that Johnny Cash did not play at Boggo Road. It doesn't take much historical research to reach that simple conclusion.

Since starting this article, I have since seen the recent online source of the concert story, a marketing piece in which it is acknowledged there is no evidence outside what was said by Bill Eddowes (the same story told to me by Donny and Bill and then shown to be a 'joke'):
"The details are scant and hard to verify, as many prison records - such as correspondence from that era - were destroyed long ago... At this time a strict no photography rule applied inside all Queensland prisons; no known pictures exist."
How convenient. Unfortunately it looks like another case of cherry-picking unverifiable sources and ignoring better and contradictory evidence. In other words, don't let facts get in the way of a bit of marketingAny decent researcher with contacts in the field would have worked out that it wasn't a true story, and anyone who values credibility would not have shared it. And yet here we are with another bloody Boggo Road myth.

For the record, Cash played in Brisbane seven times, including during 1971 and 1973. Venues included: Festival Hall, Milton Tennis Courts, and the Entertainment Centre. Venues not included: Boggo Road prison.

13 June 2018

A History of Queensland Bunyips (Part Two): The 20th Century

By the end of the 19th century, the possibility that the mysterious 'bunyip' could be a real zoological entity had been generally dismissed, and it had taken its place firmly in the realms of Australian folklore as a mythical beast. Although there had been numerous recorded sightings of strange unidentified creatures in the waterways of Queensland since the arrival of Europeans, the descriptions varied widely and the reports were unverified (see my article on Bunyip sightings in 19th-century Queensland). There was also no biological evidence, such as skeletal remains, scat or fur, to support claims that the bunyip was a real animal. Despite this, the concept of the bunyip was established in popular culture and reports of new sightings lingered well into the 20th century.

There were also ongoing attempts to provide rational scientific explanations for past encounters. This was evident when the noted ichthyologist J. Douglas Ogilby addressed a meeting of the Royal Society of Queensland in 1904, on the subject of ‘A Chelydroid Tortoise Identified with the Bunyip’. He argued against identifying ‘bunyips’ as seals, carpet snakes or musk ducks, and claimed that the Chelodina longicollis (Snake-necked Turtle) could be involved in some alleged bunyip sightings:
‘…acknowledged retiring disposition of these tortoises and their selection as a 'dwelling-place of the loneliest and most desolate swamps - and waterholes,' from which they seldom emerge, fully accounted for the rarity of its appearance, and, coupled with superstitious fear, for the ignorance of its habits among the aborigines; while their ferocity, when cornered, which perhaps in bygone times caused the death of a chief, would account for the universal terror in which this animal was held, vivified and heightened by the glamour of centuries. Mr. Ogilby also drew attention to the curious but undeniable fact that there were many waterholes, to all human appearance similar to others in the neighbourhood, on which wild fowl refused to alight, and he deduced from this that these holes were inhabited by chelydrids, and experience had taught the birds the danger of settling thereon. Mr. Ogilby concluded with some recent stories of the appearance of the bunyip, tending to show that it is in reality a gigantic freshwater tortoise.’ (The Week, 29 April 1904)
The former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was present at this talk and congratulated Ogilby on his 'ingenious' argument, but maintained that the bunyip was no more than 'a good deal of imagination connected with the supposed presence in deep dark pools of a dangerous wild beast'. Meston had been on an expedition to the Bellenden Ker ranges, south of Cairns, in 1899 and heard Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool where a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. He suggested that such a disturbance could have merely been a large fish eating a water bird.

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

So academic discussion of the bunyip around this time seemed to be concerned with finding rational explanations behind the folklore or - as such stories were called in the Brisbane Courier in 1908 - 'the equivalent of the mumbo-jumbo of Central African tribes'. Nevertheless, occasional reports of sightings continued to appear in the news, such as one near Gayndah in 1909, in which three young girls out looking for calves saw a creature 'trot or flounder along, until it took its refuge in the Baronne waterhole'. One of the children reportedly 'resorted to that feminine defence in crisis - hysterits'. The girls' parents and other adults subsequently searched for the animal and found nothing but tracks. This was enough to impress one man who maintained a nightly search for the creature. A local fisherman also claimed to have seen the bunyip, which he refused to fire at at since 'he reckons it is a spirit'. The animal was described as being 'the size of a calf with a ewe neck, and short reddish hair, resembling that of a retriever'.

This report prompted Mr F. Williams, a resident of nearby Torbanlea, to publicly recount an incident from a few years earlier. His station was home to a number of lagoons, some about 20 metres deep, and he claimed that one day his wife and 18-year-old daughter saw two creatures that looked like 'little men with longish black hair', the larger one being just over a metre tall, come out of a waterhole, run towards them for a 100 metres, then turn around and head back to the water. His three teenage sons reported seeing a very similar creature on the waterbank during the following year, and during a drought there were similar sightings at the Brushwood lagoon a few kilometres away.

Another alleged sighting occurred in 1910 at Coalstoun Lakes, near Biggenden, in the North Burnett. An amateur photographer took some shots of the lake, and when developing the film he noticed some kind of animal, which was subsequently described in one newspaper:
'Its appearance vaguely suggests a shovel-nosed shark taking - which a shark has never been known to do - a hop, step, and a jump over the surface of the water. It has a dorsal fin, a large terrifying eye, and a mottled skin. Indeed, it might be compared to a dugong, or sea cow, flying through space.' (Brisbane Courier, 19 January 1910)
'Shovel-nose shark' is an early term for 'bull shark', which are known to jump on occasion, although it would be near-impossible for such an animal to find its way to the Coalstoun Lakes from a river system.

Coalstoun Lakes National Park Queensland.

There was another sighting in 1910 when Reg Randall claims to have seen a bunyip while pig shooting on Moreton Island. No description was given, although Reg and his brother were said to have been organising a follow-up search party.

Things were quiet on the bunyip-spotting scene for some years afterwards, but talk of crocodiles in Gold Coast waterways during the late 1920s stirred up interest again. Reports soon began to emerge of strange sights and sounds in the swamps and lagoons near Merrimac. There had been stories about bunyips in this area for decades, including one from a local resident who had been shooting ducks there in 1886 and claimed to see have seen 'a monster with a very big rough mane coat and an enormous big rough long bushy tail' that dived among the water weeds near the bank. A local squatter offered £1,000 to anyone who could get the bunyip dead or alive, prompting some serious search parties. The eventual conclusion was that the creature was probably a crocodile.

The alleged Merrimac bunyip. (Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1929)

Public curiosity about the local bunyip grew during the the development of a housing estate in North Burleigh area in the 1920s. There were reports of a loud 'boom - boom - boom' noise coming from the swamp each night following the construction of the Miami Hotel (1925) and a sanitary depot in the swamp area (1930), although these sounds were sometimes not heard for 12 months before starting up again. According to one local resident, reminiscing in 1938, 'local aborigines would pull up camp when the booming noises came from the swamp, referring to the 'Debil Debil'.' This large Yugambeh camp was on the 'old Racecourse flat midway between Burleigh and West Burleigh'. 

These events prompted Fred Garland to recall mysterious happenings at Yalebone Creek, between Roma and Surat, about 60 years earlier:
'At that time the creek had an unfathomable water hole, which both blacks and whites were afraid to approach. Every night a tremendous splash, like the fall of a mountain of rock into the water, was heard, and, although venturesome persons had endeavoured to ascertain the cause of the splash, the mystery was never solved. Mr. Garland also states that the late Mr. A. Meston spent some time at Coombabah, between Brisbane and Southport, endeavouring without success to shoot a monster that was supposed to inhabit a creek there.' (Brisbane Courier, 24 June 1932)
The 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were alarmed by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor in the winter of 1941. News spread far and wide and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’. A shire clerk claimed that about 20 people had glimpsed it, including a local postal inspector and station manager, who had both had chased it by boat one morning before it disappeared into some rushes. 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.' (The Mail [Adelaide], 2 August 1941)

Lake Bindegolly National Park, near Thargominda.

Hunters and photographers searched for the 'bunyip', and travellers took time out to stop by hope for a sighting:  
‘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.’ (Sunday Mail, 17 August 1941)
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.
Reports of sightings died off in September 1941 and the bunyip was soon forgotten. In retrospect it is likely that what was seen there 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. The musk duck was mentioned at the time as a likely candidate. 

Around this time, two boys saw a carcass floating floating upstream with the tide in the Mary River, Maryborough. They described it as being:
‘about 10 feet long, with a long snout, almost like a bill, about two feet long, and fitted with teeth an inch long... It was neither alligator nor dugong, although the body was similar to a dugong with large flippers. An outstanding feature was the creature's huge eyes. It appeared to have a tough hide, with barnacles clinging to it. In colour the body was greenish brown above and yellow underneath. The creature had been dead for some time.' (Maryborough Chronicle, 25 August 1941) 
This appears to have been no more than a badly-decomposed marine creature, although the 'bunyip fever' of the day prompted speculation about cryptids. The bunyip story associated with a waterhole at Mulgidie, near the tiny town of Monto (Upper North Burnett) was mentioned in newspapers a few years later, after subterranean rumblings caused nearby cattle to flee. The waterhole is just over a kilometre long and 20 metres wide, and on occasion is known to bubble and gurgle. There are stories of 'disappearing cattle and eerie sensations throughout the generations'. Some Aboriginal elders believe the hole is connected to a network of underground waterways. There seems to be little evidence of sightings, but local tradition has spawned an annual 'bunyip festival' in what seems to be an attempt to attract visitors to the area.

Bunyip figure at Mulgildie (Mulgildie Bunyip Festival)

One of the last reported 'bunyip sightings' in Queensland occurred at 18 Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island in 1950, when four workmen heard a loud splash and saw 'something big' dive into the water. They described it as having 'a pointed snout and long floppy ears… it seemed to be four or five feet long with a thick body. It has black and had a long neck and long ears like a spaniel.' It left a large wake before emerging in some rushes and then disappearing into the waters again.

The second half of the century saw a dearth of Queensland bunyip sightings. Zoologically, the creature had its day - in mainstream science anyway - and it even lost status as a feasible cryptid as creatures such as the 'yowie' took hold of the imagination of the researchers of mythical beasts. The numerous sightings of yesteryear came to nought under the crushing weight of a lack of hard evidence. People catching glimpses of wild animals they couldn't identify are no longer prone to throwing the word 'bunyip' around, and newspapers generally lost interest in the tired cultural trope a long time ago. The bunyip did remain a character in children's media, most famously in Jenny Wagner's 1973 book 'The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek'.

If the animal has survived as a going concern anywhere, it is in the Indigenous Australian stories that have circulated from as far back as anyone can remember. Aboriginal people around Beaudesert, south of Brisbane, continue to share their knowledge of local bunyip places with the public, giving the lagoons there an aura of mystery that would have been more common around other Queensland waterholes a century ago.

For most of the State, the mystery of the bunyip faded away a long time ago.