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1902: The Towitta Tragedy - Bertha Schippan

Discussion in 'Historical Cold Cases - Pre 1950' started by Lily, Jul 14, 2015.

  1. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    The small farming community of Towitta, near Sedan, was struck by tragedy on New Year's Day 1902 when 14 year old Johanne Elizabeth (Bertha) Schippan was brutally murdered.

    Mattes and Johanne Schippan had left their eldest daughter, 25 year old Mary looking after the other children while they traveled some 20km to visit relatives. Around 8 p.m. the girls went to bed in the house while the boys slept about 90 metres away in a galvanised iron room attached to one of the farm sheds. Their peace was shattered a couple of hours later when Mary felt something heavy lying across her. Bertha's screams woke Mary who in turn woke the boys, sending them to seek help from a neighbour, who however, declined to assist. They then had to rush 1km to the home of District Constable Lambert. Upon their return to the Schippan house, they found Bertha lying dead in a pool of blood with her throat slashed five times from ear to ear.


    Sensational evidence was presented when Mary admitted to having a relationship with Gustave Nitschke. There was disappointment amongst the spectators when they were removed from the hearing to prevent them hearing full details. When 21 year old Nitschke was called to give evidence, he admitted the relationship had been going on for over 12 months. This admission irrevocably tarnished Mary's reputation. Mary denied threatening Bertha about the possibility of her infidelity being exposed to her disciplinarian father. Stunned silence came over the courtroom when the coroner announced the result of the jury's deliberation 'Bertha Elizabeth Schippan met her death by having her throat cut by Mary Augusta Schippan'.


    The final day of the trial saw Mary accompanied to court by a female warder and the Keeper of the Gaol, Thomas Farrell. The jury retired and in less than two hours returned with a verdict of "not guilty". Mary appeared stunned as cheering broke out both inside the court and outside amongst the 3000 strong crowd as she left the court accompanied by her parents. Gustave Nitschke was hurriedly escorted out through a rear entrance.

    Mary returned to the farming community at Towitta, where she became reclusive and never married. She died of tuberculosis in 1919.

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  2. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    IT was one of the first crimes to send the state in a frenzy: the bloody murder of Bertha Schippan at Towitta on New Year's night of 1902.

    Bertha, nearly 14, was found with her throat slashed five times from ear to ear in the family's humble cottage.

    Such was the public sensation The Advertiser became the first paper in the country to buy a staff car to get reporters to the scene and then rush to nearby Angaston to wire back updates.

    Because the roads were rough - and the car rougher - the paper also had cyclists, two horsemen and even carrier pigeons on standby. It was a desolate place, even back then - one reporter called it a "windswept desert of red sand".

    Matthias and Johanna Schippan with their children Wilhelm, Mary and Gustave at Towitta.

    The murder scene was brutal - stabbed and slashed in the bedroom she shared with Mary and screaming "Gustave", Bertha had struggled through the living room and died in her parents' bedroom, coating the floors with blood.

    During an inquest held at Towitta, her sister Mary's fiance, Gustave Nitschke, admitted he and Mary had cavorted on the kitchen sofa that night, leading to the suspicion Mary killed Bertha to silence her.

    It was a scandal - Nitschke was even attacked in the street, but never implicated.

    The inquest's jury found Mary had killed her sister, and Mary was charged.

    During Mary's trial, the Chief Justice, Sir Samuel Way, said Nitschke was "a contemptible fellow" and had provided the prosecution with the motive they needed.

    Mary's account was that on the night of the murder, their parents were staying in Eden Valley. Their two brothers, Gustave and Willie, slept in an outbuilding.

    Mary said she woke in the night of January 2 to find a man lying across her, holding a knife. She escaped, leaving Bertha being attacked and ran to wake her brothers. A nearby neighbour refused to help - the siblings called for Bertha, saw blood, and fetched the local constable who lived a mile away. When they all returned they found Bertha's mutilated body.

    Mary was acquitted at trial that March, to cheers - 4000 people waited outside the court for the jury's decision. She married Nitschke and died at 41 from tuberculosis.

    The case was never solved. Suspicion fell on the father, Matthias, with many believing he had ridden through the night from Eden Valley, killed his daughter and rode back - a long ride with no motive.

    A Barossa local later claimed Matthias gave a deathbed confession. Others at Eden Valley claimed the Schippan horse was lathered in sweat that morning.


    Did Mary marry or beau, or not? Fact-checking is so important!

    This case is a good example of an early media frenzy.
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  3. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

    Original news report from the trial, detailing the case against Mary:




    ADELAIDE, Sunday.

    The taking of evidence for the pro-secution in the trial of Mary Augusta Schippan, aged 24 years, of the charge of murdering her sister, Bertha, aged 14 years, at Towitta, on New Year's Night, was concluded on Saturday night, and the Chief Justice removed the order prohibiting the publication of the proceedings during the past four days. Twenty-four witnesses have been called, and much new matter brought out.

    Mr. J.H. Sinclair, assistant Crown solicitor, in presenting the case for the prosecution, summed up as follows:--"Whatever was the cause of Bertha Schippan's death, it is apparent that a severe struggle took place. The murdered girl, unarmed, seems to have made a great bid for life. Her body was found on the floor, face downwards, with the head resting on her right arm. Mary Schippan's evidence would tend to show that she wore a blue blouse on that night, and the pieces of blouse material found in different rooms are evidently the results of a struggle. These pieces have been torn out in the struggle for life, which seems to have gone on in three different rooms.

    The evidence further indicates that Mary's hair was washed;that Mary, in part cleaned herself; and that some hair found adhering to the pieces of blood stained material discovered is similar in character to Mary's hair. The stockings which were taken off her, and had not been changed, are splashed with blood, and have blood worked into the fibre. The skirt and blouse, which she says she picked up as she was hurriedly escaping from the man she speaks of, are blood-marked in three places. On Sunday prior to the murder some man by the name of Nitschke had been paying attentions, which possibly he had no right to pay to Mary. The suggestion that the prosecution makes is that the deed was either prompted by jealousy arising from an invitation from Nitschke to Bertha to accompany him to Adelaide, or by fear that the knowledge of Mary's misbehaviour possessed by Bertha would be communicated to her father upon his return home.

    Two brothers of the accused repeated the evidence given by them at the inquest, stating that they reached home at half past 7 on the night of the tragedy, and cut some cake for themselves. They found the girls in bed although Mary Schippan's depositions at the inquest were that neither girls were in bed, that she cut cake for the boys and sat on the sofa while they ate it.

    William Schippan, the younger brother of the accused, in cross examination by Sir Josiah Symon, K.C., for the defence, gave evidence of killing a sheep on December 23. Mary, he said, held the two front legs while he killed the sheep and the head of the animal was hanging downwards and bleeding at the time. On that occasion Mary wore the old blue skirt and pink blouse, which she was wearing when she gave the alarm of a man being in the house on New Year's night.

    Mary Schippan's inquest depositions were admitted after opposition from Sir Josiah Symon, K. C., who contended that evidence incriminating the girl could not be admitted.

    The Chief Justice said the girl had been cautioned at the inquest before she was examined, and he admitted the depositions, saying that the point had been decided by the Privy Council 30 years ago.

    Sir Josiah Symon asked his Honour to reserve the point but his Honour said he could not throw any doubt upon a Privy Council's decíson. He declined to do so.

    The story told by the girl at the inquest was that she and Bertha were aroused about 10 o'clock by feeling man lying across their chests. She struggled with the intruder for 10 minutes. He had a knife in his hand. She knew it was a knife because he dropped it. She got away from him, and in rushing out of the room picked up a blouse and a skirt. She gave the alarm to her brothers, leaving Bertha in the house screaming.

    The evidence of the police and a black tracker showed that no strange tracks were found leading to or from the house, although it was admitted that a furious dust storm was raging at the time of the tragedy.

    Mrs. Schippan was called to identify the piece of Mary's torn blouse found in the house. She said she had, since the inquest, looked all over the place for the blouse to which the fragment belonged, without success.

    Gustave Nitschke, labourer, of Towitta, said, "I have known the accused about 12 months and I also knew Bertha. I was at Schippan's house on the last Sunday in the old year. Mary was home but not Bertha or her parents. I have been keeping company with accused. I stayed to tea.

    Bertha came home at 8 p.m. Mary and I were then on the kitchen sofa. Bertha sat down on the other sofa in the same room and then went to bed, closing the door after her. It was dark. I asked Bertha if she would come to Adelaide with me and she replied, "Yes, if I am let. Why don't you ask Mary?" I did not reply. It was about 9 o'clock when Bertha went to bed. Mary and I remained on the sofa until half past 11 or 12 o clock. On the night of New Year's Day I was at the house of Mr Schwanefeldt in Adelaide. I left Sedan at 10 o'clock on Monday morning and returned on the following Saturday night.

    To Sir Josiah Symon-I had visited Schippan's house for 12 months as the honourable sweetheart of Mary, with the appobation of her parents. So far as I knew, Bertha knew nothing about my improper intimacy with Mary. Mounted Constable Grover, to whom I first gave all this information, told me it would be better for me to tell. He did not say that I might be suspected. I was not afraid of my skin.

    Sir Josiah Symon- "A pretty lover."

    Witness - Grosser did not say that Mary was under suspicion.

    Dr Steel, of Angaston, repeated the evidence he gave at the inquest, which he stated that in the examination of the girl Mary. He found reddish stains on her body. There were also indications that her hair had been washed within the past 24 hours. He had made a postmortem examination of Bertha's body. Besides the carotid artery being completely severed, the head, neck and face were covered with stabs, scratches and other wound. He also discovered slight bruises and scratches on Mary' s body when he examined her, but found no abrasions to account for the red stains on her body.

    In cross-examination by Sir Josiah Symon witness said if he looked at Mary's hair now he would not be prepared to say when it was last washed.

    Dr Ramsav Smith said he had analysed the cloths with which Dr Steel removed the stains from Mary's body and found the stains to be those of blood. The towel found in the kitchen was also proved to be bloodstained. It contained many light hairs similar in character to combings which Mary had admitted were her own. Witness also described various coils of hair found near Bertha's body and on the beds in different rooms and adhering to a piece of torn material belonging to the missing blouse, as those of Mary and Bertha, and had the appearance of not having come out of their heads by natural causes. He had found blood on some stockings which were turned inside out, which Mary had worn. He had attended the exhumation of Bertha's body and found the gir's injuries were even more extensive than revealed by Dr Steel's examination. He also discovered adhering to the dead girl's right thumb a small coil of fine light hair, like the character of Mary's.

    In cross-examination witness admitted that when dried blood was under examination he certainly could not, for the purposes of evidence, distinguish between the blood of man and other mammals.

    The Chief Justice asked Sir Josiah Symon whether he proposed to call evidence for the defence.

    Sir Josiah Symon replied that he would rather not answer that question at that stage.

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  4. Lily

    Lily Bronze Member

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