Who did it?
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.” 
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.” 
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.” 
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 that Roderick McRae was involved in the murders. The following points persuade me towards this viewpoint.
- The most critical points damming Roderick are to be found in his own testimonies. In his 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.”
Yet we know that the body of Thomas Anketell was lying on the front verandah of the bank between his stretcher and the wall. Surely most people would have found this very strange? Why would Roderick not investigate further? Roderick even stated 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 then the state of Thomas Anketell’s head? We know from the eyewitness account of Florance Broadhurst that it was a bloody scene on that bank front verandah.
“One terrible wound in Anketell’s head is fully 3 1/2 inches long and goes nearly clean through the head. His skull was one mass of ghastly wounds, and clotted hair. This assassin or assassins not satisfied with their so far terrible work seem to have driven a sharp instrument right through the ear.”
We know also from Isabel McRae’s deposition that she thought initially something was not right on the verandah with Thomas Anketell. She was in the house over the road from the bank.
“I thought he looked strange. I went in and told my sister and she got some glasses. We looked through them and I saw that Mr Anketell had blood about him. What we could see of him was covered in blood.“
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”.
Roderick admits to passing the bank. There can be no doubt that he must have seen the murder scene. Thomas Anketell is supposedly his very good friend and yet Roderick does not raise the alarm. He waits for others to do that.
I find it incredible that Roderick was not questioned about these very critical points. How can others not have picked up on this? Even 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.
I have often wondered why Roderick claimed 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, the milk and char woman, was in the custom of going to the bank at around that later time. He was sure she would discover the bodies (but she didn’t as the front verandah was out of her line of sight). Could it be that he started making toward the bank expecting her to raise the alarm (and thereby being on hand) and then thought better of it?
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. This act in itself would not normally raise any question, but it would be considered odd when it was known what ghastly scene was awaiting discovery. Was Roderick waiting for the alarm to be raised?
- 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.
- Roderick’s 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.”