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The Body in the Boot Box

This article is also published in the Berwick /Harkaway page.

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. 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.

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.

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 Mabel lived at 73 Osborne Street at 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.

Thekla’s sister, Selina Sangal (nee Duburke) was also involved in a terrible crime in the Dandenong area. Link to her story http://www.oddhistory.com.au/dandenong/the-sangal-murder/