How grave robbing solved a murder
By Holly Richardson
During the murder trial of Griffin, Dr Hobbs shows the courtroom the skulls of slaves he experiment on. (Sharon Gordon)
Grave robbing, backyard experiments on heads decapitated from the corpses of slaves, and the first-known murders of Queensland police officers — this is the lurid story of how forensic medicine was born in Queensland.
The tale of Chief Medical Officer Dr William Hobbs turned-graverobber, began in the early hours of November 6, 1867, when police troopers John Power and William Cahill were murdered — shot by their superior, Thomas John Griffin, while on duty.
Thomas Griffin was the Gold Commissioner and Police Magistrate in Clermont. (Supplied: Queensland Police Museum)
Thomas Griffin was the Gold Commissioner and Police Magistrate in Clermont, in central Queensland, where he had accumulated a debt of 230 pounds ($AU32,000 in today’s terms) with local Chinese miners who threatened to expose him when he didn’t cough up.
According to historian Matthew Wengert, Griffin couldn’t bear the shame of being exposed as a thief and a gambler.
“His name and prestige that he’d built up over years of dedicated career building was all going to be wasted… his social standing, his friendships, his career, all would have been washed away,” he said.
“The only thing he can come up with is to steal money from a bank shipment,” Mr Wengert said.
Four thousand pounds ($AU60,000) was to be delivered to a new bank in Clermont and Rockhampton police troopers, Cahill and Power, along with Thomas Griffin were tasked with escorting it.
“Power was very close to Griffin, and Griffin treated him in a kind of fatherly-son type way. People said that Power was the closest friend that Griffin had,” Mr Wengert said.
Murdered as they slept
A day or two after they set out the men arrived at the Bedford Arms near the Mackenzie River crossing, where Griffin told the troopers they would be camping for the night.
The trio ate and drank at the hotel separately, before bedding down at their campsite.
“The best scenario I was able to reconstruct … was that he had given them drugs in alcohol on top of all the other alcohol they’d had, sent them off to sleep and he stayed with them for a little while, made sure they were properly asleep and shot one of them through the head, the other one began to get up… and he immediately shot him through the head,” Mr Wengert said.
It is believed Griffin then moved the money to his own packs and set off for Rockhampton with the landlord from the hotel who had no idea what had transpired the night before.
It wasn’t long before the bodies of Cahill and Power were discovered later that day.
When news of the double murder reached Rockhampton, Griffin suggested the men must have been shot, most likely in the morning when the man on watch had fallen asleep.
An official party, which included Griffin as well as Dr Salmond, set out for the murder scene.
Unable to take both the bodies back to Rockhampton, the doctor removed their heads and stomachs.
“He had to go equipped with big jars. He had to take those skulls back for proper examination, to work out whether they were shot at close range or from a distance, so it’s a very grim scene. Pretty badly decomposed bodies, close friends of almost everyone there … and a growing suspicion that this guy, who’s part of the official team, is maybe involved. A terrible situation,” Mr Wengert said.
Amid growing suspicion Griffin was arrested at the scene and later committed to stand trial in Brisbane.
Experimenting on human skulls
From the beginning, Mr Wengert said the public was fascinated.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Hobbs experimented on the decapitated heads of slaves. (Supplied: State Library of Queensland)
As the prosecution built its case, the attorney general wrote to Dr Salmond asking for details about the victims’ skulls and stomachs.
If it could be shown that the holes in the skulls were made by Griffin’s revolver at close range, there would be little doubt who the culprit was.
With forensic science still very much in its infancy, Dr Salmond began shooting at sheep skulls to try to replicate the damage.
“(He) got himself some human skulls, but they were old aboriginal skulls … that had been gathered by a skull collector,” Mr Wengert said, and without skin and flesh, lawyers might argue the bullet holes would not be comparable.
Dr Salmond asked the Chief Medical Officer in Brisbane, Dr Hobbs, for help.
“Hobbs is fortunate enough to have this professional access to recently deceased people who did not have any family or friends who were going to complain about them being decapitated and shot,” Mr Wengert said.
Dr Hobbs oversaw the health of people in state care including jails, asylums and quarantine stations and the arrival of 100 South-Sea Islander slaves on board a ship in Moreton Bay on January 2, 1868 caught his attention.
Dr Hobbs took the heads of dead slaves back to his home in Anne Street in Brisbane. (Sharon Gordon)
The slaves were suffering from dysentery and Dr Hobbs ordered the islanders be taken to the Dunwich quarantine station on Stradbroke Island.
Within two weeks 24 slaves died, most were buried near the station, and it is from here, Mr Wengert says, that Dr Hobbs found the heads he needed for his experiment.
“These guys had been dead for days, had died of a disease that would encourage rapid decomposition. They would have been in as unpleasant a state as you could possibly be,” Mr Wengert said.
According to Mr Wengert, Dr Hobbs would have felt conflicted as he took the heads back to his Ann Street home in Brisbane.
If Dr Hobbs could show the holes in the skulls were made by a revolver at close range, Griffin would be implicated in the murders. (Sharon Gordon)
“It was never a good thing to dig up people, whether they were heathens or Christians, without their permission, without the blessing of their family and community, it was a terrible thing to do, that he had to do for science and for law,” he said.
Doctor Hayley Green, from Western Sydney University, lectures in human anatomy and says this kind of experimentation, while it may produce some results is no longer practiced and wouldn’t be well regarded in today’s scientific and legal communities.
“Today everything is about consent so in order to access any human materials for research purposes, the individual that you’re researching on, or their immediate family needs to provide the consent for that to occur,” Dr Green said.
“The sourcing of the test subjects, to put it lightly, and the treatment of the minority groups in order to do that (experimentation) doesn’t surprise me because that was a worldwide occurrence at the time and so all white Europeans were essentially doing that, researchers, doctors, universities, that was happening quite a lot,” she said.
A final bid at freedom
In a packed courtroom, Dr Hobbs compared the bullet holes in two South-Sea Islander skulls he had experimented on, to those of Cahill and Power.
With the help of the forensic evidence gathered by Dr Hobbs and nine days after the trial began, Thomas Griffin was found guilty of murder.
Queensland police troopers John Power and William Cahill were murdered by their superior in 1867. (Supplied: Queensland Police Museum)
The judge’s remarks, describing the crime as unparalleled in Australian history, were published in newspapers across the country.
On June 1, 1868 Griffin was executed in Rockhampton.
“He died as most of those who knew his vain character thought he would die, denying his guilt, but showing the greatest nerve and firmness to the last,” an article in the Mackay Mercury stated.
The day after his execution, two guards from the jail revealed Griffin had confessed his crime to them and had tried to talk the men into helping him.
The guards refused until Griffin told them where he had hidden the money.
The men took the governor to where the money was supposed to be, and after appearing vague for a few minutes, went straight to the hiding place.
“The money had been ruined by the weather, so it seemed certain that they’d found it, they couldn’t get any value out of it, so there was no point in them risking their jobs,” Mr Wengert said.
In a final twist, the sexton, hoping to discourage graverobbers, buried an unknown sailor on top of Griffin’s body.
However, several months later, when the grave was inspected the sailor’s body was intact while Griffin’s head was gone.