In October 1987, a forestry worker spraying blackberries at a popular camping spot outside Canberra makes a gruesome discovery inside a panel van that appears to have run off the road and down an embankment. In August 1954, the bloodied, semi-naked body of a woman is found lying on a Melbourne suburban golf course. At first the police suspect a brutal murder had taken place. But on further investigation, murder will be ruled out. And a woman succumbs … in a case of death by chocolate.
Here’s a taste of some strange deaths down through the years.
Like mother, like daughter
On 11 April 1916, the Dungog Chronicle announced the death of Nurse Jessie Sergeant, of Lismore, which, the paper stated: “Is surrounded with particularly sad circumstances, as simultaneously with the funeral of Nurse Sargeant, the funeral of the deceased’s mother took place at Glen Innes.”
“Mrs W. Sargeant, who lived at Mount Mitchell, knew that her daughter was dangerously ill in Lismore. She received an urgent wire, and thinking it contained bad news reeled round and died in her son’s arms. Three hours later, a wire arrived announcing that the daughter was dead. Mrs Sargeant was aged 60, and had lived in the Glen Innes district nearly all her life.”
This was not the first time the newspaper had reported on the strange coincidences that sometimes surround death. Back in December of 1909, the Chronicle published the following account.
Undertaker’s return trip
“A strangely sudden death took place at Stroud last week. During the progress of a funeral procession of the late Mr J. Relton, between Booral wharf and Stroud, the undertaker, named Robinson, who had brought the body from Stroud, was seized with sudden illness.
When the procession reached Stroud, Robinson was in a state of collapse. Dr. R. Bowker was quickly in attendance, but the man expired in a few minutes, the cause of death being haemorrhage of the brain.
“Robinson’s body was removed to Booral wharf, and taken back to Sydney in the same shell in which he had brought the body of Mr Relton to Stroud.”
Death during burial service
“Macabre were the circumstances in a tragically bizarre, pathological mystery, presented to the Deputy Coroner (Mr. M. J. Bennett) last week,” began a story in Brisbane’s Truth on 24 December 1944.
The Deputy Coroner was “inquiring into the death of a 30-year-old woman who dropped dead on her birthday while listening, in a funeral parlour chapel, to the burial service for a man who had committed suicide.
“She had been a friend of his wife’s, and the latter had been bridesmaid at her wedding.”
A post-mortem examination was unable to determine the unfortunate woman’s cause of death.
Wonder who’ll be next?
On 27 October 1917, the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate reported on the sudden death of Mrs. Catherine MacNamara, aged 76, while observing a funeral at Smith Street, Parramatta.
“The old lady was interested in the funeral then about taking place of the late Mr. Chas. J. Byrnes. She had just made the remark: “wonder who’ll be the next?” when she was taken with a seizure which in the end proved fatal just as the solemn procession moved off to St. John’s.”
Read about other curious cases of presentiments of death.
Frightened to death?
Mutilated Body on Golf Link was the sensational headline splashed across the 15 August 1954 edition of Brisbane’s Truth.
“A woman hurt herself so seriously in a fit of frenzy on Ivanhoe golf links that she died of injuries which strongly suggested murder when her body was found today. Police found it unbelievable that her body could have been so battered and marked, except in a struggle with someone else.
“Yet, investigations established that she had been the victim only of herself. In a fit of frenzy induced by some fear she so injured herself that, eventually, she collapsed, and died of exposure.
“Police, starting out to investigate murder, concentrated as quickly as possible on establishing the woman’s identity. They found, eventually that she was an escapee from the Royal Park Mental Hospital.
“Doctors then suggested a new and not-so-sinister line of investigation of the tragedy and the fantastic circumstances surrounding it. In a terrible fit, it is theorised, she ran blindly through thick scrub and tore through barbed wire fencing, gashing and tearing her body shockingly. The body was near nude, her stockings and under garments had been pulled down to her ankles, and the rest of her clothes were scattered everywhere for 50 yards around. The woman was 36 year-old Pamela Joyce Nance, formerly of Thorsley Grove, Ivanhoe,who escaped from a mental home 14 days ago.
A post-mortem examination, reported the Truth “established that the woman died from natural causes”.
Off their heads: Couple’s truly bizarre suicide pact
Possibly the most bizarre, and gruesome, of all suicide pacts was carried out in the Cotter Reserve, a popular camping spot just outside the nation’s capital, in late October 1987.
“Forestry worker discovers man and woman decapitated in panel van near Cotter Reserve,” was the shock opener to the lead article on the front page of The Canberra Times of 31 October 1987.
“A headless couple found in a car in the Cotter area yesterday, at first thought to have been murdered, were late last night believed to have orchestrated their own deaths in a bizarre suicide pact.
“A police spokesman said late last night that the dead couple were believed to have been a 28-year-old man and a 22-year-old woman who had been living in the Canberra area. ‘Police are no longer investigating it as a murder,’ he said. ‘It now seems more likely that it may have been a suicide pact.’
“The spokesman would not say how the deaths occurred however it is believed that no knives were used.
“The bodies of a woman and a man were discovered sitting upright in the front seats of the vehicle about 2.15pm by a forestry worker who had been involved in a blackberry spraying operation. Both were dressed in summer clothing. The man was seated in the driver’s seat and the woman in the passenger’s seat.
“Senior Sergeant Dave Moore said earlier yesterday that the heads had been found by police but he would not indicate where. He had said it was believed that the couple had died within the past 24 hours.
“The vehicle, an early-model brown panel van with NSW plates, appeared to have gone down an embankment, ending up near a dirt track beside Paddys River, off Paddys River road, about 6km from Cotter Reserve.
“The shaken forestry worker who had first seen the panel van and its gruesome contents had quickly called the ACT Bushfire Council on his car radio and police were notified from the council’s headquarters in Civic.
“Australian Federal Police detectives and members of the scientific squad searched the back of the panel van, which contained a mattress and some blood-stained bedding, for clues to the victims’ identities and how their deaths occurred, while search and rescue squad members searched the surrounding areas.”
The following day, the Canberra Times shed more light on how the bizarre suicide pact was carried out by the victims, now identified as Michael Gibbons, 28, and his de-facto wife, Deborah Ann Lindstrom, aged 22.
“Police would not elaborate on how the couple engineered their grisly deaths, but issued a statement saying investigating officers now consider the deaths may have been elaborately planned using their vehicle to cause their decapitation.
“A spokesman confirmed that the couple’s heads and a length of rope were found in the van. It is believed, but not confirmed, that a rope was tied from a tree and around the couple’s necks, and that the van was then driven down an embankment, and their heads were sliced off and fell into the rear of the van.”
Death by chocolate
Finally, a far less elaborate and grisly (but no less tragic) cause of death was recorded in the Inquirer and Commercial News of October 1898.
“At the inquest on the death of Elizabeth McKay, it was shown that she had eaten chocolates, impregnated with phosphorus, through their having lain loose in her pocket with some matches. A verdict of accidental death was returned.”
Sweet and simple!