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Riddle of Two Skeletons

This story starts in an unusual area of Gippsland called the Haunted Hills. Although it is unknown where the name came from, it is commonly believed that drovers, moving cattle through this area, repeatedly had the animals spook and stampede. The drovers claimed that an unearthly sound also emanated from the ground. There are numerous stories about the phenomenon and about other theories regarding the name Haunted Hills.

In 1918 a property called Fairleigh Farm was to the north of the Haunted Hills and the farm was being managed by a couple in their early thirties named Charles and Maria Whitelaw. Charles had suffered a head injury when riding his bicycle six years previously and at times he had difficulty with balance, memory and depression. A few years earlier Charles had disappeared for three weeks in the bush and after had no memory of where he had been. His wife, Maria was a strong, level headed farm girl. She had grown up nearby and was well liked by her neighbours. They had three children, the youngest being 5 months old.

In the early months of 1918 Charles became convinced that someone was entering the property at night, stealing his potatoes, removing slip rails from his fencing and trying to steal the cattle from Fairleigh Farm. He began to patrol the property at night, sometimes with Maria but always with a gun. On the night of April 30th Maria left her children with her sister and patrolled the property with Charles. Charles was carrying a Winchester repeating rifle and Maria a stockless shotgun and they both had keyless timepieces with them. In the early hours of May 1st, two men camping nearby heard the sound of a shot and assumed it was someone out hunting. The following morning, Maria’s sister became concerned and started a search. Neither Charles nor Maria were found anywhere on the farm. A more widespread search followed and two black trackers found the remains of a fire. Shortly after, a man on horseback discovered Maria’s body on an old track which led to the coal mine.

Maria had been shot at close range with a .32 calibre bullet. Her hat was upon her chest. A Winchester repeating rifle lay about 3 metres from her body. Charles was nowhere to be found despite an extensive search. The timepieces were not with Maria’s body.

There are numerous accounts of the search for Charles. In August there is a report of Whitelaw being seen in the neighbourhood of Pakenham. He was traced to Narre Warren, then Lysterfield and near Monbulk and Olinda. In October a man was detained in Pakenham who fitted his description but he was proven to be a local drifter and eventually released.

In the early part of 1919 a bushfire swept  through the Cockatoo area. The fire opened up large tracts of land and because of this a local lad named William Legg discovered a skeleton near an empty house off the Worri Yallock road in Cockatoo (although reported in all papers as being Gembrook). Near the skeleton were two watches and one reportedly had the name Whitelaw scratched on it. On the basis of this, the body was laid to rest at the Springvale cemetery next to Charles’ brother .

Shortly afterwards, one year after Maria’s body had been found, locals in the Haunted Hills area reported that their potato crops were being dug up and also of seeing small campfires in the hills. Then a report came through of a horseman seeing a man standing near a tree in the area. The man appeared to be dodging him and when the horseman called out, a bullet from a revolver or rifle passed through the horseman’s hand. Four other shots followed, one of which hit the pommel of the saddle. A railway employee also reported seeing a man with a rifle on the bridge at the Haunted Hills who made into the scrub when the train passed. The blacktrackers from Dandenong were called and a search was  carried out yet no evidence was found of the gunman. It must be reported though, that the indigenous constables were unhappy about tracking through the area. Yet another reason that the hills were called haunted.

And then, scarcely three months later, in August of 1919 skeletal remains were found by a Mr. Godridge whilst out looking for his cattle (a rather common occurrence in the hills) and a stockless shotgun was found nearby. The remains were less than two miles from the place where Maria’s body had been discovered fifteen months earlier. The bones were scattered across a wide area and vital parts were missing. Some of the bones had been chewed on by cattle and others carried away by foxes or dogs. Fragments of clothing and boots were found but were too decomposed to attribute directly to Whitelaw. The local dentist searched at length, looking for a denture plate with teeth attached that had been made for Whitelaw without success. He did find a portion of a jawbone with four teeth but the fragment was not enough. As a child, Whitelaw had broken his left arm but both arm bones were missing. In the reports it was stated that a bushfire had charred the remains. The fact that the body was so decomposed in a short time during the Victorian winter and damaged by bushfire makes it difficult to believe that the bones belonged to the same person who shot at the horseman three months earlier.

In November an inquiry led to Whitelaw’s mother, brother and tailor inspecting the fragments of clothing, jewellery and boots from the “Gembrook” skeleton. They did not recognise any of them. They also looked at the watches and could not see the scratching of the name. The first skeleton (Gembrook) fitted the height and stature of Whitelaw better than the second, but regardless, the inquiry found that the Haunted Hills body was that of Whitelaw.

I don’t suppose any of us will ever know what happened on that terrible night when Maria Whitelaw was murdered but what happened to her husband Charles, remains a mystery today.