3/ Peter Lumberg: The Essence of the Dear Departed


peter lumberg sandy gallop essence of dear departed

Cairns struggled to dispose of its dead. The essence of the dear departed lingered. None more so than that of Peter Lumberg. Despite an obvious culprit, his murder remains unsolved until this day. Rather than expose corruption in the ranks, the commissioner chose not to pursue the investigation into Peter’s death. All part of the greatest gay scandal in Queensland history.

The story of a Cairns murder, the attempted framing of an innocent First Nations man, the sexual assault on a young constable by one of Queensland’s most senior cops and a suicide. The Queensland Police hushed up this story. It stayed hidden for over a century before this writer found the documentation that shows these crimes were the tip of a torrid, tropical iceberg. The story of taboo sex, blackmail, a serial killer and the police and government corruption that enabled the cover-up.

The motive for the terrible deed and the identity of the murderer is shrouded in mystery, but it is to be sincerely hoped that whoever he may be, he will be brought to book and made to suffer for the dastardly crime of murdering an old and inoffensive man.

Morning Post

News buzzed along the footpaths of Cairns faster than James O’Shea’s cab. Chinese whispers leapt from one rumourmonger to the next. Gossips tossed tittle-tattle over back fences, shop assistants dispensed dirty laundry along with change, and drunks argued hearsay in public bars.

On Tuesday morning, as he rode into town, Arthur Keeble noticed George Dunwoodie guarding a dead body. Stopping only long enough to ask the deceased’s identity, he galloped off to the police station. As the alderman tied his horse to the station fence in Abbott Street, former mayor A J Draper strolled by, and Keeble alerted him to the murder. By the time the alderman reported what he’d seen to Detective Constable Seymour, Draper had told someone, who told someone else, who told someone else again. The news took wing.

Minutes later, Percy Le Vaux ambled from his Abbott Street office to a nearby pub for a morning heart starter. But he never had that drink. Tom Strutton waved him down with news. Keeble told Draper who told Strutton who now told Le Vaux, that there was an elderly man dead at Sandy Gallop. “It might be Peter.”

“I hardly think so,” said Le Vaux, “He was in good health on Sunday.”

But Strutton lived near Mrs Dunwoodie’s Royal Hotel, and Draper mentioned a clearing with a mango tree. That sounded like Peter’s campsite. Le Vaux hoofed it for Sandy Gallop.

Then, as Alfred Chisholm strolled along the same street in search of stories for the afternoon paper, Bill Furmedge called out. “Where is Le Vaux? Keeble brought in the news that Peter Lumberg is murdered.”

Chisholm looked for a cab to take him to Peter’s camp. Detective Constable Seymour was already on the way.

Blanche Le Vaux heard from her back neighbour. Young shop assistant Lydia Male hurried home at lunchtime to tell her mum the shocking news. “Peter Lumberg is murdered.”

“I wonder if Mrs Le Vaux knows,” her mother responded. Jane Male went to the fence and called over to Blanche Le Vaux, “Did you hear anything?”

“No.”

“Lydia just told me Peter is murdered.”

“Oh, my God!”

Jane Male later remarked on Blanche Le Vaux’s lack of emotion. “I was crying, but Mrs Le Vaux did not appear much upset. Previous to his death, she often told me that she did not like Peter.”

Indeed, Blanche Le Vaux made no secret of disliking Peter Lumberg.

“I have known Lumberg since I was a child. About 3 years ago, I renewed his acquaintance in Cairns. He came to my house with Mr Le Vaux for meals. I expressed the hope he would not always be at the house on account of his dirty habits. I often asked Mr Le Vaux to tell Peter Lumberg to go, but he told me to do so myself.”

Despite Blanche’s objection, Peter lived in a shed in her backyard from January 1905 until a few days before his death.

Born Niels Peter Lundberg, the Swede abandoned his homeland in his late teens. He told Jane Male his family treated him unkindly. Peter joined hundreds of thousands of young men lured to Australia by gold. They chased the precious metal from one rush to the next. A lucky few struck it rich. Most barely scraped by. But gold fever is a contagion beyond remedy. Young prospectors lived rough. They grew old in one makeshift bushcamp after another, forever sustained by the dream of sudden instant wealth.

Peter followed the gold from New South Wales to Gympie in South East Queensland and finally north to the Palmer River rush of 1873. Almost a hundred years since the British arrived uninvited in Botany Bay, Cape York remained largely untouched by colonisation. Although the northern wilderness teemed with resources, it was too hot, too distant, and too fraught with danger.

But men will travel to the gates of hell for gold. After a promising discovery in a remote northern river that was promptly named for Premier Arthur Palmer, hundreds of men travelled overland to the new Eldorado. En route, they traversed 70 miles of rocky ground, which later proved impassable for bullock drays laden with supplies. The prospectors faced starvation. And things were about to get worse. The rivers would rise during the upcoming wet season and completely shut off access.

Nevertheless, hundreds of men refused to abandon the field. Premier Palmer feared he’d wear the blame for mass casualties. The government hired a steamship to convey men and equipment to the Endeavour River, where they would establish a base and attempt to forge a track inland.

Scores of prospectors joined the voyage, Peter Lumberg among them. They arrived at the Endeavour River on October 25, 1873, and disembarked at the spot where James Cook and his crew lived for seven weeks in 1770 while they repaired their damaged ship. The newcomers paid tribute to the fabled explorer in the name of the canvas township hastily erected on the riverbank, Cook’s Town.

A few days later, a large company of mounted police and miners struck out in the direction of the Palmer River.

“The command left the Endeavour some 108 strong, about 90 of these on foot with swags from 70-pounds to 90-pounds weight — the supposed distance being about 85 miles, we thought we should not overload ourselves.

“After the first day out, we found we had overloaded ourselves, and many a poor fellow had to throw away his clothing in order to keep his flour. In fact, the road was soon lined with clothing, blankets, tents, and flour.

“The road, instead of 85 or 90 miles, turned out to be 160, and most say it is fully 180. Anyhow, it is a hard road to travel.

“We had three brushes with the blacks. Twice they attacked us, and once, the black troopers [native police] had a skirmish with them; but wherever the troopers came across them, they made short work of them. They are a good-looking race of blacks — fine, tall and well-made, many over six feet in height, and a pure copper colour. Miners going this route should not go in less than parties of eight and then well armed with guns or rifles. Revolvers are no use, as the blacks can kill with their spears from 80 yards. They always attack at the break of day, but a good watch must be kept all night. Their war-whoop is the cry of the black cockatoo.”

Charles Jackson made the journey a couple of months later. He wrote to a friend in Sydney that he only lasted three weeks on the field due to the lack of food.

“The day we started to come down, we had to swim the Palmer River. One of my mates drowned trying to do so. But we either swam the river or died of starvation. I undressed and made a swag of my clothes, money, and everything else I owned. About halfway, the current compelled me to let my swag go, and I was carried about one hundred yards before I could land on the other side. I and my mate were left with nothing. I walked 150 miles naked as I was born.”

A former night watchman from New South Wales named Richards wrote home to his family in Gulgong.

“Everyone can get a bit of gold, but not enough to pay the cost of living. Many are starved; you could almost read the Gulgong Argus through them. I walked back from the Palmer in five days. For the last three, I had nothing to eat and no boots to protect my feet. My clothing consisted of a shirt and hat. My skin was tanned to a chestnut colour. I saw many others naked on the road with only hats to protect their heads.”

Peter soon gave up on full-time prospecting and partnered with another former miner carting supplies between the coast and the goldfields. He became friends with shopkeeper Louis Severin, Blanche Le Vaux’s father, one-time mayor of Cooktown and later three-time Mayor of Cairns.

But Cooktown, as it was soon known, enjoyed only a brief heyday and then a slow decline as more convenient routes opened to the hinterland. Louis Severin packed up his business and family and moved to Cairns, the new boom town. Blanche Severin did not see Peter Lumberg again until after her 1902 wedding to Percy Le Vaux. She never understood her husband’s devotion to the old bushie. Following Peter’s murder, others also questioned the relationship. Some voiced suspicion earlier. In 1904, the Morning Post censured Le Vaux for associating with his social inferiors.

“He takes the wharfie to his bosom, and is not above a filial alliance with some old, drunken reprobate.”

Ouch! Carefully constructed sexual innuendo. A denunciation of rough trade and a touch of ‘Who’s ya daddy?’ (Peter Lumberg was a renowned drunk at the time.) Of course, in years to come, foolish people would deny people of the era ever discussed such things. ‘Oh no. It was a more innocent time, and they meant something totally innocuous.’ Bullshit! Consider a 1903 Morning Post report on council discussions about the difficulty in proving the occupations of women working in suspected brothels. “The occupiers of these places all describe themselves as dressmakers,” said Mayor Severin.

“Trouser hands, I suppose,” interjected Alderman Brown.

Alderman Bulcok proposed a solution. “Alderman McLachlan is a single man, and I move that he sacrifice himself on the altar for the sake of his country.” Yep. Take one for the team. Humour never changed so much after all.

Sub-Inspector Patrick Bowen heard about the murder at Cairns railway station when he arrived back from Mareeba at 6 pm Tuesday night. As he headed for Sandy Gallop, Acting Sergeant McGuire and Constable Murray pulled up in James O’Shea’s cab and reported on the day’s events. Bowen went and checked out the crime scene himself. Wednesday morning, he sent his available officers and black trackers to search the campsites around Sandy Gallop for weapons and bloodied clothing. He said he went to ‘a great deal of trouble’ to investigate the theory that a black man killed Peter Lumberg. Not because of evidence but because of the papers. The Morning Post wasn’t too bad, although the paper’s reporter arrived late at the crime scene and compiled his report from second-hand accounts and conjecture.

“From the appearance of the sandy soil where the body lay, it was apparent that old Peter Lumberg had not succumbed to the assassin without a struggle. The ground was torn up and bushes broken down as if the deceased fought inch by inch for his life before being stabbed to the heart.”

Wrong! Wrong! And wrong again! Those who examined the crime scene observed few signs of struggle, and only a solitary bush suffered damage. Dr O’Brien detected just one tiny cut on the third finger of Peter’s right hand, indicating he offered little resistance.

But although incorrect, the Morning Post article would not cause the police trouble. That would arise from the Cairns Argus article in which Chisholm — who knew better — repeated the ‘desperate struggle’ nonsense.

“From the appearance of the ground, it is evident that a desperate struggle took place before he was killed.”

But worse still, the Argus and papers across Australia repeated as gospel the misinformation provided to them by Alfred Chisholm.

“It is believed the crime was committed by Kanakas.”

Believed by who? One person — Alfred Chisholm. Even Le Vaux moved on to blaming Aboriginals after briefly attributing the murder to Kanakas and then Malays. But in 1905, as White Australia prepared for mass deportations of South Sea Islanders, politicians, unionists and anti-black-labour newspapers relentlessly demonised Kanakas as murderous thugs. Once the narrative of a Kanaka killer took hold, the public was unlikely to accept the arrest of anyone else. Bowen would need to prove that someone else committed the crime and also that a Kanaka did not. So, before beginning an investigation into who killed Peter Lumberg, he set out to prove who did not.

At 11 am, the Sub-Inspector joined Peter Lumberg’s funeral procession from Cairns Hospital to the local cemetery. Town elders chose the McLeod Street site after the tide exposed coffins buried in the original graveyard on the beach. However, they did not select the new location for its suitability as a burial ground. They chose it because it was unsuitable for future residential or commercial use. It was on the edge of the swamp. The underground water table rose to within a few feet of the surface. Funeral parties sometimes waited for gravediggers to excavate a fresh plot after mourners watched water fill the original during the ceremony. Undertakers learned to weigh coffins down to stop them from re-emerging from the sand.

After an official report into the health hazard posed by decaying cadavers, aldermen advised nearby residents not to drink water from their underground wells. Otherwise, they risked sipping the essence of the dear departed in their morning cuppa.

The Sub-Inspector made discreet inquiries among the mourners. But all anyone wanted to discuss was the victim’s relationship with his lawyer. On Tuesday afternoon, some town ladies felt an uncustomary urge to visit friends in the neighbourhood of Peter’s camp. Sandy Gallop was the other side of the tracks — the wrong side of the tracks. People hoping to host the upper crust for afternoon tea did not build houses there.

“The salubrity of the locality is evidently not conducive to harmony in neighbourly relationships,” intoned the Morning Post.

The paper probably had in mind incidents like when Tom Strutton’s wife punched a neighbour, pulled her hair and attempted to choke her. In Biddy Strutton’s defence, Betty Johnson did call her a ‘dirty Irish bitch’, a ‘damned slut’ and other disgraceful epithets the Morning Post considered unfit for publication.

But a murder. That changed everything. Jane Male and other townsfolk flocked to visit Biddy Strutton, the widow Collinson, and other residents of the area. At the funeral the following day, they shared the story of Fanny McDaniel’s scandalous denunciation of Le Vaux as the murderer.

Otto Linderman divulged another intriguing anecdote. Busy working on Tuesday afternoon, he never heard about the murder of his friend of 27 years. But that night, he encountered a wasted Marston Mayers at the Federal Hotel. According to Percy Le Vaux, he and Mayers dropped by Peter’s camp late Monday night, making them the last known visitors to the crime scene before the discovery of the body. Otto learned about his old mate’s death when Mayers suddenly blurted, “We are supposed to have killed Peter Lumberg.”

Sub-Inspector Bowen learned much about the murder victim from businessmen who had dealings with him in the months before his death. Looks, they say, can be deceiving. That was certainly true of Peter Lumberg. The grubby old prospector, ‘the missing link’, he of the stained, ragged clothes and matted hair, and according to Blanche Le Vaux, dirty habits, was a wealthy man. Yes, he lived in sheds or bush camps, but the old prospector owned five houses in town, including the one rented by Percy Le Vaux. According to rumour, Le Vaux recently drew up a will for Peter, with himself as executor and Mrs Blanche Le Vaux as beneficiary.

Bowen’s search parties failed to turn up any new evidence during the morning. No weapons. No bloodied clothing. Or leads. Additionally, people who lived near Peter’s camp unanimously agreed they’d seen no ‘coloured people’ hanging about. Crucially, Bowen noted there were no barefoot tracks at the crime scene. That was important. Kanakas and Aboriginals rarely wore footwear. George Dunwoodie insisted he saw no barefoot tracks at the crime scene. Also, Bowen had expressly checked for barefoot tracks himself on Tuesday afternoon.

He later said that despite going to ‘a great deal of trouble’, he found no evidence to indicate a black killer. “I had a Kanaka, up to ten police and four Aboriginal trackers making inquiries and searching the camps. I could find no clue that the murder had been committed by a coloured man.” Bowen pulled Detective Constable Seymour off the search and instructed him to find out what he could about Percy Le Vaux, ‘an intimate friend of the deceased, and continually in his company’.

Thursday was Show Day. Employers gifted their workers a half day off, and most of the town headed for the Show Grounds at the Four-mile on Mulgrave Road near William Cannon’s farm. Percy Le Vaux hired a cab for the occasion. Before leaving for the Four-mile with Chissy, he popped into the police station to check on the investigation’s progress. After the freshly crowned ‘person of interest’ left, Bowen decided to search his home and office. He called out to Detective Constable Seymour. “Le Vaux has just driven away to the Show Grounds; get your horse and bring him back, and I will get a search warrant.”

Seymour caught up with the cab just over the railway lines, and Le Vaux reluctantly agreed to return.

“As Lumberg has been staying at your house,” Bowen told him, “I would like to search your premises for anything in connection with the murder.

“It will cause suspicion,” responded Le Vaux.

“We will do it as quietly as we can. It is a holiday, and there are few people about.”

The lawyer tried one last dodge. “It will spoil my half-holiday.”

At Le Vaux’s house, the police found another bloodied tomahawk and, at his office, an undated will.

Hubert Durham, gay policeman and the great police cover-up:

The gay scandal QLD Police hushed up for over a century.

1/ The murder

2/ Sandy Gallop

3/ The Essence of the Dear Departed.

4/ Percy Le Vaux – the victim’s ‘most intimate friend’.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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