Late in 1908, two mates set up camp at an idyllic spot by the Namoi River not far from the small town of Wee Waa in northwestern NSW. Some weeks later, one of the men, Harry Johnson, would be pulled from the river, his badly decomposed body anchored down in the Namoi’s waters with an iron bar. The other man, Stanley Williams, would soon afterwards be arrested and charged with murder.
Whatever happened between the two men on that grassy riverbank one early summer’s night, we will never truly know. What we do know, is that an extremely violent and bloody act took place… and in the months ahead, the evil that transpired one night in that idyllic spot by the river would linger.
On 26 December 1908, The Morning Bulletin reported the arrest of a man named as Stanley Williams.
“A man has been arrested in connection with the murder of a man, whose body was found in the Namoi River, Wee Waa. He was brought before the Police Court at Pilliga and remanded for eight days. He was charged as Stanley Williams, alias Stanley Harry Johnson.”
As the murder investigation continued, it became apparent that the deceased had met a particularly gruesome end. The Sydney Morning Herald of 11 January 1909 filed the following court proceedings, including the graphic testimony from a Dr Willis.
“The body was exposed to the air for probably four or five days. The body I saw may have been dead only about a fortnight. Senior Sergeant Sheridan placed a hammer in my hands this morning. I fitted it to the hole in the skull of the murdered man, and found that it fitted exactly into the hole punched there in the fracture behind the ear.”
The Herald report continued: “Richard Sheridan senior-sergeant of police at Wee Waa, said that the brake of a van or waggonette was strapped to the back of the body. The body appeared to be that of a young man about 5ft 6in or 10in high, of slight build. The flesh from the head, feet, and hands had all disappeared, the rest was in a fairly good state of preservation. The brake block bar, which was strapped to the body, was painted dark green, with white lining. The bar weighed 30lb, and measured 5ft 9in long.”
In June 1910, Williams was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. But the story of the grisly death of Harry Johnson would not end with Williams’ conviction.
The Namoi River tragedy: weird facts that are terrifying
A correspondent who had been in the area in the months following the murder penned an article which appeared in The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times on 25 June 1910. It was titled The Namoi River Tragedy: Weird Facts That Are Terrifying, and began:
“At one of the prettiest spots on the Namoi River … a terrible tragedy was enacted some months ago, when a man named Harry Johnson met his death at the hands of his mate Stanley Williams, who is now undergoing a sentence of penal servitude in connection with the crime.”
The correspondent visited a Mr Thomas Underwood, who lived about one and a half miles from the murder scene, with the purpose of investigating a number of reports of strange happenings associated with the campsite and experienced by both locals and visiting strangers unaware of the story of Johnson’s bloody demise.
One such person was Arthur Perritt, a well-known Narrabri local.
“He had previously camped unknowingly near the scene, and his pair of waggonette horses showed a decided aversion to the locality, so much so that when night came they forcibly broke away from their tethers and left the neighborhood.
“After passing a night of fearful sleeplessness, for which he could not in any way account, Mr. Perritt spent the early part of next day seeking his horses, which he found some miles away.”
The following week, Perritt again passed through the area, this time asking Underwood’s permission to camp near his homestead and leave the horses in his paddock “as they had absolutely refused to go on to the point near the river”.
Perritt also told Underwood “he did not relish the idea of again experiencing the uneasiness of mind which had attended him when last he camped there”.
Perritt’s two sons also had to contend with missing horses after inadvertently visiting the cursed campsite for some fishing.
“They were driving an old quiet horse attached to a spring cart and reached their fishing grounds safely. As soon as night came on, however, the old horse, which had never been known to do the like before, smashed the winkers and galloped homeward in a perfect frenzy of snorting fear, leaving the boys to pull the cart home themselves.”
Ideal camping ground, beautifully situated & well grassed
The correspondent visited the riverside campsite with his host to see for himself the very spot where Johnson met his bloody end. “It was an ideal camping ground, beautifully situated and well grassed,” he wrote.
But signs of the violence that took place months earlier remained.
“The exact position of the victim’s tent was pointed out by Mr. Underwood, beneath a handsome well-grown Peruvian, the largest of a clump of similar trees which shelter the spot on the southwestern side. The position of the victim’s head appeared to have been close to the tree, as he was supposed to be in the tent at the time of the tragedy, and after the crime had been discovered a patch of ground, about half the length of the dead man’s body, was found to have been saturated with blood. The tree was also dyed with blood and, even now, the dark sinister stain can be detected on the back of the tree trunk close to the ground.”
Although the grass grew “luxuriantly, quite three inches long, all round the tree on three sides,” the ground was completely bare where the victim had been slain.
Horses anxious to get away
“So far as feed is concerned the whole of the point is better grassed than any other portion of the reserve, but as soon as night falls, all stock leave at once, horses being particularly anxious to get away,” the correspondent wrote.
“Dozens of strangers have camped there knowing nothing about the tragedy, and each one has had distressing experience and has moved onward to more congenial quarters. Without exception all persons camping there at night with horses, have been hunting around the neighboring country for them next day, no matter what good camp horses they may have been hitherto.”
Struggling in a sea of human blood
It wasn’t only animals that somehow sensed the evil lingering along the riverbank. One poor woman, according to the article, experienced a particularly harrowing night at the campsite.
“Only a few weeks ago a man and his wire, strangers to the district, unyoked their horses near the spot and arranged to camp for the night. Soon after dark the horses were missing, and all though the night the woman went nearly raving mad, declaring, in her paroxysms of terror, that she was surrounded by and struggling in a sea of human blood.
“The poor man really thought his wife had lost her reason, and in the grey dawn made off to the nearest house he could find, which happened to be Mrs. McKenzie’s. Here he related the experience of the night, stating that he was sure his wife was going to be very ill and asking for assistance.
“After being questioned as to where his camp was situated, the man was then told of the tragedy and he lost no time in vacating the dreaded spot. Immediately after leaving the place, his wife began to recover, and by nightfall on the succeeding day she was almost in her normal state of health, being utterly at a loss to account for her frenzy of the previous evening.”
Another stranger to the district who camped at the spot not knowing its recent terrible past later declared “he would refuse all the gold of the Empire rather than go through a similar experience again”.
“He swears that all night long some unseen power was trying to pull the bed clothes off his bunk, and that terrific agitation was going on in the river, just below him, where, he has since found out, the body of Johnson, with the heavy brake bar attached to it, was hurled down the steep bank into the river.”
Johnson’s spirit or something else?
So, what was it that lingered long after the violent death of Harry Johnson causing animals to break free in “snorting fear” and bolt for miles, and for causing “uneasiness of mind” and “paroxysms of terror” in people? If only people were affected, perhaps we could attribute an overactive imagination. But what do we make of it when animals are similarly affected?
Was the spirit of Harry Johnson clumsily attempting to reach through the ether to right a wrong that had been committed against his earthly self?
Could an evil, violent act affect the natural environment, lingering for months, years or even centuries, in ways we do not yet understand?
Or, could the subconscious of humans, and perhaps even animals, somehow detect the remnants of certain past events, such as those overly traumatic or even joyous, like a weak, garbled radio or TV signal?