1/ The murder of Peter Lumberg

peter lumberg sandy gallop essence of dear departed

The story of Queensland’s greatest gay scandal begins with the brutal 1905 murder of 67-year-old Peter Lumberg in Cairns. Officer-in-charge of far northern police Inspector Hubert Durham was away at the time.

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 deceased was thought not to have an enemy in the district, while apparently, the crime was not committed for the sake of petty robbery.

Cairns Morning Post

A few weeks ago, accepting that cancer would soon finish him; Peter Lumberg prepared to die. But then, a doctor diagnosed his ailment as indigestion. “You have a few more years in you yet.” At 67, Peter reclaimed his life. The tombstone could wait, though he’d still like it inscribed, ‘An Old Pioneer’ at that later date. However, Peter Lumberg was denied those few final years. He lies today in an unmarked grave, forgotten, his murder, unpunished.

The assailant raised a knife and plunged it deep into Peter’s throat. The blade skewered downward almost to the heart. Blood sprayed over the murderer and onto nearby bushes. A life-threatening wound but insufficient to quell the attacker’s rage. The knife struck again, punching deep into the flesh. So deep it hit bone. Stab. Stab. And stab again. Three times more, the blade punctured into the neck — all the way — up to the hilt — before slashing randomly at the face. When Peter slumped to the ground, his killer swapped out the knife for a tomahawk and chopped at his victim’s head and neck. The small axe cleaved through the jawbone and severed the tongue. Fourteen vicious wounds in quick succession. An angry, brutal, and efficient homicide.

Blood seeped into the sand. The killer slunk away. The only evidence of the crime: a butchered body, blood splatter on the perpetrator’s face and clothes, and a trail of shoe prints crossing the sandy clearing toward town.

Peter’s body lay undisturbed until 10:30 am Tuesday morning when Thomas Seaton strode into the clearing, resplendent in his white uniform and helmet. Not a misplaced relic of the British Raj but the Inspector of Nuisances for the Municipality of Cairns. Charged with keeping the town clean, sanitary, and safe, Seaton enjoyed a broad remit. Basically, take care of anything that might cause complaints to the councillors.

The southern outskirts caused the Inspector constant annoyance. Illegal campsites constantly sprung up in the area bordering a vast swamp. Two days before, he led police to a native camp half a mile from where Peter now lay dead, and the constables burned it to the ground. On Tuesday, September 5, 1905, Seaton revisited the scene of a previous nuisance. He first visited this clearing a fortnight before in response to a letter in the Cairns Argus newspaper complaining of a putrid odour, a smell so pungent it spooked horses.

“A dead goat, evidently poisoned, has been alongside the road, near the Royal Hotel since Friday, and not only smells high but causes horses to become fractious. This morning, there was nearly a tragedy. Would the Inspector of Nuisances give his immediate attention to it?”

Indeed, the Inspector of Nuisances would. Seaton located the dead billy and hauled its bloated corpse into the nearby swamp. But when people identify an out-of-the-way spot to dump rubbish, they usually return with more. So Seaton came back to check. However, today, he discovered something of far greater consequence.

“I saw a tent and, about 15 or 20 yards distant, what looked like a bundle. I walked over to it and found it was the dead body of a man. The first thing I noticed was a wound on the back of the head, bloodstains on the neckcloth, and blood on the ground. The only sign of a struggle appeared to be a stunted bush knocked down alongside the body. There were slight signs of struggling about the feet.” Not a carcass the Inspector could dispose of in the mud.

Thomas Seaton later equivocated over whether he recognised Peter Lumberg, a man he saw often, a familiar figure around the north and, for a while, one of the more notable town drunks. Peter usually camped out in backyard sheds or under houses. He cut a distinctive figure. A visiting entomologist once mocked him in print as the hypothetical evolutionary stepping stone between humans and apes.

“All skin and bone, his matted beard and hair forming one tangled mass; the last 12 months of dirt accumulated on his hard weather-beaten old face. The very personification of a good old missing link.”

The Inspector never touched the body. People died often enough in this town. He knew the law. So he left for help, crossing the road and heading for Mrs Dunwoodie’s Royal Hotel.

George Dunwoodie saw the Inspector emerge from the bush clearing and stride towards his mother’s pub. Even from 150 yards, he recognised the council official. The Inspector of Nuisances was a bloody nuisance, ranking higher even than police on the scale of pains in a publican’s arse. What would he check today? The kitchen? The pub lavatories? Or perhaps he’d look for rubbish in the yard.

“Put your hat on and come with me,” Seaton demanded, no ‘hello’ or ‘how’s your mother?’ “I think there’s a man dead.”

The young horse-drawn cab driver did as told. Hat on, he followed the Inspector back from where he came. “That’s old Peter’s camp,” said George. No response.

Peter Lumberg had called at the pub Sunday night. He and Mary Dunwoodie discovered they had many old friends in common. People they both knew twenty to thirty years before. Back in the pioneer days. They sat and reminisced for hours. George overheard Peter mention setting up camp over the road in the clearing marked by a towering mango tree. Now, as Seaton led him into the clearing, he saw a tent. Beyond the tent, a cloud of flies swarmed over a body face down in the sand.

“Don’t touch the body, and don’t let anyone near it till I bring the police,” said Seaton.

George recognised the clothes. “That’s old Peter.”

Seaton marched off without a word.

George looked around and noticed footprints. Of the few forensic tools available to police, footprints often proved the most valuable. Convictions sometimes rested on matching a suspect’s footwear to plaster casts taken at the scene of a crime. George noticed two distinct sets of tracks. One matched Peter Lumberg’s hob-nailed boots. The other looked to be left by a dress shoe. About a size six with a pointed toe and small heel. George thought the tracks yielded an important clue. “I noticed a peculiarity as if the sole had worn on the outside of the right boot. You could see the impression in the sand as if the upper of the boot touched the ground.”

That should make solving the crime a breeze. Only toffs wore dress shoes in Cairns. So, identify which of the local knobs had an axe to grind with Peter Lumberg, check out their shoes, and then connect them to the murder weapon. Good in theory…

Meanwhile, Acting Sergeant McGuire patrolled the streets of Cairns, officer in charge of the district, if only for a day. Both senior officers were absent, the Inspector for weeks and the Sub-Inspector 40 miles away in Mareeba.

At 9 am that morning, Acting Sergeant McGuire received word of a murder. But not Peter Lumberg. A young white woman had shot dead a black immigrant named Charlie Jamaica at Aloomba, 20 miles south. The local constable requested the Government Medical Officer attend for a post-mortem. But Dr Webster’s horse bolted a few days before, overturning and wrecking the new sulky he imported at great expense from the south. A very grumpy Webster refused to perform the post-mortem unless the police provided transport. McGuire booked a cab for the return trip.

Then, as the Acting Sergeant strode through Cairns, news of a second murder. James O’Shea’s horse-drawn cab stopped alongside him. That was bizarre. O’Shea usually turned tail when he saw cops. He was a notorious drunk, and multiple local pubs once refused him service one after the other because of drunkenness. A remarkable achievement in the hard-drinking town. But the pissed and pissed-off O’Shea then attempted to drive his cab home along the tram line in the middle of the night. His horses lost their footing on a rail bridge and plunged over the side, dragging the cab and cab man into Alligator Creek, so named for the large resident crocodiles. James O’Shea clung desperately to a pylon until help arrived.

O’Shea enjoyed wandering off the beaten track. Or at least, off the roadways thoughtfully provided by municipal authorities for equestrian traffic. The Inspector of Nuisances once charged him with driving his cab past the Crown Hotel and through town on the footpaths. But here he was, on a legal thoroughfare and with a passenger: Thomas Seaton, that same Inspector of Nuisances. Seaton reported a dead body in a clearing outside town. McGuire clambered into the cab, and they headed for Sandy Gallop, stopping to conscript Constable Murray from a footpath.

The township of Cairns occupied the coastal strip from the shore of Trinity Inlet to the railway line, a ten-minute walk inland. Beyond the train tracks, Sandy Gallop, an area of sand ridges and swamps with scattered houses, Chinese market gardens, and Dunwoodie’s Royal Hotel. As the cab dashed along Hop Wah Road, Mrs Dunwoodie’s establishment loomed into view, the last licensed premises on the journey south. According to declarations in the newspaper advertising columns, Mrs Dunwoodie dispensed ‘Beer on Tap and all the Leading Brands of Wines and Spirits.’

A tempting offer to be sure, and one which enticed many a passer-by to abandon their scheduled travel. Of course, the policemen and Seaton had only another hundred and fifty yards to journey. Also, they bore far heavier responsibility than most who traversed this road. Upon their shoulders, the burden of defending Cairns from homicide and nuisance. Ahead of them lay the scene of an appalling crime. Nonetheless, it was a warm day, the fifth day of Spring. They stopped for a drink.

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/ Peter Lumberg: 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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