The Elvira Mystery

Two years before the murder at Mount Magnet, the Elvira mine, located north east of Coolgardie and near the Red Bluff, had been sitting abandoned for over a year. On 9 June 1896, Joseph Sorensen lodged an application and was granted a lease over the site.

Red Bluff at Coolgardie circa 1901. Courtesy of State Library of Western Australia.

Work began immediately. Joseph started clearing the mine out and on 11 August he was working on the north shaft. Having sent up dozens of buckets during the course of the work, he moved a slab of wood and came across earth mixed with stones. He began picking it away and as he did so, a skull rolled out.

Joseph put the skull to the side and continued with what he was doing. He removed three or four shorter slabs in a different spot, dug out some of the dirt and found a boot with a bone protruding from it. At that point he deemed it wise to report the matter to the police in Coolgardie.

Coolgardie Police Camp circa 1895.

Upon making the report, Joseph returned to the Elvira accompanied by Constable John Walsh. Once they arrived, they descended 100 feet to the bottom of the mine shaft and Joseph pointed out the skull, neck vertebrae, bottom jaw and boot.

Placing the bones in the corner of the shaft, Constable Walsh picked up a shovel and started digging. After about 15 minutes he uncovered three more planks lying “north and south parallel about 6 inches apart.

Underneath the planks was about six to eight inches of earth mixed with quartz and upon comparing it to the quartz in another drive, he found it to be the same.

…after carefully removing the earth and quartz I came upon portion of a skeleton the shin bones, and on minutely examining the skeleton I found a lot of bark placed along the left side of the skeleton most of which was rotten.

Constable Walsh’s deposition at the Inquest. Courtesy of SROWA (AU WA S76- cons430 1902/5032).

Between the legs and close to the feet was the remains of an old soft hat. Once all the bones were uncovered, Constable Walsh placed them in a bag along with a quantity of soil that was beneath them and brought it to the surface.

The skeleton was found lying with the feet facing north, the head facing east and the body curved towards the west. The shaft itself was only about four feet wide and it was assumed that that was why the remains were found in such a position.

Map showing the position in which the remains were found at the bottom of the Elvira mine shaft. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia.

On the following day the bag was taken to the hospital morgue for closer examination of the bones. An Inquest was opened and presided over by Justice of the Peace and Acting Coroner, Isidore Cohn as well as three jurors, Hamilton Harvey, Edward Carter and John Lamp. They all viewed the remains and at the request of the police, the Inquest was adjourned for eight days in order to gather more evidence.

Constable Walsh noted that he observed a large hole (nearly two inches wide) in the skull near the right ear and several teeth missing from both jaws. Still buckled around the waist was an old leather belt and at the back were the remains of serge trousers. Most of the clothing had disintegrated however he believed he found portions of a crimean shirt as well as a flannel undershirt. The leather boots survived well and were described as size eight blucher boots. The bones were still inside them and on the feet were the remains of cotton socks. There were no identifying features apart from a quantity of hair and whiskers that were dark brown turning grey.

The man was European and was about 50 years of age. It was suggested that he was stealing timber and had come to his death by way of an accident (i.e. falling down the mine shaft) however that theory was soon discounted. The hole did not appear to have been caused by a fall and looked as though it was caused by “a blow from a heavy instrument.

The affair consequently has taken a more mysterious turn than ever, and it is possible that the inquiries being made by the police may bring to light something of a sensational nature.

Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911); 13 August 1896; Page 4; Local and General

The manner in which the body was found also went towards proving that the man had met with foul play and was then buried in the mine shaft. The remains were covered with bark, earth, planks of wood and then more earth. The wood in particular was arranged neatly on top of the remains; an unlikely scenario if the man had been killed by the planks and earth falling on top of him. Joseph further confirmed that when he was in the shaft nothing was visible except earth and stones. If he had not decided to clean out the shaft, the remains would likely have remained undiscovered for a longer period of time.

If concealment was aimed at the bottom of the shaft was a place well chosen to bury a man.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 15 August 1896; Page 6; A Coolgardie Mystery

On 15 August, Constable Walsh returned to the Elvira mine with Detective James Smyth. With help from Joseph, they descended the mine and proceeded to clean out the bottom of the shaft. Each bucket of earth was closely examined on the surface. There was hope that something to identify the man would be found amongst the dirt however they only uncovered smaller bone fragments, more hair and part of a pocket containing sixpence, two three penny pieces and a packet of cigarettes.

Detective Smyth was instructed to take over the case and he began by trying to identify the victim. He contacted a number of people known to have worked in the Elvira before it was abandoned and obtained a list of names of all the men who worked there from 9 August 1894 until November 1895.

A list of men who worked at the Elvira. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia.

The last two men to work on the mine were C. T. Taylor and John Smith. While Mr Taylor was thought to be in Broken Hill, no one knew what had become of John Smith. John was about 50 years of age, had similar coloured hair to that found near the victim and wore about a size seven or eight boots. He was a miner and was described as a “very quiet inoffensive man“. A notice was placed in the Police Gazette requesting information from the public however it appears nothing came to light.

The Inquest resumed on the 19 August and was again adjourned. The police were still hoping to identify the man and requested more time to follow up a lead. That lead related to a man named Bill Latham. Rumours had spread that Bill had once worked on the Elvira and had been missing for some time. Detective Smyth investigated and eventually found Bill alive and well.

With no other leads to follow up, the Inquest was completed on 26 August 1896. Joseph Sorensen, Constable Walsh, Detective Smyth, James Anderson and Dr Andrew McNeil gave evidence.

James Anderson worked on the Elvira until June 1895 and gave a statement confirming that none of the men he had worked with at the time were missing. He explained that wooden slabs were used in the mine as ‘staging’ to create a bridge between two drives however when the work ended, the slabs were taken down and placed inside the drives. Referring to the slabs James said, “I am of opinion that they could not possibly fall from there to the bottom of the shaft.” He did however admit that heavy rainfall often caused the earth on the sides of the mine shaft to fall down.

Dr McNeil had examined the remains and observed that three bones of the left arm were broken, the second cervical vertebrae was missing and the third was broken. The hole in the skull was nearly two inches in diameter and a fissure fracture extended back by about four inches. Part of the temporal bone was missing and while the doctor admitted a large stone could create such an injury, he was adamant that falling down the mine shaft would not. He could not say for certain whether the injury occurred before or after death.

Joseph’s evidence consisted of describing how he had found the remains. Questions were raised by the jury as to whether he had hit the skull with his pick but he was certain he did not as it had “rolled away in front of the pick.” His statement with regards to the slabs also went to show that they had likely been placed there and had not fallen down the shaft.

The planks were laying there as if they were placed there to cover up the corpse, had they fallen there they would be placed there more haphazard.

Joseph Sorensen’s deposition at the Inquest. Courtesy of SROWA (AU WA S76- cons430 1902/5032).

Detective Smyth gave similar evidence to Constable Walsh. In addition he stated that despite sifting through the dirt and making detailed inquiries he could find “no trace of anything that would lead to identification” of the deceased.

With all the evidence produced it was up to the jury to decide whether the man had met his death accidentally or by foul play. After five minutes deliberation they ruled that the man came to his death “By the hands of some person or persons unknown, and our verdict is murder.

There was little to go on and investigations continued as best they could. In particular, the approximate time of death was a point of contention. Dr McNeil believed the man had been dead for 12 to 15 months. If however the remains had been exposed to the elements he thought a similar rate of decomposition would occur within six to nine months. Adding doubt to the time frame was the fact that the windlass (allowing access in and out of the mine) was removed in November 1895 when the mine was abandoned. A person on their own would likely struggle to get out of the mine without the aid of the windlass or a second person to help.

Joseph returned to work on the Elvira and on 1 September 1896 he was working at the bottom of the south shaft when he dug out a small calico bag. He handed it over to Detective Smyth who recorded that it contained: one blue cardigan jacket, one linen shirt, one bath towel, two neck ties, one hair brush with black bristles, one pair of braces, two linen collars, one plain black comb, one razor and case, two square ivory cuff studs, one glass injector and one small account book with the name ‘Hewitt & Taylor’ on the cover. Written in pencil inside the book were details of goods received such as sugar and flour.

There was no name or means of identifying who the items belonged to and even though it was found in the same mine as the remains, Detective Smyth reported to Inspector Joseph Farley that there was “no reason to believe that this has any connection with the remains found in the north shaft.” In his opinion the bag had only been there for about two months and was likely the “proceeds of some local larceny from a boarding house or Hotel.

The items were stored at the police camp in Coolgardie. At the end of the month Inspector Farley requested detailed descriptions of everything found however when Detective Smyth went to collect the items, most of them were missing. Indicating that some person or persons had likely taken them, he noted that it was “another instance of how much an office is required here.

Coolgardie Police Station circa 1894. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

After the discovery of the bag, the investigation stalled. No further clues came to light that enabled the police to identify the man. On 9 October 1896, Inspector Farley requested an update as to how the case was going.

What further enquiries are being made into this matter. Something must be done to sift the case to the bottom. So far the enquiry appears to have dropped entirely out of sight.

Inspector Farley’s request for information dated 9 October 1896. Courtesy of SROWA (AU WA S76- cons430 1902/5032).

His observation was correct. Detective Smyth had attempted to find out who the man was but had reached a point where he had exhausted all possible leads. He explained that “with a roving population like what has to be dealt with on these fields, and the isolated position of the shaft where the remains were found, it is more than difficult to bring this matter to a satisfactory issue.

He assured the Inspector that he would not give up and as confirmation of that assertion he stated that he would be sending the list of Elvira workers throughout the district in order to ensure each man could be traced.

Should any such development take place, I shall report to you at once.

Detective Smyth’s response to Inspector Farley dated 18 October 1896. Courtesy of SROWA (AU WA S76- cons430 1902/5032).

No further developments took place and the man who met his death on the goldfields and was buried in the Elvira mine remained unidentified. The perpetrator likewise remained unidentified. The Inquest papers, reports and documents were placed within a folder labelled with the words “Human remains found at ‘Elvira’ lease” and stamped with “Police Department Detective Office“. At some point they were sent to Perth and a member of the police force (perhaps Inspector Farley) decided that the crime had similarities to one committed years later. Instead of remaining on its own as a separate case, it was placed within a larger file relating to the murder committed at Mount Magnet.

Sources:

  • State Records Office of Western Australia; Western Australian Police Department; Crown Law – remains found in abandoned shaft, Mount Magnet; Reference: AU WA S76- cons430 1902/5032.
  • 1896 ‘Advertising’, Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911), 10 June, p. 2. , viewed 22 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article216672082
  • State Library of Western Australia; Red Bluff, Coolgarde [picture]; Call Number: 008582D.
  • State Library of Western Australia; Coolgardie Police Station; Call Number: 090463PD.
  • 1896 ‘LOCAL AND GENERAL.’, Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911), 13 August, p. 4. , viewed 26 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article216675343
  • 1896 ‘A COOLGARDIE MYSTERY.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 15 August, p. 6. , viewed 26 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84464439
  • State Library of Western Australia; Police Gazette, Western Australia; No. 36; Wednesday, September 2, 1896; Page 195.
  • 1896 ‘Personal Pars.’, Coolgardie Mining Review (WA : 1895 – 1897), 29 August, p. 9. , viewed 26 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article232725879
  • 1896 ‘COUNTRY.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 20 August, p. 5. , viewed 26 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3098089
  • 1896 ‘THE GRUESOME DISCOVERY AT THE ELVIRA MINE.’, Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911), 27 August, p. 7. , viewed 26 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article216676179
  • 1896 ‘THE COOLGARDIE MYSTERY.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 3 September, p. 3. , viewed 27 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84461087
  • 1895 ‘Water Drinking.’, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 – 1912), 30 March, p. 650. , viewed 27 Dec 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article162739437

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