The Cursed River of Australia
Can a place be evil? I’m not talking about the evil deeds perpetrated by the inhabitants of a certain location or its dark history, but the actual place itself, its land, air, and water saturated with a sinister energy that we cannot comprehend and which may or may not have some sentience of its own. It may seem like a rather far out notion, and perhaps it is, but there are certainly locations throughout the world that have a definite air of bizarreness and the unexplained which is not always benign in nature, and indeed lends itself to the idea that something there is not quite right. One such place is a river in Australia which has long been the origin of stories of strange creatures, ghostly phenomena, mysterious murders and disappearances, and just plain weirdness. It is a place which, if evil or cursed places do exist, is most certainly one of them.
Meandering 708 km (440 mi) through the Northern Tablelands and North West Slopes districts of New South Wales, Australia is the Namoi River, which passes the towns of Gunnedah, Boggabri, Narrabri, Wee Waa and Walgett along its course. Although most of the river’s route is marked by picturesque scenery, this scenic façade hides a variety of little known cases of strangeness with a definite malevolent flavor to them. It was here along the Namoi River, near the town of Wee Waa, that in 1908 two friends by the names of Harry Johnson and Stanley Williams set up camp for the night at a scenic spot which was known as one of the prettiest locations along the river and was quite popular among campers at the time. It was a camping excursion from which only one of the men would return alive, Stanley Williams. After a massive search for the missing man was launched, Harry Johnson’s decomposed body would be pulled from the bottom of the river, where it had been anchored intentionally by a heavy iron bar typically used as a brake block bar for a wagon strapped to its back. Williams was quickly apprehended under suspicion of murdering his friend out there at the secluded spot, and the subsequent trial would bring to light just how gruesome the killing had been, with the murdered man’s skull apparently having been brutally bashed in with a hammer. One piece of testimony in the case from a Dr. Willis published in The Sydney Morning Herald of 11 January 1909 said:
The body was exposed to the air for probably four or five days. The body I saw may have been dead only about a fortnight. Senior Sergeant Sheridan placed a hammer in my hands this morning. I fitted it to the hole in the skull of the murdered man, and found that it fitted exactly into the hole punched there in the fracture behind the ear.
Williams staunchly denied any wrongdoing even in the face of these damning accusations and the fact that he had been the last person to be seen with Johnson, right there where the murdered man had been found. However, the proceedings were never able to concretely link Williams to premeditated murder, no clear motive could be ascertained for why he should want to kill his good friend, and the best that authorities could do was a charge of manslaughter, for which the perpetrator was sentenced to 10 years of penal servitude. With Williams convicted and punished, it would seem that this might be the end of the whole tragic affair, but in fact this was where the weirdness would begin, and it would become apparent that whatever horrible thing had happened there by the river had perhaps left some sort of evil stain behind, if it hadn’t indeed been there all along to begin with.
During the investigation, one news correspondent for the Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times spent a good deal of time following up on potential leads to the mysterious case, and in his travels met the acquaintance of a Thomas Underwood, who lived not far from the scene of the brutal killing. Mr. Underwood would go on to tell of various strange, menacing occurrences which had started to occur in the area in the aftermath of the murder. One of the odd accounts related by Underwood was the story of a man by the name of Arthur Perritt, who had gone to camp in the area totally unaware of the vicious killing that had transpired there. When Perritt had arrived, his two wagonette horses had reportedly become extremely agitated, and this state of panic would get worse until it had finally boiled over and the horses, foaming at the mouth in total fear, broke free and fled into the night. A cursory examination of the area turned up no reason whatsoever for what could have spooked the animals so badly. The next day, the perplexed Perritt would find his two shaken horses a few miles away from the scene, wandering around aimlessly in the wilderness.
Despite this unsettling experience, Perritt would pass through the area again the following week, and found that his horses absolutely refused to go anywhere near the place where they had camped the week before. It was then that Perritt had approached Underwood and requested permission to use his paddock to keep the horses for him while he was away. Perritt would further relate to Underwood how the area had filled him with a sense of dread as well, and Underwood would later say “he (Perritt) did not relish the idea of again experiencing the uneasiness of mind which had attended him when last he camped there”. Perritt’s two sons apparently had experienced some amount of strangeness when camping in the area as well, when their horses also suddenly panicked and broke from their tethers to desperately flee, including one old horse that had never been known to be prone to such things. Again, in these cases the two sons had also been unaware of the gruesome murder which had taken place there at the time. Numerous cases of horses going insane with fear and fleeing the area were turned up, and this seemed to be a rather regular occurrence in the immediate vicinity of the murder.
The correspondent, his curiosity piqued at such spooky tales, requested that Underwood take him to the area where Johnson had been murdered. When the two arrived, the correspondent noticed that the area was very quaint and picturesque, stating that it was “an ideal camping ground, beautifully situated and well grassed,” yet sinister reminders of the horrible crime remained. The tree under which Johnson and Williams’ tent had been situated still bore blood stains spattered over its trunk, and the strange observation was made that although the grass grew in plentitude all around the site, the ground where Johnson’s body had lain was completely bare. The correspondent also experienced for himself a sense of deep unease that descended over him even as he stood there examining the site, likening it to a feeling of impending death, and he very much felt that he wanted to leave as soon as possible.
This sense of foreboding and doom that’s was said to permeate the site like a black cloud was experienced by others as well. In one account, a couple came to the area on horseback to camp for the night. It is probably not surprising by now that the horses promptly hightailed it out of there, in this case suddenly bolting wildly into the wilderness to never be seen again. That evening, the woman suddenly became extremely upset, and began having potent panic attacks and hallucinations for no discernible reason, during which she began to madly rant that she was “struggling in a sea of human blood.” The woman became steadily more unhinged, writhing about on the ground and shouting like a lunatic until the distraught husband went to get help. He finally found himself at the house of a local named Mrs. McKenzie, who listened to the whole series of bizarre events before informing the man of the murder and other weirdness that had been going on at that same spot, of which the man had been totally unaware. Terrified by the story, he went back, collected his wife and the two hastily left the area. Allegedly, the woman immediately started to calm down as they retreated from the vicinity, and by the following evening she was back to her old self, having no real recollection of what had happened to her.
Other reports from campers in the same area described a variety of strange phenomena as well. Often reported were panic attacks or “paroxysms of terror,” sheets pulled off of bunks, tents disassembled by some unseen force, extremely powerful hallucinations both visual and auditory, and of course the profound fear the place invoked in animals. One such camper who experienced some of these bizarre phenomena stated, “I would refuse all the gold of the Empire rather than go through a similar experience again.” Interestingly, in every case the witnesses had been unaware of the murder that had happened there, and were not told of it until after they had had their brush with the unknown. The correspondent who had investigated the area in the wake of the murder would go on to chronicle many of these reports in a piece in The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times on 25 June 1910, entitled The Namoi River Tragedy: Weird Facts That Are Terrifying.
All of this is strange enough, but the Namoi River had been the site of its share of weirdness since even before this sensational murder and its ensuing seemingly ghostly phenomena. It had long been an alleged favored haunt for a terrifying unknown creature called the Bunyip, which is usually said to be some sort of monstrous, amphibious creature prone to great aggression. One notable account of the Bunyip at the Namoi River comes from the 1830s, when an outlaw turned bushman named George Clarke came here to live as a fugitive in the remote wilderness among the local Gamilaraay tribe. When a police posse came through looking for Clarke in 1932, a tribal elder explained to policeman Captain John Forbes that the river was inhabited by a dangerous creature known to them as the “Wawee.” This aquatic creature was described as being enormous, having finned feet, formidable teeth, and a tusk, and was said to let loose with a horrific wailing noise on occasion. Forbes would write in his diary later of the Wawee, saying “All the Blacks express fear of it, and say that it will devour them if it can catch them in the water.”
There would be other mysteries and unexplained phenomena reported from the Namoi in the following years as well. In 1934, the river would be the location of a baffling, unsolved disappearance. An article in the Friday 23 April 1934 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald explains the disappearance of a stock and station agent by the name of George Knott, from the village of Pilliga, New South Wales. The man had gone out for a drive along the Namoi River and simply vanished, being last seen at 10AM. After a week of being missing, Knott’s car was discovered at the bottom of the river, yet the body was nowhere to be found, and bizarre clues left behind baffled police. In the rear compartment of the car were found bullet shells, which were all .22 calibre bullets of the “short type,” yet no real significance was attached to them because Knott has been a keen hunter and sportsman who was known for going on frequent shooting expeditions. A hole was found in the hood of the car that at first seemed to be from a large caliber bullet and was seen as an important clue, but the size of the hole exactly corresponded to that of a stud on the hood, and so it was later determined that as the hood of the car had been folded back by the river current, it had banged against the stud and formed the hole. The exterior of the car showed no other signs of damage.
The interior of the vehicle did little to shed any light on the case either. Inside of the car, there were no signs of struggle except for some broken fittings in the front of the compartment, but this was not seen as definitive evidence of foul play. There were also no signs of blood in the car, and while the river could have possibly washed it away, the article stated “Wet blood might have been washed away when the car was driven into the river, but blood dries quickly, and even after a very short time would have left an indelible stain.” The only other clue left behind was that there was a missing set of tools. Police set up a camp along the Namoi River and systematically dragged the bottom for a mile, but the body could not be located. Interviews of dozens of locals living in homesteads in the area turned up nothing, as no one reported hearing or seeing anything suspicious or strange. The mysterious vanishing of George Knott has never been solved and his body never found.
Besides stories of Bunyips, mysterious murders, ghostly activity, the cloud of dread hanging over the murder site, and unexplained vanishings, the Namoi River has other bizarre tales attached to it as well. An article from the Sydney Morning Herald dated March 23, 1973, talks about the mysterious sudden appearance of large amounts of dead fish in the river near the cotton farming community of Wee Waa. In this case, the dead fish steadily appeared for over a week, and any birds who fed on them were reported as dying as well. Although health authorities looked into the matter, no discernible cause of death could be found, nor any reason why birds should die from eating the fish. It was finally speculated that the phenomena was perhaps linked to overuse of insecticides in the wake of a caterpillar plague that was ravaging the area’s cotton crops at around the same time, but this was not conclusive. It is not clear if this sudden mass fish die-off has anything to do with all of the other strange phenomena at the river, but it certainly is odd.
Are any of these strange occurrences related, or is this just a series of dispersed cases of strangeness that just happen to have happened along the same river? Is the ghostly phenomena reported from here related to the murder of Harry Johnson and his ghost, or is it indicative of some malevolent force imbued into the very land itself, making it a cursed or evil place that is actually causing these tragic events? Or are all of these accounts the result of exaggeration and imagination on the part of the witnesses and the news reports of the day? It is interesting to think about the idea that a place can perhaps be pervaded by forces beyond our understanding, or that tragic events might somehow implant themselves onto a location like a voice onto an audiotape. Whether this actually happens or not, places like the Namoi River certainly are strange, and make one wonder if an area or place can be possessed by mysterious forces, and indeed whether it can actually be evil.