Motive and Musings

 

"The Bank building has a verandah in front, facing the east, and extending along the southern end and back. The south-west angle is boarded up, thus forming a small lean-to room with window opening to the south. In this room the accountant, Burrup, slept with his head about twelve inches from the window, which no doubt was open at the time.

The Manager slept on a stretcher at the opposite or S.E. corner of the verandah, about 14 feet from Burrup's window, both men with their feet to the north.

The murderers doubtless approached from the spinifex to the south of the building and attacked the sleepers simultaneously from the verandah, after which the back window of the main building was broken open and the Bank entered." [30]

And so the above account from 1885 sets the scene for one of the most mysterious murder cases in 19th century Western Australia.

Union Bank Building

"The Union Bank where the murders were committed. ......
The numerals in our engraving refer to the following: I. The spot where Mr Anketell was murdered. II. Room in which Mr Burrup was murdered. III. Window by which the bank was entered. IV Public school occupied during the day." [31]
Used with permission "Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria"

The following article will be subject to change as new information comes to hand. Also, as I have collected such a large body of documentation from various sources I have no doubt that I will come across points that I have missed earlier and these may well change my ideas too.

This revision is dated the 28th December 2011. See revisions at the end of this page.

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There have been many twists and turns in the story of the Roebourne bank murders. And just as in the game of Chinese whispers, with each retelling of the story details changed as is evidenced in brief newspapers articles written years after the fact. There was a lot of hearsay and so many red herrings in the form of alleged eyewitness testimonies and stories. All these factors contributed to "muddying the waters". Maybe the biggest red herring in the whole story was the Union Bank itself.

From the beginning of researching the murders of Thomas Anketell and Henry Burrup it was clear to me that the investigation into the murders was run on a basis of prejudice. That prejudice being:-

  1. That the motive for the murders was robbery because the murders occurred on the bank premises. (Not because of any particular evidence such as a forced safe.)

  2. That such a murder was committed by a person or persons of the "lower class" or of the "Asian class" which was viewed by many of that time as being the lowest of the low.

This prejudice dictated the way the ensuing investigation was conducted and as a result only certain lines of investigation were followed. Only people of a certain class were questioned vigorously. Evidence was sought to support an already preconceived notion and as a result three men were arrested and tried for the murder of Thomas Anketell on very flimsy circumstantial evidence.

The Roebourne bank murders of Anketell and Burrup is a puzzle with many missing pieces. There are some gaping holes. For instance, other than knowing that both men were held in high esteem within the community we know nothing of their personal or business relationships.

Thomas Anketell was possibly engaged to Margaret McCourt and we know that he was about to leave Roebourne due to declining health. Was she to follow? He was often at the residence of Alex McRae and Miss Isabel McRae his sister who also resided there.

We know from the recollections of William Thomas, a former police constable, that Roderick McRae was one of Thomas Anketell's best friends. The only other personal snippet of information we have between the two men is that Roderick McRae was in the possession of Thomas Anketell's book of Byron's poems. Thomas probably lent or gave it to him.

MY MUSINGS

There are also certain aspects surrounding the murders that I find odd:-

One of the most persistent rumours over the years was that the murders were committed in order to secure/destroy certain mortgage papers. What was the basis of this rumour?

It is a fact that a stack of blank forms and cartridge paper were found singed in the Union Bank (it was thought at the time that they were probably lit with the intent to burn down the premises, but being in such a tight stack the fire went out). The safe was untouched. With the retelling of the story, did the blank forms and cartridge paper became "mortgage" documents? Or, was there some kind of general knowledge within the Roebourne community that someone was having business difficulties and this is why this assumption of the burnt papers being mortgages was made?

Another persistent belief was that Franz Erdsmann (alias Frank Hornig) was involved in the murders. Erdsmann had known Henry Burrup when they had both resided in Fremantle and was friendly with him when both were living in Roebourne. Erdsmann appeared to be very concerned over Henry's death and offered to help the police with their tracking. He was also most interested in what was being done to find the murderers. It is only because Erdsmann murdered his Norwegian travelling companion two years later that his previous association with Henry came under scrutiny. The authorities were attempting to make this friendship a link to connect Erdsmann with the murders. How wonderfully convenient this would have been for those with a vested interest to wrap up the Roebourne murder case once and for all. The association between Henry and Erdsmann did not constitute evidence for murder. I believe that the older and experienced Erdsmann may well have had a genuine friendship with the young, gentle and likeable Henry Burrup who was so very new to Australia.

THE MOTIVE

Determining a motive for murder can help lead to the killer/killers by providing a direction for enquiries. Whilst it is possible to have a number of motives, an investigation can go awry when only one motive is followed up on to the exclusion of all others.

I believe it is not the location of where the murders of Anketell and Burrup occurred, the Union bank premises, that determined the motive, that of robbery, but rather the very nature of the murders themselves.

Pick Axe

A pick axe. It was believed that the
murder weapon was probably similar
to this, having an axe at one end and
a spike on the other. A common tool
in Roebourne.

Thomas Anketell suffered shocking head injuries. The injuries indicated that he was struck not only by a cutting tool but also by something that could pierce his skull. At the time it was believed the murder weapon could have been a tomahawk or similar tool. I think it unlikely two different murder weapons were used, so the use of a tool such as a tomahawk, morticing axe, or poleaxe seems logical. This is because any of those tools have not only an axe at one end but may also have a spike on the other. It would have been a common enough tool in the township.

Thomas was struck no less than seven times with this instrument. It was Dr O'Meehan's opinion that Thomas was almost certainly killed instantly with the first blow yet the unfortunate man was struck again and again. There were some marks on the verandah floor and wall that could indicate that the blows continued even after he had fallen off his stretcher.

With so many blows such a murder is known as "overkill". Overkill indicates that the murderer was in a rage. I suggest a deep rage because the murderer even turned the axe so that he could bring the spike down through Thomas's ear. It was as if Thomas was being obliterated. Henry too was murdered in a similarly brutal manner. I have to wonder what great psychological factors were at work here.

Therefore, the way in which the murders were committed changes the whole question of motive from that of bank robbery to that of some personal nature.

This is because rage was involved. The rage could be borne through the time honoured reasons of hate, jealously, love or money; love, hate and jealousy often being closely intertwined.

Henry had not long been in Roebourne, only just over 6 months and Thomas was about to leave. The ferocity of both the murders indicates that the murderer was in a rage with both the men. So, what link did the victims share? This is something that has long puzzled me. The only obvious reason that comes to my mind is that Henry and Thomas were both involved in some matter or affair together, either business or personal that involved the murderer.

Mr F.C. Broadhurst who was witness to the crime scene noted that there were two cuts upon the back of Henry's right hand and bruising to his arm. Dr O'Meehan's testimonies also refer to "skin marks" on Henry's right hand but curiously no mention is made of the bruising on the arm. Former police constable William Thomas also mentions two wounds on the back of Henry's hand. Did these injuries occur during the night of the murder? Possibly. The reports do not indicate if they were recent enough to have occurred that evening. That these marks were mentioned at all leads me to believe that they were recent. They could have arisen if Henry had had some kind of physical altercation earlier in the evening that involved Thomas Anketell and another person? (Though it should be kept in mind that they may have been received innocently. Henry may have fallen in the street the day before or had some other minor mishap.)

Why did Roderick McRae come under suspicion? Was it because he was the last man to see Thomas Anketell alive? That could have just been an unhappy and ultimately irrelevant fact. As Sergeant O'Connell said in a later report, that if this were to be the case, then he would have had to arrest the Reverend Parker as he was the last person to see Henry Burrup alive. No. There was another reason.

After the murders the people of Roebourne were deeply shocked and upset. They were fearful. The West Australian reported "People are in an awful fright, and scarcely dare to leave their houses after dark." Everybody would have been behaving differently. Those who were close to Anketell and Burrup would have been greatly distressed at the manner of the deaths.

Yet it is amongst all this anguish and fear that the change in the behaviour of Roderick McRae following the murders would stand out and arouse suspicions. A few reports allude to this:-

According to Sub Inspector Lawrence's report to the Commissioner of Police in February 1887 he stated:

"Sergeant Payne has on different occasions entered into conversation with McRae concerning the murders and McRae always gets agitated and distressed but whether because he is aware that the people look upon him with suspicion or whether he did assist in the murder it is hard to say." [105]

In Inspector Sharpe's confidential report to the Commissioner of Police dated April 1888 he stated:

"His manner has been very strange since the occurrences. He is now seldom sober and I am told at times will burst into tears without any apparent reason." [105]

In a letter from William Anketell, father of Thomas, dated January 1887, to the Acting Colonial Secretary he says:

"When my son was in Cossack on his way home with the bones of my boy the suspected individual suddenly dropped in a fit in meeting him unawares." [See this letter and why I believe it refers to Roderick McRae.]

One of the great mysteries is why Roderick was never formally and aggressively questioned despite the suspicions of the police. And they were suspicious. In the January 1887 statement of Albert Brown an underlined heading says "Further statement made by Brown to Sub-Insp. Laurence re Roderick McRae - suspected of Roebourne murders."

The police had no qualms in the questioning and investigation of people from the "lower" or "Asian" classes. Yet, despite their suspicions were very reticent in questioning Roderick, even if just to eliminate him from their enquiries.

The truth of the matter is that the police were being hamstrung by the class conventions of the day. In the isolated north west, wealthy families such as the pastoralists and pearlers were really a plutocracy. They exercised great power and influence. Many would think that it was Roderick's social status and that of his family (his brother Alex was a Minister of Parliament) that was protecting him.

There may also be another reason too.

Until now, it has always been supposed that Roderick's strange behaviour was a sign of his guilt in the affair, or that he was an innocent man under great pressure because he knew that people thought him guilty of the murders. Opinion on the matter was divided. However, Roderick may have been ill.

By 1890, five years after the murders, Roderick was lying in the Roebourne hospital, paralysed in his lower limbs. He was a dying man in the final and tertiary stage of syphilis and it was this disease to which he finally succumbed on the 24th August 1891 at the General Hospital in Singapore.

This fact raises questions that have to be asked.

Was he suffering from syphilis at the time of the murders? His Death Certificate does not state how long he was afflicted with this disease but often it can be present for some years after the initial infection. Was it the syphilis that was causing his strange behaviour? Did it have a bearing upon the murders?

Could it be that the real reason that Roderick was never aggressively questioned was because it was known by those with influence, that if he was openly questioned about the murders his illness and other information may come to light and become public knowledge bringing shame upon the family?

Did the McRae family have enough power to "pull strings" within the upper echelons of the Police Department or Government to stymy any serious investigations? One writer of a column in the West Australian Newspaper in 1901 and former resident of Roebourne seemed to think so.

"... Some queer things have happened at Roebourne, as witness the case of the murder of two bank officials many years back. There were people who could have told a lot in connection with this cold blooded crime, but they dare not ... There was too much influence and money at the back of a certain person, who, by the way, died afterwards at Singapore. Here was a case of two Europeans being butchered in a town of less than 200 inhabitants, and yet the murderer, was allowed to escape." [110]

In reading George Stevens' reports one can't help but feel that something was going on behind the scenes. Stevens thought he was actively being sabotaged in his investigations. There even appears to have been some rift within the McRae family itself. In Steven's report he states:-

"I also saw Duncan McRae but he knew nothing about the matter [The murder]. It was said that the reason why he would not have anything to do with his brother was because he would not disclose about the murder but I could find no foundation for this report."

If the brothers were no longer talking it may not have been solely for the reasons supposed by some people i.e. the murders but also the nature of Roderick's illness.

With my research thus far I believe it probable that Roderick McRae was involved in the murders. The following points persuade me towards this viewpoint.

  1. Roderick was up and about early the morning after the murders. Alfred Brown, a teamster in Roderick's service, alleges that he saw Roderick coming out of his house at 5.00am and then looking towards the bank for a few minutes before going back into his home. A few minutes is quite a long time to be standing and staring at the Bank especially when we know what ghastly scene was awaiting discovery.

    In Roderick's own deposition he states that "... I noticed Mr Anketell lying in his front verandah with his face towards me and the sun shining on it. I was about 70 yards off. I walked a few paces towards him and turned back again." This raises two questions.

    Firstly, I have often wondered why he walked a few paces towards the Bank then turned back again. I have a theory that rather than making toward the Roebourne Hotel at 5.40am as he states, the time was actually more closer to 6.00am. Roderick would have known that each day Mrs Law was in the custom of going to the bank at around that time. He was sure she would discover the bodies. Could it be he started making toward the bank expecting her to raise the alarm (and thereby being on hand) and then thought better of it?

    Secondly, Roderick saw Thomas Anketell lying on the verandah between his stretcher and the wall. Surely most people would have found this very strange. Roderick even states the sun was shining on the dead man's face. Was it even possible to see Thomas's face considering he was lying between the verandah and his stretcher and if this is indeed the case, why then did he not see the blood? We know from Isabel McRae's statement that what she could see of Thomas Anketell was covered in blood. Why did Roderick not investigate further? I find it incredible that Roderick was not asked these very basic questions.

    Even more incredible is that later that year, in July, during the murder trial "The Inquirer" reported Roderick as saying "... I met a man named Gilroy before I passed the Bank". So, Roderick admits to passing the bank. He must have seen the murder scene, yet is not questioned about this vital point. The West Australian glossed over Roderick's testimonial at the trial. Interestingly, the part owner of The West Australian newspaper at this time was Charles Harper and he had partnered with Alexander McRae (Roderick's brother) in a pastoral venture in the Ashburton.

  2. According to a statement by San Qui he says that Roderick had sent a "native" to summons him to Roderick's store. Roderick was intimidating and physically threatened him. Roderick demanded he tell him what he knew of the murders offering him a large sum of money. I believe San Qui's statement because it explains how his usual placid demeanour changed so dramatically and how he came to be caught up in the murder investigation.

    Was Roderick "setting up" the hapless San Qui in a subtle way by accusing him of having knowledge of the murders? This would be a calculating move taking full advantage of the prejudices of the day. An aspersion that could easily take root (just like the accusation of witchcraft against a person in the 17th century). Roderick is then able to say during the murder trial "I never said that the murder had been committed by a Chinaman". Yes, but the seed was planted. One does not have to read too far in the newspapers of the time to gain an impression of how Asians were viewed by many. For example, a columnist in the Argus newspaper wrote "Roebourne ... is frequented by the Malays and the Chinese and other scum ... " The Chinese were beneath even the lower class white people and were an easy target.

    This is why I believe that whole encounter with San Qui was a performance and it worked well. After such an unpleasant meeting the visibly upset San Qui then drew the attention of the police upon himself due to his much changed demeanour. For what it is worth, San Qui believed Roderick was the murderer and did accuse him of this.
    Once again Roderick is not questioned as to why he believed San Qui had knowledge of the murders.

  3. His odd behaviour above and beyond the grief and upset shown by other towns people. I suggest a tortured mind. This could be a combination of his guilt and illness.

  4. George Stevens, in his report, states that whilst visiting the Roebourne Hospital Roderick says "I suppose it shall all come out after I am gone". If this is true then it is hardly the utterance of an innocent man.

  5. The fact Roderick was never formally and aggressively questioned leads me to believe that he was being protected and such protection was coming from a high level. This is evidenced with the Commissioner of Police thwarting the investigation of Stevens. Though this leads to the question of "Why employ Stevens in the first place?" Could it be that Stevens cover was "blown" when he arrived in Roebourne? Quite likely. Towns people who attended the murder trial in Perth would have recognised him as defending Charles Warburton. Word may then have been sent to those with an "interest" in the case not proceeding. Pressure would then be put on the Commissioner to stop the investigation.

I believe that there was those who knew Roderick was involved in the murders but as time passed and it became apparent he was an ill and then dying man that it was thought best to save the family from scandal and let God pass the final judgement. Roderick was left to his fate. And it may well be the reason he spent his final days in Singapore rather than coming down to Perth, a small city where those in society all knew each other and such a secret could not be kept. I am only aware of one small impersonal family notice stating his death in Singapore and that was in Melbourne's Argus Newspaper on the 20th October 1891.

"McRae - On the 24th August, at Singapore, Roderic, sixth son of the late Duncan McRae, Raglan Street, Ballarat, aged 31 years."

And finally, where does this leave Mrs Caroline Platt's infamous eyewitness testimony? Did she really see those shadowy figures melting away into the darkness as she claims? Many thought that she only came forwards with her testimony after a reward was posted. That may well be true. But to give Mrs Platt her due we have to remember that a ghastly double murder had been committed. She was a defenseless woman, living in an isolated community. A community where men and women alike were very frightened. I have no doubt that if she really did see what she claimed, then she may well have been in fear of her life and would have thought long and hard before coming forward as an eyewitness. If she was vacillating, the reward may well have tipped the scales in favour of her coming forwards as a witness. We will never know. It is yet another perplexing question in a long line of questions about one of the most mysterious murders in Australia's history.

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Revisions

17th February 2011

Have added a question about Mrs Law under the section "the aspects I find odd surrounding the murders".

Have refined and added further thoughts as to why I believe Roderick McRae was involved in the murders.

28th February 2011

The Inquirer newspaper reporting the murder trial - Roderick McRae states he passed the Bank early the morning of the murders. Therefore he must have seen the murder scene but is not questioned about this.

21st March 2011

Have added that Charles Harper was co-owner of The West Australian newspaper (along with John Winthrop Hackett) at the time of the murders. Harper had been a business partner with Alexander McRae in a pastoral venture in the Ashburton.

22nd April 2011

In his recollections of the murder scene, former Police Constable William Thomas mentions the existence of two bloody left hand prints. This is the first time such a fact is mentioned. We also learn from the recollections that Roderick McRae was a best friend of Thomas Anketell.

26th May 2011

Have refined and added thoughts about Mrs Hall and Franz Erdmann.

28th December 2011

Have further refined thoughts about Roderick McRae and the dealings of the Commissioner of Police with George Stevens.