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Gallows Ghosts? Mystery at Brisbane’s Tower Mill

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.3, May/June 2016

Figure 1. Brisbane’s historic Tower Mill is reportedly haunted. (Sketch by Joe Nickell)

According to The Ghost Guide to Australia (Davis 1998, 224), one or  perhaps both of the ghosts of two Aborigines—convicted of murder and hanged at Tower Mill in Brisbane in 1841—may still be seen there. Residents in the neighborhood in the mid-twentieth century reported that “sometimes when they looked up at the small window facing the street they could see a faint glow and a figure inside the tower, swinging gently from side to side.” No sources are given, but various online sites repeat the claims (e.g., “Tower Mill Ghost” 2016), and Tower Mill is a stop—sometimes even a point of origin—for ghost tours.


I became acquainted with the old tower (Figure 1) in October 2015 when I stayed for several days at a hotel just down the street from the historic site. (I was there to speak at the annual Australian Skeptics National Convention, October 16–18, 2015, spending some two weeks in Australia and New Zealand and conducting several investigations.) Here is my solution to the mystery of the ghosts in the tower.

Background


Tower Mill is the oldest remaining building in Brisbane. Constructed of sandstone blocks and brick in 1828, it was at that time encircled (about a third of the way up) by an exterior balcony. The tower was built as a windmill for grinding grain, especially corn. That was the main staple of the diet of convicts, who were transported from Britain to Australian penal colonies (beginning with Sydney in 1788).


The mill was outfitted with wind-powered sails, but when these proved unreliable a treadmill, powered by convicts, was installed. When the convict settlement closed in 1842, the treadmill was dismantled.


From its inception as a grist mill, the four-story structure became (at one time or another) a signal station, a fire tower, first home of the Queensland Museum, a radio-experiment site, a pioneer television broadcasting tower, and (presently) a weather observatory (“Old Windmill” 2015; Dawson 2009, 22). Once, of course, it briefly served as a gallows.

Murder


There had been conflicts between the Aborigines and British occupants of the penal colony of Moreton Bay since the 1800s. However, with the seizure of hundreds of square miles of Aboriginal land and the arrival of squatters in 1840, the native people began a coordinated response, largely involving attacks on livestock. To this powder keg, surveyors came waving firebrands. They were intruding on Aboriginal land filled with cultural sites (Dawson 2009, 4–6; Chambers 1999, 131–139).


On Sunday, May 31, 1840, members of a survey party, including a number of convicts, awoke at their bush camp some thirty kilometers south of Mount Lindesay. Surveyor Granville Stapylton—who exhibited a low regard for indigenous people—sent five convicts to clear a passage over a creek while he remained at camp with several Aboriginal men and two other convicts, William Tuck and James Dunlop (Dawson 2009, 12).


Soon three of the Aborigines left camp but returned with another, all now armed with spears. Two went to Sta-
pylton’s tent and two to Tuck’s, while yet another knocked the observing Dunlop senseless with a waddy (a club). When the work party returned from the creek about noon, they found Stapylton and Tuck murdered. Abandoning the injured Dunlop, they fled back toward Brisbane. A group of thirty or so Aboriginal men meanwhile returned to the scene to strip the bodies and loot the camp. One Aboriginal man came to Dunlop’s aid, and he later managed to crawl into the bush. The next evening, exhausted and hungry, he ran into a search party that had been alerted by the fleeing convicts (Dunlop 1840).


A gruesome scene awaited the searchers. Tuck’s body had been stripped and partially burned, while Stapylton’s was found so “torn and mangled” (possibly by the marauders’ dogs) that it could not be legally identified. Three of five identified Aboriginal suspects were captured. One died before trial, but two others, named Mullan and Ningavil, faced the Sydney Supreme Court in May 1841. The prosecution focused on the murder of Tuck whose body had been identifiable, but, since it was impossible to say who struck the death blow, the accused were tried as accessories. They proclaimed their innocence, but—although Dunlop swore they were not the attackers—other convicts claimed to have seen them in the vicinity, and they were wearing clothes stolen from the camp. They were convicted and sentenced to death (Dawson 2009, 12–20, 27).

Figure 2. Experimental photograph recreates a ghostly glow reported in one of the tower’s windows. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Hanging


The tower served as an improvised gallows for the men’s hanging on Saturday morning, July 3, 1841. While ghost raconteurs more than a century later would claim people had seen through a window a hanged man swinging back and forth, it seemed to me unlikely the hanging was carried out inside the tower. That it stood on a hill suggested the hanging was to be a very public display, not one hidden from view.


I investigated and found that this was indeed the case. The hanging was exterior to the tower, and a large crowd gathered, including a hundred or so Aborigines. The Foreman of Works in the Brisbane settlement, Andrew Petrie, provided a strong round beam that he extended from an upper window. The rope was hung from this beam, its noose dangling to the balcony. Possibly a trapdoor was put in the floor, or, more likely, the prisoners may have been dispatched by pushing them off the balcony (Knight 1892; Dawson 2009, 23). In any case, the drop was a short one, resulting in the condemned being slowly strangled to death. (In later executions a “long drop” was employed as a humane measure, allowing the body to fall far enough to create a force sufficient to break the person’s neck.)


A ten-year-old boy who watched the gruesome event was foremen Petrie’s son, Tom. A convict led him by the hand to one of the dead men’s coffins where he saw the man’s face. As Tom Petrie’s own daughter would later write (Petrie 1904, 245), “The eyes were staring, and the open mouth had the tongue protruding from it. The horror of the ghastly sight so frightened the child that it set him crying, and he could not get over it nor forget it for long afterwards.”

Hanging Specter


The dead man’s features that so traumatized young Tom Petrie are consistent with a strangulation death. Such a victim will often bite his tongue (Geberth 1993, 250) that “frequently protrudes from the mouth” (Spitz 1993, 463). This confirms reports of the “short drop” of the hanging.


It also casts further doubt on the hanging-ghost story. Not only is that often-repeated tale effectively discredited by the historical error of placing the hanging inside the tower, but (and this is a more subtle point) there was no mention of the hanging ghost having grotesque features—as did at least one of the two executed Aborigines. Moreover, the description of the ghost does not give any indication that it was Aboriginal, and only a single ghost is mentioned.


I suspect that the ghost tale—or someone’s apparitional experience that inspired it—was prompted by knowledge of the fact of a hanging at the tower, while, at the same time, that knowledge was factually limited. Thus, like many other apparitional experiences that have the ghost supposedly returning “to reenact its death” (Guiley 2000, 150), the Tower Mill tale is based on a false re-creation and is therefore itself obviously false: apparently the work of some percipient’s faulty imagination or the creation of a writer of fakelore.


Light in the Tower


The other element of the alleged Tower Mill apparition, we recall, is the accompanying glow—seen allegedly by unspecified eyewitnesses who had “looked up at the small window facing the street.” A light-in-the-window motif is common in ghostlore.


The usual explanation for such lights is a simple illusion. While the glow or apparent light source (such as a supposed ghost lantern) does indeed appear to be located inside the structure, the source is typically not an interior one at all. Rather, as explained (with examples) in my The Science of Ghosts, it is a celestial or terrestrial light being reflected by the window glass (Nickell 2012, 113–114). This illusion has fooled many.


I conducted experiments at Tower Mill on two successive nights. Various effects are possible, such as the glow apparently emanating from the window in question shown in Figure 2, but are actually a reflection of a nearby light.


These experiments, along with historical research on the execution of two convicted murderers at the site, indicate that the reported ghostly phenomena at Tower Mill are part of this—and not some supernatural—world.



Acknowledgments


I am exceedingly grateful to John and Mary Frantz for their financial assistance, which helps make many of my investigations possible. I also thank Ross Balch, president of Brisbane Skeptic Society, for inviting me to Australia, and both Cassandra Perryman of Rainbow Beach, Queensland, and Tim Binga, CFI Libraries director, for crucial research assistance.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.