stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
Many towns in the Parkes Shire have interesting histories; of sporting triumphs and heydays that look back to a time of larger populations. However only one village in the Parkes Shire has a darker shade to its past, with links to the first serial killer in Australian history. That village is Yarrabandai, one of the locations chosen by Frank Butler in his killing spree which terrorised the colony of New South Wales. Yet there is more to Yarrabandai than this undesirable link to notoriety. In fact, Yarrabandai has a connection to one of the greatest Australian war heroes, Rawdon Middleton.
Yarrabandai the town took its name from a nearby sheep station (Source: Royal Australian Historical Society Volume 13 Part 2 (1927) p143) Like many other locations from the era before Federation, there are a few different spellings: Yarrabandai, Yarrabundi, and Yarrabundy can all be found in historical documents.
There is reference to Yarrabandai as early as 1859, but this is for a town on the Macleay River – too far north to be describing the area of interest to historyparkes! The earliest mention for Yarrabandai in Cunningham County is in 1864 – with spelling of Yarrabundi – for a transfer of runs in the Wellington District, with Yarrabundi listed alongside Brogan Plains and Warrigal (Source: New South Wales Government Gazette 22 January 1864 [Issue No.15] p.170) When searching on Trove, all references in 1850s-1860s see spelling of ‘Yarrabundi’. By 1875 there is a note in New South Wales Government Gazette of “Yarrabundy Paddock” in relation to an impounding by Edols & Co (Source: Trove). Yarrabandai’s railway station opened on March 1st, 1898. Sadly it is now closed, although the exact date of closure is unknown (Source: NSWrail.net) In 1898 there are many references to wool and stock and station agents coming from Yarrabandai. The detailed description of the Western railway line indicates it is the Yarrabandai of interest. Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder lists a railway timetable with Yarrabandai being the third stop after Condobolin and Derriwang on the way to Sydney. (Source: Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder Friday January 13 1899 p.15)
There is also mention of snow in Yarrabandai in 1922, from a report in Western Champion 13 July 1922 p.20.
Yarrabandai has an infamous link to Australian history. The first serial killer in Australia, known by one of his aliases as Frank Butler, conducted one of his gruesome murders in Yarrabandai.
The tale of Frank Butler, and the terror in which he gripped the colony of New South Wales is akin to Jack The Ripper in 1888. Indeed Frank Butler almost caused an international scandal. His attempt to escape to San Francisco had New South Wales police in hot pursuit. With New South Wales a colony any extradition needed approval from London. Despite occurring before the 20th Century, the NSW police received the required paperwork from London and still arrived by ship ahead of Frank Butler in San Francisco – although the next drama was a dispute between America and New South Wales over the bill for extradition!
The late local historian, Len Unger, wrote a booklet – The Butler Murder Case (1896-97) partly due to the local connection. Unger details that a meeting place for Burgess (Butler’s first victim) and Frank Butler was the Occidental Hotel. This building was owned by Amable Mazoudier and it stood where Woolworths supermarket is in Parkes today. Unger reported that after the trial made such a media sensation that “…some local residents recalled having played billiards with [Frank Butler] at the hotel.”
Frank Butler had been a thief and a forger but his crimes were opportunistic in nature. However he had tired of the effort required to carry out these crimes, and decided for a more nefarious solution. Butler would take advantage of lust for gold that was still sweeping the colony and the lacking police administration which made changing your identity possible, as described by Robert Travers in his book Murder In The Blue Mountains:
Everyone in Sydney had heard the true story of a prospector who came to Lucknow with twelve-and-sixpence in 1862, and left a year later with twelve thousand pounds.
It was to the far west that Frank Butler took his first victim. As with so many multiple murders, the facts concerning the early, successful killings are scarce. It was only when Butler was being chased across the Pacific that his first victim was discovered. Even today, his full name is unknown.
August 1896 saw Frank Butler settled at Gilham’s Hotel. His carefully written advertisement, offering to go partners on equal shares in a prospecting trip, was at first places in the evening paper.
Finding no takers, he next put his notice in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was to prove so successful that in future all his lures were to be cast amid the wider readership of the Herald. His first reply came from a new arrival in Sydney called Burgess.
Burgess, whose first name was never known, was thought to have been a Norwegian…. He was young, about twenty-eight, a slim fair-haired fellow with a moustache. Some gold fillings in his front teeth presuppose a reasonable prosperity. How he met Butler cannot be known but he turned up at Gilham’s late in the evening of 12 August asking for a bed.
Mrs Gilham was about to refuse when Butler, whom she knew as Mr Harwood, came into the hotel and called: ‘It’s all right, Mrs Gilham, that’s the young man going with me tomorrow whom I spoke about.’
Burgess was given a single room for the night and left early next morning with Butler. He never signed the hotel register and the landlady never associated the young man with the missing Burgess until ‘Harwood’ had been exposed as Butler.R. Travers (1972) pp.12-13
Burgess had no family and only a few friends. Frank Butler knew that he was perfect, and he made sure that their journey from Pitt Street Sydney to the west met as few people as possible.
Harwood [one of Frank Butler’s aliases] said his farewells to Mrs Gilham, and the two men boarded the wagon Burgess had purchased. Burgess shook the reins, and the horses began trotting along the streets of Sydney. The men drove for most of the day, their small talk mostly focused on the finer points of prospecting. Harwood answered Burgess’s every little question with good humour and, whilst he was no expert, he knew enough to make himself sound like one – anything he didn’t know, he simply improvised.
They made camp near Parramatta, and continued the next morning towards Penrith. Burgess suggested they stay the night in one of the many inns but Harwood declined the request, citing that too many fellow miners were likely to be there; they didn’t want too many people knowing where they were headed……
……Burgess listened intently as the miles continued to pass by. Harwood moved on to tales about his time in the American Army, the Canadian Mounties and his various other jobs. He told Burgess of how he had become a sailor, and of all his adventures around the world, particularly in Chile and Brazil. Burgess, despite having seen some things in his time, was in awe and wonderment at all he was hearing and, had he paid more attention to Harwood’s boasting about his dubious activities in Brazil, may have decided to pull the cart in at Bathurst and part company. However, when Harwood began boasting about his huge gold finds in the west, Burgess completely forgot about everything else, his mind consumed with dreams of riches as they drove through the town and continued out west towards Parkes.J.K. Foster (2013) pp.9-10
Travers continues to tell the sad fate of Burgess:
The pair were next seen eleven days later camped in the scrub forty miles out of Parkes. George Woodford, a local man passing by, called at their camp, as is usual in the bush. He found them reticent, and although they talked a little about gold they would not give their names. Butler sat washing some stones as it to find alluvial gold. The friendly countryman attempted to point out that he was doing it badly, but was quickly rebuffed.
Woodford recalled how he had said to Butler, ‘That is not the way.’
Butler, in a sharp tone, had merely retorted, ‘Allow me!’
The bushman left the two prospectors to their stones and returned home. Some days later Alexander Evans, another local, noticed the camp at Yarrabundie Creek but saw only Butler. Soon after Woodford had gone he must have murdered his companion.
Frank Butler did not believe in using his own energy to dig graves for his victims. Burgess, like the others, dug his own grave under the impression he was opening a mining shaft. Burgess was later found in this shallow grave because of its lack of depth. Perhaps the visit of a curious stranger had made Butler impatient to do the deed and get away. Certainly if he had buried the body deeper it might well have lain there for decades.
There is a touch of pathos in the description later given of young Burgess’s property. His cap, tossed casually into the grave by the murderer, was found undamaged. In the lining, the police could still discern the advertising catch which had probably persuaded the emigrant to buy it, a tag which read:
Coupon cap – insured £100 against fatal railway accidents – world wide.R. Travers (1972) pp.14-15
Frank Butler would go on to kill at least three more men with the same modus operandi, except the location was in Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. Butler knew the police would begin searching for the missing men, so using his last victim’s identity papers, signed on the four-masted barque Swanhilda at Newcastle where it was bound for San Francisco. Assuming Lee Weller’s identity – he was a ship’s captain – could have been the downfall for Butler, staying in Newcastle which was full of sailors. However Butler did not run into anyone who knew the real Lee Weller, and it was only after Swanhilda had set sail did the police realise the murderer that had terrorised New South Wales was now America-bound.
The chase, led by Detective James McHattie, saw the police arrive in San Francisco before Swanhilda (a remarkable feat given Swanhilda‘s record) and together with San Francisco police made the arrest of Frank Butler. However the drama didn’t end there. As Dr Rachel Franks reports on Dictionary of Sydney website:
After a huge fight put up by Butler’s American lawyers, he was sent back to Sydney to face trial. (The New South Wales government received a bill from American authorities for £6,000, or US$28,000, to cover the cost of Butler’s US-based incarceration and legal fees. After some disputes, the colony eventually paid a reduced claim of £4,418.)
The trial of Frank Butler for the murder of Lee Weller (the strongest case) commenced at Darlinghurst Courthouse on 14 June 1897.
The court was overrun and those who turned up to watch were not disappointed. The proceedings were spectacular. The selection of the jury saw an attempt by the defense to exclude anyone employed by a newspaper. The Chief Justice refused, stating that being a journalist was not a cause for disqualification. Half a dozen men were fined for failing to present themselves for jury duty. Butler himself had a hand in jury selection when he calmly stood up in the dock and challenged the selection of 19 potential jurors.
There were numerous witnesses and a stunning array of evidence, including photographs of the crime scene at Glenbrook, clothing of the victim, a knife, and a rifle, as well as personal items belonging to Weller.
There were also re-enactments. One of the police officers testifying was asked to lay on the floor of the courtroom and show the jury the position that Weller was found in. Even more dramatically, there was a demonstration for the jury at the request of Butler’s defense – showing the pistol in different positions—to determine if it was possible that Weller had shot himself in the back of the head.
There were attempts to control the crowds. There were delays. There was also, on one of the occasions when the prisoner was led through the tunnel that connected the gaol to the courthouse, a violent scuffle. After losing his fight with police, Butler appeared in court, his coat was buttoned up high and tight, covering up a self-inflicted injury. There was another delay when Butler collapsed in the dock.
A guilty verdict was inevitable and the death sentence was carried out on 16 July 1897 in Darlinghurst Gaol. Hangman Robert Howard (aka “Nosey Bob”) was in attendance, as he had been for decades. The noose was put into place around Butler’s neck and it was reported he impatiently ordered Howard to: ‘Let go!’. The lever was pulled and Butler fell ‘7ft 5in, or 7ft 6in’. He died instantly and the last great criminal case of the Australian colonial era came to a close.Dr R. Franks on www.dictionaryofsydney.org
Frank Butler was a sensation not just in Australian media, but also internationally. Here is a report from The Irish Times highlighting the drama of Butler’s pursuit and capture:
It was an impressive-looking vessel, but its appearance wasn’t the only factor that made the Swanhilda remarkable. In San Francisco on February 4th of the same year, the barque and its crew were part of a police scheme to capture an elusive conman and serial murderer, Frank Butler – a Dorset-born wanderer who was fleeing Australia and the law. A number of young men had been found dead in New South Wales’s remote Blue Mountains area and Butler was the prime suspect.
“The Swanhilda, the vessel on which the man Butler, who is charged with the recent mysterious murders in New South Wales, sailed from Australia, arrived here today,” begins the report from San Francisco, which appeared in The Irish Times the day after the covert operation.
“Special arrangements were made for Butler’s arrest before he could have a chance to escape ashore, and the detectives were sent to a point down the bay last night to watch for the incoming vessel. A pre-arranged signal was to be made to them by means of the whistle of the tug sent to tow the Swanhilda in, but the detectives did not hear it. After a time, however, they recognised a red light signal from the tug, which indicated to them that Butler was on board the sailing vessel.”
Six detectives and a handful of reporters set out in a smaller boat, meeting the Swanhilda at Fort Point, at the southern part of what is now the Golden Gate Bridge. When the authorities boarded the ship, the crew lined up for inspection. As arranged, the captain made sure to stand in front of Butler, who was travelling under the name Lee Weller – he had assumed the identity of one of his victims. “This was done, and at the same time, a local police sergeant covered the accused with his revolver. Butler threw up his hands at once and he was promptly handcuffed.”
In the face of capture, he still played ignorant, insisting his name was Weller. “Although completely surprised, he remained remarkably cool, and calmly smoked a cigarette as he was taken ashore.”
The truth is, at the time, nobody knew Butler’s real name. What caught people’s attention were his crimes, dubbed “The Australian bush murders” in Irish media. The exact number of victims isn’t known, but by the end, he was convicted of three murders of young men in the isolated Australian wilds. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, he used classified ads in the paper to lure would-be workers to the Blue Mountains with promises of prospecting fortunes. The men dug tirelessly and when the holes were big enough for graves, Butler shot them in the head.
His known victims were captain Lee Weller, a man called Preston and another called Burgess – though he was heavily implicated in the murder of another man, Davis, but wouldn’t divulge the details while in custody, he said, because he didn’t want to get another person in trouble.
He was extradited to Australia and on the voyage, flashes of other possible murders became apparent, according to another report in The Irish Times on June 19th. The credibility of his professions were questionable: “When in a talkative mood, Butler was full of reminiscences, some of which were so startling as to earn for him from one of his custodians the appellation of ‘A born liar’.”
Though chatty and full of ramblings, he didn’t like discussing his time in the Blue Mountains.
“Butler was questioned why when in Sydney he advertised for so many miners, and replied: ‘Because I wanted to get some; I knew plenty of people in Sydney, but not miners.’ – ‘Then why did you take Captain Lee Weller?’ – He became silent, and spoke upon another subject.
“In every instance where the attempt was made to link him with any tragedies which took place in New South Wales, he made apparent that the questions were irksome.”
The short Irish Times report that signalled the arrival of Swanhilda in the Liffey [the River Liffey flows through the centre of Dublin] indicates authorities thought he may have been responsible for up to 15 other murders, but he was convicted only on the three mentioned. He was hanged in Darlinghurst Prison at 9am on July 17th, 1897, according to a report that day in the West Australian Perth. He was businesslike on the day, according to the paper, showing an uncharacteristic “fortitude” on the gallows until the end – his last words to the executioner: “Let her go.”
As for Swanhilda, the Glasgow-built ship integral to Butler’s capture, it too would meet its fate in grim terms. Thirteen years after Butler’s hanging, the ship, captained then by a man named Pyne, struck land at Staten Island while en route to Chile from Cardiff. On May 16th, 1910, visibility was low and it was getting dark when the ship ran aground in misty weather and with a half-gale blowing, according to a report in The Irish Times on July 14th that year.
When the boat crashed, the captain ordered all hands on deck, and began releasing the ship’s two lifeboats. He boarded one with his wife, whom he had just recently married.
“As the captain’s boat, in which was his wife, was being lowered, something went wrong with the fall tackle and she was capsized, and all the occupants being thrown into the sea. Lifebuoys were thrown from the ship, all but three, who swam 200 yards to the shore, were drowned.” In all, Swanhilda’s captain, his new bride and 12 of the crew members died on its final voyage.Dean Ruxton on The Irish Times website
The most famous person to have lived in Yarrabandai was Rawdon Hume “Ron” Middleton. The family had moved west from Tamworth area to Gilgandra for Middleton’s primary and high school years. Middleton finished high school during the Great Depression, a time when one third of people in NSW were out of work. Stuart Bill, author of Middleton VC tells how Middleton came to live and work in Yarrabandai:
Towards the end of 1938, Sid Lee, the owner of Claremont at Larras Lee, twenty miles to the south of Nebraska, was on the lookout for a manager of his other property, Leewang, which was near Yarrabandai about fifteen miles west of Bogan Gate in central New South Wales. Sid Lee’s son, Jim recalls the occasion:
Frank Middleton’s term as manager of Nebraska was coming to an end. He was getting on in years and was becoming tired of packing up and moving every few years and when my father mentioned to him that he wanted a manager for Leewang he jumped at the idea. Leewang was one of a number of mixed farming properties around Bogan Gate on the eastern, western and southern sides which had resulted from the subdivision of Burrawang in the 1890s and after World War I. Early in 1939 Rawdon was appointed as overseer – he was real overseer material and a fine looking fellow although slightly stooped and not tall, and he had a moustache. He was a particularly strong character and a very considerate chap who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and he was a wonderful horseman too, as was his brother, Osman.S. Bill (1991) pp.41-42
Stuart Bill interviewed a number of people who knew Rawdon Middleton and the community he lived in:
Settlements such as Yarrabandai and Bogan Gate were quite small but were centres for rather large districts. For example, Bogan Gate drew on about a hundred farms within a ten-mile radius with life being centred on the church, tennis courts, local hall and the recreation ground which was used for cricket and football.
A dance was held every Saturday night, finishing about midnight, and during the winter months there were four major balls at which formal dress was worn. Osman was the outgoing member of the Middleton family and attended all dances and balls whereas Rawdon was a more retiring type but a person one always like to have as a friend. He played cricket with the Yarrabandai team, the only occasions on which he played cricket at Bogan Gate being the inter-town matches. He was the only person I ever saw who could top-spin a tennis ball a foot from the ground.S. Bill (1991) p.41
Percy Hawke, the owner of Springfield, to the north of Yarrabandai, was also interviewed by Stuart Bill:
Yarrabandai was quite a community then with three streets and we had six [tennis] courts all but one of which were used for weekend tournaments – we kept one for the children. Rawdon played tennis there occasionally but more often at Bogan Gate.S. Bill (1991) p.42
A relative of the Middleton family, Betty Croaker (then Betty Broughton) stayed with the Middletons at Yarrabandai at Leewang:
The Middletons had invited me and my sister, Tid, to have a holiday there. I remember Rawdon was learning morse code and practising on his morse key – at the time everybody was talking about joining up. Life was very simple – we rode horses and went to the local pictures on Saturday nights. They had a pet emu which for some reason delighted in chasing my sister to the toilet, which was outside, hoping to give her a good peck before she could slam the door. This would always amuse Rawdon and Osman who would stand on the verandah laughing.S. Bill (1991) p.43
There is not enough space here to cover why Rawdon Middleton is considered a hero in the truest sense of the word. Please read the blog post that specifically focuses on Rawdon Middleton VC and learn about his heroics, bravery and concern for his mates during his fatal flight.
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