Burra Cemetery Stories: An Historical Headache
BY VINCENT ROSS | MON, APR 4, 2011 AT 12:02 AM
Vincent Ross explores the town cemetery of Burra in South Australia and discovers tales of fascinating deaths and tragic stupidity.
If you smoke, it’s probably not wise to ask for a light in Burra – in this South Australian town, smoking is traditionally a health hazard.
The habit took 24-year-old English seaman John Smith in his prime, and completely by surprise, but not quite in the way you might expect.
He had his head split in two with an axe.
Poor John lies under a simple headstone, paid for with a collection taken up by his fellow seamen after his grizzly death.
His is just one of many intriguing stories unearthed on a twilight tour of Burra Cemetery, the final resting place of more than a few Cornish miners and sundry colonials who made their way to Burra, 156km north of Adelaide, Australia’s biggest mining boomtown in the 1850s.
John got more than he bargained for on Christmas Eve, 1849, in the township of Kooringa, in the Burra Burra.
After too much beer drinking with mates in Market Square, John Smith decided to harass a German immigrant named Karrall, and his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend, Louisa Phillips, who lived in a nearby newly-built thatched cottage.
Smith hammered on the door seeking a light for his clay pipe. A short while later he asked for a second light, and when words were exchanged, he threatened to set the thatched roof on fire with a candle.
The two quarrelled and Karrall hit Smith on the head with a stool and slammed the door.
Smith, not knowing when to quit (read: stupid), burst open the door and began throwing stones.
Karrall hit him on the back of the head with an axe which, according to a local newspaper report “caused him to bleed”.
Smith made the fatal mistake (read: grossly stupid) of bursting open the door a second time and Karrall ended the argument with an axe blow to Smith’s head.
He was taken to the Burra Burra Hotel (to be examined by a doctor, not for another drink) and “upon his arrival, was found to be quite dead”.
Karrall was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) at Port Arthur, and Louisa was made a ward of the state.
But there is a further twist to the tale.
Karrall, along with eight other convicts, was aboard the barque Lady Denison which sailed from Adelaide, bound for Port Arthur in 1850, when the ship disappeared, initially believed to have been wrecked.
Later research suggests the ship may have been overrun in a mutiny, with the convicts killing three policemen, the crew, and marooning 16 passengers before sailing the ship to California.
Grim shades of those colonial Christmases
by Jean Schmaal
Promotions officer, Clare branch of the National Trust
TO MOST of us the Christmas season means a happy time of year; a time of gifts received and given, a pulling together of family ties.
South Australia's first Christmas was celebrated nearly a century-and-a-half ago at Holdfast Bay (today's Glenelg).
It must have been a comfortless event, one far distant from home and a far cry from the traditional "white" Christmas . which had been so familiar to the new arrivals.
One of those first settlers has left a description of how the emigrants spent that first Christmas. In her diary she wrote:
"December 25, 1836 — This being Christmas Day and Sunday, divine service was held for the first time in the hut of the principal surveyor, a short distance from our huts. The signal for attendance was the firing of a gun.
The congregation numbered 250 persons, including the two gentlemen who conducted the service, the thermometer standing at over 100 degrees, and most of the assembly being in the open air.
We kept up the old customs of Christmas as far as having a plum pudding for dinner, likewise a ham and parrot pie." A far cry, indeed!"
For us, four, five and even six generations later, there's little of our ancestors' European Christmas.
Not for us the roaring Yuletide log and the carol singers outside in the snow.
Not for us to gather in the warmth of the open fireplace to. listen to the ghost stories which were part and parcel of long-established villages and homes.
We are, however, not bereft of stories which have many of the ingredients necessary for a good ghost yarn.
1. "Murder" Headstone at Burra
Take Christmas Eve 1849 for a start.
This story begins when a young sailor, John Smith, of London, jumped ship when the Macedon dropped anchor and headed for the copper mines at Kooringa (Burra).
Fate brought John to the little white-washed, thatched cottage of a German miner named Gottlieb Kiernall (or Karrall).
With 11 pubs in the area at that time, it is not hard to visualise young John, befuddled with drink, going to Gottlieb's home and asking for a light for his pipe.
This was given him and he left the cottage only to return a short time afterward and ask for another light, saying he would pay for this one if it were forthcoming.
For the second time a light was preferred, but Smith, apparently trying to impress his companions, took the candle from Gottlieb's young wife and held it toward the thatched roof of the little cottage, saying he would burn it down.
One nasty incident leading to another, it was not long before Gottlieb, armed with an axe, struck John on the back of the head with the blunt edge. This action only added fuel to the fire, and John came to the cottage yet a third time, and this time burst open the door.
This was too much altogether for Gottlieb. He came out once more armed with his axe, but this time he struck John on the top of the head with the sharp edge. Needless to say, the blow proved fatal.
Eventually Gottlieb was brought to court and charged with wilful murder, but the jury ruled that he had been unduly provoked and his actions were in defence of his home and his wife.
As a result, Gottlieb did not hang. Instead he was transported "beyond the seas" for seven years for manslaughter.
All told there was little of the Christmas spirit about the whole sorry affair.
John's mates did not forget him. His grave, in the older part of the Burra cemetery, was, for long years, marked with a simple headstone which read:
by his brother seamen
to the memory
of John Smith,
of London, aged 21 years
who was murdered by a German
in the township of Kooringa
on Christmas Eve 1849.
One can still see this famous "murder" headstone at Burra
(c. 1833 – 4 February 1862)
lived in Ireland until she migrated to South Australia in 1855.
At the age of 22 Jane, together with her sister Margaret, 21, migrated to South Australia.
She later worked for William Carter, who was both Postmaster and Ferry Keeper at Wellington, on the lower Murray.
Jane clearly regarded Carter as a trusted confidant, and she left her savings in his keeping.
By early 1862, Margaret Macmanamin was working at Guichen Bay, in the south-east of the colony, and Jane had, for about two years, been working for Malachy Martin and his wife, Catherine, at the Traveller’s Rest at Salt Creek.
This was a wayside inn on the main route to the South East of the Colony, about 66 miles (106 km) from Wellington, and about 52 miles (84 km) from the little settlement at Maria Creek which later grew into the town of Kingston.
Jane's wage was eleven shillings per week, but food and accommodation were also provided. She therefore had little need for cash, and so rarely drew on the amount her employer owed her.
At the inquest into her death Leonard Lovegrove testified that in December 1861 she had told him that Martin owed her nearly two years' wages — about £55.
In early February 1862 Jane disappeared. Martin claimed that friends of Jane's had called at the inn on their way south, and that Jane decided to go with them as far as Maria Creek and then walk to where her sister was living.
Jane and her sister had written to one another regularly, and by April 1862 Margaret was worried.
She harboured suspicions against Martin. She wrote to William Carter, who made enquiries of his own, and then notified the police.
Lance Corporal William Rollison from the Wellington police station investigated the disappearance, and by late May went as far as placing an undercover police trooper at the Traveller’s Rest.
On 29 May an aborigine, "Micky", told William Allen of Woods Wells (11 miles — about 18 kilometres — north of Salt Creek) that another, Itawanie, had found Jane's body hidden and partially buried in a wombat hole about half a mile (about 800 meters) north of Martin's house.
Allen telegraphed the police at Strathalbyn, where the message was received by Police Trooper Paul Foelsche who reported this by telegraph to headquarters and then rode to Wellington to inform Rollison of the discovery.
Rollison subsequently began a long and very thorough investigation into the murder, and it is largely through his reports to Police Headquarters that so much detail is known about the case.
Jane's body was exhumed from the makeshift grave and taken to Woods Wells where an inquest was held on 2 June.
The inquest found that Malachy Martin should be tried for wilful murder. William Allen made a coffin and buried Jane's body on top of a hill about 200 metres from house.
However, the Crown Solicitor believed it was necessary that a medical expert should examine the a remains, so they were disinterred once more so this could be done. The examination was undertaken by Dr Gosse, who had travelled from Adelaide for the purpose. He found that the cause of death was strangulation.
Martin's trial date was set for 20 August 1862 and witnesses were subpoenaed.
One of the witnesses was a carpenter named William Wilsen. Apart from Jane and Martin, Wilsen had been the only person staying at the Traveller’s Rest at the time of Jane's disappearance, Martin's wife and children being away at the time.
Wilsen had testified that Martin had sent him on an errand to a station about 20 miles (about 32 km) from Salt Creek.
On his way to Adelaide to testify at the trial he stopped for the night at Wellington where, in a drunken state, he claimed to have seen Jane's dead body in the inn at Salt Creek.
He was arrested as an accessory to the crime, the trial was postponed, and Wilsen was taken to Adelaide to stand trial with Martin on 2 and 3 December 1862.
Wilsen claimed that he had asked Jane to marry him on the evening of 3 February 1862 and that she had accepted his offer, but he had told no one about this except Malachy Martin.
If true it would seem that this is what prompted Martin to murder Jane rather than pay her the two years' wages he owed her. However, Wilsen appears to be an unreliable witness, and Martin said that Jane had promised not to leave while Mrs. Martin was away.
Of course Martin cannot be regarded as a reliable witness either, but his claim does suggest the possibility that Jane was making plans to leave well before Wilsen's alleged proposal. A much more reliable witness, William Carter, said that not long before her death Jane had told him her savings in the hands of Martin amounted to £70, and that she was considering taking all her savings and returning to Ireland.
Trial and sentence
Neither Martin nor Wilsen testified at the trial. Martin was found guilty and sentenced to death and was hanged at the Adelaide Gaol on 24 December 1862.
His remains were buried within the gaol. Wilsen was found guilty as an accessory after the fact and sentenced to four years hard labour.
The newspaper reports indicate that Martin made only one statement from the gallows: he denied that Wilsen ever saw Jane's body at Salt Creek.
After Dr Gosse had examined Jane's remains they were reinterred where William Allen had buried them at Woods Wells.
In the 1920s there were reports of a jam tin marking the site of Jane's grave, and later of a stone cairn being erected there. However, but by the middle of the twentieth century the exact location had been forgotten.
It was located in 1966 by a government surveyor, and then Alan Johnston of Woods Wells and Arthur Reed confirmed the exact spot by digging down until they found bones.
They then placed a concrete headstone on the grave. A memorial service was held there in 1972. The grave is on private property, but the fence around it can be seen, looking east from the highway, as one passes through Woods Wells.
2. Payment Deferred
Twelve years later, one Malachi Martin, on December 24, 1862, received the order of the hempen necktie; in other words he was hanged.
Malachi's story may well have been one of "payment deferred".
Six years previously suspicion had pointed at him when William Robinson (proprietor of the little roadside inn at Salt Creek on the Coorong) was found with his throat cut.
Suspicion is one thing; proof quite another. Local gossip linked Malachi's name with that of Mrs Robinson. After Robinson's death Malachi took off for NSW.
He returned a couple of years later and married the widow, which did nothing to enhance his popularity in the neighborhood.
Martin, stern, dark and stout, black-whiskered and unprepossessing, was disliked by the white settlers because of his morose, bad-tempered manners; that natives were afraid of his bullying.
Scarcely a figure, one would think, to become part of a romantic triangle. However, such was the way of things.
For a few years after their marriage the Martins carried on the public-house-cum-store at Salt Creek, having as a servant girl one Jane Macmenimen, an Irish migrant who had been with the lady of the house for some time prior to her remarriage.
Jane seems to have shared in the general dislike in which Malachi was held.
There came a time when Mrs Martin went to Goolwa for a holiday, leaving Jane behind to attend to domestic affairs.
One day a friend of Jane's came looking for her, only to be met with the news that she had gone away to Mount Gambier on a bullock wagon with a fellow shipmate.
This was sometime in February 1862.
There is an old saying "Murder will out" and such was to be the case in this story.
An aboriginal tracker out following the tracks of a prisoner who had escaped from Wellington came upon a number of crows about a wombat's burrow.
He fetched another native and together they found a long stick which they poked into the depths of the hole. They brought up a piece of a woman's dress on the end of a stick and this they took with their story to the police at Wellington.
Later a posse of police officers returned with the trackers. It did not take them long to dig into the burrow. They found Jane.
Malachi's house was searched and there were found many of her possessions which she surely would have taken with her had she indeed gone off to Mount Gambier.
Later other items of apparel were found stuffed down other wombat burrows. Malachi was eventually brought to trial for Jane's murder, found guilty, and kept an appointment on the "hanging tree" the day before Christmas 1862.
Several motives were suggested for the crime. Malachi owed Jane 80 pounds in wages. Had he murdered her for what at that time was quite a considerable amount of money?
There was one story that a man named Harry Kirby, and another who was a travelling jeweller, stayed at the inn and were never seen again. Did Jane know of crimes committed at the isolated and outlandish little inn?
For years afterwards, stories kept coming in of bones being found in the sandhills. In some quarters it was held that Malachi's score was as high as 10; every sheep bone turned up, no doubt, added to the tally.
Even in this year of grace there are yarns of "things that go bump in the night" around Salt Creek.
One hundred and ten years after Jane's death her grave was discovered by a station owner in the district. He set up a fence and a headstone and a burial service was read over the grave.
3 Elizabeth Woolcock hanged
The third, and last, of our Christmas stories concerns a woman. She was Elizabeth Woolcock, who gained the doubtful honor of being the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia — for the murder of her husband, Thomas, near the Moonta copper mines.
Elizabeth was the child of mining people who came to the colony in 1842 and settled at the Burra when copper was discovered.
Like thousands of others they were bitten by the "goldfever bug," and it was then that they decamped to the Victorian goldfields.
When she was only four years old Elizabeth was abandoned by her mother; when she was only nine her father died, and she had to go to work as a kitchen maid.
Later Elizabeth's mother returned to Adelaide and invited Elizabeth to live with her and her second husband. It was then that Thomas Woolcock came upon the scene.
He was a widower with two young sons and he began to court the young woman. He did not make an impression on Elizabeth's family, but, being a headstrong young woman, and against her step-father's wishes, she married him.
She said later "I only married Woolcock to spite those who were opposed to the marriage."
It did not take her long to realise her mistake. Woolcock was a heavy drinker; he kept her sadly short of money (2/6 a day was all she received for housekeeping).
And then, to top it off, he accused her of immoral relations with the young man who boarded with them. All told, Elizabeth had sad cause to remember the old maxim "Marry in haste and repent at leisure." In desperation she unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
Later Thomas reported that somebody had poisoned his dog. Not long afterward he became ill himself, but apparently no suspicions were aroused until such time as Thomas passed away and a post-mortem was ordered.
It was soon obvious how he had died and a check with the local chemist revealed that Elizabeth had two or three times sent her young step-son to the chemist for "3d worth of powder," saying that she wanted to use it for "vermin in the head," and telling him to say his mother's name was Mary Edwards, a clumsy attempt to conceal her identity. ,
As a result of investigations, Elizabeth stood in the dock and faced a jury on December 4, 1873. She was charged with murdering her husband with mercurial poison.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty, but commended her to mercy because of her youth. She was 26 years old.
In passing sentence the trial judge, in effect, made what is surely the most macabre Christmas gift of all time.
"As the 21 days from the passing of sentence will expire on Christmas Day I have to fix a date for your execution which will take place on December 30."
After the extreme penalty of the law had been carried out at the Adelaide Gaol it was found that Elizabeth had inscribed a few words to her memory, her name and the date of her death on a spare leaf of her Bible between the Old Testament and the New.
In writing she also made full confession of her guilt, stating that she had not been well treated, and had been tempted by Satan to carry out the act.
In more enlightened times, and with good legal advice, she may well have had strong defence because of Thomas' conduct.
Thomas Woolcock lies in the Moonta cemetery. His headstone bears the following epitaph:
To the memory of Thomas Woolcock
Who departed this life
September 4 1873
Aged 34 years
Dangers stand thick through
All the ground
To push us to the tomb
And fierce diseases wait around
To hurry mortals home.
What the inscription does not add is that it was Elizabeth's fair hand that hurried Thomas home, rather than any dangers standing through and the fierce diseases waiting around.
The neighborhood where the Woolcocks lived soon became known as Poison Flat, a grim name which it bears to this day.
So much for a brief recollection of evil and the significance of the festive season for some unfortunates for whom life held no more Christmases.
These unhappy old stories present a side of our pioneering history which is not always recognised, but, for all that, a side which is a facet of those distant times.
These stories, though lacking some of the atmosphere of the traditional "with his head tucked underneath his arm" variety, nevertheless have survived for more than a century.
It may .well be that they will pass into the sort of ghostly legends that our ancestors told around the fire at Christmas time long ago.
Below: Thomas and Elizabeth Woolcock