A GRAVE AND ITS STORY. By John Gale, 10 March 1903
Whilst at Peppercorn some of our party paid a visit to a lonely grave out on the plain about half a mile from the homestead.
Neat posts and wires enclosed a little mound, at the head of which stood an undressed slab of limestone. It was not a bad substitute in form and dimensions for the ordinary headstone. Rudely, but legibly cut into its face were the words "FRANCIS DUNN," surmounted by a cross. That was all; neither the sleeper's age nor the date of his death was given. But, nevertheless, that lonely grave has its story - a blending of the sad, the humorous and the grotesque. It has never been recorded, but it may be appropriately narrated here.
I think it was somewhere towards the close of the eighties of the bygone century, when in my official capacity as one of Her late Majesty's Coroners, it was reported to me that the dead body of a man had been found out on the open plain at Peppercorn. My district is bounded in that direction by the Murrumbidgee River, and consequently it became my province and duty to inquire into the matter. How that inquiry was held, I narrated, at their request, to my companions after tea as follows:
It was winter, and the snow lay on the table lands. It was doubtful if I could reach the locality. Consequently I sent a message to Kiandra directing an official inquiry by one of the local magistrates, but neither from Cooma nor Tumut could Kiandra be called. The lines were snowed up between those points and the destination of my message. Nothing remained but to go myself.
Accompanied by a police-officer I set out on a Saturday, driving to Urayarra, thence proceeding on horseback through rain and snow. It was a seventy miles' journey from Queanbeyan, most of it over the mountains we have been climbing - in those days a rougher track. We arrived at Brindabella just after the mail which had preceded us. That was our first day's stage. From what I had ascertained, there would be no criminal developments from the inquiry; so I determined to summon a jury for the following day, Sunday. As the law then stood the proceeding was illegal, Sunday being dies non juridicus, as the statutes have it, that is, a day on which no judicial act can be performed, and in the event of a criminal issue such proceedings would be void, and the indictment quashed. An amended Coroners Act makes an inquest held on Sunday legal now, as for many reasons it always should have been.
As a preliminary I sent the constable after tea on to Mr. Reid's (then an hotel) to warn a jury of five to be at Peppercorn. 17 or 18 miles further on. at 2 p.m.
He returned with the remark, "It's no good, sir, the men about the diggings have all cleared out."
"How is that?" I inquired.
"Did you notice that boy leaving the post-office when we arrived?" asked the constable. "Well, when he got to Reid's he told the people there that a constable and a gentleman with him had arrived at Franklin's just as he was leaving. The miners had heard of the finding of the dead body, and rightly concluded it was the Coroner who had arrived to hold an inquest, and to avoid serving on the jury they had all left their homes, so the landlord told me, and not a man could I find."
"Never mind, constable; we'll catch them in the morning; for they'll come home to their beds tonight, and we'll be there before they are up."
So before daylight we were again in the saddle, accompanied by Mr. T. Franklin as a guide, and were at Reid's before the landlord was out of bed. Calling him up, we asked him to show us to the miners' camp.
"It's no use going there," replied Mr. Reid, "for they said they wouldn't return till all danger of their being summoned on the jury was past"
"Are there none of them about?" I inquired.
"There are three or four some little distance away that mightn't have heard of your arrival."
"Very well, then." said I, taking from my valise three summonses duly filled in, all but the names of the parties on whom they were to be served, and bearing my signature. "Here are summonses which you will oblige me by serving on any three of those men you may judge to be best able to take the journey, after filling in their names; and tell them from me that failing to attend, a fine of £5 will be the consequence. I need five jurors; Mr. Franklin will serve as one, and I am told there is another farther on whom I shall summons to complete the number."
Upon this, we went on our way. Some few miles further on we turned off our road to pick up the fifth juryman. He demurred at first, but the penal consequences of neglecting or refusing to obey the mandate of the Coroner operated to extort from him a promise to follow as soon as possible.
We were passing through country white with snow, and in due time arrived at our destination - the very house we are now in. But I see it has been altered somewhat; and the old building outside, now a mere ruin, was then in fairly good order. To our surprise, the place was deserted - not only was there no living person about, but not even the corpse which was to be the subject of inquiry.
The warmth of the morning sun had been thawing the snow which was fast disappearing. Looking around me for some signs that would account for the absence of both the living and the dead, whom we naturally expected lo find on our arrival, I noted something that awoke my suspicions. In the angle formed by the two structures there were some newly-adzed chips, apparently from hardwood stabs, and some fragments of a gin case which had evidently been split up into laths. There were numerous foot-prints in the fast-disappearing snow around the chips and also over against a gap which had been made in the wall of the old building out there, by the removal of two slabs. Further inspection of the surroundings led lo the discovery of light wheel tracks going out towards where the grave is which you have seen.
Consulting with my companions, we came to the conclusion that a rough V-shaped coffin had been improvised with the aid of the two-slabs; that the corpse had been laid therein and secured by the strips of gin-case; and that the rude shell and its gruesome contents had been hurried away for burial. Subsequent events proved that our conjecture was true.
Both my horse and that ridden by the constable were not so fresh as Mr. Franklin's, having travelled the steep grades all the way from Urayarra. I therefore asked Mr. Franklin to mount his horse and follow the wheel tracks. He had not long disappeared over the falling ground outside the timber to the back, before we saw him returning in company with half a dozen men on foot, one of whom was wheeling a hand-cart, another carrying a billycan with a rope attached to it, and another with an old spade on his shoulder whose blade was worn down to a stump about four inches. With the exception of one of the party, they appeared to be ordinary bush men, and one of them I knew - George Southwell, manager of Mr. F. Campbell's station at Coolamon.
"What have you been doing?" I asked.
"Burying the dead body, Sir," was the answer I received, accompanied by a military salute, from the spokesman of the party - the man who differed In appearance from the ordinary bush men with him.
"By whose authority have you buried a body in charge of the Coroner I asked; and "Who are you?"
"I am the senior-constable from Kiandra, Sir; and have been sent by the local magistrate to bury the dead body found here on Thursday."
"Did he get a message from me, the Queanbeyan Coroner?"
"No, sir; he thought you could never come on account of the snow; and he did not care for the journey himself,"
"Well; you see I am here, and as the men summoned to serve as jurors on the inquest I have come to hold will be here at two o'clock, I will trouble you to go and bring the body back."
"It can't be done, sir."
"What do you mean? How did you bury him?"
"Well, sir; we made a shell out of a couple of slabs. We put the body in and fastened it down with strips split from an old case."
"You say the body can't be brought back. Surely the tools you dug the grave with can remove the earth. I suppose the grave is but a shallow one, and you can have no difficulty in lifting out the shell."
"We didn't dig a grave at all, sir. We took the body to a prospecting shaft, and dropped it in head first, and then filled in the shaft with boulders."
"Well; remove the boulders, and bring in the body."
"It can't be done In a whole day, sir; If it can be done at all."
The senior-constable was evidently losing his temper, and I was not in the least degree inclined to give way. It was near mid-day now, and as we had eaten nothing since breakfast before break of day, I said, jocularly:
"Constable, I see you are a Scotchman. I don't know how it is with you and your fellow-countrymen; but I am an Englishman, and like all my fellow-countrymen am in the best of tempers after I have had a good square meal. Let us get something to eat before we further discuss the subject I suppose. there's food of some sort about here."
"There's nothing to eat in the house." (This from George Southwell.) "But I have brought a loaf of bread with me, and there's tea and sugar inside."
"Very well, then; well boil the billy before further argument."
The billy was boiled, and from the loaf of dry bread and a billy of tea - not much amongst nine men - we appeased our hunger.
"Well, constable" - this to the officer from Kiandra - "are you in better temper now? I am."
"I had not lost my temper, sir; but I was, and still am, convinced, that it is impossible to carry out your order. The coffin sank into deep water and mud, and there are loads of big stones on that; it is filled with them to the level of the surface."
"Perhaps we can avoid the trouble the recovery of the body would seem to involve," I remark, "While you have been eating, I have been thinking as well as eating. We must have a jury of at least five. You are six. Southwell, you must stand aside; that leaves five. You know an inquest must be held super risum corpora - in plain English, the jurors must have seen the body the subject of the inquiry. Did you five men see the body and identify it as that of Francis Dunn to-day?"
The constable; "Yes, sir; all of us.
"So far, so good. I will take the risk of not having myself seen it; though I think in law the Coroner should also view the body. Now, I am going to im-panel you five men as a jury; and we shall have to dispense with the services of the men who have been summoned, and will be here presently,"
"But you can't swear me in," objects the Kiandra constable.
"You will have either to be sworn in and serve on the jury; or if it takes you a week to do it, bring that body before me and the jury summoned. But why cannot I swear you in?"
"I am an officer of the police." To the constable who came with me; "Loughlin, a constable can't serve on a jury, can he?"
"Don't be a fool,-----------," replied his brother officer! "I have served on many a jury since I wore the uniform."
"I am not here to discuss that point," I interject. "Even if you were all the police in New South Wales, with the Inspector-General thrown in, I shall insist on you serving on the jury. That - - - or, bring me the body. All I want to know from you, Constable, is this: Are you a good and lawful subject of Her Majesty Queen Victoria?"
"I trust so," is the reply, with a military salute.
"Very well; let us proceed to business." An improvised court room is prepared under the iron roof of the verandah; there were reasons affecting our personal comfort why it was not expedient to sit indoors. The five men, including the senior-constable from Kiandra, are sworn in; the evidence is taken down; and upon it a finding recorded, "Death from natural causes."
Summed up, the evidence disclosed that the deceased was an old servant of Mr. John McDonald of Urayarra, and at the time of his decease hut-keeper at Mr. McDonald's Peppercorn Station. He was very aged and infirm. He was last seen alive about a fortnight before the date of the inquest. On the Thursday before the inquiry, Mr. George Southwell had occasion to be at Peppercorn, and noticed the old man on his hands and knees on the rising ground over the creek yonder in front of the house. His face was towards the big white gum with the hollow in its butt, and at that time it formed the corner of a bough sheepyard. On approaching the old man he found he was quite dead, lying there divested of his coat and hat. His two faithful cattledogs were by his side, and the coat and hat midway between the body and the creek. Southwell tracked the movements of the old man. He had left his hut and crossed the creek where the mud and water were nearly to his hips. A heavy stick he had used in walking was still standing in the mud and rushes where he had struggled up the bank of the creek. His progress from that point had been made on his hands and knees, and in that posture he died. There were no marks of violence on the body - no evidence to show that anyone had been near the place. The finding of the jury was the only reasonable one they could arrive at.
It was stated during the inquiry that Dunn was believed to be possessed of a considerable hoard of money - that he was of miserly disposition, and the opinion was expressed that, having a premonition of his approaching death, and having secreted his money possibly In the hollow of the old white gum. he was making towards his hidden wealth when death overtook him.
I directed a careful search of that hollow, and of the interior of the hut At the former place nothing was found. Under the rugs on his bunk - there in that corner - was found wrapped in a dirty piece of newspaper, a five pound note, a copper penny, and in a little wash-leather bag a crucifix and something that appeared like a relic. There was also a sealed envelope containing the deceased man's last will and testament, bequeathing "his horses, cattle, chattels and money" to the sons of his employer, share and share alike. That money, beyond the five-pound note and the penny-piece, has never yet been discovered, though the fire-place has been torn down and rebuilt, and the place alt round searched and searched again. The current opinion is, there is an undiscovered plant somewhere abouts.
A touching incident or two connected with the inquest should be narrated here.
While the inquiry was proceeding, poor old Dunn's two cattle dogs lay alongside the dead man's hat and coat, in view of us all. It was all that remained to them of the master they had so faithfully served. There were no fences over yonder then. While the dogs kept watch, down from the rising ground behind them came a troop of wild horses, which were much more plentiful hereabouts in those days. The troop was led by a big coal-black entire. They saw the dogs and the clothes, and cautiously approached with heads erect and, the well-known snorts of horses in alarm. They were too near, in the dogs' judgment for the safety of the clothes they were guarding. A fierce growl, and a rapid rush scared the troop, the dogs continuing the pursuit back over the rising ground whence the horses had come. Then presently came back the faithful guardians of property their master would need no longer, and again lay down to protect it.
It was sunset when we prepared to get away to our respective quarters for the night "What shall we do with the dogs? They will only starve where they are; for there is nothing hereabouts for them to eat" This question elicited the proposition that it would be an act of mercy to poison them. We all concurred. Southwell said there was a phial of strychnine in the hut. A crust of the loaf we had eaten of was still left It was broken into two pieces; a bait inserted into each peace (sic). These were taken across the creek and thrown to the poor hungry brutes who greedily swallowed them.
We didn't wait to see the result; but before we could have proceeded far, doubtless those two dogs were as dead as the master they had served so faithfully. It was a lonely death, a grotesque inquest, and altogether a story replete with incident, humorous and tragic.
Note: Pauline Downing found the following description of strychnine poisioning on the web:
Can you imagine the kind of pain you get in your calf or your foot when you have cramps? These dogs are feeling it all over their body, where there are muscle tissues, they felt the pain. Strychnine poison takes 10 to 120 minutes for the symptoms to show after ingestion. And the victim dies slowly and painfully in up to 2 to 3 hours. The muscles in their legs tightened so much that they couldn't even walk. The muscles around their rib cage and lungs and heart eventually fails as they die slowly in pain from asphyxiation and exhaustion from the convulsions.
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