Authors: Richard Davis
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror
A Trio of Headless Horrors
Ships of Doom
Till Death Us Do Part
Australia's Most Famous Ghost
The Mystery of the Min Min
The Ghosts in the Glen
The Spectral Bridegroom
The Wisdom of Solomon
The Guyra Ghost: A Touchy Subject
The Mourning Bull
Suffer the Little Children
Romeo and Juliet in the Jungle
Australia's Most Famous Haunted House
The Ghost of Mount Victoria Pass
The Ghost in the Machine
Ball, Chain and Whip
The Rabbi, the Bishop and the Pearl
Crimes of Passion
Banished Spirits: the Ghosts of Port Arthur
Spirits You Can't Drink
Spectral Spare Parts
The Bugler's Ghost
âDo You Have That in Grey?'
The Ghosts of Yarralumla
âAtten-shun! Pre-sent Ghosts!'
The Headmistress's Ghost
The Luna Park Ghost: Not a Joking Matter
The Ghosts of Garth and Graham's Castle
Keepers of the Flame
The Mysteries of Monte Cristo
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us!
Old English West Country Prayer, Anon
For most people the word âghost' conjures up images of transparent, white figures floating around ancient castles in Europe but, as the stories in this book prove, while Australia may be short on ancient castles, it has never been short on ghosts. Australia has its own rich heritage of ghost stories linked to our history and reflecting our unique national character.
Before sampling some of the best of these, let's take a moment to consider the question I have been asked most frequently since I began taking an interest in ghost stories, the answer to which might stir your curiosity and enhance your enjoyment of this book: âWhat is a ghost?' Well, the only truthful answer to that is âNo one really knows', but there are plenty of theories.
Traditional believers hold that ghosts are the spirits of dead people, bound to the place they haunt by past anguish, unable to move on to the after-life until the place they haunt ceases to exist or they are exorcised by a religious ceremony. This view is enshrined in most world religions, including Christianity, and in the cultural heritage of most ethnic groupings.
Science has been very slow in coming forwards with more rational explanations to challenge this traditional view. The
English academic, Thomas Lethbridge, came up with one attractive âscientific' alternative. He suggested that we all have an electromagnetic field surrounding us, its strength affected by emotional arousal, and that this force can linger in a suitable medium (water, earth, stone) long after the original source has departed â rather like a recording or a photograph. Then, when the witness' emotions are aroused by circumstances or surroundings and their electromagnetic fields are âcharged up', it can interact with the residual force â âshort it out' if you like. The result, Lethbridge claimed, is an image, a sound or an emotion âplayed back' from a different time.
The diversity of theories and the absence of concrete proof make most people understandably sceptical about ghosts (and ghost stories) and that scepticism is fed by revelations of hoaxes, pranks, fraudulent mediums and sensational journalism. A good ghost story can also be cheap insurance against trespassers and burglars, the perfect deterrent for unwanted guests and a cover for clandestine activities. No doubt many ghost stories are the products of convenience rather than supernatural forces.
Some stories may also have their origins in natural phenomena being mistaken for the supernatural. Wind, for example, is capable of producing a remarkable range of sounds in nature and around human constructions; and light (especially when reflected off odd surfaces or seen through glass) can play cunning tricks with our eyes.
Then of course there are the multifarious capabilities of the human mind. Illness, exhaustion, shock, fear and exultation can all produce hallucinations, not to mention medication, illicit drugs and alcohol.
Well, here we come to the sceptics' favourite explanation for ghosts. Especially in earlier times, when drink was the universal panacea for hardship,
loneliness, boredom and pain, it must be admitted that many a ghostly spirit was conjured up from the fumes of real spirits, many an innocent object took on a sinister guise when judgment was clouded by drink and many a sufferer of delirium tremens imagined he saw a ghost instead of a pink elephant.
To balance this we have the testimony of thousands of sincere people â ordinary, intelligent, lucid and
Australians â who genuinely believe they have had encounters with ghosts and many who have seen exactly the same thing in the same places simultaneously or repeatedly at different times: a vast body of evidence that cannot be denied and should not be discounted.
Maybe some day science will crack the mystery of ghosts, but in the meantime the absence of answers should certainly not prevent us from enjoying spine-tingling, spooky tales. So, dear reader, put aside your doubts, make sure the doors and windows are locked, turn the lights down low, settle in your favourite chair, keep a blanket handy (for when your blood runs cold) and join me on a journey behind the veil that separates the mortal from the eternal â right here in our own backyard.
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, 1772â1834)
The shapely, black-gowned figure always appeared (observers agreed) with arms raised and fingers outstretched â pale emaciated arms and long bony fingers â 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 âstrangled sobs' by some and âgasps 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 âsexy' 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 âhanged 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 â every bit as cruel, it was said, as her Borgia namesake â and the facts of her life soon became distorted. âFarmer'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 â 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 âsane' one day and âreduced 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: âShe 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 âheadless horror' and â take heart, squeamish readers â a blessed absence of gore.
Old-timers along the Murrumbidgee still talk about the âThe Headless Horseman of the Black Swamp' (or âThe 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 â 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 âBlack's Swamp', because it was a popular camping site for Aborigines, or âBlack 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 â âthe trotting cob' â 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.
âWe 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 â¦ well, there was just
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 âwould 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 â 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 âHeadless 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 âheadless 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 âNed' 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 âold boss'.
âSo, how will we know him, then?' the youngsters invariably ask.
'im all right,' the old hands reply. â'e ain't got no 'ead!'