Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Special Collections Fossickings 23: True Crime 2. The Carpentaria Downs mystery

Have you ever come across a story of some past event and thought, “Why has no-one made a movie of this?” Here is one north Queensland story still in search of an imaginative director.

On 27 September 1908 a 37 year old woman was discovered dead in her bed at a remote north Queensland property, with her throat cut.  The crime and its aftermath created a sensation in Australia and mystery and rumour surrounded it for years afterwards. In “The  Murder of Nellie Duffy”  Stephanie Bennett reveals the events and characters caught up in the story and exposes what she believes was a high level cover-up.
Buggies crossing Einasleigh River at Carpentaria Downs in 1917, a scene which would have changed little in the intervening 9 years.  James Atkinson Album, NQ Photographic Collection ID 5653
Murder victim Nell Duffy, confident, resourceful and sociable, was housekeeper at Carpentaria Downs station, managed by Henry Wilson. Although at the time of her death she had been engaged to a young stockman, it appears that Henry, with a history of brutality, cattle theft and womanizing, had been one of Nell’s previous lovers. Henry’s wife, meek-natured Fanny, while a devoted mother to her children and stepchildren, was afraid of her bullying husband. Sharing her fear was the Aboriginal station-hand, Billy, who had been under Henry’s rigid control since childhood. The shadowy figure of Alwynne Wilson, the diffident and emotionally-damaged son of Henry’s first marriage, completes the cast of main characters. Of these it was the two most vulnerable, Fanny Wilson and station-hand Billy, who were charged with Nell’s murder.

The Townsville Court House (photographed in 1906) where Fanny Wilson and Billy were sent for trial in 1908.
J. Mathews Album, NQ Photographic Collection ID 21849
 The trials took place in November in Townsville’s Supreme Court. In Billy’s trial the case was adjourned after the jury failed to agree on a verdict. When Fanny appeared the Crown prosecutor announced he would enter a record of “nolle prosequi”, literally meaning “unwilling to pursue”. Although not an acquittal, this meant the charge against Fanny was dropped.  At Billy’s second trial, in June 1909, he was acquitted. Nonetheless, the crime left in its wake a trail of several other deaths and a legacy of grief, injustice, shame and family break-up, affecting settlers and Aborigines alike.

Stephanie Bennett makes a convincing case that, despite his alibi, Henry Wilson was the instigator of the crime, manipulating his son Alwynne to do his dirty work, with the latter clumsily involving young Billy Wilson as an accessory. But many questions remain. Could Nell have been acting as a ‘spy’ for the powerful Queensland Meat Exporters and Agency Company, as contemporary reports suggested? Did she have information that would have cost Henry Wilson his job? Was the company involved in obstructing investigation and suppressing evidence? Was the lonely death of boundary-rider and principle witness, William Power, murder or suicide? What did Fanny Wilson know of the night’s events? Is this a story crying out for dramatization on the small or big screen? You bet!

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