Sunday, 13 November 2011

It was the the basement...with the cleaver..."allegedly"...

When I first started out in the parapsychology field in Brisbane back in 1998, a number of buildings throughout the CBD held a reputation for being haunted.  However, whilst it was fairly common to be approached by Brisbane residents & told that a specific building was rumoured to have a resident ghost, when these informants were pressed on the matter further, they commonly couldn’t provide anything more than, “Well…ummm…I don’t really know anything about it…but I've heard it's supposed to be haunted.” Obviously, this made pinpointing the origin of the “haunting” & in turn the history behind it exceedingly difficult. Fortunately though, some reputedly haunted buildings had quite complex folklore associated with them, detailing the exploits of the ghost(s) in residence as well as their supposed genesis. In these cases, by backtracking through the detail, it was sometimes possible to locate an historical event that roughly matched the ghost story – hence, whilst the ghost itself still required verification though more scientific means, at least the parapsychologist could take comfort in the knowledge that the likely historic origin behind the haunting was sound.

One such ghost tale involves an area most frequent visitors to the Brisbane CBD would know well – that of Brisbane Arcade, cutting between the Queen Street Mall & Adelaide Street. Now, as far as Brisbane ghost stories go, the Arcade lays claim to a very well-known haunting of its own, however we shall savour that tale & the history behind it for a later blog. The story we will focus on this week reputedly involves an area immediately adjoining the Arcade, although the usual telling of the tale also stipulates that the establishment in which the haunting occurred no longer exists. As is the norm with the bulk of Brisbane's ghost folklore, a veritable rabbit's warren needs to be navigated in order to assemble the likely historic components that gave rise to the story - below, by virtue of solid historic research, I will pull the components of the story apart & endeavour to locate the likely events that gave rise to the tale.

The most common version of the story tells of a haunting that was supposedly an occurrence in a butcher's shop fronting Adelaide Street, built behind the Brisbane Arcade. This butcher's shop is said to have traded at the location since at least the turn of the century (1899 - 1900), & apparently continued to trade for a number of years thereafter. However, as usually results from the march of time, the butcher's store finally closed its doors and was lost to progress - the story insinuates that this closure occurred some decades ago. So, what do we know about the ghosts of the site? It is said that at some stage of the shop's operation (no version of the story provides even a rough estimate as to when the event took place), a fight broke out between the butcher & his apprentice - in a rage, the butcher unleashed a cleaver in the direction of his underling, striking him in the head & killing him instantly. Ultimately, from that time after, both subsequent owners & customers alike occasionally heard spectral sounds of a fracas followed by screams from the back of the store.

So, how do we investigate an apparent haunting such as this? No butcher's store exists nowadays alongside Brisbane Arcade & the story itself documents that the store was closed many years ago, & no information exists regarding the supposed time period in which the event occurred - it's now necessary to look at what we do know, historically, about the site itself. Primarily, after scouring all available historic sources, no record of a butcher's apprentice dying from wounds inflicted in a shop in Adelaide Street (or elsewhere in the CBD) can be located. Had a butcher killed his apprentice around the turn of the century (a rough estimate, given the scant details provided in the ghost tale), the sensationalism of the case would have ensured extensive media coverage - none exists. Furthermore, information confirming the existence of a contemporary butcher's store in the vicinity is also very lean - the story is already on shaky ground, or is it? Fascinatingly, some truth exists regarding a butcher's store on the site, however it pre-dates what would be expected given the details of the original tale.

The site on which the haunted butcher's shop allegedly existed, & Brisbane Arcade in general, had originally been a butcher's shop back in the very early years of Brisbane Town. In September 1849, a recently married Irish immigrant name Patrick Mayne purchased a butchery fronting Queen Street. Having arrived in New South Wales penniless in 1841, he moved north shortly after given the opening of Brisbane Town for free settlement. At the time, Brisbane was no more than a frontier town, ripe for the picking for immigrants willing to apply themselves - by 1846, Patrick had secured employment as a butcher at Kangaroo Point. However, on the night of the 25th or early hours of the 26th March 1848, it is postulated that Patrick horrifically murdered & dismembered a cedar-cutter named Robert Cox at Kangaroo Point's Bush Inn for the sum of £350. A year later, this stolen money was supposedly used to buy Mayne's butcher's business on Queen Street, which operated from 1849 until 1871 - the business was continued by Patrick's wife Mary, proceeding his death on the 17th August 1865, at which time Patrick allegedly admitted to the prior murder on his deathbed. For the full story, I cannot recommend highly enough Rosamond Siemon's book, "The Mayne Inheritance."

Please Note:- Much has been written about the Mayne Family & their incredibly unfortunate history in the recently published schlock-horror fiction series of books produced by Brisbane's Ghost Tours, in blatant contradiction & mockery of Rosamond's heavily researched work, & Brisbane's history in general - for the record, Rosamond holds a PhD from the University of Queensland in History & is a highly respected Alumni. Not only did she donate the entire publisher's advance she received for her book, but she also donated a percentage of the book's royalties to the University of Queensland's Annual Appeal to advance kidney research at the Royal Brisbane Hospital.

Given Patrick's reputation in Brisbane at the time, including further unsubstantiated rumours that he may have unscrupulously killed more early Brisbane residents during his lifetime, his original store on the site most likely gave rise to the story of a butcher's apprentice who suddenly died on-site, hence giving rise to a "haunting" of the building. However, given that no information exists to verify the untimely & unusual death of a butcher in the vicinity, where do we now stand? Well...we stand pretty close, actually - about 300 metres away, to be exact. On Boxing Day 1931, Brisbane was waking up on the flip-side of Christmas, although the staff of the Criterion Hotel, which backs onto Burnett Lane, felt something was amiss - staff taking cigarette breaks & garbage runs in the laneway behind the establishment reported smelling a strong scent of gas. Both Police & Ambulance were called for at 6:45am, & the gas leak was isolated to the door of a butcher & smallgoods store in Burnett Lane.

On arrival, Sergeant Collis of the Brisbane CIB immediately kicked in the door to discover the inevitable - a body was located lying on a number of sacks in the storeroom of the shop, the head in close proximity to a number of gas bottles of which one was open. On an examination of the dead man's pockets, £15 in notes, silver & copper were discovered, along with a loaded revolver & bottle marked "poison." Further investigation identified the man as the owner, 29 year old butcher Leonard Victor Wiltshire. During the subsequent Inquest, Leonard's wife testified that he had left for the shop some time after 3am on Christmas Eve, & she had worked alongside him until late that night. Early the next morning on Christmas Day, he had returned to see to the store refrigerator alone, & had not returned. It was lodged before the Court that Leonard had owned the store for about 6 months, after owning previous stores throughout the city. He had been suffering from "nervous troubles" for two years, & whilst it did not appear that he suffered from financial issues during this time, it is highly likely Leonard's death was unofficially considered a suicide - official sources record the cause of death as carbon monoxide poisoning & asphyxia.

So, next time someone tells you that Brisbane Arcade may be haunted by the ghost of a butcher's apprentice, point them in the direction of the newly renovated Criterion Tavern - not only will they be able to get a good steak sandwich & cold beer, but they may just catch a glimpse of a ghostly butcher that died just behind the establishment, yet supposedly haunts the other end of the Queen Street Mall.


  1. Thanks for another interesting a well-researched article Liam. Its great to see Brisbane history being debated in the blog format, a format than most historians unfortunately ignore, which is a shame as it is a useful way of engaging the public.

    As far as the Mayne story goes, this was hotly debated by historian Dr Bernadette Turner and Dr Siemon for a number of years, circa 2002-05, including a series of articles in the journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland (not to mention some memorable face-to-face meetings). This was probably the most fiercely-contested public debate in Brisbane history during the 2000s.

    I think the original version of the ghost book you refer to used Dr Siemon's version, but after the debate 'switched sides', although the author claimed this was a result of his 'own research' rather than acknowledging the extensive work of Dr Turner, or even the existence of the debate itself.

  2. Hi Chris

    Thanks for your comments, & I agree with you wholeheartedly. Brisbane has such an amazingly vibrant heritage that unfortunately slips unnoticed past the majority of Brisbane residents - blog sites aid greatly in openly disseminating Brisbane's history, whilst at the same time providing a public forum via which differing opinions can be safely debated.

    I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by Dr Siemon on her work on the Mayne Family at the State Library back in 1998, followed by a further forum conducted by Dr Turner on her Mayne research held at the University of Queensland in about 2001 - as I have direct family links with Patrick Mayne, the history fascinates me, & both academics put forward very valid arguments regarding the early evolution of our city.

    Unfortunately, perpetuating tasteless stories of "blood-like" liquid flowing freely from the Mayne mausoleum at Toowong Cemetery into the gutter of 12th Avenue do very little to respect Patrick's children James & Mary Emelia, who selflessly donated (& sacrificed) so much to better the educational & medical fields in Brisbane over the past century, & continue to do so in perpetuity.

  3. Whoops. Just to correct that first comment - Drs Turner and Siemon did NOT have face-to-face meetings. I got that mixed up with another debate.