Old Bill’s Bones

By Judith Hickson, Curator, Queensland Stories

Queensland Museum’s social history collection contains a number of objects which conceal unsettling histories. One of the more disturbing of these is a rusty old piece of machinery which was once used to drill sub-artesian bores throughout Queensland.

Artesian Bore Drill – ‘Murder Bore’

The Facts

To those who knew him, William (Bill) Groves was a quiet, steady man, not known to be a drinker.  Yet, in January 1941, Bill’s fragmented skeletal remains were discovered deep within a hole over which this antiquated apparatus once stood – a silent witness to his brutal murder.

A Cunning Crime

                ‘the more cunning a man is, the less he suspects he will be caught in a simple thing’

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Doestoevsky 1866

News travels fast in the outback, so it wasn’t long after Bill Groves vanished in November 1940 that his absence was commented on by local station hands and workers. At the time of his disappearance, Bill had been working alongside his employer, James (Jim) Callaghan, a bore drilling contractor, on a remote station in south-west Queensland.

Rumours and gossip about Bill’s supposed whereabouts soon swirled and suspicions were raised. Witnesses later recalled that Bill appeared frightened of Jim Callaghan. Described in a police report as ‘of aggressive manner’, and heavily in debt at the time of the murder, Jim Callaghan owed Bill a considerable sum of back wages. Bill also knew that Callaghan had also wrongly claimed payment from the station owners for work he hadn’t done.

When questioned by police, Callaghan claimed that he had paid Bill the money he owed him before Bill left the camp with two other men. However, homicide squad detectives assigned to investigate the incident, could find no trace of the men described by Callaghan and a later search of the camp revealed that Bill had left behind all his belongings including his watch, ring and safety razor.

CSI 1940s style

Most crime fiction readers and TV watchers are familiar with the forensic feats of celebrity crime scene investigators. With access to computer identification and phone tracking equipment, DNA fingerprinting and sequencing, access to weapons databases and rapidly advancing digital photographic technologies, today’s super-sleuths make solving crimes look easy. In Queensland’s remote outback in the 1940s, police investigators had access to none of these contemporary capabilities … nor did they have a body!

But despite common misconceptions, forensic techniques have been used to solve crimes for thousands of years.  By the early 1900s, investigators were familiar with the use of fingerprinting, crime scene photography, criminal profiling and the use of chemicals to test for blood. Investigative methods like these, known as ‘trace investigation’, are the foundations of forensic science practices today.

So for over a month and with dogged determination, Brisbane CIB Detectives Frank Bischof and Jack Mahony carried out a meticulous and systematic recording and excavation of the crime scene, conducting extensive interviews with witnesses and combing the murder scene for traces of hair, blood and a possible weapon.  Finally, with the aid of a sand pump, their search led to the discovery of the remaining fragments of the unfortunate Mr Groves buried deep within the bore hole at a depth of over four hundred feet.

Trial and Verdict

Giving evidence at Callaghan’s later trial, Dr E Derrick, Director of the Laboratory Section of Queensland Health Department, stated that the bone fragments were human and, moreover, that he had pieced together five of the fragments to form a human femur.

Worker, 14 January 1941, p. 12.

After police recovered the bones, Callaghan was alleged to have said: ‘Well I’m ****ed! Those are old Bill’s bones in the bore hole; I killed him but I am no murderer’. Unfortunately for Callaghan, a jury decided otherwise.  The verdict, ‘Guilty of murder’, was the first such verdict handed down in a Cunnamulla court, as was his life sentence for his crime. His Honour Justice Macrossan, SPJ, praised police for their ‘exceptional’ work and fairness.

After lying abandoned for many years, the bore-drilling rig, the silent witness to the crime, was recovered from ‘Boorara Station’, one hundred and forty kilometres south of Thargomindah, in October 1990 by Queensland Museum archaeologists, Richard Robbins and Mick Elmore.

Crime and Corruption

In a tangential way, the murder bore is linked to a much bigger Queensland crime story. As is common with successful criminal investigation teams, Detectives Bischof and Mahony continued as partners for many years.

Jack Mahony retired as a Sub-Inspector in 1960. Frank Bischof was later promoted to the rank of Inspector and, in 1949, spent six months studying police methods and organization in Britain (including Scotland Yard) and Europe.

Known in the force as ‘the Big Fella’, the tall and heavily-built Bischof secured thirty-two convictions in thirty-three murder investigations before being appointed officer-in-charge of the Criminal Investigation Bureau in 1955 and Commissioner of Police in 1958.

Recent scholarly research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) into homicide has indicated a strong link between homicide rates and levels of police corruption.[1] Misuse of power and a culture of ‘mateship’ are commonly cited factors where inappropriate influence and corruption is found to have occurred.

Unfortunately for Bischof, these destructive influences were allowed to take root and flourish under his leadership.  Bischof retired in 1968 amid allegations of corruption, abuse of power and persistent criticism of his management of the police force.

The 1987 Fitzgerald Commission into Police Corruption in Queensland later found that during Bischof’s commissionership a network of corruption—particularly relating to the licensing branch and the consorting squad— became entrenched.

Frank Bischof died in Brisbane and was cremated in 1979.

A curatorial ‘Catch-22’?

Despite the difficulties of caring for it, the ‘murder bore’ as it’s known by staff, is an interesting historical object that goes well beyond its representation as bore drilling equipment from a curatorial point of view. However, from a conservation and storage perspective, some of the questions we might ask ourselves are – whether it should be collected or could it be recorded photographically instead? Once collected, how should it be managed? Should it be stabilised, should it be restored, or should it be left as is? How would you interpret it to the public? How would you display it?

If any students of museum studies are reading this, we’d love to hear what you think!

[1] Global Study on Homicide 2019, ‘Understanding homicide: typologies, demographic factors, mechanisms and contributors’, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. URL: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/gsh/Booklet_3.pdf