QSA DID 2794:Reward Notice issued by the Home Secretary's Office for information regarding the murder of Michael, Norah and Ellen Murphy at Gatton, 3 January 1899
News of the day

Sunday Mail, Sunday 10 October 1954, page 31

The maniac killer has never been discovered

By The Sunday Mail Crime Reporter, Pat Lloyd

One of Queensland's most brutal crimes was the triple murder of two young women and their brother near the small town of Gatton, on the Brisbane-Toowoomba highway, on the night of Boxing Day, 1898. Some details of the crime are too horrifying to be published ... and the killer escaped.

DOZENS of people waved and called a greeting to a happy trio in a sulky as they drove into the town of Gatton just before dusk on the evening of December 26, 1898. They were happy because they were looking forward to one of the district's rare dances. In the sulky were Michael Murphy, 29, a sergeant in the local Mounted Infantry, and his attractive sisters, Norah, 27, and Ellen, 18. All had been to a race meeting at Mount Sylvia that afternoon and had driven to Gatton after the meeting finished. After a meal Michael took his sisters to the local hall, but there was no dance because too few men turned up. The three then strolled round Gatton streets, gossiping with friends. At about 10 o'clock they climbed into the sulky and began the ride home.

It was bright moonlight. Country dances lasted nearly the whole night. That is why the Murphy family did not worry when the girls and their brother were not home by dawn. But by 8 a.m. they were getting alarmed. At 9 a.m. William McNeil, who had married another of the Murphy sisters and was spending Christmas with his wife's family, rode into Gatton to find out what had happened to Michael and the girls. He was told there how the three had left by sulky at 10 o'clock the night before. McNeil set out to follow the tracks of the sulky's wheels. He owned the sulky and easily noted the wheel marks by the characteristic track of one wobbly wheel. Two miles from Gatton be was surprised to find the tracks veering through sliprails on the left into a lightly-timbered paddock. McNeil traced its route half a mile along a rough track. A minute later he was staring, shocked.  He was looking at the bodies of Michael and Ellen, lying close together. Close by was the horse, dead in the sulky harness. A quick search found Norah's body, some distance away behind a big spotted gum….


On the evening of Boxing Day 1898, Michael Murphy and his two sisters, Norah and Ellen, were returning to their home near Gatton when their sulky was apparently forced into the bush where all three were brutally murdered. The impact of the Gatton triple murder reverberated throughout Australia, shattering forever complacency and the myth of rural innocence. The bungled police investigation also resulted in a Royal Commission into the administration and investigative techniques of the Criminal Investigation Branch. With the arrest of a swagman named Richard Burgess it appeared that the crime had finally been solved. Careful inquiries into the movements of Burgess only served to establish his innocence - though it did not prevent the convicted sex offender from continuing to boast of his guilt until the day he died. A Magisterial Inquiry in 1899 failed to shed any new light on the case and it remains one of Australia’s most baffling crimes. The awful brutality, the ineptitude and the mystery, including the disappearance of depositions taken at the Inquiry, have all contributed to the Gatton triple murder of 1898 taking its place in the darker side of the Australian folkloric tradition.

Michael Murphy    Nora Murphy    Ellen Murphy


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