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Some Queensland Mysteries

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.3, May/June 2017

Strange mysteries may be found almost anywhere, but they seem especially plentiful and interesting in Australia. I investigated several during my first (2000) and second (2016) trips Down Under (including New Zealand on the latter). And I only scratched the surface. In addition to the several articles that have resulted—some old and some more recent (e.g., Nickell 2001; 2016)—I offer three diverse mysteries I chanced upon in Queensland: a dramatic event that sparked thoughts of UFOs, a “haunted” historic inn, and an alleged miracle-working saint. Here is my take on each.

Mystery Hole Down Under

It happened on a Saturday night, September 26, 2015, when something took a monstrous bite out of a beach at Inskip Point north of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. There was a thunder-like noise, and an entire campsite began to quickly disappear. People escaped with their lives, but some vehicles, including one with an attached “caravan” (camper), were lost to “Davy Jones’s Locker” (Gorrie 2015). Alarm spread to nearby campsites, and officials evacuated an initial 140 people, though the number later grew to an estimated 300 (Tran and Thackray 2015).

The incident, as a local newspaper noted, “attracted interest around the world” (Gorrie 2015). Internet sources adapted the story. For instance, UFO News asked, “What caused the earth to open and take a huge bite out of Inskip Point?” (Stokes 2015). A psychic even suggested it might be a sign of the Biblical “end times” (Walker 2015). This was enough for Queensland parliament member Tony Perrett to warn against wild speculation, as an investigation into the cause continued (“Call to Stay Calm” 2015).

A couple of weeks later, on October 12, Ross Balch (president of Brisbane Skeptic Society), Myles Power, and I happened to be in the area hunting the fabled Yowie (Australia’s Bigfoot). We had been to Yowie Park at Kilcoy (where a wood statue of the elusive man-beast stands [Nickell 2016]) when we received an invitation from Dr. Cassandra Perryman, a psychologist and fellow skeptic, to come to her home at Rainbow Beach not far from the mystery site. She had arranged for local fire captain Greg Haring to meet with us and take us to Inskip Point.

Putting us in his all-terrain vehicle, Haring first gave us a quick tour of Rainbow Beach (which gets its name from its colorful variety of mineral-sand deposits). As the tide was coming in, he would periodically pause to let the water retreat, then—deftly swerving around boulders—make a dash for the next stretch of beach. After this memorable ride, he took us to nearby Inskip Point and the very edge of the great “sinkhole.”

Figure 1. Aerial view of the great “sinkhole” at Inskip Point, Queensland, Australia, 2015.

It was a stunning scene. A semicircular area of former beach—spanning an estimated 200 by 100 meters and reportedly extending more than 10 meters deep—held trees that were now standing in the ocean. Aerial photos (see Figure 1) provided an even more impressive view of the phenomenon. (See “Skydivers” 2015; Stokes 2015.)

As it happens, the area has a history of such collapses occurring rather regularly, although they are rarely so large. A sizeable one occurred in 2011 (Stokes 2015). However, these are not the usual type of sinkhole that occurs, for example, when a segment of limestone cavern collapses. (I am familiar with this from my cave exploration days in Kentucky.) In fact, the Inskip beach collapse isn’t really a sinkhole at all.

A deposit of sand that becomes overly steep through underwater erosion may become unstable, prone to what is called a submarine landslide. In this event, the slope unravels with segments progressively slumping to fill the space left by the slumping of the segment below. According to an expert source, “This mechanism fits well with the situation at Inskip beach, both in terms of the geomorphological conditions and the reported characteristics of the beach collapse” (“Inskip” 2015).

While the 2015 occurrence is indeed memorable—especially to those who almost lost their lives to it!—it yet fails to provide evidence of some great “unexplained mystery.”

The Haunting of Plough Inn

Located at Brisbane’s South Bank, the Plough Inn is a hotel and tavern with a long history—and reportedly a resident ghost.

The original building of 1864 was replaced with a more substantial one in 1885. Its picturesque, balconied front is a relic of a streetscape; it once graced Stanley Street (a principal nineteenth-century thoroughfare), but its surroundings have evolved. It was protected when South Brisbane’s old wharves were transformed into the scenic, multi-faceted South Bank Parklands. After additions in 1922 and internal transformations to become a tavern during Expo ’88, it earned a listing on the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992 (Moore 2014; “Plough Inn” 2015) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Historic Plough Inn in Brisbane, Australia: Note author at bottom left, sign at top center.

However, facts about the ghost of Plough Inn are as elusive as the alleged spirit itself. In The International Directory of Haunted Places, Dennis William Hauck (2000, 221) refers to the “apparition” of a female there but then states that it “has never been spotted.” Still, he says “her distinctive voice has been heard,” most frequently “near Room 7.” But wait: another source clarifies that she actually “lives . . . where Guest Room 7 used to be before the renovations” (“Ghosts” 2005; emphasis added). Anyway, she was “a young girl” or “young woman” who was definitely strangled, either by her “boyfriend” or her publican husband (Horswill and Stead 2009)—unless the latter instead threw her to her death from the exterior balcony as other sources state (e.g., Farrell 2015).

Sources that give a time frame for the female’s death agree that it was “in the 1920s.” We learn that since then “many claim to have heard her” (“Ghosts” 2005) as she “haunts Room 7” (Horswill and Stead 2009) or at least “wanders the hallways and the balcony where she met her end”—although that source calls the claim only a “story” (Moore 2014).

As we see, the story elements (or “motifs,” as folklorists call them) are quite variable. Variants are a “defining characteristic of folklore” according to distinguished folklorist (and CSI fellow and friend) Jan H. Brunvand (1978), since oral transmission naturally produces differing versions of the same story. But many of the variants in published ghost tales are explained by writers copying others while adding details and making other changes for literary purposes (Brunvand 2000, 132). I suggest we call such written products hacklore. In any case, Brunvand (1981, 21) sagely observes that when there is no certain original, the multiple versions of a tale do provide “good evidence against credibility.”

At the Plough Inn, alleged earwitnesses invariably go unidentified, but I did learn from one of the service staff, who had a room upstairs, that he recently heard a knock at his door when no one was there. Alas, such rapping noises are common, often caused by temperature changes and settlings of an old structure (Nickell 2012, 61). Pranks are also known (e.g., Christopher 1970, 170), among other explanations.

Ross Balch and I spent much time at the inn—during dinners, a skeptics-at-the-pub event, and a pleasant lunch with assistant hotel manager Mark Farrell. Farrell (2015) had no personal experiences to relate and said he was himself not really much of a believer in ghosts. I drank to that; indeed, the only spirits Ross and I encountered at the pub were those in bottles and glasses.

Miracle Worker?

During my stay in Brisbane, I was delighted to visit the little chapel of St. Stephen’s, which—dwarfed by the adjacent cathedral of the same name—is the oldest church in Queensland, opening in 1850. After it was replaced by the new edifice in 1874, the chapel functioned as a school, survived threats of demolition, and today is a shrine to Australia’s first and only saint, Mary MacKillop (1842–1909), canonized by Pope Benedict in 2010 (“St. Stephen’s” N.d.) (Figure 3).

Briefly, Mary was the child of Scottish immigrants to Australia. Her mother, during her pregnancy, wore an alleged relic of the True Cross (pieces of which so proliferated in the Middle Ages as to promote extreme skepticism). As a teenager, Mary worked as a stationery shop assistant and later as a teacher and governess, becoming her family’s main breadwinner. She soon opened a school for young ladies in western Victoria. In 1866, when she was twenty-four, Mary began operating in a former stable a congregation of religious sisters—teachers and care providers—called the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Her intensity in supporting working-class families and her conflict with clergy (including helping to expose a pedophile priest)—led to her brief excommunication and the expulsion of nearly half her followers. This injustice was soon rescinded, and though other troubles befell her, she went on to leave an indelible mark on the Catholic Church in Australia (Steer 2010; McCreanor 2001).

As a strong woman and charismatic leader, she did not affect the visions, the pretended stigmata, or the like of so many sainthood seekers. She worked tirelessly, traveling on horseback, by horse and cart, and by train to establish schools and foundations far and wide (McCreanor 2001, 119). When she suffered a stroke in 1902, which paralyzed her right side, she adapted to a wheelchair and learned to write left-handed. At her death on August 8, 1909, Cardinal Moran, the Archbishop of Sydney, said, “I consider this day to have assisted at the deathbed of a Saint” (“Mary MacKillop” 2015).

Almost immediately there grew a movement to have her canonized. In North Sydney, a Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel was built, and her body was reinterred there. In 1926, she received the official title Servant of God, and a detailed investigation of her life began. This produced little that was negative (except for rumors that she overused brandy, which was said to have been prescribed for medicinal purposes). By 1951, a Cause for Canonization was issued. Other developments followed, and when Pope John Paul II visited Australia in 1986, he prayed at her tomb, a sign of things to come. He beatified MacKillop in 1995, and she was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 (McCreanor 2001, 124–129; Steer 2010, 64).

Beatification and canonization had each required evidence that MacKillop helped bring about a miracle and, following her death, claims began to appear. In time, the reported 1961 disappearance of leukemia from a woman—Veronica Hopson, twenty-three, who had prayed to the future saint—was used for beatification in 1993. A medical professor who treated Mrs. Hopson, however, stated that while “From her point of view this was a miracle,” he did not himself define it as a supernatural event, saying: “A miracle is a very unusual event, a happy event, that is very difficult to explain. She’s certainly the only [such] patient in that period that I have seen survive” (Biggs 2010).

The search for a second miracle turned up numerous claims. One came from a man who prayed that his granddaughter not be born with serious disabilities as doctors had predicted; he felt his prayers were answered when the baby’s handicap was only Down Syndrome. A boy was said to have recovered from a brain tumor after prayers at MacKillop’s chapel, but medical science seemed to have earned most of the credit.

And then there was the supposedly miraculous “vision” of the Virgin Mary on a church wall at Yankalilla, a small town in South Australia. Alas, the church was Anglican, the image only a simulacrum (a semblance of something perceived in a random pattern—in this case a water stain), and the priest had the unfortunate name Nutter. (He later changed it to Notere, but not before selling holy water he obtained by tapping an underground stream behind the wall that bore the “apparition” [McCreanor 2001, 253–254].)

At length a New South Wales woman, Kathleen Evans, was rewarded with acceptance of her “miracle”—her 1993 recovery from lung cancer and a secondary cancer on her brain. As she recalled some seventeen years later, her doctors said chemotherapy and other treatments were useless, so she turned to praying and wearing a relic of Mary MacKillop: a swatch of fabric from clothing of the future saint. (That is what is termed “a second-class relic”: not an actual part of a saint, such as a piece of bone or lock of hair, but something that had touched the person.) She wore the relic on her own clothing (“Second Miracle” 2015).

The problem is that being judged miraculous on the basis of being “medically inexplicable,” such claims merely constitute negative evidence and invoke the logical fallacy called “an argument from ignorance.” One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge: “We don’t know why the symptoms went away; therefore, it was a miracle.” In fact, there are numerous other possibilities: misdiagnosis, spontaneous remission (which can occur with some illnesses), prior medical treatment, and others, including the body’s own healing power. Often, investigation reveals there is more to the “miracle” than first thought (Nickell 2015).

Behind the claims of saints’ miracles are attempts to trump science—both by downplaying its role in cures and by selecting “medically inexplicable” cases. One priest best characterized the healing of Veronica Hopson by remarking, “The whole thing was medically surprising” (“The Miracles” 2015). If the Vatican wanted, understandably, to honor Mary MacKillop as a heroine of the church, they should simply have done so, and not played the superstition card in a miracles game. The Sydney Morning Herald observed that “the requirement for miracles . . . has begun to be questioned by many Catholics,” and Northern Territory News aptly noted, “You don’t have to believe in miracles to appreciate the works of Mary MacKillop” (McCreanor 2001, 179).



References

Joe Nickell

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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.