Chinaman … Found dead with spear through throat.

That is the chilling entry in the Katherine Police Station’s historic Deaths Register.

I’d last seen a facsimile copy of that revealing store of Northern Territory history some years ago when I visited the wonderful Katherine Museum with my dear departed friend Andrew McMillan.

The rest of this entry reads:

1900 … Mounted Constable Stott rode River and bought in Moolooran of Jungman people. He was sentenced to be hung. Bought back to Crescent Lagoon in chains. Stott sent his trackers 50 miles about to gather a crowd. Gave handouts and then explained to the crowd white man’s law and hanging. The crowd enjoyed the hanging and asked for more. Government stopped hangings in the homelands soon after.

I was in the Katherine last week and a passing comment from a friend over dinner about the oldest grave in the Katherine Cemetery (1896) prompted my interest in having another look at the Police Deaths Register.

I had a couple of hours between appointments and was disappointed to be told that the Death Register book was not available as it had been packed while the old building was being renovated.
But the helpful staff and friends (thanks Kerryn, Anne and Toni!) from the Katherine Historical Society were able to provide me with a copy of Mrs B. J. Kinsman’s modest compilation of Death Register entries published by the Society in 2006.

Also in 1900 two buffalo shooters named Moore and McKenzie:

Kidnapped lubras from Terrakol Tribe. One called “Jungle Lilly” tried to run away. They tied her up with wire to prevent her from escaping. She died. Her boy, Napaloora and brother Kopperong killed Moore and McKenzie. They were tried in Darwin, but set free to outcry.

Two years later three chilling entries are sadly typical. The Driver and passenger of a buckboard (names unknown) “Died of thirst between Powell Creek and Anthony’s Lagoon. “Two Chinese” suffered the same fate. 1902 must have been a bad year for water because a mailman known only as Hare, with “Stribes … an Aboriginal woman” with him, died of thirst near Koolunjie water hole. Also that year Mr. H. H. Hopkins and his 18 year old son died of thirst 20 miles NNW of Austral Downs Station.
They were:

… found dead with clothes neatly folded alongside of bodies. One of the horses throats was cut where they had tried to drink the blood.

Five years later an entry refers to one Rodney Claude Spencer who had murdered an Aboriginal called Maniaclucum by shooting him in the temple while he was being held down by two other Aboriginal men in about 1890.
Spencer was sentenced to be hung, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment in Yatala Goal in South Australia. On his release ten years later he returned to the Northern Territory where:

… five years later at Arnhem Bay he was speared to death by Aboriginals.

I like the wry observation that follows:

Police were not too interested in hunting for the murderers of Spencer.

Suicide appears regularly in the Death Register, with two bizarre explosive examples standing out:

1923 – Fillot (Freddie) Romonovitch – Suicide. Placed a dynamite cap to his head and hit it. came from Russia. Aged 30.

and

1929 – Edward Clandinning. Aged 59. A miner at Maranboy. An explosion was heard in the vicinity of deceased’s camp. He had blown his head off with dynamite.

Maranboy – a mining area to the south-east of Katherine – was the centre of more than a few suicides. This report comes from The Northern Standard in 1932.

The following reference appears in the May 2012 edition of the Northern Territory police magazine Citation, from the photographic recollections of the late Chief Inspector Jim Mannion.
From his extensive policing experience across the Northern Territory these two instances from Maranboy stand out.

There are two photographs relating to the l948 suicide of a man at Maranboy.

In the first instance, the person placed a large handwritten note, displayed on top of a billycan and held in place by sticks, asking that the police be sent to find his “old carcass” in a truck.

It continued: “Sorry for the trouble. Cheerio”.

The other note with the body at the Maranboy railway siding and addressed to the coroner said that there were 13 pounds ($26) to cover burial expenses in Katherine.

“Nobody was to be blamed … Yours in life. PS: Cheerio to all. Goodbye”.

Suicide emerges on the number plate of a burnt out motorbike found near Katherine (below).

Maranboy was a very dangerous place indeed.

In 1915 Ah Sin, aged 60, was found by police hanging from his hut at the wolfram mine at Maranboy. That same year fellow Chinaman Ah Que “died of malnutrition” and was buried at Maranboy.

In 1916 Michael Synott had been at Maranboy “only a few weeks when he contracted fever and died aged 55”. Later that year Thomas Durn suffered the same fate.

In 1930 Edward Arthur Guild undoubtedly hastened his own death when, after being admitted to the Maranboy Hospital on 8 January “suffering from alcohol poisoning” while recovering from a bout of malaria he then returned to Katherine and went on a drinking binge which accelerated his death on 11 January.

I’m looking forward to having a closer look at the Deaths Register when next I’m back in Katherine and the work on the Katherine Museum is finished and that material can emerge from storage.

In the meantime there is a useful list of NT cemeteries at the Australian Cemeteries website – particularly useful if you are a grey nomad cruising around the NT during the dry season looking for interesting spots to drop into! Tony Roberts’ “Frontier Justice, A History of the Gulf Country to 1900 is a powerful examination of the history of that gateway to the NT.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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