The Body In The Shaft

Police try in vain ...

The Body In The Shaft

Police try in vain to solve the Great Wedderburn Mystery | by Anne Skinner

The young man didn’t die alone. The bullet hole in the back of his skull proved that. And how many men can bury themselves?

Although the murder happened just out of town, it seems no-one heard the shot, there were no witnesses and – as the next few years were to prove – no-one to miss him.

As the Great Depression gnawed through the 1930s, the old gold mining town of Wedderburn hosted almost as many people looking for work as had flocked there during the height of the gold rush, more than 80 years before. They came and went, drifting into town one day and gone the next.

It was a great time and place for a murder.

One fine, hot January day in 1937, at the best guess about six months after that unheard shot, Wedderburn prospector Herbert Weston made a decision that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. If such a thing were possible, it even turned him off gold – or at least the search for it.

Herbert decided to revisit an old shaft he’d dug a few years previously. He hadn’t found any gold in it back then, but his luck had been pretty poor lately and he’d got to thinking… maybe paydirt was just a few shovel-loads further down. He would sink the shaft a bit deeper and see if he could turn his fortunes around.

Herbert took his mate Neal Thompson along to help. Someone seemed to have chucked a lot of debris and soil into it since he’d last been there, which was a nuisance as it meant more work for them. The pair began to dig. A few minutes later, one spade struck something hard. Excitedly, they scraped the soil away.

But what they found was no gold nugget. It was the top of a human skull, with strands of light brown hair still clinging to it.....

Abruptly losing all interest in gold, the pair made swift tracks for the Wedderburn Police Station. The skeletal remains of a man were soon unearthed from the mine shaft. The body was fully clad in a good quality suit of clothes – and there was a bullet hole in the back of the skull.

Over the next few years, Victoria’s finest detectives devoted formidable resources trying to identify the body. Newspapers across Australia tallied up the column inches as they breathlessly reported on what soon became known as the “Great Wedderburn Mystery”.

Every missing person’s case on record was re-examined and followed up. At first, nothing fitted. Yet clues were scattered about the scene of the crime as thickly as nuggets in a prospector’s dream.

One pocket of the dead man’s clothes contained newspaper cuttings from March 1936, indicating the man had still been alive then. The other pocket yielded a white handkerchief with a blue border and the name “Murray” inscribed in marking ink. There was also a distinctive pocket knife in the shape of a woman’s leg and foot with a bottle opener at one end.

In addition, police found a pair of spectacles in a silver case, a cake of soap, a nailbrush and a tin of tooth powder. Nearby was a set of three billycans that fitted inside each other and some items of food.

The most distinctive clues were found on the dead man’s trousers: on the inside of the turned-up cuff of the left leg was sewn a strip of sheepskin, while a length of red rubber tubing was stitched to the right cuff. This curious sartorial clue, widely circulated in the media, finally led police as close to identifying the body as they were ever to get.

Then police searchers made another discovery. About 20 metres away from the shaft lay the traces of a fire, and in the ashes were fragments of a black woman’s dress and a metal brooch. Was this another victim, or did police now have a clue to the identity of the killer?

The search was on for a man named Murray who may have been in the company of a woman. A report came into the Wedderburn Police Station of a couple who’d been seen in Wedderburn the previous year. The man was described as aged about 30 and of short and slight build – like the body – and wearing trousers featuring the singular sheepskin and rubber tubing trims. The woman, who was perhaps a few years younger, wore a black frock and a black feathered hat. No-one appeared to have seen them since. No-one knew their names.

A separate report described a man named Thomas Sievwright Murray who was known to have owned a pocket knife in the shape of a woman’s leg and foot with bottle opener attached (although the informant appears to have recalled nothing of the unique trouser cuff design). But Thomas Murray, who had migrated to Australia from his native Scotland in 1926, could not be traced beyond 1930. Could this really be the murdered man? And who was the woman? No-one seemed to have known her name. Or no-one was telling.

The findings of the inquest in September 1937 were vague: there was no evidence to positively identify the man from the Wedderburn mine shaft, who was found to have died of a bullet wound in unknown circumstances.

The investigation went on until at least 1941, with accompanying media interest whenever fresh but ultimately misleading evidence was thrown up. Police traced a total of 245 missing men, including 45 named Murray, waded through scores of reported sightings of itinerant couples and widened the search to cover the entire country and even parts of South-East Asia.

It was all to no avail. The body was never positively identified as Thomas Sievwright Murray or anyone else. Thomas Sievwright Murray, the Scottish migrant with a jaunty taste in pocket knives, was never found. The woman in the black dress and feather-trimmed hat was never traced.

The Great Wedderburn Mystery remains unsolved.

The body in the shaft did change at least two lives – it is rumoured Herbert Weston and Neal Thompson were so spooked by their gruesome find that they gave up prospecting for good and went farming!

Sources: Smith’s Weekly, 24 June 1950; Trove.

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