The Perfect Crime: The Murchison Murders

Aug 16, 2023 0 comments

Arthur Upfield is one Australia's most underrated writers. His literary contributions often remain overshadowed by the brilliance of his peers. Nevertheless, Upfield has a niche following of readers who appreciate his intricate tales that skillfully weave the essence of the Australian landscape and culture with compelling mysteries, especially his novels featuring Detective Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte.

This story is set during a time when Upfield was working as a boundary rider for the Western Australian government. His job was to look after 163 miles of the Rabbit-proof fence, from the Camel Station to the town of Burracoppin, identifying breaks and fixing them. The Rabbit-proof fence is one of the longest netted fence in the world, erected in the early 1900s to keep wild rabbits out of farm lands on the western side of Australia. Every month, Upfield would walk/ride along the length of the fence clearing out fallen trees, replacing rotten fence posts and repairing damage to the netting.

The Rabbit-proof fence. Photo credit: Jean and Fred Hort/Flickr

Upfield had spent nearly twenty years in the outback working at various jobs when he slowly came to realize that he had to make a change.

He wrote of that time: “I realized that I was getting nowhere, and that my only talent was writing, through which I might reach a standard of life more fitting to the growing years and responsibilities.”

Upfield published his first book, The House of Cain, in 1929. It is about an innocent woman who was accused and convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang. But a gang of thieves rescue her from the gaol and whisk her away to a remote outback location to a notorious refuge for murderers. Upfield’s literary breakthrough came shortly after, with the publication of his second novel, The Barrakee Mystery, where he introduced the character of “Boney”, a half-European and half-aboriginal inspector who had a knack for solving difficult cases by finding subtle clues.

Arthur Upfield

By the end of 1930, Upfield had three novels under his belt, and he was already working on his fourth. The new novel would be another detective tale, as usual, but with a twist—this time, the narrative would unfold without the presence of a body for the protagonist, Boney, to uncover. Instead, Boney would have to establish that a murder had been committed, then explain how it had been committed, and finally reveal who committed it. The concept held an undeniable allure; however, it was marred by a single problem—Upfield couldn’t come up with a method to dispose of a body without leaving a trace. The murderer should be able to execute it using tools or materials that were readily available. Burning it to ash in a crematorium or dissolving it in a bath of corrosive acid was out of the question because such appliances were not within the reach of ordinary people in the outback. He could drop the body into an abandoned mine shaft and cover it with tons of earth, but that would not destroy the body; it would merely conceal it and still be a threat to the murderer's security. Faced with this conundrum, Upfield approached his friend George Ritchie.

A boundary rider with his cart and two horses. Arthur Upfield would have used a similar cart, but pulled by two camels. Photo credit: National Library of Australia

Ritchie had a quick answer, as though he had been thinking about killing someone and getting rid of evidence for a while. Ritchie suggested that the murderer burn the victim’s body with firewood, then using a sieve, sift any metal fragments and unburned pieces of bone out of the ash. The metal objects could be thrown down a well, and the bones grind to dust and dispersed in the wind. Upfield thought the method was flawless, but maybe it was too flawless. Even with Bony's superhuman intelligence, it seemed unsolvable. There needed to be a mistake, a critical slip-up, a fatal flaw, that would allow the crime to be figured out. But neither Upfield nor Ritchie could spot any such mistake.

A few days later, Ritchie casually mentioned Upfield’s problem to “Snowy” Rowles, a twenty-five years old, fair-haired bloke, who worked as a stockman at the Camel Station. Rowles regarded Ritchie’s obsession with murder with distaste, and rode off without replying.

Months passed, and one day in December 1929, Rowles departed from Camel Station with a station contractor named James Ryan, and a newcomer named George Lloyd. They were destined for Ryan’s station, some distance away.

Several days later, Ritchie arrived at Camel Station claiming he had met a prospector named James Yates. Yates had told Ritchie that he had seen Rowles driving a car alone. Rowles told Yates that Ryan and Lloyd were walking through the scrub looking for timber, though Yates did not see them himself.

Snowy Rowles with James Ryan's car. Photo credit: Arthur Upfield

On Christmas Eve, 1929, Upfield was with a colleague in the small town of Youanmi when he met Rowles, who told him that Ryan had decided to stay in Mount Magnet and had lent him his truck. Rowles later told another person he had purchased Ryan's truck for £80.

In May 1930, a New Zealander named Louis Carron, who worked at Wydgee Station, quit his job and left in the company of Rowles. At Paynesville, a mining town east of Mount Magnet, Rowles was seen cashing Carron's pay cheque. Carron's friend sent a reply-paid telegram to Rowles at Youanmi asking for information about Carron, but Rowles did not reply.

Soon it became apparent that Carron was missing. Carron had kept regular correspondence with his friends, and it was for this reason that his disappearance was noticed. The area at the time had a large transient population, and for a man to appear or disappear from the area was in no way remarkable. It wasn't until police began looking into Carron's case that they realized that Lloyd and Ryan had also disappeared. Just like Carron, they were last seen with Rowles.

By then, it was well-known in Murchison that Upfield was writing a novel about a “perfect murder”, and the police investigators soon became privy to the murder method outlined. A search was organized and in the vicinity of the 183-mile hut along the rabbit-proof fence, the police found evidence of a large fire. In the ashes of this fire, they found remnants of Carron's body including bones and pieces of skull. Amid the findings was a wedding ring, that was positively linked to Carron through identification by both the jeweler in New Zealand and Carron's spouse.

When detectives were dispatched to apprehend Rowles, they recognized him as John Thomas Smith, a burglary convict who had escaped from the local lock-up in Dalwallinu in 1928. Rowles was arrested and sent back to prison. Later, he was charged for the murder of Carron.

It was evident that Rowles had murdered Carron and burned his body, but he became careless and failed to strictly follow Upfield's brilliant method of disposing of evidence, leaving a few lingering clues that eventually led to his apprehension and subsequent conviction. Similar fires were discovered at Challi Bore, Ryan’s camp, and from the ashes investigators extracted eyelets of boots and metal parts of an accordion, similar to one that Lloyd owned. They also found fragments of bones but these were so small that experts were unable to say whether they belonged to humans or animals.

Assuming that Ryan and Lloyd had discarded their boots and clothing and accordion, having in some manner been broken, before leaving the camp, they would have dropped them to the ground and left. Why go through the troubles of burning them unless the person wished to destroy something of vital importance, something that would prove that Ryan and Lloyd no longer lived?

When Rowles destroyed Carron’s body, he had to create a false reason as to the purpose of the fire. The hut located at the 183-mile mark and the government station Challi Bore proved to be ideal locations for concealing this deception. At both sites kangaroo carcasses were routinely burned, resulting in the presence of substantial piles of ash and animal remains. However, the breaking up bones into fragments was unusual and suspicious.

Circumstantial evidences pointed to a triple murder. The police believed that like Carron, Rowles had disposed of Ryan’s and Lloyd's remains at Challi Bore, but at that time he had been more careful. Consequently, the prosecution struggled to establish conclusive evidence connecting Rowles to the murders of Ryan and Lloyd.

At his trial, Rowles denied murdering Carron. The jury voted him guilty anyway. When asked if he had anything to say, Rowles replied: “I have been found guilty of a crime that has never been committed.” He was hanged at Fremantle Prison on 13 June 1932.

In 1931, Upfield completed his notorious murder-mystery, which he titled The Sands of Windee—Windee being a fictional cattle station where a man named Luke Marks had disappeared. The novel earned him many accolades in the media and among fellow writers.

Upfield went on to write more than 30 books and countless short stories. In the 1970s, Australian television aired a series called Boney based on the character created by Upfield.

# The Murchison Murders by Arthur W. Upfield


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