In April 1870, a letter was published in Sydney’s Empire newspaper written by an “old bushman” describing a terrifying supernatural encounter he had 25 years earlier while camped one night in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.
While resting by the fire watching over a flock of sheep, the bushman is approached by the figure of a young woman, dressed in a nightgown, her hair dishevelled and covered in blood and gore. The young woman beckons him, and he follows her into the night.
What follows is an intriguing encounter. Not only is the bushman approached by a ghostly figure, seemingly aware of his presence, but on following the apparition to a hut, he is witness to an earlier tragic event – as if he has stepped back in time. An event in which the main player is seemingly oblivious to the presence of both the bushman and the bloodied apparition.
Did the bushman see a spirit of the dead, slip back in time, or perhaps receive a psychic message from a forgotten murder victim while asleep by the campfire?
A good supper, a cheerful fire, and an excellent pipe of tobacco
In the spring of 1845 the “old bushman” and his mate, George, were droving a flock of 1,500 sheep along the Southern Road from the Murrumbidgee to the Sydney market.
At the end of a warm, dusty day, they had arrived at Bong Bong, in the Southern Highlands at what was then “a beautiful glade, fringed with gigantic trees”.
“We pitched our tent on the verge of this glade, rounded up our flock for the night, and made ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would permit. A good supper, a cheerful fire, and an excellent pipe of tobacco, soon put us on the best of terms with ourselves, and with the rest of the world. We lay upon tho velvet carpet which nature had spread around, chatting quietly, in listless enjoyment of the luxury of the scene.”
As the flock had to be watched for the night, the bushman and his mate, George, took it in turns to keep watch. “I turned in about ten o’clock, while my mate watched; and I was soon wrapped in profound slumber.”
The letter continued, “About one o’clock George, my mate, roused me and turned in in my place, while I took charge of the flock. The moon was high in the heavens and flooded the forest with a light almost equal to that of day. I stirred up the smouldering embers of the fire, piled on some wood, and soon had a cheerful fire, whose crackling pleasantly broke the almost awful silence which reigned through the woods. Having lit my pipe, I sat smoking until a feeling of drowsiness crept over me and warned me to rise from my recumbent posture. Doubling my great coat closely round me, for the air was moist and chill from the dews of night, I took the circuit of the glade, saw that the horse was all right, and walked back to the fire, in front of which I stood gazing dreamily into the glowing embers, and watching tho play of the smoke and sparks as they rose in a leaping, irregular column, and disappeared amidst the dense foliage overhead.”
But the idyllic peace and quiet of the drovers’ camp was soon disturbed.
This unearthly-looking being before me
“I had stood thus some minutes when my attention was aroused by the strange behaviour of the dogs, one of which rushed with a frightened yelp into the bush, while the other came cowering between my legs, with bristles erect and eyes ablaze with fright and anger. On looking around to ascertain the cause of the animal’s alarm, I perceived on the other side of the fire, and about twenty paces before me, a young woman wrapped in a nightgown or sheet, the folds of which she held tightly to her breast with one hand, while with the other she beckoned to me.
“In the hurried glance which I cast at this singular figure I perceived that the neck and shoulder of her chemise, or of the sheet which covered her person, was deeply stained with blood, which was dripping from a wound on her head; and that her hair had also escaped from its confinement and hung in dishevelled masses – dotted in one place with gore around tho upper portion of her person. Her features, which were regular and youthful, were deadly pale and her eyes had a singular glazed look, in which – if I may so express myself – an expression of terror seemed to be petrified.
“During the brief moment in which I had been noting these particulars, she had stood motionless in the attitude I have described, and had not uttered a word. A feeling of awe crept over me and rendered me incapable of asking the unearthly-looking being before me what her wishes were. I tried to speak, but my lips and tongue refused to perform their office, while a cold perspiration bedewed my person, and my knees trembled violently.
“At last the spell which bound me was broken by seeing the woman move away gradually, still keeping her face towards me, and still beckoning me to follow her. I obeyed, and started after her at a good pace. When she perceived this, she turned her pale face in the direction she was going, and ceased to beckon, while I, though walking at my very hardest pace, found it impossible to come within twenty or thirty paces of her. Once or twice I essayed to speak, but in vain. Though no longer under the influence of excessive fright, still there was something about my mysterious visitor which sealed my lips, so I followed her in silence. She struck across the bush in a northerly direction, and at last we came in sight of a hut on the side of the main line of road leading from Sydney to Berrima. She entered the wide open doorway, and as she did so, she turned round once more and beckoned me to follow her. There was a candle burning on the table, which threw a strong light over the interior of the hut.
The man in his shirt sleeves
“On reaching the entrance I stopped and gazed inside. On a stool between the table and the fireplace sat a man in his shirt sleeves. His face was buried in his hands, and his elbows rested on his knees. On the middle of the floor I observed a blood-stained tomahawk, which seemed to have been cast violently on the ground where it lay, for the earth was deeply dinged and broken under it. I also saw that some heavy body had been recently dragged along the floor and out of the doorway, and that the track thus made was sprinkled here and there with newly-spilt blood.
“The woman had disappeared – she had probably gone into the bedroom, the doorway of which I could see from where I stood. I dared not, however, go inside the hut, although I was conscious that some sanguinary quarrel had not long previously been prosecuted there, and that I ought to endeavour to ascertain its cause and its sequel.
“While I stood gazing into the hut, awe-stricken and motionless, I was still further startled by seeing tho woman whom I had followed hither from the camp, come out of the bedroom, and passing me noiselessly go towards the bush behind the hut. As she reached the verge of the forest she stopped and beckoned me in the same silent manner as before. I approached her, and when I came within a few yards of where she stood, she pointed to the ground at her foot with her forefinger, and disappeared utterly from my sight in an instant.
“I cast my eyes hurriedly around, hut not the slightest trace of her was to be seen, although the view was uninterrupted for hundreds of yards in every direction. Upon looking at the spot to which she had pointed, I perceived that the earth had been recently disturbed for a considerable distance around, and there were numerous large tracks in the moist soil. It seemed as if a grave had been dug there, and I instantly remembered the track, as if a body being trailed along the ground, which I had seen in the hut. ‘There has been a murder here,’ I soliloquised, as I connected all the circumstances of the evening. But I was utterly at a loss what to do.
Something unearthly about the whole affair
“There was something unearthly about the whole affair. The mysterious appearance and disappearance of the female, the death-like stillness of everything, and the singular fact that both the woman and myself should have approached and left the hut without attracting the man’s attention, were all so many puzzles with which my over-excited brain was incapable of grappling, and I stood like one demented, utterly incapable of action. How long I stood thus I am not aware, but I was aroused from the lethargy into which surprise and vague terror had thrown me, by seeing a man approach me from the direction of the hut.
“He was below the middle height, but stoutly built. His features I could not discern. In a bolt which was buckled round his waist was a tomahawk, and on his shoulder he carried a spade. As he was in his shirt sleeves, I judged he was the man I had seen in the hut. An unaccountable terror took possession of me as the man approached the spot where I stood; and without seeming to be aware of my presence he began scraping the dried leaves and branches over the place where the soil had been turned. At last I mustered resolution to speak, and place my hand on his shoulder, as he came almost in contact with my person. But my hand met with no resistance, and sank so suddenly that I was nearly falling headlong to the ground; while the strange being rose erect and glared stealthily into my eyes. I could no longer contain myself. With a wild cry I rushed from the spot, and never ceased in my headlong career till I reached the camp fire, where nature gave out utterly, and I fell fainting to the ground.
When the bushman came to, he found his mate, George, bathing his temples and rubbing his palms.
“I related to him what I had seen, and his astonishment was as great as my own. Daylight soon after broke, when, after having a pot of tea, we started on the road with our sheep. At the first hut we came to we halted, and I related the circumstances of my midnight adventure to the inmates. They were as much astonished as ourselves; but they declared I must have been dreaming, for nobody had lived in that hut for several years, and the people who had lived there last had gone to the Murray River, where the husband had been seen a few months previously, and stated that his wife had died on the road up. They had been a very quiet couple, and seemed to live in the greatest harmony up to the day of their departure.”
The drovers continued on their journey to Sydney with the flock of sheep. The bushman now convinced that he had been the victim of an optical illusion. He thought that way for the next sixteen years … and then, while on the Bendigo diggings, picked up an old newspaper and read the following article:
“As two men were employed in putting up some fencing on Mr. [name left out]-‘s property at Bong Bong, they turned up the skeleton of a female. Upon examination, the remains were found to have no marks of violence on them, save one portion of the skull immediately behind the ear, which was slightly cracked. Whether this fracture occurred before or after death the medical man who examined tho body does not pretend to decide, but he inclines to the first hypothesis. How or when the body was placed there not a single person in tho neighbourhood could say. A hut formerly stood in the vicinity; but Mr Lurkins, the only person who remembered its latest tenants, understood that they (man and wife) had gone to the Murray after a short stay of a few months in Bong Bong. He knew nothing of their character or antecedents. And the affair remains, and is likely to remain, enshrouded in impenetrable obscurity, for several other families have resided in and removed from tho vicinity of Bong Bong during tho last twenty years; so that it is impossible to say to which of those families the female belonged whose remains were so strangely discovered.”
Could the “old bushman” have discovered the apparent murder 16 years earlier, and perhaps brought the killer, the man in the shirt sleeves, to justice?