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The Curious Case of the Dubberke Sisters

Thekla Dubberke

On a December evening in 1898, two boys pulled a large trunk called a boot box from the Yarra River near the Chapel Street bridge. Inside the box was the naked body of seventeen year old Mabel Ambrose. Her hair had been chopped off and her body tied with rope. A post-mortem showed that she had been pregnant when she died. The police, in trying to identify the body, had her head removed and put on display at the city morgue. This wasn’t that uncommon, it was a system used in the days before photographs were commonplace. The body in the boot box case caused a sensation across Melbourne but it wasn’t until a month later when a woman called Thekla Regina Dubberke turned herself in to the police that the story came out.

Thelka Dubberke’s parents were German immigrants who settled in the Berwick/Harkaway area. They milked 60 cows, took produce to the Dandenong market and carted goods and livestock for their neighbours. They were regarded as hard working and industrious. Mr. and Mrs. Dubberke had 10 children and from all reports they were brought up to be upstanding citizens. All, that is: except for two of the girls.

Mug Shot of Madame Olga Radalyski

Mug Shot of Madame Olga Radalyski, Courtesy of PROV.

At the age of sixteen, Thekla obtained a job as a household servant for a family in Berwick. The family described her as “a quiet and respectable girl”. By the time she was nineteen, she was living in South Yarra where she met a woman by the name of Madame Olga Radalyski. Madame Olga was an alias of Elizabeth Elburn, a publican’s daughter from Essendon.  Elizabeth Elburn appeared to be running a brothel and abortion climic in a rented a house in Osborne Street, South Yarra and advertised herself as a Palmist and Futurist.  Thekla moved into the house and described herself as a companion and paid half of the bills. When the neighbors of 73 Osborne Street were interviewed, they complained about the noise, the number of people who visited and the girls who sat on the veranda of the house.

The victim, Mabel Ambrose and her family had lived for some time in Lang Lang where her father was a telegraph operator. While in Lang Lang, her father contracted Typhoid Fever and later died in a hospital in Melbourne. Her widowed mother had moved with the children to South Yarra but had difficulty supporting the family and was in straightened circumstances. Mabel was apprenticed as a dressmaker to a well known Collins Street firm and lived with her mother and three siblings in nearby South Yarra. There is a report by a Constable Organ of the Victorian Police stating that about a year prior to her death she was warned because “she was keeping company with women of questionable character”. Mabel had also become friendly with a man by the name of Travice Tod. Tod was a young business man involved in land sales and real estate and collected the rent from Mabel’s mother, thereby becoming acquainted with Mabel.

For three weeks prior to her death, young Mabel stayed at 73 Osborne Street, the home of Madame Olga and Thekla Dubberke. Travice Tod visited Mabel many times during her stay. Madame Olga was “treating” Mabel for an undisclosed complaint. During the trial of Madame Olga, a battery with wires and connectors was produced as a treating device. Thekla Dubberke testified that Mabel screamed with pain during her treatments. They also gave her ergot obtained illegally from a Dr. Gaze and from a pharmacist. Some historians believe that ergot is the fungus that caused the odd behavior of women in Salem and led to the “witch trials”. Ergot is also part of the composition in LSD and was used in the middle ages to cause a planned miscarriage.

In the weeks following the discovery of the body thousands of people visited the morgue to view the head on display.  A hotel keeper viewed the macabre display and declared that the head looked like that of a young girl who visited his establishment.  He informed Constable Organ who had also visited the morgue as part of his job. Constable Organ had a missing tooth and because of it he paid particular attention to people on his “beat” who were missing teeth. Despite the fact that the face was swollen and disfigured, the hair was cut short and that the coroner had said that the body was that of a thirty year old woman he pursued his theory that the body was that of Mabel Ambrose. He questioned her mother who informed him that Mabel was staying at 73 Osborne street. He then went to Osborne Street and questioned Dubberke who said that Mabel was alive and well and had gone away to marry a man in the country. “Constable Organ declared to Dubberke that he would make further efforts to discover Mabel’s “where-abouts “. Shortly thereafter Dubberke visited the police station and gave a statement to the effect that the body was that of Mabel Ambrose.

There is some confusion as to when Mabel died but it was on or about the 13th of December 1898. Thekla made a statement to the effect that on the 13th of December, Madame Olga treated Mabel with the battery device. Thekla was in the kitchen with Tod and they heard Mabel crying out. Tod called out and asked whether Madame had finished and Mabel called out “yes”.  Tod went up and visited her before leaving the house. About 20 minutes later Thekla heard a muttered sort of a scream and then a second somewhat louder scream. Thekla ran into the room and saw Madame holding Mabel up on the bed. Mabel made a gurgling noise and then fell back. Her face was quite black and she never spoke again. There was equipment on the bed and from that, she felt that Madame had given Mabel some of the “medicine” suggested by a Doctor Gaze. Thekla seemed to have a special relationship with this Doctor because she approached him in an effort to get him to write a death certificate which he refused to do.

The following day (although this is questioned due to the decomposition) Dubberke cut off Mabel’s hair in an effort to conceal her identity. Dubberke and Madame Olga then tied up Mabel’s body and put it in the boot box. Later that evening Dubberke and Tod took the box to the Yarra River, weighted it down with rocks and threw it in the water.

The trial of Dr. William Henry Gaze, Madame Olga Radalyski (Elizabeth Elburn), Travice Tod and Thekla Dubberke caused a sensation in Melbourne. So many people wanted to attend the trial that tickets had to be issued. The jury determined that Dr. Gaze was innocent of all charges. Madame Olga was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death but this was later commuted to 10 years. Travice Tod was convicted of murder and also sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to six years hard labour. Thekla Regina Dubberke turned Queen’s evidence and was not charged.  She married 2 years later and moved to Western Australia with her husband.

Selina Dubberke

Selina was born Augusta Selina Dubberke in 1869 and was the eldest child of the Dubberke family and a sister of Thekla. She grew up on the farm that her parents managed for Mr. J. Buchanan MLA.  When she was 21 years old she married Edward Christopher Sangal, a German immigrant who had been in the German Navy and owned a market garden in the Dandenong/Keysborough area.  They had 4 children and Selina was pregnant again when this crime occurred in the August of 1902, roughly 4 years after the boot box murder.

Mug Shot of Selina Sangal 1903

Mug Shot of Selina Sangal 1903, Courtesy of PROV.

Selina was not overly attractive but like Thekla she had a very forthright and decisive manner about her. A number of witnesses suggested that she was having an affair with a man called August Tisler. Tisler was a Russian Finn who had jumped ship whose correct name was actually Sippol. He chose to retain the name of Tisler during the trial so this is what I will call him. Tisler was working as a gardener/farm worker and had previously worked for Selina’s husband. In the year prior to the crime, the washhouse on Sangal’s farm caught fire. Sangal and two of his farm workers rushed to the house and found Tisler and Selina trying to stamp out the fire. Sangal rushed at Selina accusing her of leaving rags about and causing the fire. He then dragged her to the house where the witnesses heard her screaming. Tisler went to her defense and a fight ensued. Tisler claimed that Sangal had another worker hold him down while he (Sangal) hit him and then broke crockery over his head. A Dr. Thompson was called and gave evidence that Tisler had been hit with more than a fist, possibly a closed fist with a ring on it. Tisler was ordered off the property and Sangal expressed concern about meeting up with him again on numerous occasions. The case went to court and Sangal was convicted.

August Tisler did not seem to hold down a job for any length of time. He worked on farms in the Dandenong area and at the Carrum water treatment farm. He spent his money at pubs and racetracks and bragged about his sexual exploits. Numerous people gave evidence about his boasting of his affair with Selina Sangal.

On the night of Friday the 8th of August 1902 Edward Christopher Sangal was brutally murdered in his bedroom by August Tisler.  He was struck across the head with a piece of wood. His scull was caved in and he had numerous lacerations across his upper body.  A knife was used to slit his throat then his body was thrown into a 30 foot well. His slippers were found beside the well.

The baby was sleeping in the bedroom where Edward was murdered. The other children were in the next room.  Two of the older ones woke to hear their father calling out. Selina was in their bedroom and would not let them go in.  The children gave evidence at the trial that they asked their mother who was in the room with their father and she replied “Gus” (August Tisler). The younger child claimed that their father called for a drink of water in the middle of the scuffle and that Selina went and gave him one. David Sangal (the eldest child) claimed that he had seen Tisler put his arm around his mother in the year prior to the murder and that he had conveyed letters between the two during that time.

Tisler spoke with broken English but made a statement at the trial on Wednesday, 24 September, 1902.  “I say I have been in this country two years and six months, and I have been keeping company with this woman 12 months and she always get around me. I say to her, ‘leave me alone now’ and she would not.  She write me letters and send messages to go out there.  She was pestering me to do away with her husband. That Friday she pester me so much and she say that she do away with herself.  I ask her not to do it.  I said I would not do it. Then I went away.  She ask me ‘will I come back tonight?’ I said ‘I might’, then I go drinking in Dandenong and then I go back at night.  She was waiting and she said ‘Is it you Gus?’ She put her arms around me and brought me inside.  It was pretty warm inside and I feel sick.  I want to go out again and she would not let me. She say ‘You go in now’ and I went and hit him on the head. He jumped up and hit me back again and I feel I have the worst of it. He had my finger in his mouth and I felt pretty well done.  Then I took my knife and I did it.  I sang to her to bring me some water and she did. I asked her ‘what are you going to do?’ and she said ‘put him down the well’.  She would not let me go away then and I went away in the morning.”

Selina also made a statement. In one of the newspapers it was reported that she was much affected and spoke with difficulty between her sobs. The report in The Argus on Friday 26th of September 1902 said, “she read from a typewritten statement that said  ‘I am not guilty. I had nothing to do with the murder of my husband and I would not have hurt a hair on his head.  He was seldom an affectionate man, and he worried himself very much about the farm.'” She described her rush from the bedroom to the room where most of the children were sleeping. “Almost as soon as I got there a struggle commenced, with heavy bumping against the wall. I did not know what to do. I was paralysed with fear and almost out of my mind. I heard my husband call out ‘Selina, Selina.’ But I was afraid to do anything.”

She also claimed that Tisler must have used her clothes to clean up some of the blood. She claimed that the infant in the cot next to the bed where her husband was murdered was screaming. She said that when the noises stopped, she went to the bedroom, saw the bloodstains on the bed and floor but did not see not her husband’s body or Tisler. She picked up the screaming baby and returned to the children’s room where she spent most of the night crying and unable to sleep.

In the morning she tried to clean up the room and suspected that Tisler had put the body in the well so she put her husband’s shoes beside it to keep up the idea of suicide. The children found  a flannel shirt with blood on it in the paddock which they brought to their mother and she burnt it. She claimed to be afraid of Tisler and this caused her to act stupidly.

A question that was never answered at the trial was that of the sleeping farm workers in a nearby outbuilding. It was claimed that they did not wake to the noise of the murder, but witnesses said that their St. Bernard dog was howling throughout. A surveyor gave evidence of the layout of the farm and stated that noises would have been easily heard in their bedroom. Selina did not send for the farm workers but the following morning she had one of the children ask the farm workers if they knew where Sangal was.  They answered “no”  and she replied to the child “It is a miracle where he has gone.”

On August 24 1902 a jury found August Tisler and Augusta Selina Sangal guilty of murder. The jury added a strong recommendation of mercy on account of the influence that Tisler had over her. The Chief Justice then passed sentence of death.

On Monday the 20th of October 1902 August Tisler was hanged by the neck until dead. Selina was never informed of his death.

On Sunday the 16th of November, Selina Sangal gave birth to a healthy baby girl who she named Myrtle Mary. On Tuesday the 2nd of December 1902 the State Cabinet recommended that the Governor -in-Council commute her death sentence into imprisonment for the term of her natural life.

The farm was sold and the estate was managed by a Perpetual Executors’ and Trustees’ Association.  When each of the children reached the age of majority, (21), they received a one fifth share of the money kept in trust. The five children were kept at a Miss Southerland’s Home for Neglected Children in Royal Park. Selina made an effort to receive one third of the estate but was rejected.

Selina died in Prahan at the age of 65.