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The Riddle of Two Skeletons

This story starts in an area of Gippsland called the Haunted Hills. It was named such because drovers, moving cattle through this area, repeatedly had the animals spook and stampede. The cattlemen claimed that an unearthly sound also emanated from the ground. There are numerous stories about the phenomenon and one explanation is that the underground brown coal deposits in the area left caverns under the ground which caused echoes. Today there is little or no chance of studying it because the ground has been dug and an open cut brown coal mine is situated almost on top of it.

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, wandering about 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 in the care of 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. On May 1st, Maria’s sister became concerned and started a search. Neither Charles nor Maria were found anywhere on the farm. A 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 bushfires went through much of Victoria. The fires 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 Maria.

Imagine the surprise when in August of 1919 another skeleton was found in the Haunted Hills and this one had a stockless shotgun beside it. 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.