A successful farmer disappears in the dark of night. The missing man’s neighbour and close associate claims he has left the country and immediately begins taking over all his business affairs. Suspicions turn to foul play. Four months later, a ghostly encounter leads to the discovery of a man’s body buried in a boggy creek. The victim’s neighbour is tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.
This is the story of Fisher’s Ghost.
The small village of Campbelltown, 34 miles from Sydney, consisted of a church and a courthouse, the Forbes Inn, and not much else in 1826. Back then, the district was populated mostly by ticket-of-leave settlers [freed convicts] making a living on small farms, along with a number of gentlemen farmers, who had taken up grants of two or three thousand acres.
Among the ticket-of-leave settlers was Frederick Fisher. Through hard work and thriftiness, Fisher had accumulated a considerable amount of both land and livestock. Unmarried, he was often in the company of neighbour and fellow farmer, George Worrell. Worrell, although less educated than Fisher, acted as Fisher’s agent and overseer.
In fact, Worrell appeared to be master of Fisher’s affairs, and knew to a penny Fisher’s worth. He was often considered by neighbours as Fisher’s man of business. Soon, Worrell would see Fisher as being an unnecessary intrusion, and regularly suggested to Fisher that he should take a trip back to the old country to visit with friends. Fisher, however, made it clear that he had no desire to return to England.
But in June 1826, Fisher disappeared from Campbelltown. He was last seen on the night of the 17th. Neighbours began asking questions of Fisher’s whereabouts, and Worrell explained to them that Fisher had left suddenly, in the dark of night, for Sydney with the intention of sailing to England.
Worrell now took over all of Fisher’s business dealings. He attempted to sell a young mare that had belonged to Fisher for 300 pounds. When the buyer asked to see an authority, Worrell produced a receipt that he claimed showed that he had bought the horse from Fisher. The buyer, a neighbour who knew Fisher well, observed that the receipt was not in Fisher’s handwriting. He and other neighbours soon became suspicious, and suspected that Fisher had met with foul play.
Reward for the discovery of Fisher’s body
Three months after Fisher had vanished, on 23 September 1826, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser published the following Government Notice under the headline Colonial Secretary’s Office, Sept 22, 1826. Supposed Murder:
“Whereas Frederick Fisher, by the Ship Atlas, holding a Ticket of Leave, and lately residing at Campbell Town, has disappeared within the last Three Months; it is hereby notified, that a Reward of Twenty Pounds will be given for the Discovery of the Body of the said Frederick Fisher; or, if he shall have quitted the Colony, a Reward of Five Pounds will be given to any Person or Persons who shall produce Proof of the same.”
One month after the notice of the reward was published, a well-known and respected Campbelltown local, Mr Farley came forward with an extraordinary story.
Encounter with Fisher’s ghost
In Fisher’s Ghost. The Legend of Campbelltown published in The Inquirer & Commercial News on 6 January 1899, G.B Barton wrote of Farley’s encounter with the spirit of the missing farmer.
“He said that while driving home from Campbelltown he passed a corner of the paddock that had belonged to Fisher, adjoining Worrell’s farm, about fifty yards from his house.
“As he passed he saw the figure of a man – to all appearances Fisher – seated on the top rail of the fence. Taking it to be Fisher come back, he went up to speak; but as he approached the figure rose from the fence, waved its right arm in the direction of a small creek, nearly dry, running through the paddock, and disappeared, apparently following the windings of the channel.
“Horror-struck at the sight – for he now believed he had seen a spirit – he drove on as fast as he could, and on reaching his home related what he had seen to his wife. At her insistence, Farley next day repeated the statement to Howe, the superintendent of the police, who took him before the Rev. Thomas Reddall, who was also a justice of the peace. Farley was so well-known to be an honest man that he escaped the imputations which would otherwise have been cast on him.”
Reverend Reddall placed much faith in Farley’s words and, after discussing Farley’s encounter with some magistrates, convinced them to make an order to the police to search the area where Farley had witnessed the apparition of Fred Fisher.
White man’s fat, dig there
On 31 October, Constables Newlands and Roche, together with an Aboriginal tracker named Gilbert, proceeded to the spot. “On reaching the paddock corner they examined the top-rail described by Farley. Gilbert pointed out that the wood was stained; and on scraping it with a knife he declared that the stains were made by blood,” wrote Barton.
“On the ground immediately beneath there was a slight trace of fire. From the fence they went on to the creek, and at a pool covered with scum. Gilbert took a leaf from a corn-stalk, passed it over the scum and put it to his nose. ‘White man’s fat,’ he said.”
The search party then followed the creek where the ground soon became swampy. Gilbert took the ramrod from his musket and drove it into the boggy ground. He pulled the ramrod back out of the earth and smelt the end. “White man’s fat; dig there.” The constables started digging. They soon found indications of a shallow grave, and after digging a little more, came across a body – just where Fisher’s ghost had indicated to Farley.
That’s the hand of Fred Fisher
Barton continued, “on getting one of the hands clear, Constable Newland said, ‘That’s the hand of Frederick Fisher; I will swear to it.’ He also recognised the body by its general appearance, and by the clothes.”
Constable Newland went back to inform the superintendent and the magistrates of the discovery of Fisher’s body.”
Worrell had been under suspicion for some time now, with holes appearing in his story of Fisher’s trip to England (the ship he had said Fisher sailed on, the Lord Saint Vincent, did not exist) and the suspected forging of Fisher’s documents.
Following the discovery of Fisher’s body, a warrant was issued for the arrest of George Worrell, and he was taken into custody.
Worrell found guilty, sentenced to hang
George Worrell went to trial for the murder of Fred Fisher. On 2 February 1827, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang the following Monday.
On 6 February 1827, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported on Worrell’s sorry end.
“George Worrell, who was convicted on Friday last of the murder of Frederick Fisher, yesterday suffered the dreadful sentence of the law. Till about 5 o’clock on the morning of his execution, he persisted in asserting his innocence, when he was at length induced to acknowledge to a gentleman, who had sat up with him during the night, that he, alone had perpetrated the murder, but positively affirmed that it was not his intention at the time to do so.”
“His behaviour on the scaffold was manly and becoming, and he seemed absorbed in the contemplation of an awful eternity. The Rev. Gentleman at length took his leave – the executioner adjusted the cap – and in a few moments the drop fell – and the world closed upon this murderer for ever.”
For Farley, the vision of Fisher’s ghost would remain with him to his dying day, never wavering in recounting his version of events of the “vision that scared him”.
Today, the story of Fisher’s Ghost continues to captivate, particularly in what is now the city of Campbelltown. There is the annual Fisher’s Ghost Festival and Fisher’s Ghost Fun Run, the Fisher’s Ghost Youth Orchestra and a myriad of local businesses using the Fisher’s Ghost name. And of course, there is Fisher’s Ghost Creek.