Lost at Yelbeni

For six months, William McCracken worked hard as a labourer on Richard Jones’s farm near Yelbeni. He had left his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children, William (3), Robert (20 months), and Elizabeth (four weeks), behind in Perth. In early November, he returned to reunite the family, and on 10 November 1911, they left by train for the farm.

The journey to Yelbeni was long and slow. They arrived at the railway siding at 10 pm and then travelled by cart for nine miles. After a two-hour stopover at a neighbour’s place, they finally arrived at 2 am. In the morning, William went to the siding to pick up some goods. Robert was likewise up early and was outside playing at about 8 am.

Not quite two years old, Robert was chubby, had grey-blue eyes, light blonde hair and a birthmark on the left side of his mouth. He was wearing a brown velvet coat and boots and socks. He was not wearing pants, nor was he wearing a hat. Elizabeth called out to him. Concerned that he was not dressed appropriately for the hot sun, she ducked inside to fetch his hat. When she returned, he was gone.

Robert was only out of Elizabeth’s sight for about three minutes. She yelled his name, and he cried out in response. She rushed to where she heard him, but he was nowhere to be seen. Within half an hour, Constable Robert Oliver from Goomalling (who was in the area carrying out statistics work) arrived. He began searching the cart tracks with help from the neighbours.

Two hours later, when William returned, Robert was still missing. More neighbours were called, and search parties set out, looking for the boy until 10:30 pm. That night, residents from other districts arrived to help.

At nightfall residents from other districts who had heard the news began to arrive, and early on Sunday morning more than eighty people were scouring the neighborhood in the vicinity of the camp, some on foot and others on horseback.

Northam Courier (WA: 1909 – 1922); 21 November 1911; Page 3; Lost in the Bush

On Monday, 13 November, Constable Christopher McArthur and Aboriginal trackers from Kellerberrin arrived. Under the leadership of John Plummer, for six days, about 150 people (60 on horseback) searched the surrounding countryside “from sunrise to sunset.” They set off in an ordered fashion, half a chain apart, scouring the bush. They tried again when that was unsuccessful, walking side-by-side for three miles. They faced “dense, prickly scrub,” which proved difficult to negotiate. They went over everything multiple times and came across various dead animals. They found nothing of Robert.

With thousands of acres lying before them, the search was proving to be a difficult task. On Thursday, 16 November, after considering Robert’s age and the heat, they decided to end it. They assumed that the little boy had died in the bush.

A lack of outcome or explanation resulted in the disappearance taking on an air of mystery. People assumed he could not have walked far – why could they find no trace of him? Adding to that was the speculation. By early December, reports filtered to the Sunday Times that the Aboriginal trackers had followed Robert’s tracks for a mile and a half to the edge of a wheatfield. After that, they disappeared. One of the trackers supposedly pointed and said, “Somebody pick him up here.”

There were no other footprints, none made by Robert or another party. No scraps of fabric. No evidence an animal had attacked him. There was an expectation that they should find something, but they found nothing. People soon latched onto a theory that could only explain the lack of clues; someone had kidnapped him.

But the inscrutable bush has yielded no such clue to the mystery.

The Sun (Kalgoorlie, WA : 1898 – 1929); 3 December 1911; Page 5; Groperdom Gossip

Stories and rumours flew around. A journalist from the Sunday Times spoke to Elizabeth’s brother, who recalled that a week after Robert disappeared, a lady who lived in the area approached Elizabeth and said, “If the child were returned safe and sound, would there be any bother?” Elizabeth told her there would not.

The Goomalling-Dowerin Mail later reported on a rumour that the child was picked up by a man half a mile away from the camp and then taken to a farmhouse 25 miles away. Police investigated such claims, but they did not find Robert nor any other clues.

The search, and the story, were abandoned. Elizabeth returned to Perth for a short while, and by April 1912, her daughter Elizabeth (known as Queenie) had fallen ill. She was taken to the Children’s Hospital at Subiaco but sadly died on 27 April, aged seven months. Perhaps indicating the grief Elizabeth was experiencing, she did not place a death notice in the newspaper until July.

On the first anniversary of Robert’s disappearance, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the Sunday Times. In it, she remained adamant that he was still alive. He was too young to walk so far. She believed someone had taken him.

I will say it again, as I have said before, that the bush never deprived me of my little one.

Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954); 17 November 1912; Page 11; Lost in the Bush

Elizabeth had gone to the police multiple times, but they felt unable to do anything. They advised her to accept that he was lost in the bush. She hoped there would be additional publicity and new information uncovered by sharing her story.

Another letter, written by Roy Plummer (a member of the search party), was printed in the following week’s edition. He, too, felt Robert couldn’t disappear without a trace. His age and the way he was dressed swayed his opinion. Furthermore, the scrub was difficult enough for adults to traverse, let alone a toddler. He stated: “The unanimous opinion of the searchers was that the child was not in the bush.

Elizabeth wrote again. She was miles from Perth (possibly back at Yelbeni) and caring for her surviving son. She thanked them for helping her and provided them with a description of her “dear little boy.” She ended her letter, “…I will leave the matter in your hands, and I am sure that I will get my little baby again.

For weeks, articles relating to the mystery were printed in the Sunday Times. On 29 December, a letter from William McCracken appeared. Critical of the Criminal Investigation Department and their lack of action, he had one hope: that whoever took Robert was taking care of him and that they would bring him back again.

The Sunday Times also began sharing stories of similar mysterious disappearances. Children who vanished without a trace, with their remains found years later in a hollow log. Others who inexplicably walked for miles despite adults believing it impossible. Like Elizabeth, their parents held hope that their child was alive and well, the victim of a kidnapping plot. In all examples, there was no sinister motive involved, only the harsh reality of the bush.

While those closely involved in the search dispelled such ‘lost in the bush’ theories, neither could they fully explain the motive behind the kidnapping. The McCrackens were not wealthy. They were not prominent people, and they had no known enemies. Even with no basis for the theory, it still seemed (to them) more probable, given how thoroughly they searched, that someone had kidnapped Robert.

The men on foot walked nearly shoulder to shoulder, and there was no possibility of missing any object, small or otherwise. Every bough was turned over, and the place thoroughly searched for miles.

Sunday Times (Perth, WA: 1902 – 1954); 9 February 1913; Page 6; The Yelbene Mystery

After 1913, the disappearance of Robert Bruce McCracken was forgotten, except among those who were involved in some way. For them, the mystery had left its mark. There were no answers, and William and Elizabeth had no other choice but to continue with their lives without their little boy. As Roy Plummer proclaimed in one of his letters, “Well is it worthy of the name “Yelbeni Mystery,” and until it is cleared up one way or another it will always remain a dark blotch on the long list of bush mysteries.

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