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1898: THE GATTON MURDERS: Michael, Norah, & Ellen Murphy murdered in Gatton, QLD

Discussion in 'Historical Cold Cases - Pre 1950' started by Lily, Jun 24, 2015.

  1. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    One of my 'favourite' cold cases... I actually have a LOT of info on this, but it'll take me a bit of time to post. But here's the basics.


    On the night of Boxing Day 1898, Michael Murphy, 29, and his sisters, Norah, 27, and Ellen, 18, were returning home in a sulky to their parents’ farm outside Gatton. They had been to a cancelled country dance in Gatton after spending a day at the races at Mount Sylvia. About 3km outside Gatton the three were murdered in what is still one of the most baffling unsolved murders in Australian history. The next morning their brother-in-law William McNeill set out looking for them.

    Two miles out of Gatton on Tent Hill Road, he followed the sulky’s tracks, characterised by one wobbly wheel, as they veered through sliprails into Moran’s paddock. He found the bodies of Michael, Ellen and Norah. The girls’ clothing was torn and they had been raped. Michael and Ellen’s skulls were crushed. It was later found that Michael had been shot in the head. Nearby was the horse, also shot in the head.


  2. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

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  3. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    There has been a lot of speculation over the past 117 years, as to who dunnit and why. Here's a brief summary of some theories I've considered:

    ** The brother in law, William McNeill.
    McNeill was the person who discovered the bodies, and was regarded as a suspect for several good reasons, but mainly his dodgy behaviour, and continual intrusion into everything from the crime scene to the police work. He had financial motive for bumping off a few Murphy heirs, and may have previously committed arson on his own butcher's shop for the insurance money. A real strange bird, that one.

    **Relatives of Kate Ryan and/or May Cook, two neighbour girls who are alleged to have both died of septic abortions after being dated and dumped by Michael Murphy. A newspaper clipping of May Cook's funeral notice was found near the crime scene, and the murders happened the day before the 2nd anniversary of her death. What's the odds?

    There's some pretty good arguments against this theory, detailed in the link below, however (albeit by a relative of the 'suspects'). Also, I have wondered whether the clipping (along with several other "clues") may have been planted in the general area of the crime (by McNeill, or whoever..) because it was pretty common knowledge that Michael had seriously upset these two families.


    -- there's more, but those are the two I find most interesting.
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  4. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Other theories:

    ** Some evidence given before the Royal Commission pointed towards an itinerant labourer, Thomas Day, who had not been considered a suspect by the police investigation. Day lived in a hut around 900 feet (270 m) from the murder site. One local woman claimed she saw a man on foot chase the Murphy's sulky as it passed on its way to the dance. This man had been standing opposite sliprails blocking the little-known access road that led to the murder location, but was unable to identify him. Day had been seen by a number of people on earlier nights, walking along the road. Another witness claimed that he had seen Day washing blood from a pullover a few days later. Two weeks after the murders, Day asked the police if he was wanted for further investigation and was told no. The records show that he later enlisted in the military. It appears Day deserted in May 1899 and was never heard of again. (from Wikipedia)

    ** (Stephanie Bennet) thinks the murder was orchestrated by a man named Joe Quinn, a swagman with a long history of run-ins with the law, and a slew of criminal aliases.

    She says Quinn, who regularly passed through Gatton, was motivated by revenge after Michael Murphy unmasked his criminal history during an altercation in a Longreach barbershop during the Shearers' Strike.

    Up until that point, Quinn - under an alias - had been an influential member of the strike movement.

    Ms Bennett believes that four years later on a visit to Gatton, Quinn took the opportunity to enact his revenge, with the aid of a gang of local larrikins.

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  5. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    (Steve) Behnke's answer is that the murderer was the local Catholic priest, Father Daniel Walsh.

    Mr Behnke has published booklets that chart newspaper articles and reports of the incident in chronological order and has come up with 40 clues as to why the priest did it.

    These include the fact he lived nearby and knew the victims' movements on the day, he buried them with unusual haste less than 24 hours after their death and there were some physical resemblances to the man reported at the scene.

    Mr Behnke admits he has not yet discovered a compelling motive though it may have been robbery or even lust, as he suspects eldest daughter Norah may have been pregnant and was about to out the priest as the father.


    I'm not a huge fan of Behnke's theory, personally, but his research into the crime and all the people involved is remarkable and immensely useful to anyone researching the case:

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  6. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

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  7. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Some Notes on Polly Murphy.

    Forgive me for what is very likely to be a gigantic, rambly post, there's just so much information to put out there -- and a lot of discrepancies that make succinctness really hard.

    Willam McNeill married into the Murphy family, his wife being Polly (Mary), the eldest Murphy daughter.

    There's a LOT of oddity surrounding The Murphy family, particularly Mary (the mother) and Polly (also called Mary, so I'll stick to her nickname Polly here), how important it is to the case I can't be sure, but it's worth mentioning.

    Polly was the only one among the many adult Murphy children to have married at the time of the murders. Mrs. Murphy, it seems, was extremely controlling when it came to her kids, and her treatment of Polly might suggest why none of her other kids (ages ranging roughly from 18 - 30) were married at the time despite having no end of suitors and girlfriends - simply put, nobody was deemed good enough for them.

    Polly and McNeill had been living in Westbrook, about 50km from Gatton, where McNeill had a butcher's shop (which burned down a few weeks before the murders basically leaving them homeless and without an income). Polly had come to stay at her parent's house in August. McNeill had not joined her, until Christmas eve.

    Polly believed herself to be 32 at the time of the murders (but wasn't, see below), and had been married to McNeill for about three years. She had two children, a ( 2 0r..) 3 yr old (obviously conceived out of wedlock, being born a month after they married) and an infant of about 5 months. Polly, very thin and frail, had become severely ill after the birth of her second child and suffered to the point of almost complete debilitation with "rheumatism and paralysis (from a stroke)", so that she could barely move.

    Mrs. W. M'Neill, the eldest daughter, recently received a paralytic stroke in the left side, and she can now get about only with the aid of a stick. For some little time past she has been residing with her parents, and her husband was there from the Downs for the Christmas holidays. Mrs. M'Neill has two children-a bright little girl three years of age, and a boy between five and six months old, who has to be reared by "spoon feeding," a duty which poor old Mrs. Murphy has taken upon herself to discharge.

    Discrepancy!!!! According to the few records I could find, Polly & McNeill weren't married until June, 1896 - TWO years before the murders, not three. And their first child was born that July.. making her 2yo, not three. This needs clearing up! Just a note to self, really.

    Another one: As to Polly's age, and why she believed she was 32, I just do not know and can't even firmly guess at. Her brother Will was 32, and Polly admitted to knowing she was "younger" than William, though she'd "always" believed herself to be his age. WHY a woman would grow up believing she was older than she was, I dunno!

    By 1898, Polly had been out of home about 8 years, having been sent away to live and work in Toowoomba by her mother, most likely because Mrs. Murphy wanted Polly to quit dating their neighbour, Tom Ryan.

    Polly and Tom had been seeing each other for 12 long years before she married Mcneill, but Mrs Murphy refused to allow them to marry, citing Tom's drinking habits as a reason. They'd been forbidden from seeing each other for years before Polly was sent away, but carried on their affair anyway in secret. Polly even hid Tom's horse on the Murphy farm, and her mother was none the wiser. When Mrs Murphy discovered Polly's disobedience, she beat her. Polly was then sent away to Toowoomba, and eventually met McNeill -- whom Mrs Murphy didn't like, either, at first (but openly doted on after the murders).

    McNeill didn't meet any of the Murphys except Michael (who worked nearby their home for a time, and had visited) until July 1898 (six months before murders), two years to the month after he married Polly, after which he visited "regularly". Michael and McNeill travelled to Gatton together from Westbrook for Christmas, so they must have been pretty familiar.

    It appears that Polly and McNeill's marriage was attended by none of the Murphys, and why it took two and a half years for him to meet them is probably a lot to do with Mrs Murphy's vast disapproval.

    Anyway -- as frail and sickly as Polly was, the day of the murders (Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day) she joined McNeill, Michael and Ellen for a trip to the Mount Sylvia races in nearby Caffey. McNeill took Polly in the buggy (the same buggy from the murder scene) and Ellen & Michael rode their horses there. Norah went too, in the buggy (I think.. this needs clarifying, some sources say she stayed home, others say she went and apparently was seen there by several people).

    What happened at the races is yet another post, but important here is that Polly was out at the races all day -- and to a woman too sickly to cope with her own small kids, or walk without the help of a cane, this must have proved exhausting. The party returned to the farm about 6.30 pm.

    I'll be providing details of Polly's given timeline for that evening in another post. Suffice to say here that she went to bed early, and claims to have slept peacefully through the night, even though she was a light sleeper (ie, she would have allegedly woken, if her husband left the room -- despite how exhausted she must have been).

    When it came time for Polly to testify at the murder inquest, McNeill refused to allow it, saying she was too unwell, and defied the warrant by packing her off to Toowoomba by train (despite her being so unwell..apparently with dysentery of all things, imagine travelling by train with that..) to see a doctor. The court found this unacceptable, however, and forced her to return to Gatton to give evidence - and notably forbidding McNeill from being present during her testimony.

    On the stand, Polly was extremely nervous and seemed rather off with the fairies, frequently staring at the door through which McNeill had been removed from the court room. Nonetheless, she gave her evidence pretty clearly, until asked to be clear on whether her husband left the farm that night, on which she practically fell apart and refused to testify further.
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  8. MissyMoo

    MissyMoo Bronze Member

    @Lily thanks for starting this. Wow - its interesting. I have never heard of the Gatton mystery. Will start reading ;)
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  9. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    There's so much information! I'm hoping to get a bit of time this week to gather some on other "oddities" surrounding the murders and a closer look at some of the suspects.

    Time certainly has not diminished how incredibly awful this crime really was. Truly sick stuff, and lots of weirdness surrounding it...

    One of those cases that just could haunt a person forever.
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  10. SGB

    SGB New Member

    Hi There,
    If anybody wants the full facts of this intriguing case you can now download the full story for FREE at http://www.gattonmurders.com/DownloadBooks/GattonTragedyCompleteSet.zip
    And if you want my theory and supporting evidence you can download "The Sordid Truth Revealed" here http://www.gattonmurders.com/
    This is the culmination of almost 10 years of research and work.
    "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
    Sherlock Holmes​
    Steve Behnke
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  11. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Thank you, Steve. Your research has been invaluable over the years, I am immensely grateful for it. I haven't read 'Truth Revealed' yet but am looking forward to doing so.
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  12. SGB

    SGB New Member

    Hi Lily,
    Thank you for that. The truth revealed is now called "The Sordid Truth Revealed" and is much improved.

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  13. GarAndMo49

    GarAndMo49 Not A Sheeple

    Wow, THANKS, Steve! I really appreciate you offering this; I'm sure you put an incredible amount of time and energy into your research. Will look forward to reading everything ASAP!
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  14. Kimster

    Kimster Director Staff Member


    It's wonderful having you with us!
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  15. SGB

    SGB New Member

    I didn't just come up with my theory out of the blue it came after a lot of research and thousands of hours of work through a process of careful elimination although it seems way out there and disagrees with all the other theories that it was an itinerant labourer going by the name of Thomas Day I am 99% sure of who DUNNIT and have a pretty good idea regarding the motive.
    Anyone remotely interested should at least read the FREE works available at http://www.gattonmurders.com/DownloadBooks/GattonTragedyCompleteSet.zip
    Pretty well without this factual info you will just be guessing.
    I always figured the unraveling of the mystery was too much for one person and I have had a lot of help along the way but alas I could also be wrong and there are better minds than mine out there.
    The victims are still not at rest and every time I try to let sleeping dogs lie (the perpetrator) I get dragged back in.
    As you will see by my efforts I am not a writer but sure could use someone that is.
    Good Luck.
    'We have failed because from the very outset we had no chance of success'
    Inspector F.C. Urquhart in his police summary for the Gatton Murders​

    The Truth Will Set You Free
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  16. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    I know you did a lot of research - and think your writing's just fine, Steve! It gets a bit old how every crime book has to be a slick novel as well, with the dramatic pacing and language, etc. When all people really want is the facts. Good job on that.

    I don't think your theory is all that out there - I just think there's other suspects that are as good. My favourite is M'Neill, if that isn't obvious. But there were other people, some who had every reason to wish harm on the Murphys.

    You know, I've often wondered whether that news clipping was planted near the scene, some time after the murders. There was one notably missing from the Murphy house, as I recall.
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  17. SGB

    SGB New Member

    Yes I agree he looked pretty suspicious and he along with most of the family and a lot of the towns people knew the answer, if you get The Sordid Truth you will see a lot more.

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  18. SGB

    SGB New Member

    Hi there,
    The clipping may have been a plant in order to assist the police to uncover the truth and to extract a little justice regarding the death of the girl in question two years prior to the murders.
    As I now know it points to the ringleader of this appalling event.
    The ringleader escaped justice due to his position in society, and substantial bribes whilst three accomplices suffered different fates.

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  19. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

  20. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member


    Alleged Solution of the Mystery.

    THE Gatton mystery is, of course, no mystery to the Queensland authori-ties, says a contributor to an exchange. It will be remembered how the police
    suddenly stopped all investigation. No useful purpose could be served by proceeding with the matter. The why and wherefore need not be published. A sequel of the horror is the insanity of a certain person who has been in an asylum for some time. The fact was charitably kept from the knowledge of the general public. It is, however, re- assuring to know that the perpetrator of the triple murder is a lunatic. This is probably the last that will be heard of a tragedy that shocked Australasia and received a world-wide notoriety.



    This was apparently denied by police.
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2016
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