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1.

A Trio of Headless Horrors

Like one, that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turned round walks on

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows some fearsome fiend

Doth close behind him tread.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(English poet, 1772–1834)

The shapely, black-gowned figure always appeared (observers agreed) with arms raised and fingers outstretched — pale emaciated arms and long bony fingers — reaching, probing, searching for something apparently lost. Observers froze as the spectre moved, stumbling like a blind person on an unfamiliar path towards them. And sightless this spectre must surely have been, for where its head once joined its neck was a gory, seeping stump and nothing above it.

If the spectre’s mutilation and its scrabbling motion were not enough to terrorise watchers, then the gurgling noises (described as ‘strangled sobs’ by some and ‘gasps for breath’ by others) which came from the neck stump were sufficient to curdle the blood of even the most stout-hearted.

If you had wandered in the cool of the evening among the whispering pines in front of Berrima Gaol in the southern highlands of New South Wales at any time in the last century and half, you too might have encountered this horrific spectre. Dozens of others did and very few stayed around long enough to find out who it had once been or to learn its history. The few who did discovered a tale almost as shocking as and even bloodier than the spectre.

In 1833 Governor Bourke gave permission for Lucretia Davies to marry Henry Dunkley. The fact that vice-regal permission was needed indicates that the bride was under age or under sentence as a convict, or both. The marriage took place at Sutton Forest and the couple settled on a farm near Gunning, fifty kilometres west of Goulburn.

Lucretia was what we would call today ‘sexy’ and a ticket-of-leave man named Martin Beech who came to work at the Dunkley’s farm in 1842 took a fancy to her. Lucretia quickly decided she preferred the young, virile Martin to her dull husband and a plot was hatched. One cold, moonless night in mid-September that year Lucretia slipped quietly from the bed she shared with her unsuspecting husband and unbarred the door to admit her lover. Martin carried a heavy axe and Lucretia watched impassively as he dealt the sleeping Henry one fatal blow that clove his head in two. The body was quickly wrapped in the blood-drenched bedding and the whole gory bundle carried out into the darkness.

Next morning when the other farm workers asked where the boss was, Lucretia told them he had gone to Berrima on business. For a week and a half it seemed as though the murderers had got away with their crime, but apparently not everyone believed their story. The police arrived one day and began asking awkward questions. They searched the property and found Henry’s body in a shallow grave about 300 metres from the house.

Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech were arrested on suspicion of murder and taken to Berrima Gaol to await trial. Almost a year passed while the police gathered evidence and the Crown Prosecutor assembled a watertight case against them. Finally, on 5 September 1843, they were marched under guard to Berrima Court House to appear before the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir James Dowling. The trial took just two days. Both defendants were found guilty and condemned to be ‘hanged by their necks until they be dead’. The sentence was carried out at Berrima Gaol the same day.

As the first female to be executed by hanging in New South Wales, Lucretia Dunkley’s fate was widely reported and she soon joined the ranks of infamous villainesses in colonial mythology — every bit as cruel, it was said, as her Borgia namesake — and the facts of her life soon became distorted. ‘Farmer’s wife’ was not romantic enough for the public so the role of licensee of the Three Legs O’ Man Inn at Berrima (which did exist) was invented for her. Her victim became a wealthy squatter staying at the inn whose throat she slit with a razor and whose blood she caught in a kitchen bowl before robbing him of 500 gold sovereigns but, truth to tell, the inventions were no more chilling than the facts.

There was much conjecture among the medical profession in the nineteenth century as to why people like Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech committed such heinous crimes. The science of psychology was in its infancy and it was thought that physical defects in the brain were the only possible cause of abnormal behaviour. The brains of many executed criminals were dissected in the vain hope of finding and identifying common defects. Lucretia’s corpse suffered that fate. Soon after she was cut down from the gallows her head was sawn off with a surgical saw, placed in a box and sent to the study section of the Australian Museum in Sydney. There the hair and flesh were removed, the skull opened and the brain inspected without, needless to say, any significant aberrations being found.

It was not long before reports began to circulate about Lucretia’s headless ghost appearing among the pine trees in front of Berrima Gaol — people of both sexes and all ages claimed to have seen her. A Berrima storekeeper claimed that his teenage daughter went mad after encountering Lucretia’s ghost one summer night as she was passing the gaol; and the doctor who signed the papers admitting her to an asylum concurred that the young woman’s reason had left her suddenly and unexpectedly, describing her as ‘sane’ one day and ‘reduced to a state of idiocy’ the next.

At Easter 1961 two students camping at Berrima claimed they were awakened in the night by the sounds of sobbing and laboured breathing and that when they scrambled from their tent they saw Lucretia’s ghost wandering around the ruins of the Three Legs O’ Man Inn. The location makes the student’s claim a little dubious, but their description of the ghost and of the icy terror that gripped them as they watched it stumbling about accord with the evidence of Lucretia’s other victims. That fifty-year-old sighting is the last on record although local ghost tour operators would have us believe Lucretia is still around and an old resident of Berrima reminds people: ‘She may yet reappear. She’s still searching, you know. She hasn’t found her head yet.’

He’s right: she hasn’t. There are many relics of this gruesome story. Berrima Gaol, made famous in Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms, and Berrima Court House, an imposing building in classical-revival style, still stand and, although the fact is not widely known, Lucretia Dunkley’s skull remains to this day in the collection of the Australian Museum in William Street, Sydney, 120 kilometres beyond the reach of her ghost.

 

There isn’t much about Lucretia Dunkley’s story to raise a smile, but there are a few amusing aspects to the story of our second ‘headless horror’ and — take heart, squeamish readers — a blessed absence of gore.

Old-timers along the Murrumbidgee still talk about the ‘The Headless Horseman of the Black Swamp’ (or ‘The Trotting Cob’, to give the story its alternative title) and it’s the main topic of conversation at the Royal Mail Hotel at Booroorban, on the Cobb Highway between Hay and Deniliquin. Tourist coaches stop at this colourful old pub and, while passengers tuck into a hearty meal and a cold beer, the publican and his wife are only too happy to tell them the region’s most famous tale — as they and their predecessors have been doing for travellers on this route for nearly 150 years.

The swamp mentioned in the story is still there, a few kilometres down the highway in the middle of a dry saltbush plain and marked with an elaborate sculpture. In the early 1850s, a drover named Doyle either died of thirst or was murdered (versions differ) at what was then known as ‘Black’s Swamp’, because it was a popular camping site for Aborigines, or ‘Black Swamp’, because of the infestation of rotting vegetation in the water (again versions differ). Thereafter, Doyle’s ghost was said to appear mounted on a stocky, chestnut-coloured horse — ‘the trotting cob’ — circling around the swamp in the darkest hours of night.

Other drovers bringing herds down from Queensland to southern markets would water their cattle at the Black Swamp but avoided camping there for fear of the ghost. Many believed seeing it marked them for an early grave. A drover named Kelly and his offsider who knew nothing of this claim camped there with a small herd one night and Kelly told how they were visited by the ghost just before midnight.

‘We thought it was a rider out late when we saw him first. He just appeared out of the shadows at the edge of our camp. We shouted a welcome, but it seemed he didn’t hear us. He just kept circling, getting closer and closer until the light from our campfire showed his mount to be a neat, little, reddish-brown horse. His clothes were covered by a dusty cape and above the collar … well, there was just nothing above his collar. It’s no wonder the poor blighter couldn’t hear us!’

Kelly had a near fatal fall from his own horse and his offsider drowned in a swollen creek soon after their encounter with the ghost. After Kelly testified to these events, wise heads nodded knowingly and the legend flourished.

Cobb & Co. established a coach service from Hay to Deniliquin in 1859 and a resourceful man named Edward Smith opened an inn at the Black Swamp. Mrs Smith became famous for the delicious scones she baked for coach travellers at all hours of the day and night and it was reported that these delicacies were much better received than the rot-gut liquor her husband brewed and served, which one wit said ‘would stiffen a dog’.

Cobb & Co. drivers claimed that they often saw the headless horseman on his trotting cob and it became a tradition that they would regale their passengers with lurid stories of the ghost, then suggest a round of drinks (and a plate of scones) at Smith’s inn for everyone (including themselves), at the passengers’ expense — to fortify everyone, the drivers said, in case they encountered the galloping ghoul.

At least one Cobb & Co. driver genuinely believed in Doyle’s ghost. Charlie Lee, who died at Deniliquin aged eighty-eight in 1929, was one of the company’s most respected drivers. To his dying day Lee swore that he had seen the ghost and that it was no fraud.

A fraud, however, was exactly what most local people thought the ghost was. It was common knowledge in the district that a butcher from Moulamein, seventy-odd kilometres west of the Black Swamp, used to pretend to be the ghost so he could steal cattle from passing herds and sell the meat. The butcher built himself a wooden frame that fitted on his shoulders. He would then drape a blanket over the frame so that he appeared headless and run off a few head of cattle while the drovers cowered in fright. A load of buckshot in his backside was said to have ended the butcher’s ghostly career but he, like Charlie Lee, lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed, still chuckling about his own craftiness.

Cynics dismiss the whole story of the ‘Headless Horseman of the Black Swamp’ as a hoax. Believers point out that Doyle’s death and the earliest appearances of the ghost (without mention of cattle stealing) predate the butcher’s escapades by a decade or more. Whatever the truth is, the headless horseman and his nifty nag have become one of Australia’s most popular ghost stories and a profitable part of the folklore of the Riverina.

 

Our final ‘headless horror’ is much less well-known, but his story is perhaps the most touching of the three. Unlike Lucretia Dunkley, no one would suggest that he deserved his fate and, unlike the horseman at the Black Swamp, there has never been any conjecture about trickery or foul play associated with his story. On the contrary, what follows is testament to the perils of living in the most isolated regions of Australia and to the personal courage required to face them.

One of the great pastoral properties of the Channel Country in the south-western corner of Queensland is Hammond Downs. This giant cattle station (as large as a small European state) was established by the Hammond family in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hammond Downs can lay claim to several ghost stories, mostly concerned with victims of the flash floods that come roaring down Cooper Creek most years, turning the dry and dusty land into an inland sea.

The distinction of being the property’s and the region’s most famous ghost (and their only headless one) belongs to Edward ‘Ned’ Hammond, son of the first Hammonds to arrive in the district. Ned was an accomplished horseman; and he was strong, wiry and in the prime of his life when he went out alone one day during the dry season of 1889 to round up some stray horses. In what is still called the Wallaroo Paddock Ned’s own horse slipped in a clay pan, throwing him heavily to the ground.

There are two versions of how Ned Hammond was found. The most likely tells of a search party finding him with a fractured spine trying to crawl home and his brother, John, riding 300 kilometres to fetch the nearest doctor but finding Ned dead on his return.

The other version claims that Ned managed to remount and the horse found its own way home. Along the way Ned collapsed and fell from the horse again, but one of his boots remained caught in a stirrup. Ned was dragged many kilometres, his head repeatedly hitting the stony ground until, by the time the horse limped into the homestead it was dragging a headless corpse.

Ned Hammond was buried near the homestead beside his infant daughter Mary, who had died eight years before, and some say that his ghost still rides the dusty plain where he suffered his fatal fall. The ghostly horse and rider have been seen in the beams of car headlights and heard galloping around camps at night. The story is passed from one generation of jackaroos to the next and the new chums are warned to watch out for the ‘old boss’.

‘So, how will we know him, then?’ the youngsters invariably ask.

‘Oh you’ll know ’im all right,’ the old hands reply. ‘’e ain’t got no ’ead!’

2.

Fabulous Federici!

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
(English playwright and poet, 1564–1616)

Theatres the world over claim to have resident ghosts and those in Australia are no exception. Australia’s oldest surviving playhouse, the Theatre Royal in Hobart, for example, has ‘Fred’, a friendly, smiling phantom who is credited with having saved the little architectural gem he calls home by lowering the safety curtain when fire broke out backstage in 1984.

Even modern Sydney Opera House has its share of theatrical spirits, including ‘Old Harry’, who haunts the fly bridges above the stage, and ‘Paddy’, the meddlesome ghost of a derelict whose ashes are entombed in the building’s foundations. Harry rattles ropes and pulleys and Paddy makes his presence known by taking noisy swipes at the instruments in the percussion section of the orchestra during performances.

Fascinating and frightening though Fred, Harry, Paddy and their counterparts in other theatres might be, the award for Australia’s top theatrical ghost must go to Signor Federici — a true ‘phantom of the opera’ who manages to achieve maximum effect with minimum fuss and who has been alarming actors, singers, dancers, managers, technicians and patrons at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre for more than 100 years.

Federici’s story begins on a chilly autumn night in 1888 when the grand old Princess (which was then the grand new Princess) was packed to the rafters. Elegant ladies with bustles you could rest your beer on and gentlemen wearing tall silk hats lounged in the dress circle; merchants and their wives decked out in their Sunday best filled the stalls; and the ‘gods’ was crammed to overflowing with noisy housemaids in their smartest bonnets and apprentices in their shiniest boots. All had come to see and hear a new production of Faust, the most popular opera of the time, and, as the night sped on and the drama built to a climax, none doubted they had got their money’s worth.

In the last act of the opera, while the deranged heroine Marguerite expires in a prison cell, the devil (Mephistopheles) claims the guilt-ridden hero (Faust) and drags him down into the fiery depths of hell. Melodramatic stuff indeed; and when elevated by Gounod’s stirring music, guaranteed to move an impressionable audience like this one. There were sighs and gasps aplenty when this moment was reached and not a few of ladies in the audience suffered palpitations.

The hapless heroine was sung by Nellie Stewart, darling of the Australian stage for forty years, Faust by an English tenor, Clarence Leumane, and Mephistopheles by the celebrated basso Signor Federici. At the climax of the scene Federici threw his scarlet cloak around Mr Leumane, steam began to rise around their feet, coloured orange and red by flickering limelights, then the trapdoor on which they stood slowly descended, the two singers disappearing as if by magic beneath the stage.

A storm of applause and shouts of ‘bravo’ drowned the final chorus. The faces of the conductor and players in the pit glowed with unabashed pride, singers in the wings smiled with self-satisfaction and the promoters rubbed their hands together; a long and successful season seemed assured — but all was not well.

In the cellar beneath the stage the trapdoor came to a shuddering halt. Leumane stepped off and headed straight for the stairs to take his bows. Signor Federici seemed to hesitate then pitched forward into the arms of the steam machine operator, the victim of a massive heart attack.

The basso was carried upstairs unconscious (the pallor of death already on his face) and laid on a settee in the Green Room. Someone went for a doctor while others fussed over their colleague or stared in disbelief. His distraught wife arrived, closely followed by the doctor, who made a hasty examination then ordered that the patient be laid out, full length, on the carpet.

Two galvanic batteries were fetched and leads attached. The doctor frantically tore open Federici’s costume and applied these to his barrel-like chest. Electric shocks sent spasms through the singer’s limp body but failed to restart his heart.

It was, as the press reported, a scene both tragic and macabre. The red skullcap and false beard had been removed and the doublet ripped, but the cloak, the red silk tights, the sharp-pointed shoes and the rest of the satanic regalia the singer had worn on stage still clothed his now lifeless body. Stunned silence descended over the watchers, broken only by the sobbing of the widow and the moans of several swooning chorus girls.

‘Federici’ was the stage name of Frederick Baker, a thirty-eight-year-old Italian-born Englishman who enjoyed some success in London and New York before being signed up by J. C. Williamson Ltd for Australia. He had made his reputation in the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, creating the role of the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance and making a speciality of the title role in The Mikado. When he arrived in Melbourne in June 1887 with his wife and two children he was already suffering from chronic heart disease. A certain hauteur in his manner and lack of abandon in his acting, remarked on by the press, may have been due to the precarious state of his health.

On the Monday following his death, Federici was buried in the Church of England section of Melbourne General Cemetery. The minister officiating collapsed at the grave side and had to be cared for by a doctor while the rest of the service was read by one of the mourners. The Princess Theatre remained closed that night as a mark of respect for its late star, but the Faust season recommenced the next night, a substitute singer taking the role of Mephistopheles.

When that performance ended and the cast assembled on stage for their curtain calls, some of them swore that Federici’s ghost was with them — that two Mephistopheles in identical red costumes stepped forwards to take their bows that night. The substitute, Ernest St Clair, was not among those who claimed to have seen his ghostly counterpart but he did complain that invisible hands kept shoving him back into line every time he stepped up to the footlights. Such fanciful claims might be put down to overwrought emotions (or the desire for publicity) but it was not long before reports of Federici’s ghost that could not be so easily dismissed began to emerge.

The impresario George Musgrove, a partner in the firm of J. C. Williamson Ltd and one of the most respected men in his profession, spotted a strange man sitting in the dress circle during a late night rehearsal and took one of his staff to task for allowing a visitor into the theatre. The employee was adamant that he had admitted no one. A search was made but by then the stranger had vanished. Musgrove never claimed it was Federici’s ghost he had seen but others did and after that many claimed to have also seen it. Even more said that they had felt the ghost brush past them in the theatre’s narrow corridors and any mishap or equipment failure that occurred was blamed on him. Never slow to capitalise on publicity, the theatre owners put it about that they were willing to pay 100 pounds to any member of the public prepared to spend a night alone in the theatre, but there is no record of anyone taking up their challenge or that they were really prepared to part with such a large sum.

Around 1900 a new fire alarm system was installed in the theatre. The resident fireman was required to punch a time clock every hour, which triggered a light on a switchboard at nearby Eastern Hill fire station. If the fireman failed to clock in the alarm was raised and a brigade despatched to the theatre. One night during a heat wave that happened. No message came through on the hour and within minutes a brigade set off, horses’ hooves striking sparks off Nicholson Street and bells clanging frantically.

When they reached the theatre the station firemen could find no sign of a fire but did find their colleague — huddled in a corner, quaking with fear. When he recovered sufficiently the fireman explained that he had decided to open the sliding section of the theatre’s roof to let the heat out and some fresh air in. As the panels opened, bright moonlight flooded the auditorium then the proscenium, revealing a figure standing, statue-like, on centre stage. It was, the shocked man said, a tall, well-built man with distinguished features, dressed in evening clothes with a long cloak and a top hat.

‘A real toff ’e was, wiv’ ’is hair parted in the middle an’ all slicked down. But not a real man … not flesh and blood. I could see frough ’im, I could,’ the distressed fireman explained. ‘Like looking frough dirty glass it was. An’ ’is eyes? I shall never forget ’is eyes till the day I die. They glowed in the moonlight … a bit like cat’s eyes, but like no cat I ever seen!’

The most widely publicised sighting of Federici’s ghost occurred in 1917. Betty Beddoes, the theatre’s wardrobe mistress, was working round the clock to finish costumes for a production of Sheridan’s School for Scandal which was about to open. At 2.30 in the morning another fireman knocked gently on her workroom door and stuck his head inside.

‘Excuse me, Miss Beddoes,’ he said, ‘er … would you like to see a ghost?’ Curious but sceptical Betty said she would and followed the fireman up the side stairs to a landing beside the dress circle. The fireman pointed. Betty looked and could hardly believe her eyes. Federici was sitting in the middle of the second row of the dress circle, quite motionless and staring down at the empty stage. His face was in profile and although his features were indistinct Betty could see where his carefully groomed hair was greying. His immaculate white shirt front glowed in the half light and the studs that fastened it and the jewelled stick pin in the shape of a horseshoe securing his cravat sparkled like stars.

The wardrobe mistress and the fireman watched the spectre for a long time and it was still there when they returned to work. Fifty years later, Betty Beddoes could remember every detail of that experience and delighted in recounting what she called her ‘only brush with the supernatural in nearly ninety years’.

Two years later another fireman, John Gange, spotted the ghost on two different occasions and Charlie White, chief machinist at the rival Her Majesty’s Theatre, claimed that he had ‘laid’ the ghost in the 1930s, insisting that it was nothing more than a shaft of moonlight shining in through a small window above the dress circle, but earlier witnesses were not convinced and the sightings continued.

Irene Mitchell, proprietor of the St Martin’s Theatre in South Yarra, reported seeing it while visiting the Princess one night and Kitty Carroll, wife of the impresario who took over the theatre after World War Two, claimed that she had come upon it suddenly in a side aisle during a rehearsal of the Ballet Rambert in 1947.

In 1966 June Bronhill, playing in the musical Robert and Elizabeth, observed a very peculiar light moving about at the back of the dress circle during a performance and told her colleagues: ‘It was very strange, glowing in the centre and dull around the edge, with a sort of pinkish tinge to it. It moved slowly, backwards and forwards behind the last row of seats for three or four minutes then suddenly … it was gone. At first I thought it was an usher with a torch searching for something or helping a member of the audience, but as I looked closer I swear there was no figure behind that light!’

Did she think she had seen Federici, the perennial star was asked. ‘I’m not sure.’ Bronhill laughed. ‘Someone told me he died in a red costume, so maybe the pink colour is a faded version of that. I really don’t know what I saw and certainly not who I saw, but I do know I saw it … and I looked for it every night after that.’

By the early 1980s the Princess Theatre was closed and rapidly becoming derelict. Onto the scene came an enterprising couple, Elaine and David Marriner, who bought the old theatre and restored it to its former glory. The Victorian-berserk-style décor was refurbished inside and out, the wrought-iron-lace-capped cupolas repaired and the magnificent angel that crowns the central pediment given a new gold coating.

Mindful and proud of their theatre’s famous phantom, the Marriners named their new foyer café ‘Federici’s’ and Elaine was rewarded by a personal encounter with the ghost. While walking through the dress circle one day with a friend, the friend felt something brush past her, then Elaine turned to see a hinged seat that had been raised a moment before turned down. ‘And they don’t stay down unless someone is sitting on them!’ Elaine told Who magazine in June 1996.

In the same magazine Rachael Beck, then starring in the musical Beauty and the Beast, recalled how a few months earlier she had spotted a stranger in the dress circle during a rehearsal who clapped silently after each number. Later she asked who he was but found no one else had seen him.

In 2004 Rob Guest told an ABC television crew how, during the run of Les Misérables, an usher had spotted him at the back of dress circle (in his nineteenth-century costume) and wondered why the show’s star was there when he should have been backstage. As Guest explained, it was not him. He was backstage, waiting to make his entrance in the barricades scene.

And so the seemingly endless reports keep coming. And are they good for business? Of course they are. In the world of showbiz any publicity is good publicity and if stories of an elegant ghost add an extra ounce of romance and anticipation to a visit to the theatre, who would deny patrons that?

Before we leave Federici there is one interesting sidebar to this story that deserves to be mentioned. In 1972 film producers George Miller and Byron Kennedy (of Mad Max fame) shot a short documentary film about Federici. At 7.30 one morning the crew recreated Federici’s funeral in Melbourne General Cemetery using nine actors. One of the crew took two still photographs of the scene while the cameras were rolling. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the first shot but the second, taken just a few seconds later, shows a tenth figure standing among the ‘mourners’.

That figure is not visible even in the out-takes of the moving film. It appears to be a tall, semi-transparent figure wearing a monk’s black habit and cowl. Could it (opera-loving readers must now be wondering) be our old friend Federici in the disguise Mephistopheles wears in the church scene that preceded the last act of Faust?

3.

Ships of Doom

I looked upon the rotting sea

And drew my eyes away;

I looked upon the rotting deck

And there the dead men lay.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Most people have heard of the Flying Dutchman, that jinxed ship commanded by a tormented captain and condemned to sail the seven seas for eternity. The Flying Dutchman is said to pop up unexpectedly to this day and the lurid appearance of its blood-red sails and its phantom crew are said to be enough the scare the wits out of any seafarer. Equally well known is the Mary Celeste, the archetypical ghost ship, which was discovered sailing placidly along in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1872 without a living soul aboard.

Much less well known are another pair of ghost ships, the wreckages of which lie just off the coast of Australia. Like the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste, the first of these, the S.S. Yongala, appeared to a group of startled watchers, sailing the waters where it had met its doom a decade earlier. And the second? Well, the freighter Alkimos has a Greek name and its history is worthy of an Ancient Greek tragedy.

The Adelaide Steamship Company’s 3700-tonne vessel Yongala, commanded by Captain William Knight, called at Mackay en route from Brisbane to Townsville. At 1.40 pm on 24 March 1911 it steamed out of Mackay harbour with forty-eight passengers, a crew of seventy-two and a thoroughbred racehorse named Moonshine on board. Minutes later the harbourmaster at Mackay received a report that a fierce tropical cyclone was bearing down on the coast, directly in the path of the Yongala. Without radio it was impossible to warn the ship.

At 6.30 that evening the Yongala was sighted battling mountainous seas and gale-force winds at the northern end of the Whitsunday Passage. Later that night or during the early hours of the next morning the Yongala sank with the loss of all on board.

Mailbags and wreckage (including the body of the racehorse) came ashore south of Townsville but the wreck was not located and identified until 1958, twenty-three kilometres east of Cape Bowling Green. In 1981 the Yongala was declared an historic wreck under the Commonwealth Shipwrecks Act. And so the official file closed on one of Queensland’s worst shipping disasters, but long before then the ill-fated Yongala had entered the ghost lore of the sea.

In 1923 a party of local fishermen from Bowen were trying their luck in a small boat off tiny Holbourne Island (near the main shipping channel the Yongala would have used) when a large ship hove into view from the south. The fishermen had seen the ship before and they all recognised her — it was the Yongala, steaming steadily by in the bright sunshine twelve years after her sinking.

The steamship’s sleek blue-and-red hull was now encrusted with millions of barnacles, the white-painted superstructure was rusted and draped with seaweed and the ship’s once-proud funnel was twisted and stoved in. Of crew or passengers there was no sign. The bridge appeared unattended, but as the ship seemed to be bearing on a definite course, the watchers speculated that unseen hands must have been guiding it. Wisps of smoke also trailed from the broken funnel, signalling the presence of phantom stokers toiling below decks.

The small boat bobbed dangerously in the swell caused by the larger vessel and the fishermen abandoned their fishing to watch the spectacle in amazement. Any doubts that it was a phantom ship they were observing were dispelled when the Yongala disappeared behind the southern tip of Holbourne Island then failed to reappear at the northern end. The fishermen raised anchor and sailed around the island, but could find no trace of any other vessel. The phantom ship had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.

Until the discovery of the wreck of the Yongala ninety kilometres further north in 1958, many believed the ghost ship had appeared to the fishermen to indicate that it lay off Holbourne Island. Today its location is beyond dispute; and if any of those fishermen were still around they would swear that their sighting of it was equally indisputable.

There are two interesting postscripts to this story. A Mrs Lowther, who lived in Mackay until 1969, recounted her own strange experience at the time of the wreck. She was booked to sail on the Yongala on its final voyage but at the last moment had a premonition of disaster and, although she was halfway out to the ship on a tender, refused to go aboard and demanded to be taken back to shore.

That same fateful night a family staying in a hotel at Eton, west of Mackay, also had a vision of the disaster. There was a kerosene lamp on the table in their room and suddenly one of the children pointed to it and said ‘Look at the big ship!’ The flame had blackened a portion of the glass creating the clear image of a large ship riding a mountainous sea. As the fascinated family watched, the picture faded and was replaced by another — the distressed face of a girl.

The next day news of the Yongala’s disappearance broke and, while the father was walking down a Mackay street he saw a poster for a touring theatrical company with the face of the young girl on it. He later learned that she had been among the unlucky passengers on the Yongala.

 

Prior to its sinking the S.S. Yongala had a long and proud history, but not so the ship that started life as the George M. Shriver and ended up as the Alkimos.

Any sailor will tell you some ships are jinxed, destined to an inglorious history of mishap and tragedy from the day they are launched. The George M. Shriver was such a ship. Built in the Kayser Shipyards in Baltimore in 1943, the 7300-tonne oil-powered freighter was one of the thousands, hastily assembled in American shipyards and called Liberty Ships, which ran the gauntlet of German U-boats in the Atlantic and carried much-needed supplies to worn-torn Britain.

The Kayser Shipyard prided itself on the speed with which it assembled hulls; ten days was the average. The George M. Shriver took six weeks. Its prefabricated sections didn’t fit, equipment broke down and there were numerous accidents among the workers, who struggled to complete their task and rid their slipway of what was already being called a jinxed ship.

The George M. Shriver’s World War Two service record was largely undistinguished and it was in dry-dock more often than at sea. In 1943 the ship was sold to a Norwegian company and given a new name, Viggo Hansteen, but if it was hoped the change of name would bring a change of luck, that hope was never realised. In the years after the war when it passed into private hands, the ship was involved in all sorts of mishaps and needed constant repairs. In 1961, for example, it collided with another vessel in Bristol harbour and was out of service for eleven months while its bow and its superstructure were rebuilt. After that the Norwegian owners decided they had had enough of the costly ship and sold it to a Greek company who renamed it Alkimos, the name it carries to this day.

In March 1963 while en route from Jakarta to Bunbury in Western Australia the Alkimos struck a reef off lonely Beagle Island about 120 kilometres south of Geraldton. Local crayfishermen circled the stricken ship and reported its predicament to the maritime authorities in Perth but, inexplicably, the commander of the Alkimos, Captain Kassotakis, did not request assistance for three days. A tug was eventually sent to try to refloat the freighter but the captain decided the winches on Alkimos were more powerful. For two days the winches ground, the ship writhed and shuddered and moved not a centimetre. A salvage expert who was flown up from Perth flooded the stern of the vessel, raising the bow, and the Alkimos finally refloated.

Half-filled with seawater and in danger of sinking at any moment, the disabled ship was towed into Fremantle harbour but, if the captain thought his troubles were over, he was wrong. Repairs began immediately but, in May, a mysterious fire almost gutted the ship. The chief officer was fined 100 pounds for misleading an official inquiry into the grounding, writs for amounts totalling 25,000 pounds were served on the captain for failing to pay for earlier repairs and the ship was impounded. The owners paid up but cancelled plans to repair the battered and charred ship in Australia and engaged a local tug operator to tow it to Hong Kong.

The tug Pacific Reserve set out on 30 May with the Alkimos secured on a 600-metre towline. The sea was calm at first, but on the second day out an unforecast westerly gale whipped up mountainous seas. Fifty-seven kilometres north of Fremantle and twenty-four kilometres off the coast the towline snapped. The crew of the Pacific Reserve tried desperately to secure another line but the sea was too rough. The Alkimos began to drift helplessly towards the coast. For the second time in three months the ill-fated freighter ploughed into treacherous reefs and the boiling surf impaled it on Eglinton Rocks.

Several attempts to salvage the vessel were made but all ended in failure and the Alkimos’s jinx touched every one of them. Tugs were damaged, lines snapped, equipment failed, accidents and illness plagued the salvage crews and the crippled ship stayed wedged in rock and sand. Salvage attempts were abandoned when the winter storm season arrived, then in December a team from Manila arrived to try their luck, but the boilers on their tug, the Pacific Star, suddenly and unexpectedly showed signs of bursting and the owner of the company collapsed and died.

The help of a Roman Catholic priest was sought to dispel the jinx and it seemed for a time that his intervention had worked when a heavy swell lifted the crippled vessel and it miraculously floated. The Pacific Star, with its boilers repaired, took the Alkimos in tow but, a couple of kilometres from Eglinton Rocks, another vessel pulled alongside, arrested the tug’s captain for unpaid debts in Manila and impounded his boat. Unable to give further aid to the Alkimos, the crew of the Pacific Star anchored the rusting freighter between the reefs off Eglinton Rocks but, true to form, it snapped its anchor chain in a heavy swell and drifted shorewards. The Alkimos finally came to rest about four kilometres south of Yanchep Beach, where it lies to this day, split apart, covered in barnacles, a home to fish and a very active, sinister ghost.

Two crew members from the Pacific Star were stationed on the Alkimos to guard the wreck. For the two men it promised to be a few weeks of light duties and relaxation at their company’s expense while the legal wrangle over the Pacific Star was sorted out, but it turned out to be a living nightmare. After a day or two the men sensed they were not alone on the vessel. Tools left in one place would be found in another, a heavy hose they tried to move suddenly felt lighter as though another pair of hands was sharing the load. Strange smells of food cooking came wafting up from the disused galley and the sounds of pots and pans banging could be heard, but when they went to investigate the smells and sounds were gone. Finally, on a hot evening when the two men were on deck trying to catch the slight breeze that rose at sunset, they saw their fellow ‘passenger’: a giant of a man dressed in an oilskin coat and a sou’wester, who strode across the main deck then straight through a closed steel door.

The two Filipinos were replaced by other caretakers, all of whom had stories to tell about their encounters with the ghost. One pair claimed that it came charging towards them in a narrow gangway one day and that they felt the power of its baleful stare as it thrust them aside, knocking one unconscious. Another of the Filipino caretakers claimed that the ghost threw a kettle of boiling water at him.

No one had any idea who the ghost was and so, for want of a real one, he was given the name ‘Henry’. A young American exchange student spent six days on board the Alkimos in July 1963 and recorded in his diary that he was stalked by terrifying footsteps the whole time and the door of the captain’s cabin was slammed shut behind him by unseen hands. Sightseers and fishermen claimed to have seen Henry at night and in broad daylight moving about the decks of the ship in his oilskins and sou’wester. Local tour operators cashed in on the stories by organising ghost tours of the wreck; and a Dutch clairvoyant visited the ship. She spent half a day on board and reported the area beneath the foremast was ‘a very evil place’ where she believed someone had met a violent death.

A local identity, the late Jack Sue OAM, highly decorated by the US and Australian governments for his work with Z Force behind enemy lines during World War Two, was sceptical about the stories of the ghost and organised a party to spend a night aboard the Alkimos. The party comprised Jack, his wife and some local divers. Jack’s scepticism was shattered when he heard footsteps, sneezing and coughing coming from a deserted section of the ship and one of the divers felt something brush past him. Moments later ‘Henry’ put in an appearance and, as the party watched in disbelief, the ghost strode purposefully across the deck and straight through a solid bulkhead.

The jinx on the Alkimos continued to reach out and touch the lives of all who came in contact with it. The pregnant wife of one caretaker slipped and fell on board and lost her baby. Two business partners, John Franetovich and Bob Hugal, bought the wreck for scrap but bad luck dogged them from that day: a tanker they owned collided with another ship and had to be scuttled; and Hugal, who until then had enjoyed perfect health, suddenly became seriously ill. Swimmers near the wreck were caught in currents that had not been there moments before, visitors to the wreck suffered injuries and motor vessels sailing near the wreck experienced engine troubles. Jack Sue became seriously ill soon after spending the night on the Alkimos and his wife died, tragically, in a car accident. One of the divers died suddenly and the fiancée of another was killed in a plane crash. The skull of a long-distance swimmer who had gone missing while trying to swim from the mainland to Rottnest Island was found in the hull of the Alkimos and identified by dental records.

One morning observers noticed smoke coming from the funnel of the hulk. It looked, they said, as though the old ship was preparing to sail away under its own power. Two newspaper reporters went on board to investigate and found that drums of tar stored in the ship had mysteriously ignited. This was just one of six unexplained fires on board.

Another party determined to lay the stories of the ghost set out to spend a weekend on the wreck. Their Land Rover broke down, the motor on their boat would not start and, when they finally put to sea, a single, huge wave that seemed to come from nowhere swamped their boat and soaked their expensive photographic equipment. Despite calm waters around the wreck the party’s boat would not stay alongside. A line was tied securely to the Alkimos but mysteriously came undone. When they finally scrambled aboard in darkness none of their torches would work. They tried to set up camp on the solid bow area of the ship but their spirit stove blew up and, despite predictions of fine weather, heavy rain began to fall at around 2 am. As they huddled together in the rain, wishing they had never embarked on the expedition, they heard the incongruous sound of a dog yapping. The sound seemed to come from the stern of the ship but no dog could be seen. Despite being stressed out by their recent experiences, concern that an animal might be trapped or injured on the wreck set them searching, but each time they approached the source of the sound it retreated. No dog — or any other animal — was found, but the yapping continued through most of the night. (Strangely, the captain’s logbook recorded the mysterious yapping of a dog in the engine room and other parts of the ship when the Alkimos was en route across the Atlantic during World War Two, a quarter of a century before.)

In an effort to find the truth, Jack Sue was persuaded to return to the ship with technicians from a television station, who set up cameras and recording equipment in the hope of catching ‘Henry’ on film or tape. Jack dossed down on an old steel bunk in one of the disused cabins, but was awakened during the night by strange noises. As his ears tuned to the sounds, he recognised heartrending groans (the sound one might expect from a person in agony), which seemed to be coming from the bunk next to his. Jack reached for his torch and snapped it on. The bright beam revealed that the bunk beside his was empty and when he shone the torch around the cabin there was nothing to be seen. Everything was in place and apparently undisturbed — but the terrible groans continued for several minutes more.

Jack admitted to being deeply affected by the sounds and not a little frightened on both his expeditions to the Alkimos; and as anyone who had the privilege of knowing Jack Sue would testify, he was not a man to imagine or exaggerate anything. And, after his wartime experiences, it took a lot to frighten him.

One of the technicians who went with Jack reported catching a brief glimpse of a strange, dark figure that disappeared into the salty night air. The recording equipment they used captured eerie rumbling sounds like distant drums or gunfire and a series of blood-curdling shrieks followed by coughing and heavy breathing, none of which was heard by the men on board.

Around 1991 in a heavy sea the bow of the Alkimos broke off and the twisted and torn wreck slowly began to disintegrate, disappearing from sight in recent years. To this day people stare out across the sea to where the two jagged halves of the hulk once towered above the water, recalling its grim history. Fishermen circle round the spot swapping stories and divers occasionally explore what remains on the sea floor in the hope of catching a glimpse of ‘Henry’. But the hundreds whose lives have been affected by the jinx know better and vow never again to go near the ill-fated Alkimos.

4.

Till Death Us Do Part

So, so, break off this last lamenting kiss

Which sucks two souls and vapours both away,

Turn thou ghost that way and let me turn this.

The Expiration, John Donne (English poet, 1572–1631)

When personal relationships turn sour (or are soured by a third party), fertile ground for gruesome ghost stories is created. Here are two disturbing stories and one amusing story that prove that point. The first tells of a marital mismatch that resulted in both parties being condemned to haunt their former home. The second and third both tell of how obnoxious relatives wreaked havoc on other couples’ relationships before and beyond the grave. All three stories have something else in common. They all originate from one of Australia’s great wine-growing regions.

Commencing in the 1830s shiploads of Lutheran refugees from Germany migrated to South Australia and settled in the Barossa Valley. They modelled their settlements on the villages of their homeland, planted the hillsides with grapevines and established a wine-growing industry that flourishes to this day. They were dour and pious people with a culture, rooted in the Middle Ages, that acknowledged the powers of both light and darkness. For them, witches, goblins and sprites infested the hills of the Barossa region as surely as they did the Black Forest; and the devil incarnate was a real threat to their lives and souls. Ghost stories abound in this beautiful part of Australia and perhaps the strangest and most compelling of all concerns a vineyard near the tiny village of Bethany.

One day in the middle of the nineteenth century a knife grinder came to the vineyard to ply his trade. The property belonged to a young spinster whose parents had died of dysentery when she was a child; since then she had been raised by Quakers. The young woman was endowed with property, good health and pleasant features. The only thing she lacked was a husband. The knife grinder was a personable young man more than content to pass the time of day with the young woman, especially when he learned that she was the sole owner of the neat cottage, all the livestock and the flourishing vineyard that stretched as far as the eye could see. A match was made; the spinster became a bride and the knife grinder became a prosperous farmer.

Soon after their marriage the husband discovered a side to his wife’s character he had not reckoned on. Some nights she would disappear from their cottage without explanation. When she returned the next morning no amount of cajoling or threatening would make her reveal where she had been. At first he thought she was being unfaithful to him with another man in the village, but then strange rumours began to reach his ears. His wife, it was said, had rebelled against the strict teachings of the Quakers when still a child and had become a devotee of an elder who secretly practised the black arts. Now, rumour-mongers claimed, she regularly travelled in the company of twelve other women to the top of Kaiser Stuhl Mountain to perform witches’ rites and dance naked under the full moon.

The husband by then had become a respected member of the local Lutheran Church and it was there he sought help. Before the whole congregation he declared that his wife had fallen into sin through idleness. The pastor advised him to keep his wife constantly pregnant to prevent her fornicating with the devil. The husband took the pastor’s advice and bedded his wife as often as he could physically manage.

Two children were born within two years and after each birth the husband returned to his task with renewed vigour. Finally the wife protested and refused to submit to her husband’s constant assaults. He then took a whip to her and beat her mercilessly until her back and buttocks were raw. In despair the young woman ran away from home — to Kaiser Stuhl Mountain.

When she returned a few days later she possessed strange new powers. She crept up on her husband while he was ploughing in the vineyard. She drew some cryptic designs in the dust and mumbled an evil incantation. When her husband saw her he reined in their white plough horse, but when he tried to remove his hands from the plough he found to his horror that he could not. His hands were as rigid as stone and his fingers were firmly locked to the handles of the plough. Try though he might he could not free himself.

The wife had placed a hex on her brutal husband and it seemed he was fated to spend the rest of his life endlessly ploughing the strips of ground between the vines in fair weather and foul. The wife cared for the horse, feeding it and stabling it at night. She brought food to her miserable husband and fed him with a spoon. She also took down his trousers each day so that he could relieve himself onto the soil. Unmoved by his tears and pleas she went about the business of running her own property once more and caring for the babies while he stumbled along behind that plough from dawn to sunset.

News of the husband’s plight spread quickly through the village but no one dared come to his aid. It was not until he developed pneumonia and was close to death that his wife finally removed the hex and released him. He struggled to the cottage and crawled into bed where, just hours later, he died, cursing his wife. At her husband’s funeral the young widow refused to don the traditional sackcloth and ashes or even wear black and while the rest of the congregation offered prayers for the soul of their departed bruder in their mother tongue, she was heard muttering incomprehensible words in a strange language.

After the funeral the widow was spat on and reviled by the old women of the village. Some said that, as well as her other sins, she conversed with her cat and grew herbs to concoct magic potions. She was blamed for every ill that befell the village. Finally, the elders of the church pronounced her to be ‘the bride of the goat’ (the Devil’s bride) and ordered that she be tried by dunking. ‘If she drowns her innocence will be proved,’ they said, ‘and if she does not, then God will have confirmed that she is a witch — and we shall burn her!’

The young woman was dragged, screaming, to the dam near the village and her head held under the water for more than an hour while the onlookers prayed fervently for her salvation. She struggled for a while but the strong hands of the self-righteous held her down. When they lifted her dripping body from the water, smeared with foul-smelling mud and weed, she was dead and two lifeless eyes stared accusingly at her judges.

Her innocence proven, the young woman was treated far better in death than she ever had been in life. The villagers gathered flowers from their gardens and the surrounding meadows to carpet the graveyard where her funeral was conducted. The pastor delivered an impassioned eulogy while his flock prayed and wept for her and themselves.

As the years passed the villagers tried to put the whole affair out of their minds but they could not, for the ghost of the young woman returned from the grave to take revenge on all those who had mistreated her. The story goes that the pastor, the church elders and each of the young woman’s accusers were visited in turn by her vengeful ghost and that all met horrible deaths soon after.

True-believers claim that the ghosts of the young woman and her husband haunt the district to this day. Terrified witnesses have reported seeing the young woman dancing naked on her own grave when the moon is full, a wild and ferocious expression on her face, her body still streaked with mud and her hair matted with slimy russet-and-black weed.

The ghost of her unfortunate husband also appears in the old vineyard that was once theirs. He is seen at midnight and only when the moon is full: a ghastly spectral figure (little more than a skeleton), bowed and cowed, stumbling along behind a spectral plough drawn by a spectral horse.

When this story was made public some years ago the source quoted was a handwritten journal found by descendants of the young couple in a strongbox under the floorboards of the cottage. The vineyard is still there and so are the ghosts but the owners, not surprisingly, are reluctant to discuss this strange and dark episode in their family’s history.

 

Another ghost whom locals can (and in this case will) put a name to haunts an abandoned farmhouse six kilometres from Greenock. Travus Klinkwort’s story is well known in the district and very few feel sympathy for his ghost. A widower, Travus owned the farm many years ago and eked out a living growing vegetables, aided by his two daughters, Josia and Esther.

Travus was a cold and heartless man who worked his daughters hard and denied them any pleasures. He was also fanatical about protecting their virtue, but over-protection simply increased their curiosity and their desirability to the young men of the district.

Josia, the prettier of the two, invited a youth named Randall to meet her in the potato patch one night. Esther stood guard at a distance while Josia found out what she had been missing. Travus, suspecting deceit, grabbed his gun and ran to the potato patch. Esther screamed while Josia and Randall scrambled to their feet and tried to pull on their clothes. Travus fired both barrels of his gun.

The lovers were never seen again but it is said that Travus’s potato crop the next year was the richest ever. Travus died a few years later and Esther went to her grave a crazed, crippled spinster, still hiding the secret of what had occurred that night.

As if condemned to endless punishment, Travus Klinkwort’s ghost is trapped at the scene of his terrible crime. He has often been seen (and even photographed) standing in the doorway of the crumbling building. He wears a torn great coat, baggy trousers and a battered hat. He stares unrepentantly back at observers while they wonder if he still has his gun.

A real-estate agent (new to the district and knowing nothing about the house’s history) ventured up the dusty driveway to the Klinkwort house one day a few years back, hoping to find a property to list and, to his dismay, discovered the answer to the question about Travus’s gun.

Finding the house deserted and the front door ajar he ventured inside. At first he saw nothing but dust and cobwebs and heard nothing but the wind whistling through gaps in the roof. ‘I was just doing a few calculations in my head about what it might cost to fix the place up when I heard a sound behind me,’ the real-estate agent later explained. ‘I thought I must have disturbed a dog because it sounded just like that deep growling sound dogs make in their throats. I turned around very warily and to my surprise found, not a dog, but an old man standing in the doorway of the front room. I was relieved that it was not a vicious dog, then terrified when the man raised an ancient shotgun and pointed the barrels at me.

‘The old man’s mouth was closed and the strange sound seemed to be coming from inside his body. The sound got louder and louder until it was a deafening roar and then I saw one crooked, bony finger begin to close around the trigger. I yelled “Don’t shoot!” but it was too late. I saw the gun fire, but heard no explosion and in that instant the figure and the roaring sound vanished … and so did I a split second later. Up until then I’d never believed in ghosts, but real guns go “bang” and real people don’t vanish into thin air!’

The real-estate agent also recalled the awful stench of rotting potatoes in Travus Klinkwort’s house … and smells of an even worse kind figure in our final story of ruptured relationships from the Barossa Valley.

 

When a thirty-six-year-old shy spinster met a like-endowed bachelor in a café near Nuriootpa, love (or desperation) brought them together. Certain that the bride’s tyrant of a mother, a widow herself, would not approve of the match, they eloped. Eventually the mother came round — or appeared to — and invited the couple to share her house, but it soon became apparent that all she really wanted was an unpaid labourer to tend her garden and a handmaid to wait on her. She also took every opportunity to drive a wedge between husband and wife, telling each the other was ‘screwing around’.

The old woman had some other objectionable habits. She weighed 130 kilograms and consumed platefuls of spiced sausages, dill cucumber, pickled onions and sauerkraut at every meal. Dessert comprised dozens of cream cakes that she devoured with glee, cream dripping off her jowls. After these gargantuan feasts she would repair to the stone dunny in the yard, there to sit and fart thunderously for the best part of an hour.

The repugnant parent insisted the daughter sleep with her, so these times were the only opportunity the unhappily married couple had to be alone and to catch up on some of the pleasures they had missed out on in their youth. One night the husband and wife realised that Mother had been an unusually long time in the dunny and that they had not heard the results of her labours for some time. The daughter went down with a torch and found her mother slumped on the wooden seat, her voluminous red bloomers hanging around her bulbous ankles. The old woman’s face was much the same colour as her bloomers and she was quite dead.

Daughter and son-in-law had a terrible time shifting her. Finally they dragged her out of the dunny and rolled her onto a sheet of corrugated iron. This they dragged under a stout tree branch then winched the body into a wheelbarrow with a block and tackle. When the doctor arrived the old woman was lying angelically composed on her bed and the couple were drooping with exhaustion.

During the old woman’s wake the daughter excused herself from the guests and went down to the stone dunny. She was glad of a few minutes’ rest and solitude but soon her relief turned to terror. The carefully bolted door was suddenly flung open then slammed, jamming securely. The daughter’s screams attracted the guests, who came running to her aid. When they tried the door it swung open effortlessly.

Next time the daughter used the dunny the contents of the pan boiled up and splashed over her shoes, and when her husband was taking a pee the raised wooden seat was slammed down with dire consequences. That was too much for the couple; drastic remedies were required. They decided to demolish the old dunny and build a new one (with one of those newfangled flushing systems) attached to the house.

A team of workmen arrived a few days later to begin work. The husband thought the solid wooden door on the old dunny worth saving, so while the workman started removing the roof he went inside to unscrew it. The door slammed, trapping him. ‘Let me out you bloody old bitch!’ he screamed (or words to that effect). The workmen told him not to worry; they would pull him out through the roof. Then it happened. As the workmen watched, mouths agape, the large metal can rose from its spider-infested bed, hovered momentarily in mid-air then flipped upside down, pouring its stinking contents over the mortified husband’s head.

‘I copped nothing but shit from the old girl when she was alive, but I copped even more after she died,’ the husband remembers. Rhubarb and flowers now grow where the haunted dunny once stood — and very well they grow too.

5.

Amityville, Australia

A ghost is the outward and visible sign of an inward fear

Ambrose Bierce (American short-story writer, 1842–1914)

In 1980 American husband and wife psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were invited to Melbourne to appear on a popular late-night television variety show. The Warrens had become world famous for their involvement with the Amityville Horror house (long before the book and film) and in the case that inspired the film The Exorcist.

On the night they appeared the program’s host invited viewers to phone in if they had a supernatural problem the Warrens might be able to solve. A young couple called long distance from Sydney with a harrowing story. They told how they and their children moved into their Gladesville house three years before and had been tormented by strange and terrifying events ever since. They described how they all felt deeply oppressed by some strong, invisible force whenever they were inside the house. For the wife and children this produced mind-numbing lethargy and for the husband homicidal tendencies. ‘I love my wife,’ the distressed man explained, ‘but I find myself reaching for a knife and barely able to control the urge to stab her … it’s as if some evil takes control of me and the only way I can escape is to leave the house.’

They told of loud, eerie laughter echoing through the house and robbing them of sleep night after night and strange symbols that looked as if they had been drawn in thick dust appearing on the interior walls. They also described how cadaverous faces suddenly appeared, reflected in windows and mirrors. The man described the faces of several ugly, evil-looking old men, two haggard crones and an attractive younger woman, all leering and scowling at them from within the glass. One particularly terrifying face that appeared on a mirror had an expression of such hatred and malevolence that it had turned their stomachs, they said. After three years of psychic persecution the family were at their wits’ end and begged for assistance. The Warrens agreed to fly to Sydney the next day, visit the house and do what they could to help.

When they arrived (with a television crew in tow) they found a well-kept, split-level brick and tile house about forty years old and showing no outward signs of the tumult within. As soon as Lorraine Warren entered the house she said she could feel a great pressure bearing down on her, so strong that she could barely raise her arms. ‘There is something very evil here,’ she announced. When she lay on a bed in the room where she felt the force was centred, the television crew watched in amazement as her features changed and she seemed to visibly age before their eyes. Her back arched, her hands clenched and unclenched convulsively, her eyes blazed and they knew that she had entered into some kind of mental combat with whatever it was that held sway over the house.

In the meantime they were having problems of their own. A fully charged battery pack went dead after just a few minutes and their cameras failed, then worked, then failed again. When they tried to phone for back-up equipment they found the line was dead. Twenty minutes later it was working perfectly.

After five hours in the house the Warrens gathered the family and television crew together to deliver their verdict. The house, they were reported as saying, was cursed. An old woman had placed a hex on it and its occupants and it was now in an advanced state of demonic possession. If the family remained there any longer a psychic explosion would occur and their lives were at risk. ‘Leave now,’ was their advice.

The family fled, leaving most of their possessions behind. The press picked up the story and the headline ‘FAMILY FLEE GHOST HOUSE’ was splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country. The orgy of publicity lasted (as such stories do) for about two days and has been followed by thirty years of silence. The Warrens went back to America and the family moved to another suburb. Someone else now lives in that house in Gladesville which, had the Warrens not intervened, might have become as famous as the one in Amityville.

 

Strange events that had a few years earlier overtaken a West Australian family, first in a small flat in Shoalwater then at Medina, also attracted national press and television coverage, keeping readers spellbound for several weeks.

The parents, Peter and Faye, and their three small children (the youngest a baby), were a very ordinary family in most ways: battlers trying hard to make ends meet. Peter had been out of work for some time then found a job in January 1973. Faye missed having him around all day and began to feel lonely and trapped in the little flat. Nerves were on edge and tempers probably flared, but the events that followed soon reunited the family, in fear for their sanity and their lives.

Some unseen force began throwing objects around inside the flat. The youngest member of the family seemed to be the main target. A large saucepan filled with boiling water and potatoes was hurled at the baby’s cot moments after Faye had lifted her out. A loud bang in the bedroom brought both parents running just in time to see a heavy hairbrush rise from the dressing table and strike the baby’s pillow just millimetres from her head. A mosquito net covering the cot was ripped down and tossed to the floor. When Peter was stepping out of the shower one day he watched, horrified, as a heavy pan came hurtling down the hallway, made a right-angle turn and crashed into the frame of the bathroom door, leaving a deep gouge.

When a reporter from the Sunday Independent visited the flat a heavy china mug crashed to the ground beside his feet and skidded across the floor. A kindly Methodist minister who called to offer comfort found himself the target of a flying drinking glass that shattered in mid-air just centimetres from his nose. Newspapers across the country picked up the story and the flat was besieged by well-meaning people offering help, the morbidly curious and many cranks including a couple who turned up in a black limousine saying they collected ghosts and were going to take the family’s away in the boot of the limo!

After forty separate incidents in ten days both parents were at their wits’ end. Two Catholic priests tried to exorcise the ‘demon’ without success. Faye collapsed and had to be hospitalised. The state Minister for Housing agreed to provide alternative accommodation for the family and they moved to another flat at Medina several kilometres away, but the mayhem started up there. Whatever it was that caused it had travelled with the family to their new home.

TVW7, who had covered the events at Shoalwater, sent a senior reporter, John Hudson, and a cameraman, Brian Dunne, to Medina to do a follow-up story. When they arrived they found the flat full of neighbours all testifying to having seen the latest freak events (cutlery, crockery and clothing flying about) but if the pair were at all sceptical about these accounts, what happened when they ushered the strangers out and set up their equipment removed any doubt from their minds.

They decided Faye was not in a fit state to stand up to a long interview so Hudson agreed to tell the story in front of the camera and lead the audience on a tour of the flat. At the moment the camera started to roll a tremendous crash was heard. Hudson and Dunne rushed to where the sound had come from and found a tangle of mops, brooms, buckets, tins of polish and bottles of cleaner strewn in a sticky mess on the laundry floor. There was no one in the laundry (which was freezing cold, although the rest of the flat was warm) and if anyone had left they would have had to pass the two men and would have been caught on camera.

Faye remained seated in the lounge during this commotion but was visibly upset by it. Before resuming filming the two men made a careful search of every room in the flat, ending in the kitchen which was separated from the lounge by a bench divider. The kitchen was scrupulously clean: everything in its place, cupboards and drawers firmly closed.

No sooner had they returned to the lounge than the whole kitchen seemed to explode. As Faye and the men watched in disbelief, the curtains billowed and all the cupboard doors flew open with a mighty whoosh and a deafening clatter. Drawers crashed to the floor spilling their contents, crockery and cooking utensils rattled, banged and broke and a steel colander fell from the wall hitting the floor with a crash like a cymbal. Next a container flew out of a cupboard and rose high in the air. It turned upside down and salt began to pour from it in a fine stream. The container moved slowly around the kitchen in loops, the trail of salt inscribing figure eights on the sink and floor until it was empty. Then it floated gently down and came to rest upright in an open drawer.

Hudson later described the destruction he had witnessed as the strangest and most frightening experience of his long career as a journalist.

He was reported as saying: ‘Whatever it was that was causing all the banging, scattering and smashing must have had tremendous power. Things were happening all at once. It was like a storm roaring through the room — completely unstoppable. There was nothing we could do but watch in awe.’

Much has been written about this family’s experiences and, as with the house at Gladesville, comparisons made with the events at Amityville in the United States. The mass of detailed corroborative evidence has been tested against theories about poltergeists (the term spiritualists use to describe mischievous disembodied spirits) and most investigators have concluded that some supernatural force, either external (a ghost) or internal (generated by one of the family) was involved. Some have suggested the mother, Faye, may, unknowingly, have been the source; that her mind, burdened by anxiety, could have developed the power to move objects or created a force that took on an existence of its own, which is, some theorists say, how all poltergeists come into being.

The family disappeared a few months later. I don’t know whether the events stopped or the family decided to suffer them in silence. I hope it was the former. Thirty years have passed and Peter and Faye are probably grandparents now. Like the family in Gladesville, they may not wish to be remembered as the victims of one of Australia’s most public ghost stories, but the supernatural is arbitrary in whom it chooses to involve and no blame should be laid on the victims. Wherever both families are I hope they have found peace and happiness.

6.

Australia’s Most Famous Ghost

What beck’ning ghost, along the moonlight shade

Invites my step, and points to yonder glade?

Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,
Alexander Pope (English poet, 1688–1744)

It is a mystery why some ghost stories catch the public’s imagination and survive while others, often more shocking and more credible, are forgotten. A perfect example is the story of Frederick Fisher, Australia’s best-known ghost story, which has been the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles in many languages, books, poems, a film, a stage play, an opera and an annual folk festival held to this day in the town where his ghost appeared — to just one man on one occasion — 185 years ago.

Frederick Fisher was a ticket-of-leave man: that is, a well-behaved convict who had been released into the community to fend for himself. Fisher acquired thirty acres (twelve hectares) of land on the western side of Queen Street in Campbelltown and built himself a shack where the Campbelltown Post office now stands. Farmer Fisher prospered but preferred the company of his own kind — other ticket-of-leave men and itinerants who roamed the countryside. It was his custom to invite a few of these ‘mates’ over to celebrate his good fortune and most nights his table provided a bed for as many rum-soaked carousers as could fit on it or under it.

Fisher’s best mate was his neighbour, another ticket-of-leave man named George Worrell, with whom it was said Fisher shared all his secrets. When Fisher got into debt and his arrest seemed imminent he signed over his property to George Worrell either to avoid having it seized or to give a false impression of his assets. Fisher did go to gaol and Worrell boasted how his own property increased by thirty acres: ‘It’s all mine now … all that was Fred’s … he give it me afore he went t’ prison,’ he told everyone in Campbelltown but, when Fisher was released six months later and returned to reclaim his property, Worrell was, as we might say today, thoroughly pissed off; and the scene was set for a heinous crime.

On the night of 9 June 1826, Frederick Fisher disappeared. George Worrell resumed control of Fisher’s farm and told anyone who asked that Fisher had decided on the spur of the moment to go home to search for his former family and had sailed from Sydney on the Lady Saint Vincent bound for London. Fisher had often spoken of his wish to return to England around the Campbelltown taverns so everyone accepted Worrell’s story — for a time at least.

Suspicions began to arise, however, when Worrell tried to sell one of Fisher’s horses and the prospective buyer demanded proof of ownership. Worrell produced an obviously forged receipt that he said he had been given when he bought the horse from Fisher. Worrell (not a very bright spark) also began to appear around town in Fisher’s clothes and inquiries in Sydney revealed that the Lady Saint Vincent had not been in port on the day Worrell said his mate departed.

Foul play was suspected and the authorities began to take an interest in the case. The Australian of 23 September carried the following notice from the Colonial Secretary’s Office:

SUPPOSED MURDER

WHEREAS FREDERICK FISHER BY THE ship Atlas, holding a Ticket of Leave, and lately residing at Campbell Town, has disappeared within these last three months — it is hereby notified that a reward of twenty pounds will be given for the discovery of the body of the said Frederick Fisher, or if he shall have quitted the Colony, a reward of five pounds will be given to any person or persons who shall produce proof of the same.

Circumstantial evidence weighed heavily against George Worrell. The police questioned him; he panicked and changed his story. He had, he now said, seen Fisher murdered but had taken no part in the crime. He named three of Fisher’s other cronies as the murderers and they were arrested but soon released for lack of evidence. The absence of a body was hindering the police and Worrell might still have got away with the crime of murder had a local farmer named James Farley (or Hurley in some accounts) not gone for a stroll down Queen Street late one night.

About 400 metres from Fisher’s shack Farley spotted a figure sitting on the top rail of a fence. As he drew closer he realised, to his horror, that it was Frederick Fisher — not the living, breathing man that he had seen and spoken to many times, but Fisher’s ghost. The pale, ‘fuzzy’ form was bathed in an eerie white light and there was blood dripping from an open wound to its head. The ghost looked straight at James Farley, its dead eyes holding the living man’s in a hypnotic stare. Next it let out a long and terrifying moan which Farley described as like the howl of a wounded beast. Then it raised its right arm, extended a quivering finger and pointed in the direction of the creek that flowed behind Fisher’s farm.

Farley, by his own account, fainted at that point and when he came to the ghost was gone. Greatly distressed, Farley staggered home and collapsed again at his own front door. He was put to bed and there he lay in a state of shock for ten days. When his senses finally returned Farley sent for William Howe, the local police magistrate, and told him the story.

Knowing Farley to be a reliable man, Howe immediately ordered a search of the creek. Bloodstains were found on the fence where Farley said the ghost had appeared and a ‘black tracker’ led the police to a spot beside the creek where he said (after scraping the surface of the water with a gum leaf and tasting the scum for ‘white man’s fat’) the body was buried. The police dug and, less than one metre down, came upon the body. It was identified by its height and build and by its clothing as the remains of Frederick Fisher. There was not enough of the face left to identify. The lower part was battered to a pulp, while the forehead and the back of the skull had been holed with some heavy, sharp implement like an axe or a pick. What the murderer had not finished decay had. The local doctor, Thomas Robinson, described how, when he lifted one of the corpse’s hands, the flesh came away and stuck to his skin.

George Worrell was arrested for Fisher’s murder and sent for trial by jury at the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 2 February 1827. The trial lasted just one day. Worrell was found guilty on a Friday and executed at the Dawes Point Battery the following Monday. On the morning of his execution Worrell confessed to a clergyman that he alone had killed, mutilated and buried Frederick Fisher.

There was no mention of a ghost at Worrell’s trial or in the newspaper reports of the proceedings but, by then, the story of Fisher’s ghost had entered the folklore of Campbelltown and would soon spread far and wide, across the colony and the world.

It was recorded in Martin’s History of the British Colonies, published in London in 1835, and in Tegg’s Weekly, a Sydney journal published in 1836. Tegg’s version was attributed to a Mr Kerr, a tutor employed by Police Magistrate Howe. Charles Dickens included it in the journal he edited, Household Words, in 1853 and versions appeared in French and Italian.

From the beginning, distortions occurred — almost every aspect of the story was changed and romanticised so that truth became indistinguishable from fiction.

So, was there ever a ghost? Well, James Farley was a respected man, sober in his habits and God-fearing, according to his contemporaries. Sceptics suggest the ghost story was an invention by him to ensure Worrell got his just deserts but that would mean that Farley knew the whereabouts of the body, which implicates him.

A Campbelltown barber claimed responsibility for the ghost some years after these events, saying he had been tipped off about the location of the body and had felt an obligation to point the authorities in the right direction. The barber claimed he had donned a white cloak to create the appearance of a ghost and a black cloak to make it disappear, but others dismissed his claims as an insult to Farley’s intelligence.

James Farley lived to a ripe old age and a little known sequel to the story tells of a friend named Chisholm asking Farley on his deathbed whether he really saw Fisher’s ghost. Farley is reported to have raised himself up on one elbow, looked his friend straight in the eye and said: ‘I’m a dying man, Mr Chisholm. I’ll speak only the truth. I saw that ghost as plainly as I see you now.’

7.

The Mystery of the Min Min

But now the lonely diggers say,

That sometimes at the close of day,

They see a misty wraith flash by,

With the faint echo of a cry.

It may be true; perhaps they do.

I doubt it much; but what say you?

The Demon Snow-shoes, Barcroft Boake
(Australian bush poet, 1866–1892)

There have been reports of ‘ghost’ lights appearing all over rural Australia since the beginning of white settlement (and probably before), but the ‘Min Min’ is the grand-daddy of all such lights — the one everybody’s heard of and every bushman claims to have seen. ‘Min Min’ is an Aboriginal word (for what no one is absolutely sure) but the light was not named by Aborigines. According to legend, it was named after the Min Min Hotel on the old coach road between Winton and Boulia in central western Queensland, where it first appeared. There is, however, some doubt as to whether the light was named after the hotel or the hotel after the light.

‘Hotel’ is far too grand a title for the timber and corrugated iron shanty built about a century and a quarter ago to serve as a way-station for Cobb & Co. coaches. Most such places had bad reputations but the Min Min had the worst of any in the region. It reputedly served rot-gut liquor at exorbitant prices, doubled as a brothel and was the haunt of thieves, cattle rustlers and other assorted villains. Legend insists that many travellers and naïve jackaroos disappeared there and that the small cemetery behind the hotel was conveniently provided to bury the evidence. So infamous did the Min Min become that someone put a match to it one dark night in 1917 and it burned to the ground … or so the legend goes.

Reliable records, if they existed, would probably disprove most of the above and reveal a much more mundane history for this miserable little hostelry. Records do show the name of the last proprietor — a Mrs Hasted — but there is no real evidence that she presided over a branch office of Sodom or Gomorrah. Records also show that there were devastating bushfires in the district in 1917 (Mrs Hasted’s brother was badly burned fighting one), so it seems more likely that nature disposed of the Min Min Hotel than a human avenger.

The generally accepted story of the first sighting of the Min Min Light belongs to later the same year, when a hysterical stockman burst into Boulia police station at around midnight one night gabbling about being chased by a ghost. After the local constable calmed him down, the stockman told how he had been riding past the ruins of the Min Min Hotel at about 10 pm when a ball of light suddenly rose from the middle of the cemetery, hovered as if getting its bearings, then darted towards him. The stockman panicked, dug his boots in and galloped towards Boulia. Several times he looked over his shoulder and the light was still there. It followed him to the outskirts of the town then disappeared. (Sceptics who know the region may well wonder how the horse and rider managed to cover 100 kilometres in two hours — but let’s not spoil a good story.)

In 1961, a reported sighting from 1912, predating the above (and the destruction of the hotel) by five years came to light. Henry Lamond, one-time manager of Warenda station on whose land the hotel stood, claimed that he had seen the light in the winter of that year. Its appearance had at first alarmed him, but when he realised his horse was quite unperturbed by it Lamond decided his own fear was unwarranted.

There have been so many reported sightings since then that it would take most of this book to recount them all. Station owners and managers, policemen, ministers of religion, school teachers, shopkeepers and no-nonsense bushman have seen the Min Min Light — most of them intelligent and honest people whose credibility is unquestionable. All describe it as a round or oval ball of light glowing so it illuminates its surroundings, travelling between one and two metres above the ground either in a straight or undulating line. Sometimes it appears to stop and hover; sometimes it bobs about and usually dives towards the earth as it disappears.

There are almost as many theories about its origin as there are sightings. The supernatural school claim that such lights are spirits of the dead: ghosts in inhuman form. Sceptics with some knowledge of the bush suggest that the lights may emanate from fluorescent fungi (such are quite common) or from birds who have brushed their wings against the fungi. Fireflies are also cited as are swarms of moths, their wings reflecting moonlight. None of these is likely. Personally, I’ve never seen a mobile mushroom and the only common bush birds that hover (eagles and hawks) are not nocturnal. A swarm of moths would not be visible at any great distance. And fireflies? Well, there’s no doubting their ability to emit light but as one bushman put it: ‘You’d need about ten million of the little buggers, standing shoulder to shoulder, to produce a light that bright.’

Traditional science groups the Min Min and other similar Australian lights along with European and North American Will-o’-the-wisps and Jack-o’-lanterns into the category ignis fatuus which simply means ‘foolish fire’ and attributes them to marsh gas (methane) or phosphoretted hydrogen, the gas that escapes from decaying animal matter. As the Min Min Light was said to originate in a cemetery the presence of the latter was possible once, but its domain is far too arid to produce marsh gas. Subterranean gas escaping through fissures or drill holes is more likely and records show the Min Min Hotel was built beside a water bore, but all theories involving gas rely on the premise that the gas somehow self-ignites, which is impossible.

That very rare natural phenomenon, ‘ball’ lightning, which travels across the landscape at high speed, has also been suggested as an explanation but, like all lightning, it dissipates quickly and never remains visible for as long as these lights are claimed to.



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