|the 1940 mystery writer||
The Murchison murders
When truth is fiction and fiction, truth
_Englishman Arthur Upfield (right, 1890–1964) moved to Australia in 1910, serving in the Imperial forces in the first World War. Afterward he wrote mystery novels starring Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, of course called Bony for short, of the Queensland police department. This character was easily his most popular. The son of an unknown Caucasian and an Aboriginal mother who was murdered in his infancy, Bony often worked undercover as a farm or station hand, solving crimes all over the nation. At least 37 novels with Bony were published, many of them brought home by U.S. servicemen including Tony Hillerman, and two TV series and a telemovie were also spun off. One of these novels also served as the inspiration for a murderer.
The rabbit-proof fence and the author
_In October 1929, Upfield was working as a boundary rider for the rabbit-proof fence, a 2,000-mile pest inhibitor for Western Australia’s agricultural heartland. The fence crossed through desert and other inhospitable areas, making constant maintenance imperative, and boundary riders patrolled the fence by sections, generally driving a buckboard drawn by two camels. (Look closely at the photo.) Upfield had written three novels and was plotting out a fourth. This time, he wanted to make life seriously tough on Bony: he wasn’t going to leave a body for the detective to find and investigate. Upfield discussed the problem with a handful of boundary rider colleagues over the next two months, and one of them, George Ritchie, with perhaps more imagination than prudence, devised “the perfect plan” to dispose of a body: burn it, filter out any remaining bone fragments and bits of metal, drop the metal down a well, pound the bone fragments into dust, and toss that to the wind. As camouflage, some kangaroo or other animal carcasses could be burned on the same site.
The system worked so well that Upfield (and Bony) were at a loss as to how to solve the crime, and the author was forced to offer Ritchie a pound if he could find a means of outwitting his own idea.
_One of the boundary riders involved in the ongoing discussion was an itinerant worker named Snowy Rowles. On 8 December, high summer Down Under, Rowles departed the appropriately named Camel Station in the Murchison gold mining region together with two men, James Ryan and George Lloyd, in Ryan’s light truck. When next seen several days later, Rowles was alone.
But he still had the truck. He told Upfield that Ryan lent it to him. (Upfield took the photo of Rowles with the truck.) He told another man he’d bought it. Interestingly enough, in an area where itinerant workers appeared and disappeared daily, no one was concerned about the missing men.
Five months later in May 1930, Rowles left Wydgee Station with another man, a New Zealander calling himself Louis Carron. Not long after, Rowles cashed Carron’s paycheck in a nearby town.
Carron’s real name was Leslie George Brown and he’d kept in touch with family and friends back home. When he suddenly quit responding to letters, they requested a police investigation. And only then were Ryan and Lloyd confirmed as not just having wandered on, but as truly missing.
Because Rowles was known to be the last person in company with all three victims, and because he had the truck in his possession, he became the immediate suspect. Detective-Sergeant Harry Manning, called to the scene, also recognized Rowles as John Thomas Smith, who’d escaped from prison in 1928 to avoid a burglary sentence. While it’s a long jump from burglary to murder, it seemed criminal gain was the motive behind these crimes.
The Sands of Windee
_The truth in this strange case may never be entirely clear. But the evidence is suggestive. Because no trace of Ryan and Lloyd has ever been found, it seemed that Ritchie’s scheme for the disposal of human remains worked properly if carried out with strict attention to detail. But with Carron/Brown, Rowles was careless and the burning site was found. He neither policed nor camouflaged the site, leaving trace evidence including a bit of skull, gold from dental work, a tooth with cavity, and a wedding band. He also kept some belongings from at least two of his victims and told different stories to different people while covering his tracks.
DS Manning ran the dental evidence past Carron’s dentist, who confirmed the tooth and plate were consistent with his former patient. Two watches found in the truck were traced to a jeweler in Perth who’d repaired them for Carron and, incriminatingly, for Rowles, as well. Most damaging of all was the wedding ring, which had been resized by a careless jeweler in Auckland using 9 carat solder on the 18 carat ring. The mistake was never corrected, making the ring unique and firmly identifying the pitiful remains as those of Carron.
Upfield testified during the trial, explaining his search for an evidence-free disposal method and Rowles’ participation therein. It made his career and the resulting fourth novel, The Sands of Windee, did well in sales. Upfield also published a nonfiction account of the murders, investigation, and trial, entitled The Murchison Murders, while the bit about the repaired ring found its way into a subsequent novel, The New Shoe.
Rowles was hanged in June 1932.