Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged murder

  • Notoriety

    Notoriety

    There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.

    My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.

    Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.

    I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.

    Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.

    What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)

    They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.

    Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.

    “A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.

    The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.

    Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.

    These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.

    When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.

    If I didn’t
    know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.

    But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.

    But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.

  • The Highwayman

    The Highwayman

    They say this cave on Mount Wellington was once the hideout of John ‘Rocky’ Whelan, the bushranger highwayman.

    Sent to the colonies from England as a convict, Whelan – like so many others – absconded. Like all bushrangers in Tasmania, he targeted the many isolated homesteads for plunder; but he also roved the forests ambushing lone travellers, robbing and often killing them.

    He’d never been a likeable man. Nicknamed for his gnarled, pock-marked face, Rocky Whelan was transported in 1829; he spent time in Sydney, Norfolk Island and Hobart, each time making efforts to escape. Myths surfaced about his fondness for dimly-lit cells, or his supposed imperviousness to the lash or other forms of corporal punishment. His final disappearance came as he was assigned to a public works gangs in Hobart. It took only two days for him to abscond into the bush around Mount Wellington.

    Without doubt, Whelan was bold. During his winter on the mountain, he would visit a local magistrate, repose in front of a roaring fire, and read the newspaper. He stopped visiting the day he read his own profile as a wanted man.

    But most of his time was spent in this curvaceous edifice of honey-coloured, quartz-rich Triassic sandstone, alone, with but a small fire to keep himself warm against the damp southern weather.

    In the end, Whelan was caught, by chance, outside a boot-maker’s workshop. He was repairing the boots of a missing man. He admitted to five murders. He was hanged at the Imperial Gaol in 1855 with 112 offences against his name.

    There was an old man near Brown’s River, the youth Dunn on the Huon track, an elderly gentleman at Bagdad, a young fellow on the Westbury Road, and a hawker near Clevelend. A chequered career of murder, fatalities scattered across the island. At one stage he appears to have travelled around 100 miles in three days.

    “Dead men tell no tales” was the highwayman’s mantra. And yet, this cleft of sandstone in which the cold-hearted bushranger John Whelan took refuge during his days of terror in Tasmania bears his story even still. Nowadays, a small detour off a popular recreational walking route on the mountain points out his old hideaway. I was there last week with a friend, sheltering from the wind, eating from a small container of grapes.

  • Al Qu'ran 17:37

    Al Qu'ran 17:37

    The first Muslims to come to Tasmania were an Indian seaman named Saib Sultan and his wife, whose name is not known to history. Sultan was shipwrecked in 1795 and ended up on Norfolk Island; in 1807, he transferred to Van Diemen’s Land and was awarded 27 acres of land at New Norfolk. He also ended up with the name Jacob.

    Zimran Youram (but one of the many spellings his name went through) was another Indian Muslim who came to Van Diemen’s Land, although through different circumstances. Born in Hyderabad, Zimran went to England for reasons unknown, got in trouble with the law, and was sentenced to transportation in the Third Fleet, arriving on the Atlantic. Like many convicts, though, after acquiring his ticket-of-leave in 1813, Zimran made a radically different life for himself. He acquired 40 acres of land in Norfolk Plains – around what is now Longford – and became a wealthy landowner, most likely growing wheat.

    But Zimran’s life ended violently and tragically. A conspiracy between convict labourers Patrick McDonough and John Jordan to clean Zimran out ended in what a newspaper journalist described as a “systematically planned and cold blooded murder”. Zimran Youram was believed to be in his 89th year of life when he was killed.

    It seems that Zimran ordered some new boots from the 22-year-old Jordan, a shoemaker by trade. Knowing that the old man had a fortune in his house, the thieves tried to drug him, slipping laudanum into his cider. The conspiracy failed. Several further attempts also didn’t come off. Six weeks later, however, on July 6 1848, McDonough belted Zimran Youram with a wrench. They found nearly £50 in total, in various hiding places around the house.

    Upwards of 100 people went to the funeral, and Zimran left everything to a child in Norfolk Plains, 12-year-old William Saltmarsh. It is supposed he did not have a family in Van Diemen’s Land.

    Muslims from Oman, Iraq, Mauritius and South Africa also came to Australia as convicts. Their names almost always disappear from the records. Perhaps they changed them as they assimilated into Australian society, or maybe they managed to return their homelands.

    These days, 900 Muslims are estimated to live in Tasmania – only 0.3% of Australia’s Muslim population.

     
    Trapper William Mullins was also brutally murdered in Mathinna in 1913.

  • The Mullins Murder

    The Mullins Murder

    On Thursday evening, June 19, 1913, a well-to-do farmer William Mullins went for a social drink at his friend Frank Whittle’s house. The next day, at about 11a.m., he left his home to check his possum traps. He was supposed to be gone for two hours, but he never came back.

    Two weeks later, his remains turned up in a gully two miles from where he lived. All that were left were some charred bones.

    Early criminological investigations suggested that an enormous pyre had been lit for Mullins’ body, prepared and attended to by at least two perpetrators, for at least six hours. The assailants had been so well-organised they removed the metal buttons from Mullins’ clothing. The story goes that they had even put the shoes on their horse backwards, so as to confuse the investigators.

    Mullins was about 50 years old and lived on a property called ‘Sunnyside’, by the Tyne River near Mathinna. His neighbour, Daniel Jones, was the prime suspect in the case. Mullins had been accused of burning down the Jones family’s wheatstack; there were stories of poisoned dogs and pigs. Someone in the town had warned Mullins to arm himself, but he figured his fists would be enough to defend himself.

    “Have you been out of your wife’s sight since June 20,” Jones was asked in court. “Not for long,” he replied. Jones seemed to be backed into a corner. He apparently told Mr. McKenzie that he had done away with Mullins, but the facts were hazy; his brother was rumoured to have said he would one day ‘pot [Mullins] like a bird’. The judge declared that everyone had satisfactory evidence apart from Dan Jones and his wife.

    But the locals seemed to be indifferent about the murder of Bill Mullins; or worse, they seemed to be trying to shield the identity of the murderers. Jones’ bail, set at £100, was paid.

    In the end, the Hobart Criminal Court found there was insufficient evidence to charge Daniel Jones over the murder of his neighbour.

    One of the legacies of the murder: in the Fingal Valley Football Association, the Mathinna club came to be known by the unsavoury name of the ‘Kill-and-Burns’.

     

    The author also profiled Tasmanian country football locations for ''
    Writing Footy'. The first instalment, about the old Mathinna ground, can be found here.