Was Robert Francis Burns Australia's first serial killer?
Was Robert Francis Burns Australia's first serial killer?

Was this man Australia’s first serial killer?

THERE was and still is, in some places in this country, an unwritten rule regarding mateship in the Australian bush.

In our formative years, men toiled together, shared living quarters and went on the 'tramp' to find work together, mostly leaving their families behind.

All this happened largely without dispute and improved their chances of surviving the terror in the beauty of the Australian bush.

But this mutual trust was easily breached.

Any individual who desired to take advantage of his 'mates' would find many easy opportunities because of that trust and the physical circumstances in which they found themselves.

One such individual was a fellow who arrived in Australia from Ireland in 1862, transported from his home country for stealing.

He spent his ten-year sentence in Perth, Western Australia, but by the mid-1870s had been drawn to Victoria by the prospect of wealth from the gold fields.

His name was Robert Francis Burns and he may well have been Australia's first documented serial killer in the sense that we now use the word.

He killed professionally - for gain - in his case with the intention to rob his victims.

He was a cold-blooded calculating murderer who laid red herrings in an attempt to throw his pursuers off his trail. And what made his actions so despicable was that it was among the mates with whom he travelled that he found his prey.

The killer's trail

Burns first came to the attention of the authorities after a headless corpse was found near Stawell in Western Victoria.

It was believed to be the body of a fellow by the name of Charles Forbes whose remains were noticed on 17 January 1882 by a sleeper cutter who stumbled upon his torso.

The head appeared to have been removed with an axe and was never recovered. Police Constable Hillard was on the scene and found a jacket nearby.

Several witnesses identified the jacket as belonging to Charles Forbes.

Burns was charged with killing Forbes but the police and prosecutor had their work cut out. One newspaper said: "The case was cold and dead as the body before it reached the hands of the police."

The remains had been left in an isolated area for so long they were virtually mummified and had been disturbed by cattle, birds and probably wild dogs.

The first medical opinion was that the body had lain where it was for two months, which led to considerable debate when the matter came to court given that Forbes had been seen alive 20 days before these remains were found.

Burns was acquitted although it was generally believed he was a mate of Forbes and had been seen with him in the days before Forbes vanished, at one time on a day when he would have collected his pay.

Harry Wilson leading Constable Willard to Charles Forbes’ body. Published in Smith’s Weekly, 1925.
Harry Wilson leading Constable Willard to Charles Forbes’ body. Published in Smith’s Weekly, 1925.

Police take a different tack

Immediately after Burns was acquitted the police decided to pursue the matter of another 'mate' of Burns, a fellow called Michael Quinlivan, who was found dead in a paddock at Reedy Creek in August 1880 with his head bashed in from behind.

Their investigations showed that Quinlivan and Burns had worked together in several places and "that according to some evidence, Burns had induced Quinlivan to withdraw a sum of money which was lying to his credit in a bank at Dunkeld; that soon after this had been done Quinlivan mysteriously disappeared, and as far as could be ascertained, been last seen alive in company with Burns."

It was now August 1882, two years after Quinlivan's body was found. It was a long shot but police rearrested Burns and charged him with the felonious and wilful murder of Michael Quinlivan on 23 June 1880.

The trial got underway before his Honour Mr Justice Higinbotham, but quickly became bogged down in the legal argument which seems to indicate the investigation left a lot to be desired.

After three days of hearing evidence and addresses by counsel, the judge summed up and asked the jurors to decide "whether the man whose body had been found was murdered; second, whether the deceased was Michael Quinlivan, and third, whether the murder was committed by the prisoner."

The jury members considered the judge's questions for six hours but were unable to agree and were therefore discharged … trial over. It was 2 March 1883 and justice for Michael Quinlivan must have seemed a long way off.

New trial ordered

But the police brought mysterious fresh charges against Robert Burns for the brutal killing of Quinlivan and another trial was ordered.

Friday 20 July 1883, and before the Chief Justice the second trial of Burns essentially revolved around the same questions that were unanswerable by the previous trial jury - was the dead man Quinlivan, had he been murdered and did Burns do it?

Most of the first day was spent on the identity issue and the dead man was identified as Quinlivan by the clothes he was wearing. The trial continued on Saturday when the crown reintroduced evidence from the daughter of a landlady at a boarding house at which Quinlivan and Burns had stayed in Ararat, which told of Michael Quinlivan becoming extremely ill after being given a substance to drink by Burns.

She said it looked very much like an attempt to poison the deceased.

The prosecution also spent much time on a letter that Burns had written to Quinlivan's brother which would lead the brother to believe that Michael had gone to Queensland to select a piece of land.

Burns' defence team then argued that nothing short of proof positive could justify a finding of 'guilty' and emphasised the danger of convicting on circumstantial evidence.

It would not do to convict Burns of wilful murder on suspicion.

At the beginning of the second trial, it was reported that there were more than 50 witnesses to hear from and the trial would be a longish affair. Yet by just before four o'clock on day two the jury was sent to consider its verdict … and it did. Just 40 minutes later it returned and stunned most in the room with a verdict of 'Guilty!' Newspapers reported the impact of that word in the courtroom:

"The prisoner became as white as a sheet. On coming into court he was almost shivering and he seemed to have a strong presentment that the verdict was against him.

On hearing the word 'Guilty' he dropped his head and sat down."

As it was almost five o'clock on Saturday afternoon, the Chief Justice said he would pass sentence on Burns on the coming Monday, no doubt leaving Burns to battle with his own terrors over the remainder of the weekend. It was reported that he had not slept well.

The sentencing

Come Monday the courtroom was packed when the judge extended Burns' agony further by indicating he would deal with other business before sentencing the prisoner.

Eventually, Burns made a long rambling statement to the court in which he again claimed innocence in the Quinlivan matter. The judge heard him out but then inevitably, since the 'guilty' verdict, sentenced Burns to die with the awful words:

"As one person addressing another, I beseech you to regard yourself as a man whose days are numbered. It is only for me to pass the final sentence that you be taken from the place whence you came and on such a day and date as may be directed you be hanged by your neck and may God have mercy on your soul. Your body will be buried in the gaol."

Burns had a little over two months to live after his execution date was set for 25 September that year. He was to be hanged in HM Prison Ararat.

A news story on the execution of Burns from October 1883. Inset: Prison hangman Elijah Upjohn.
A news story on the execution of Burns from October 1883. Inset: Prison hangman Elijah Upjohn.

More victims?

But there were police officers who believed there was more to the sinister exploits of Robert Francis Burns than had been raised by his three trials.

They were not to know that their suspicions would be confirmed in a bizarre manner on his execution day, or if the current charge would hold up; they didn't want to see him exonerated in the Quinlivan matter.

So, they had been for some time actively investigating another murder case which had Burns as the prime suspect.

It involved the death of a man by the name of Heenan.

Now it appears that in February 1879 Heenan was a labourer on the Wickliffe railway line and 'mates' with Robert Burns. Heenan was described as "a young and strong man" but while with Burns, for reasons that were unknown, suddenly became ill and died in extreme pain.

A doctor who examined Heenan gave the cause of death as English Cholera.

But the camp was filled with speculation that Heenan had died from arsenic poisoning and Burns was involved in his death. On those grounds, an application was made to exhume Heenan's body from the Ararat Cemetery.

The application was granted and under police supervision, Heenan's grave was opened in October 1882 and parts of his body sent to the government analyst to ascertain whether any traces of poison could be found.

But it had been too long and the news was not good for police who were seeking another case to bring against Burns in the event the Quinlivan prosecution failed.

On 26 October 1882 The Herald newspaper in Melbourne reported that: "the body has become so decomposed that no possibility identifying poisonous agents if present exists and all intention of prosecuting the ongoing inquiry further, has, therefore, been abandoned."

Execution day: Tuesday 25 September 1883

The Quinlivan charge held, and on the stroke of 9 o'clock the sheriff and the hangman, a fellow called Elijah Upjohn - who incidentally, hanged Ned Kelly - took Burns to the gallows inside HM Prison Ararat where the sheriff, a Mr Anderson, intoned it was his very painful duty to see the sentence of death passed on Burns for the murder of Michael Quinlivan.

Upjohn, who had earlier pinioned Burns, slipped the noose over his head but clearly suffering from nerves, failed to place the knot correctly.

His error was noticed by Senior-Warder Ranking who took it upon himself to move the knot into the correct position.

The execution proceeded with the usual horror associated with the taking of human life and after he was dead, Burns' body was placed in a plain coffin and buried against the east wall of exercise yard number one inside the prison grounds.

A confession of more murders

It was revealed later that Burns had requested to make a short speech from the gallows but was counselled by his spiritual adviser not to do so. Instead, he spoke to the hangman, Upjohn. After some controversy about whether the conversation between the pair actually took place, Melbourne's The Age said it had obtained a statement, in writing, from Upjohn confirming the conversation.

The old Ararat jail, where Burns was due to be hanged.
The old Ararat jail, where Burns was due to be hanged.

Curiously The Age statement was reported in the opposition publication, The Herald.

Upjohn's statement reads: "That Robert Francis Burns who was executed in the Ararat gaol on the 25th of September, 1883, did make the following confession to me during the time I was engaged pinioning him in the condemned cell. That the said Robert Francis Burns said to me in answer to my question whether he had anything to say, I have cooked eight, five in Victoria and three in Sydney, and now you're going to cook me."

Confession or fabrication?

As can be imagined the statement from Upjohn, which was later accompanied by an affidavit to the same effect, created huge public interest and a clamour from Melbourne's morning daily newspapers to find out who Burns' unknown victims were.

It would have been a considerably simpler and more reliable exercise to have allowed Burns his morbid moment of glory on the scaffold or even to have delayed his execution … but those possibilities were gone and so the chase was on.

So, who were the victims claimed by this callous convicted and executed killer? The closest we can probably get to a comprehensive list of victims given the time that has passed, is as investigated and reported by the The Herald on 1 December 1883.

The victims were listed as:

Murder #1: 1877

Richard Going from Orville near Berlin, which is now called Rheola. It is about 50 kilometres as the crow flies east of Bendigo and was part of the famed 'golden triangle'.

Going was found dead with injuries very similar to those inflicted on Michael Quinlivan, probably with a hammer. He was found in his hut which had been set alight by the murderer.

Murder #2: 1879

John Scott from Tarnagulla, a gold mining and grazing area about 40 kilometres east of Bendigo.

He was described as a herdsman, or drover.

The 39-yearold's body was found in bushland, again with head injuries.

Tarnagulla is less than 20 kilometres from Rheola, where John Scott was killed. He is interred in Tarnagulla Cemetery.

Murder #3: 1879

Burns' brother-in-law, whose name remains a mystery, came out from Ireland the year before at Burns' request and worked with him until the new arrival disappeared at the end of 1879. It seems that the pair had been drinking at a pub in Penshurst, just west of Hamilton, during a journey to Brie Brie station near Glen Thompson.

Burns got very drunk and was thrown out of the hotel and wasn't seen again for a couple of weeks.

When he reappeared there was no sign of his brother-in-law, who was never seen again.

When Burn's brother-in-law arrived from Ireland he had about 150 pounds in his possession. It was noted that after the brother-in-law went missing Burns seemed 'flush with cash'.

Murder #4: 1880

Michael Quinlivan, who has been dealt with in this story. Burns was hanged for his savage murder.

Murder #5: 1882

Charles Forbes from Stawell - his headless body was found near Deep Lead which was a gold mining area located about 10 kilometres northeast of Stawell. Burns was tried for his murder but exonerated.

Interstate killings?

As for the three killings in Sydney, the trails are very cold indeed. There may be similar crimes in other states but tracing any murders in Sydney was apparently a forlorn task.

Murder #6

In support of the 'other state' theory, The Herald indicates it believed the man Heenan, who died in 1879 while working on the Wickliffe Railway, came from Burra in South Australia and was actually poisoned there even though he was interred in Ararat Cemetery.

It believed the police had a strong case against Burns for Heenan's death but without the evidence that may have been provided from the exhumation, they were forced to drop the matter.

Murder #7

Is a case from a little town called Gerogery, between Albury and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. It involves the death of a man whose remains could not be identified but had a strong similarity to a man who recently worked with a fellow named Burns.

It seems in 1880 they were employed by a contractor named George Cornwall who, when interviewed by detectives, was unable to find the payroll records and employment papers of the now completed contract.

Murder #8

As for this claim by Burns, it remains to this day as The Herald nominated it in December 1883 … "The Missing Link."

The irony of this gruesome tale is that it was Burns own confession to Upjohn the hangman that throws doubt on his criminal record. If the Police had been able to prove the accusations in the matters of Forbes and Heenan, the rest of The Herald's list may have been properly examined.

We will never know whether Burns' last conversation, when all hope of gaining from it had passed, was the truth or some deranged desire for notoriety - and unfortunately, that is the point on which the matter of whether Burns was this nation's first serial killer finally rests.

*This is an edited extract from GRAVE TALES: TRUE CRIME VOL. 1 by Helen Goltz and Chris Adams, Atlas Productions (Publisher).

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