On Writers

Gatton Man

By Merv Lilley,
McPhee Gribble 1995.


For years after the 1898 sex-slaughter of the Murphy children Norah, Ellen and Michael, confused and implausible men kept giving themselves up for the crime. Merv Lilley gives up his father.

W.J. Lilley left this younger son little lovable memory. He boasted to his wife of his first sexual exploit with his schoolmarm; this wife he throttled and raped; his fascination with the sexuality of dogs led him to masturbate pups and was riveting enough that he liked to shoot a mountain dog at the instant of its climax, or else into the vulva of a bitch on heat he thrust grains of lead shot which the mating dog took under its foreskin for death by infection; he broke the tails of milking cows in a routine he claimed gave him easier access to them with the pail; as a South African road-ganger he dealt with indolent black youngsters by granting freedom and shooting them down as they ran; he castrated all his animals but the useful sires so that virility was the right of the brutally strong; the most tender gesture he made to his younger son was to tongue-kiss him; his stories of romance led his son to think of marriage as a woman in white veils with semen running from her like a serviced cow; he was sexually aroused by his daughter’s admission of pregnancy; he rode off with his tiny grand-daughter to rape and avulse her on a tree stump; in old age he stole in on his sleeping wife to garrote her so she would not outlive him; the very last act of his life and his deathbed attempt to bash with his fists the nurse who was ministering to him.

Only a tough reader will stomach more.

The day after Christmas 1898, the Murphy’s three children took the dog-cart for the local Gatton dance. A search next day found them dead in a roadside paddock. Ellen, the youngest at 18, was lying back to back with her 29-year old brother. Michael was shot through the brain, but likely after death by bashing. His hands had been bound together. Sometime recently he had ejaculated semen. Ellen’s hands were bound, her skull smashed. Her thighs showed nail abrasions, her ripped drawers were bloodied and damp with thick starchy semen. Pathologists believed her a virgin until raped. Behind a tree, Norah lay on a rug, hands tied, skirt high, choked with her blouse and a strap, but she had died from a blow with a waddy. Nail marks, as on Ellen, raped and ruptured. Not far off, the carcass of the horse, shot through the head.

Lilley’s first memory of the Gratton events came as a youngster from a chat with a swagman:

This brother was rooting his sisters and on this Boxing Daynight they’d gone out in a trap to a dance they knew had been cancelled and went to a paddock near Gatton. Their father got wind of this and followed them and killed them and the sulkyhorse. In the morning he sent his dairy hand down to the scent telling him to ride around the country and tell everyone that the children had been killed. The father had cut off the horse’spenis and showed it up one of the girls before killing them.

The queue of suspects had included the father, the dairy hand, others, and a farmhand from the Clarkes’ house near by, ‘Clarke’s man’, Thomas Day. Lilley’s thesis and belief has Thomas Day an alias of W.J. Lilley.

In a trail-wise tapping-of-the-nose voice, which meets the time and region of the telling, he makes his case in parabolas more than directly, conceding that none of this is forensically sufficient. Not enough to hang even the ghost of a man: the timing of his father’s absence, the similarities with Clarke’s man in stature and foible, not even his mother’s early belief that her husband was the Gratton killer, which she later recants:‘”He was a good old bloke,” she tells me with conviction.’

Inspector Urquhart stands in Lilley’s way. Urquhart came to the investigation a few days too late for a warm trail, checked Thomas Day’s movements and a bloodstain on Day’s sweater, concluded the meat-handler’s explanation plausible, and admonished a junior for maintaining suspicion. Lilley’s passionate rebuttal of Urquhart takes this path:‘Had he fallen in love with Thomas Day; wanted thatbeardless boy forgotten about, his own reputationmuch at stake?’

No suggestion of Urquhart and Clarke’s man as lovers has come through the decades. The strength of Lilley’s undeniable belief is on show here, and in two other instances.‘I can’t accept… Urquhart’s assumption that the Murphyswere decoyed into the paddock to help a hurt man’comes twenty-even pages after Urquhart’s journal entry,‘That while doing so (travelling) they were bailed up by aman with a firearm, some distance on the Gatton sideof the rails and told that he intended to take them into thepaddock and rob them’,which is also Lilley’s belief. And Lilley is keen to press a fourth murder to the same killer, a boy and his horse shot at Oxley, of which‘The only person to put the two cases together was Constable Christie,’but we have already read Urquhart’s note,‘I have been much impressed with the many similaritiesbetween the two crimes at Oxley and Gatton… and amunable to free my mind of a suspicion that the samehand was at work in both.’

Nitpicking, and not to be thought important, beyond the passion of Lilley’s direction. This direction is not set so much by the evidence, as by a knowledge of personality. In the book’s very best passages he is saying: I know the personality capable of horror of this magnitude, it is one alone, and it is within my family.

Two other works on the Gatton murders are Rodney Hall’s Captivity Captive which moves the crimes to NSW for the purposes of imagination, and the Gibney brothers’ The Gatton Mystery. Lilley must have felt some irritability when he read Hall’s novel, although not enough to influence him against using the same publisher. He interviewed the Gibneys, but was not encouraged by the brothers, and his response is best found in another part of the book altogether:

If I were to listen to those who say, ‘You can’t prove anything.
A good story, but you can’t prove it,’ I can only say, ‘Well I’mtelling it and I’m doing my best.’

Why is he telling it, this most brutal and disgusting of family secrets? Of arranging a meeting between his daughter and his mother, who have never before met, he writes:‘This is the bloodline, this is the best I can do. I am theyoungest, the poet son. Some day I will write the familyhistory, or part of it.’

He does not shirk the other issue, male bloodline, although it’s mentioned only obliquely. W.J.’s father was the Bully of Dorset, feared Orangeman, hater of Catholics, brawling as dirtily as any beast. And he, Merv Lilley, prize-fighter, onetime drifter, union enforcer who once tried to run a scab down with a car, sees the capacity for truly effective violence as an array of skills whichStay with you, the mind does not reject what it has learnt.
It’s like a drug addition…. A dangerous business to bepoised forever to strike. But that is what society eventuallyrequires of you, each man the gladiator passing the message on –

Outing the truth is never alone a motive for a book like this. And here he has other family to think of, including a sister who doesn’t believe him, and children of his own who might have been kept from it. So fierce vengeance is here too, in plainly faced form, but also maybe a hope for expiation, a circuit-breaking of the terrors of inheritance and the forces of rural capitalism which are its seedbed.

To this end, the last words here should be Merv Lilley’s own, setting his father to rights, the graveyard epitaph:

He was the most
fucking old cunt
of all
fucken old cunts
rolled into one.

For Meanjin Magazine
Melbourne University 1995.