The Gatton Murders: The most shameful cold case in Queensland’s history

For the large Murphy clan, who owned a farm near the small town of Gatton in Queensland, Australia, the 1898 Christmas holidays would end in tragedy when three of their offspring were brutally murdered. Having not returned from a night out on Boxing Day, the bodies of Michael Murphy and his sisters Ellen and Norah were discovered the next morning in a field close to Gatton.

All three of the victims had been bludgeoned, with 29 year old Michael also being shot in the head while 27 year old Norah showed signs consistent with strangulation. Both sisters also bore the marks of having been raped by their attacker(s) with an object believed to be a brass whip handle.

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Ellen, Michael and Norah

 

The crime caused national outrage, both because of the horrific nature of the killings and the incompetence of the subsequent police investigations. The catalogue of errors in the police’s handling of the case saw up to forty locals congregate around the victims before investigating officers arrived, thus contaminating the scene of the crime.

The investigating officers themselves took almost two days to arrive due to a delay in getting a telegram sent to their headquarters in Brisbane, which was then not opened until 28 December because of the Christmas holidays. The bodies of the Murphy siblings were mistakenly buried before the autopsies had been completed and then exhumed for further examination.

Perhaps worst of all, the clear prime suspect in the killings barely registered on the police’s radar during their fruitless five month long investigation.

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Drifter Theo Farmer, aka Thomas Day/Thomas Furner, was new to Gatton, lived less than 1,000 feet from the murder scene, was seen washing blood from a pullover shortly after the killings and then upped sticks and left. Coincidences maybe, but events the following year suggest the authorities should have been alerted to him by these actions.

One Thomas Furner was admitted to hospital in Sydney in 1900 suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, a suicide note he penned contained a confession to having been present during the murders and, before he died from his injuries, Furner stated that he suffered nightmares relating to the victims’ murders.

This information, like Furner’s death, was kept from the public until 1918, prompting speculations that the government and high-ranking police officers colluded to bury the news in an effort to conceal just how badly the murder investigations were handled. The case officially remains unsolved.

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