Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thriller Thursday - The Mystery Surrounding the Death of Ralph Shepherd

In my last post "Amanuensis Monday - The Tantulean Tragedy - Murder Theory", I shared an article that I transcribed in the early 1980’s about the Mystery surrounding the murder of my great grand uncle Ralph Shepherd.  I came across this article by accident when researching the family tree in the Braidwood Museum and Historical Society. 

Was he murdered?  What was his story?  Why was he living alone?  Time to do some digging, and thanks to TROVE, I found numerous references to Ralph’s murder.  It seems that his death was reported widely in the newspapers of that time.  I found references to the his death in papers from, Goulburn,  Adelaide, Sydney, Broken Hill, Cairns, Lismore and Braidwood.

So what was Ralph Shepherd’s story?  He was born in 1876, the youngest son of Lynn Shepherd II and Harriet Webb, a pioneering couple who had lived in the area since their marriage at Araluen in 1855. His father, Lynn, was a farmer and carrier, and the family had lived on a number of properties in the region. Their final years were at  Tantulean about a mile and a half from Mongarlowe in the Braidwood district. After the death of his parents, Ralph inherited the family homestead and 90 acres of land that went with it.  “Old Ralph” was an invalid pensioner and had lived on his own since his mother passed away in 1917.  It was reported that he was a bit of a loner and eccentric in his ways He was well known in the district  and without any known enemies. Though living alone, he still visited family members, including frequent visits  (a six mile walk) to his sister Sophia Higgs for dinner on Sundays. 

Suspicions were aroused when he was found after fire had destroyed the old family homestead.  His body was discovered the next day, headless and with the limbs extensively burnt.  Dr Harris the Braidwood medical practitioner who examined the body, describes the damage caused by the intensity of the fire, “I saw the remains of a body which had been destroyed by fire.  The arms and legs were quite burnt, nothing remaining but bone dust and ends of bones. The skull was disconnected from the body and consisted of four pieces, which I examined for signs of injury, of which there were none. The body consisted of a charred mass.”  

The police had been informed that Ralph was in possession of a considerable sum of money in notes, as well as a purse with change from purchases he had made in town on the day of his death.  The fact that this money hadn’t been found meant the case was looked on as being one of murder and robbery. Rumours were flying thick and fast,“parts of the old man’s braces were found lying near his remains, indicating that he was clothed when the fire began to consume him.  It was also rumoured that no sign of any metal such as would come from the remains of his purse were located near him.  These reports further confirm the belief that Shepherd was murdered.".

Even though the local constabulary had reported that the fire that had caused Shepherds death was an accident, caused by a candle being knocked down and igniting the papers and books near his bed, the locals were not convinced.  “Though the report has one out that the cause of the fire and of the death of Shepherd was accidental death, the fact remains that Detective Sergeant Keogh is still investigating, and it would not create surprise if in the course of the next few days some startling and sensational developments took place.”

However the rumours were laid to rest following the Coroner’s Inquest and although the police could not determine the exact circumstances surrounding his demise. After examination of the scene of the fire, and the discovery of the missing change, they discarded the original belief that he had been murdered.  Instead they believed his death was the result of an accident, possibly he had been reading with a candle beside the bed and gone to sleep.  The candle flames had come into contact with paper on the wall or rending material and setting the house on fire. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the homestead was old and in a bad state of repair. One newspaper article reports “ The paper was cracked between the slabs on the wall and the paper was torn, The ceiling was lined with hessian and covered with paper.  The building was one of the old type- heavily-slabbed walls and sawn timber for flooring.”

At the inquest family members confirmed that Ralph had the habit of reading at night by candlelight and had a small table near the bed covered in books and papers.  His brother Frederick Shepherd recalled a similar incident when his Ralph had visited him 10 years previously when a dressing table was set alight by the lamp he had left on in the night.  Some members of the family reported that Ralph was sometimes childish in his manner and had spent some time as an inmate of Kenmore Mental Hospital as a patient. I was able to find a reference that Ralph was committed to Kenmore in 1908. However, I do not know the reason or how long he spent there.

One has to agree this is such a sad story.  A simple man, who had most probably been cared and looked after by his mother until her death.  He was then left to live and cope on his own.  Though he seemed to have an established routine within his community, with visits to the local stores and weekend visits and dinner at his sister’s house, it was a very solitary existence. Certainly, his death was a tragedy in a time where there was little support for those living on their own. 
1. 1933 'ACCIDENTAL DEATH.', Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 - 1940), 17 February, p. 3 Edition: DAILY and EVENING, viewed 16 January, 2014,
2. 1933 'MAN BURNT IN FIERCE FIRE.', News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954), 11 February, p. 1, viewed 16 January, 2014,
3. 1933 'CHARRED REMAINS.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 13 February, p. 9, viewed 16 January, 2014,
4. 1933 'FOUL PLAY NOT SUSPECTED.', Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 - 1954), 13 February, p. 4, viewed 16 January, 2014,
5. 1933 'INCINERATED.', Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), 13 February, p. 7, viewed 16 January, 2014,
6. 1933 'The Tantulean Tragedy.', The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal (NSW : 1888 - 1954), 17 February, p. 3, viewed 16 January, 2014,
7. 1933 'TRAGIC BURNING FATALITY.', The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal (NSW : 1888 - 1954), 10 February, p. 2, viewed 16 January, 2014,

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