The Gatton Murders

Some towns become synonymous with the crimes that happen in them - Salem. Waco. Snowtown.


In Queensland, we have Gatton. When the bodies of Michael, Ellen, and Norah Murphy were discovered in a field the day after Boxing Day, 1898, the little agricultural town would become forever linked to one of the most famous unsolved crimes in Australian history.


For years the murders were considered by police to be a crime of opportunity - the act of a desperate man from out of town, wanting to rob the well-off siblings. Or perhaps some madman, killing for a thrill. But was the crime actually perpetrated by a member of the Murphy family? Or worse, was it committed by a conspiracy of townspeople, determined to get revenge upon the alleged seducer Michael Murphy?


This week your hosts saddle up the horses and set out west to investigate this murder most foul. On this treacherous journey, we encounter suspicious swagmen, incompetent police work, the horrors of a 19th-century autopsy, and some good old-fashioned Catholic and Protestant religious tension.


In 1898, in Gatton, west of Brisbane, the bodies of Michael, Ellen, and Norah Murphy, along with their horse, were discovered lying in a field. Michael had been shot through the head, while Ellen and Norah had been raped and bludgeoned to death. Suspects ranged from their brother in law William McNeil, to the butcher’s man Thomas Day, to a number of swagmen who were waltzing in and out of town.


Due to the unfortunate state of telecommunications infrastructure in the late 19th century, no police officers from the CIB were sent out to investigate the crime until two days after the bodies were found. The chief inspector never even saw the bodies of the victims. And the investigation became hyperfocused on one particular suspect, who had an alibi for the time of the murder, leaving any number of potential suspects uninvestigated.


The Gatton murders have captured the imaginations of Australians for the past hundred years. No one has ever been found guilty of the murders, although armchair sleuths in modern times come up with different suspects and different explanations for the crime every couple of years. In this episode, we consider each of the main suspects, as well as a new theory put forward by Stephanie Bennet in her book The Gatton Murders: A True Story of Lust, Revenge and Vile Retribution.


Who do you think killed the Murphys? If you've got a theory or know of a suspect we didn’t mention, get in contact with us via our email, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter!


Our main source this week was the aforementioned The Gatton Murders: A True Story of Lust, Revenge and Vile Retribution, which can be purchased here


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If you want to delve deep into the Oxley-Gatton connection, you can read Neil Bradford’s book The Oxley-Gatton Murders: Exposing the Conspiracy which is out of print but can be found in a few libraries around Brisbane.