William Grisdale Finds a Decapitated Man at Devil’s River Inn

Posted: November 28, 2012 in Australian Gold Rush, Cumberland, History, Victoria Australia
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Early Australian towns were rum old places and none more so than those that grew up as a result of the Victoria gold rush in the mid nineteenth century. One of these was the town of Mansfield, lying 200 km north-east of Melbourne. It was just south of here, at Devil’s River, that William Grisdale and his family had settled shortly after their arrival in Australia in 1853. A few years later, local newspaper reports give us a flavour of William’s life in Australia.

The Delatite River

Devil’s River lies “below the Paps, close to the junction of the Delatite River and Brankeet Creek”. The legend has it that earlier explorers camped overnight “and were so frightened by the sounds of a corroboree being conducted nearby that they called the place Devil’s River”.

At the beginning of January 1871, a horse belonging to missing gold digger James McNally had been found “in one of Mr Chenery’s paddocks” – in Martin’s Gap, near Mansfield on the road to Jamieson. When the horse was brought into Mansfield, “a large party was formed, who started to search for the missing man”, who had already been missed by his mates in December. On the 3rd January, McNally’s body was discovered “at a place called Martin’s Gap some three miles from the Devil’s River Inn” where William Grisdale was landlord. Grisdale “who first came upon the body” was in the company of Mansfield farmer James Owen. The Benalla Ensign reported: “There is some reason to believe that the missing man James McNally may have met with some foul play.” It added that “suspicion attaches to an individual upon whom the police have their eye” – although we never hear explicitly who this might have been.

The body, which was lying on the ground, with the head entirely off, and… was some little distance from the trunk. It is difficult to say whether the head was cut off, or whether its separation was the result of decomposition and the attacks of animals. The body was extended on the back, and near it was an open knife, which is stained with blood. From the appearances it is imagined that a terrible murder has been committed.

An inquest was called which was to be held in William Grisdale’s nearby Devil’s River Inn, to where McNally’s body had first been taken. The first witness to give evidence was James Owen:

I am a farmer living at Mansfield. I knew the deceased James McNally, and recognise the body from the clothes as being that of James McNally. It is about five weeks since I saw him alive. I was searching for him yesterday, as he had been missing about a month. I was searching with about 20 more in a paddock belonging to Mr. Chenery called Wilson’s paddock. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon I found the body of deceased in a small gully, lying amongst some long grass. The deceased was lying on his back, his legs and arms spread out. His head was lying about a foot from the body. There was a knife close by his right hand. (The knife was produced, and was a common pocket knife.) The knife was about an inch and a half from the right hand of deceased. There was a small bone of the neck lying between the head and the body. The body was a perfect skeleton.

William Grisdale was present when I found the body. John Nixon came up when I called out, John Prendergast, and John O’Shea, the shoemaker, of Mansfield, and some others whose names I don’t know. The hat of deceased was found up the gully about 25 or 30 yards (away). We searched Wilson’s paddock because it adjoined the one in which the deceased’s horse was first found. I have known the deceased for seven or eight years intimately. I never observed anything eccentric in his conduct. The deceased was generally a sober man. I have seen him drunk, but after drinking I never observed anything odd about him that would induce me to think he would commit suicide. I should say that the deceased was a most unlikely man to commit suicide. There is a good station fence between the paddock where the deceased’s horse was found and that in which the body was discovered. The horse was not likely to leap the fence. I knew McNally as a digger at Mount Bulla. He had three mates. The last time I saw deceased he said that he and his mate Thomas Egerton could not hit it (off). McNally said that he and Egerton had had several quarrels. McNally complained that Egerton would not work properly. The body did not appear to have been dragged, that is the clothes did not show it. McNally never told me that Egerton had a bad feeling towards him. I think the bad feeling had been blown away. Where I found the body, there was a mark like that of a bullock having laid down, but the ground was not otherwise disturbed. The head was lying in a higher position than the body. Besides Thomas Egerton, McNally’s mates were James Walker and James Williams.

The coroner, Dr, Rowe, and the jury of 14, then started to hear the statements of various other people, including McNally’s brother William and James’s digger partner at Mount Bulla, Thomas Egerton. They heard about James’ character, whether he was a drinker or not and what was his frame of mind when he had last been seen leaving the Mount Bulla diggings on December 9 – on his way to stake a new claim for himself and his three partners. There were also a lot of questions regarding what James had been doing in Martin’s Gap, which was not on the path from Mansfield to Mount Bulla. The dead man’s brother William cast a lot of aspersions against James’ partner and “mate” James Egerton:

My brother continually complained to me about Thomas Egerton, one of his mates. He complained that Egerton did not do his share of work, and that he would watch the party when they wore stripping the paddock where they were working. I advised my brother to leave the claim, but he said he would not give Egerton the satisfaction of leaving.

My brother never mentioned anything about threats or violence between (himself) and Egerton. Egerton said to me after my brother was missing that he had been murdered, that he knew the man who did it, and would have him before he took his clothes off. This was said about eight days ago, when I and Egerton were looking for my brother. Egerton’s words were – ‘It is no use looking, the man has been murdered. I know the man, and will have him before I take off my clothes.’

Under cross examination from Egerton himself, William McNally conceded: “I never heard my brother accuse you of an attempt to swindle him out of a sixpence. I never heard him say who had charge of the gold.”

Egerton went on to tell what he knew of McNally’s last intentions when he left the Mount Bulla diggings on December 9th, and how a few days later he had “searched for him for five days, never taking off my clothes”. He refuted what William McNally had testified: “I did not tell William McNally what he says I did. One word in his last statement is incorrect. I did not say I ‘knew’ the man who killed his brother, but ‘I believed’ I know the man…. I also said, ‘but it is no use until the body is found.’”

The reason I had a suspicion of murder was I knew (the) deceased went to see his brother at Mansfield, and I did not know what took him to Jamieson. That made me suspect foul play.

The original Mansfield Court House was replaced by this one in 1879

The inquest was adjoined and reconvened three more times more at Mansfield Court House. Egerton was examined again at great length. He talked a lot about distances and walking times – still unsure why McNally had been in Martin’s Gap. Other witnesses described how they had seen McNally near Martin’s Gap shortly before his presumed murder and how he had not gone to Mansfield as he said he would but gone instead to Jamieson and was seen returning towards Mansfield before he disappeared. The witnesses’ statements are given in some detail in the various newspaper reports and they are well worth reading in full.  I will quote from the summing up in a minute, but first, William Grisdale also gave own his statement, one of only two times we hear him speak, more or less, in his own words.  “William Grisdale deposed”:

I live at the Devil’s River Inn, and I am a publican and farmer. I know the deceased. He always called at my house when he passed. He has never stopped there at night. (I) last saw him alive on 4th of December. My wife saw him at my house on the 9th December. (I) was in Mansfield on that day – all day. (I) got home about 7 o’clock p.m. About 8 o’clock Willie Little called and inquired about a bullock that he had lost. Told him my mate David Watson and I had been working on the road at the Gap the night before and we had not seen the bullock. Little went on towards Sawyer’s drays which were camped about 150 yards from my house. No one was in my house but David Watson and my own family. After supper, David Watson went to bed, and I also went to bed. No one came to the hotel during the night. On the evening of 9th of December, I met Thomas Sawyer on the bridge at the Devil’s River. He said he was going to Wangaratta to see his wife, who was ill. (I) was searching for the deceased with James Owens when the body was found. The deceased was lying on his back with his arms and legs spread out. His head was separate from his body. An open knife was near the deceased. It was in Wilson’s paddock where the body was found. The body was found nearly in a line from the foot of the range through the opening by Stewart’s house to the late Mr Henry Tomkins’s. The knife, a white-handle one, was found about an inch and a half from the right hand, the handle towards the hand. The grass was undisturbed except a space of a yard and a half. The appearance of the ground was such as might be caused by a scuffle. The deceased’s trousers were unbuttoned and half way down the thigh.

Answering a question from Mr. Egerton, William finished:

I do not know of any man being on the ‘spree’ in my house about 9th of December last.

And that’s the last we hear of William Grisdale in this matter. The judge then heard extensive evidence from the police and Dr. Reynolds who conducted the post-mortem. The doctor gave all the graphic medical details and confirmed that McNally had received a heavy blow to the head before he was decapitated.  “I would have no hesitation in stating that he died first by a blow, which rendered him insensible, and that afterwards his throat was cut.”  In his summing-up Dr. Rowe memorably remarked: “The ‘knife found by the hand pointed to suicide, but a man committing suicide by cutting his throat did not in the first instance give himself a blow on the head.”

The jury, “after consulting for two hours”, returned the following verdict:

That the said James McNally was found dead in Wilson’s paddock, near Delatite, in the Shire of Mansfield, in the colony aforesaid, on the 3rd day of January, 1871; and that he was murdered by some person or persons unknown, but there is no evidence before this inquest to show when he was so murdered.

Not William Grisdale but his brother Wilfred – still in Cumberland

Enough excitement one might think for one year. But no! During the previous nine months, William had also testified at two other inquests at his Inn; one regarding a mysterious poisoning and another related to a huge and deadly gunpowder explosion at Devil’s River. But that’s for another time.


 Suspected Murder at the Devil’s River: The Argus, January 10,1871; The Empire Jan 17, 1871; The Mansfield Independent, January 7, 1871; The Benalla Ensign, January 14, 1871.

The Argus, January 9, 1871.

The Supposed Murder at Devil’s River: The Argus, January 23, 1871.

Murder of McNally: The Benalla Ensign, January 28, 1871.

  1. Your research and stores are wonderful. Thank you sooo much for your fantistic research on the Tree….from another Grisdale in America, cousins to the Wilfred in the above photo living in Penrith..
    Rene Grisedale Smith (descended from Gris(e)dale’s of Kendal and Penrith….the name William was carried down the generations in the family to my father Thomas William Grisdale b. 1899 in Calthwaite, Penrith)

  2. […] to the goldfield town of Mansfield in Australia and had many adventures there (see here and here); while his London-born niece (his brother Gideon’s only child) first became a ballet dancer in […]

  3. […] There is much to tell of William’s children. I’ll only highlight a couple of them. Their son Wilfred (1815-1893) was a carpenter. The family story is that Wilfred loved horses. The picture I have included here might suggest that. He married twice and had eleven children, one being my great grandmother Agnes Grisdale. Another son, also called William, emigrated to Australia in 1853 with his wife and child and there had many adventures. […]

  4. […] Dancing Master Wilfred, emigrated to Victoria, Australia in 1853, joined the gold rush, and later found a decapitated man. Another member of the family became a ballet dancer at Drury Lane, married well, went to Boston […]

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