Australia’s Storied Ghosts

Joe Nickell

Whenever someone relates his or her ghost encounter, a story is born. And, as folklorists know well, stories tend to evolve in the retelling—changing and becoming embellished by others over time. Thus are created variants, evidence of the folklore process at work. When a writer creates an imitation tale, the product is called “fakelore,” but, ironically, even this can become subject to the oral tradition that produces variants, and that can provide an entirely made-up tale with the appearance of having a basis in truth.

What follows are three of Australia’s most, well, storied ghosts, those linked to history or legend. But beyond their themes of murder, strange encounter, and lost treasure, are they something more than literary tales? Let us see if investigation can help winnow the evidential wheat from the imaginative chaff.

Case of the Gesturing Specter

Australia’s most celebrated ghost is, hands down, the alleged specter of Frederick Fisher, attracting such notables as Charles Dickens (who published one version of the story in his journal Household Words [“Fisher’s Ghost” 1853]) and magician John Pepper (who made it the subject of his sensational “Pepper’s ghost” stage illusion in a circa 1879 performance in Sydney [“Illusionist” 1984]). The tale has been related in poems and songs, plays and operas, books, countless newspaper articles, and other venues, as well as being the inspiration for a movie and the focus of an annual festival in Campbelltown—all this, even though the ghost reportedly appeared “to just one man on one occasion” long ago (Davis 1998, 16).

In 2000 on my first tour Down Under, I investigated the case on-site (Nickell 2004, 304–310), generously assisted by magic historian Peter Rodgers (with whom I shared other detective adventures [Nickell 2004, 289–295, 331–334]). We naturally began with a trip to Campbelltown, where the historical events transpired.

The story behind the ghost story began with the disappearance of Frederick Fisher on June 17, 1826. A “ticket-of-leave man” (a parolee), Fisher had built a shack in the town, where he caroused with his fellow paroled convicts and assorted petty criminals. To protect his assets while he was incarcerated, he had signed over everything to his neighbor, George Worrell (or Worrall). Unfortunately, on his release Fisher discovered that Worrell had claimed his property, at which time Fisher conveniently disappeared.

Worrell told inquirers that his friend had returned to England, but suspicions were raised when Worrell was seen wearing Fred Fisher’s clothing, and again when he “proved” he owned one of Fisher’s missing horses by exhibiting an amateurishly forged sales receipt. The Colonial Secretary’s Office offered a reward for the “discovery of the body of the missing man” or a lesser amount for proof that he had genuinely “quitted the Colony.”

Figure 1. An artist’s impression of the appearance of Fisher’s ghost in 1826. (From an old wood engraving)

At this point, a townsman by the name of James Farley (or John Hurley) reportedly came upon Fisher’s ghost! While walking near the Fisher property one night, he saw, it was said, the man’s eerily glowing apparition, sitting on a fence and bleeding from a gash to the head (see Figure 1). Moaning, the specter “pointed a bony finger in the direction of the creek . . . behind Fisher’s farm.” The sighting supposedly prompted police to search the area, and soon the late parolee’s corpse was unearthed. Worrell was subsequently arrested, convicted, and—having belatedly confessed—hanged (Fowler 1991, 13).

The gesture of the apparition would suggest that it acted like many another purposeful phantom of old that sometimes “advised where their bodies might be discovered” (Finucane 1984, 194). But did that really happen? I was able to examine the historical records of the proceedings of the Supreme Criminal Court of February 2, 1827, and confirmed that they make absolutely no mention of a ghost. In fact, positive evidence in the proceedings demonstrated that Fisher’s body was found in a natural instead of supernatural manner. A constable discovered blood on fence rails at Fisher’s paddock and he searched the area, aided by two Aboriginal trackers. They found a surface disturbance at a marshy spot, probed with an iron rod, then used a spade to excavate further. Presently, they uncovered “the left hand of a man lying on his side” but stopped to await further excavation by the coroner. Subsequent examination revealed “several fractures were found in the head” (Supreme Criminal Court 1827).

It appears that the story of the gesturing ghost did not obtain from an apparitional experience. It was likely launched by an anonymous poem, a fictionalized narrative published in 1832 titled “The Spirit of the Creek,” bearing a prefatory note that it was based on the murder of “poor F*****” at Campbelltown. Over time the tale shows evidence of folkloric evolution. For example, the earliest version has Fisher sitting on the rail of a fence, but that motif was in time transferred to the rail of a bridge, and, when that was rebuilt at a different site, the supposed apparition again followed—proof that a fictional ghost can live on as well as any.

The Ghost of Black Mountain

In Robert Willson’s Canberra Cavalcade: Tales of the People and Legends of Southern New South Wales (1996, 109–111) is an account of a spine-tingling Australian ghost tale of 1927. Or perhaps, as I came to suspect, it is something else entirely.

The story begins with a journalist for The Argus having climbed to the top of Black Mountain to view the scene below: Australia’s capital city, Canberra. The journalist was Donald Macdonald (1859–1932) who had worked for the paper for half a century, including having been its Boer War correspondent. Now he was looking down upon the bustle and clamor resulting from preparations for Parliament to be opened by the Duke of York. As I read the tale, I realized I needed to see Macdonald’s full original text rather than a summary with selected quotes.

In his own account, Macdonald (1927) tells how he was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree when he chanced to look around. He was startled to see a man seated at the log’s opposite end “as if he had been there all day.” Dressed in the long-outdated attire of an old stockman, the stranger responded to Macdonald’s greeting by asking if he could spare some tobacco, whereupon the journalist tossed him his pouch of Navy Cut. The stranger replied, “Well, I always smoke Barrett’s twist meself,” adding, “But any sort does me.” Macdonald wondered how the old fellow gets such a bygone brand.

The two sat and talked casually. Puffing on his pipe, the stranger asked about the hubbub below. He had thought perhaps some tavernkeeper was getting up public-house races for Easter, and he reminisced about them, recalling how a gang of bushrangers once stole a winning horse from its stable. He seemed rather out of touch with the present but reckoned, “I been about this mountain on and off for the last forty years.” Macdonald thought to himself, “Again that echo of a distant past, of years dead and gone.” He filled the man in on current events, but at mention of the Prime Minister, the stockman thought he meant a preacher, and he rambled on, giving a garbled account of “that Bible yarn about Moses leadin’ the Philistines out of the Land of Plenty into the desert of Moab.”

Eventually the journalist interrupted to ask, apologetically, “. . . would you mind telling me who you are and what you do up here?”

“‘I do nothin’ but walk now and agin,’ said the old stockman. ‘I died up here forty-seven years ago and they buried me under that gum-tree over there. You’ve maybe heard of me. I’m the ghost of Black Mountain.’”

At this, Macdonald tells us: “I bade him good night and went briskly down the mountain. Having sat so long at that elevation I felt a slight chill. So I hurried.”

Now, this tale may be a bit chilling too, but a little reflecting demonstrates that its intent is not to report, literally, a ghost encounter. After all, the specter looks like an actual person and it interacts with Macdonald for an extended period of time—unlike most reported apparitional experiences, which are fleeting. (Apparitions are a trick of mind by which imagery welling up from the subconscious is superimposed on the visual scene [Nickell 2012, 345].)

A longer experience might occur in a daydream, but in this case something else is going on. Consider for instance the act of a ghost smoking actual tobacco that was provided for its ghost pipe—surely a storybook element. As related in “On Black Mountain,” it is clear that Macdonald’s reverie is really a literary device.

The stockman’s ghost is simply metaphoric. This is not surprising since writer Edward S. Cunningham (1933) called Macdonald “the poet of the forest, the stream, the highways and byways, mountains and valleys, and of all wild creatures of feather and fur and fin.” Not only is the subtitle of Macdonald’s book “Nature and Reflective Essays,” but early on (in the second paragraph) poet Macdonald drops a hint as to what he is doing (Macdonald 1933). Revealingly, he says that the stranger in old garb was “a bit of Canberra’s primitive past strayed into the activities of her present to speculate, perhaps, as I did, upon all the wonderful possibilities of her future.”

Figure 2. A view from Black Mountain. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Looked at quite simply, he conjures up a ghost of the past (rather like Dickens does in A Christmas Carol [1843]) and imagines himself in a conversation with the “old stockman.” The result is a review of what has gone before, complete with “bushrangers” (as roaming outlaws in the back country were called), as well as a contemporary (1927) look at the capital city and imaginings of what the future may hold. The solitude of Black Mountain’s crest, as well as its vantage point (which I too have appreciated, Figure 2), made it an ideal setting—not for a ghost tale but a poetic, nostalgic vision of changing times.

Haunting at Yarralumla

The most famous ghost in Canberra—the federal capital city—is that of a “blackfellow” (Australian for Aboriginal man)—who is central to a story about intrigue, murder, and buried treasure (Davis 1998, 160–163).

Figure 3. Yarralumla (now the residence of Australia’s Governor General) continues to be the focus of a ghost story. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

The treasure story is told in an old document found at Yarralumla—then the estate of Frederick Campbell (and now the residence of Australia’s Governor General—see Figure 3). A visitor was being shown a stone vault on the grounds that held the remains of an earlier owner, when he came upon the old paper, covered in dust and cobwebs. He promptly delivered it to his host. Handwritten and unsigned, it read:

In 1826 a large diamond was stolen from James Cobbity, on an obscure station in Queensland. The theft was traced to one of the convicts who had run away, probably to New South Wales. The convict was captured in 1858, but the diamond could not be traced, neither would the convict (name unknown) give any information, in spite of frequent floggings.

During 1842 he left a statement to a groom, and a map of the hiding place of the hidden diamond.

The groom, for a minor offence, was sent to Berrima Gaol. He was clever with horses and one day, when left to his duties, cleverly plaited a rope of straw and then escaped by throwing it over the wall, where it caught an iron bar. Passing it over, he swung himself down and escaped. He and his family lived out west for several years, according to Rev. James Hassall who, seeing him living honestly, did not think it necessary to inform against him. I have no reason to think he tried to sell the diamond. Probably the ownership of a thing so valuable would bring suspicion and lead to his re-arrest.

After his death his son took possession of the jewel and, with a trusty blackfellow, set off for Sydney. After leaving Cooma for Queanbeyan they met with, it was after ascertained, a bushranging gang. The blackfellow and his companion were separated, and finally the former was captured and searched, to no avail, for he had swallowed the jewel.

The document continued:

The gang in anger shot him. He was buried in a piece of land belonging to Colonel Gibbes, and later Mr Campbell. I believe the diamond to be among his bones. It is of great value. My hand is enfeebled with age, or I should describe the trouble through which I have passed. My life has been wasted, my money expended, I die almost destitute, and in sight of my goal.

I believe the grave to be under the large deodar tree. Buried by blacks, it would be in a round hole.

Believe and receive a fortune. Scoff and leave the jewel in its hiding place.

Written near Yarralumla, 1881. (“Yarralumla’s Tale” 1944)

In time, as this story was told and retold, there came to be an addition: a tale of the ghost “said to” visit the old homestead. In one version published in 1939, the fictitious ghost, styled “the black shadow of Yarralumla,” was reportedly seen in summer “digging under an elm tree [sic] where a diamond of great value is said to be hidden and for which he is ever searching” (Sheridan 1939).

Source after source has repeated the tale as if treasure still lies under the deodar tree (a tall cedar)—albeit long out of reach to treasure seekers on the secure property where the Governor General now resides (“Yarralumla’s Tale” 1944; “Under” 1945; Willson 1996, 110; “Is Canberra” 2015)! Nevertheless, not only was the document suspiciously unsigned, but the narrative has a decidedly storybook quality as well as a lack of logic: instead of confiding in someone who might assist him (and so provide a share of the treasure to benefit him in his old age), the anonymous author entrusts the secret to a document that he hides in an old tomb. The text sounds like it was made up by an adolescent—including its ending game-like dare to believe or not.

In fact, we now know it was an adolescent fiction. In 1945, Frederick Campbell’s daughter Kate (then Mrs. Kate Newman) came forward in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald to admit that the document that had since given rise to the ghost tale had been fabricated long ago by two schoolgirls: she and a friend staying at Yarralumla during holidays. Young Kate had obtained from her father’s study a sheet of imitation-parchment notepaper on which she wrote the made-up story, then “aged” the document with dust and cobwebs. The two young scholars placed the paper in the vault before taking the unsuspecting visitor there so he could discover it!

And now, yet another storied ghost has been laid to rest.

 


 

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to John and Mary Frantz whose financial support has made many of my investigations around the world possible. I am also grateful to Australian skeptics Peter Rodgers, Kevin Davies, and Nick Ware for their generous on-site assistance and Tim Binga for his help as CFI Libraries Director.

 


 

References

  • Cunningham, Edward S. 1933. Foreword to Macdonald 1933, v–vii.
  • Davis, Richard. 1998. The Ghost Guide to Australia. Sydney: Bantam Books.
  • Finucane, R.C. 1984. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Fisher’s ghost. 1853. Household Words 7: 6–9.
  • Fowler, Verlie. 1991. Colonial Days in Campbelltown: The Legend of Fisher’s Ghost, rev. ed. Campbelltown, NSW, Australia: Campbelltown & Airds Historical Society.
  • Illusionist brought Fisher’s ghost to Pitt St. playhouse. 1984. Daily Mirror (March 22) [clipping in Campbelltown City Library’s vertical file].
  • Is Canberra also Australia’s ghost capital? 2015. Available online at http://weirdaustralia.com/2011/12/01/an-esoteric-guide-to-australias-capital/; accessed December 9, 2015.
  • Macdonald, Donald. 1927. On Black Mountain. A Canberra critic. The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) (April 16); reprinted in Macdonald 1933, 28–33.
  • ———. 1933. The Brooks of Morning: Nature and Reflective Essays, selected by his daughter. Sydney, Australia: Angus & Robertson Limited.
  • Nickell, Joe. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
  • ———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Reid, David. 2011. Yarralumla’s Tale of Buried Treasure. Available online at https://www.davesact.com/2011/02/yarralumlas-tale-of-buried-treasure.html; accessed December 9, 2015.
  • Sheridan, Michael. 1939. Duchess will find friendly ghost at Yarralumla. The Australian Women’s Weekly (August 12).
  • Supreme Criminal Court. 1827. Proceedings published in Gazette (Sydney) (February 5).
  • Under the deodar. 1945. The Argus (January 20). Available online at http://www.davesact.com/2011/04/yarralumlas-blackfellow-ghost.html; accessed December 9, 2015.
  • Willson, Robert. 1996. Canberra Cavalcade: Tales of the People and Legends of Southern New South Wales. Canberra, Australia: Mulini Press, 110.
  • Yarralumla’s tale of buried treasure. 1944. The Advertiser (October 7). Clipping reproduced in Reid 2011.

Joe Nickell

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.


Whenever someone relates his or her ghost encounter, a story is born. And, as folklorists know well, stories tend to evolve in the retelling—changing and becoming embellished by others over time. Thus are created variants, evidence of the folklore process at work. When a writer creates an imitation tale, the product is called “fakelore,” but, …

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