If you want a well-written, meaty introduction to some of the most macabre crime stories in Australian history, look no further than Classic Crime Volume 1, Number 1,by Ken Blanch. I picture someone like James Ellroy reading this book and comparing the sordid characters of Australian criminal history to those in L.A.. Classic Crime is published by Jack Sim, a Brisbane historian with a taste for the macabre.
Jack Sim was at a book-signing at a bookstore in Carindale Shopping Centre recently, promoting his latest publication, Classic Crime. People came up to him and told him how much they’d enjoyed the ghost tours Jack Sims held around Brisbane. One woman arrived with her mother, and said she enjoyed Mr Sim’s ghost books while her mother liked the ones on crime.
One guy asked about a haunted building he’d heard about in Fortitude Valley, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane, the result of a murder that supposedly occurred there. Jack Sim knew the one he was referring to, but he said he had a list of every homicide in Queensland and it was difficult to substantiate that a homicide had occurred there.
Jack Sim has dug up a lot of interesting facts about the history of Brisbane, particularly its crime and ghosts. His books include Bloody Brisbane, Murder in the River City, Ghosts of Toowong Cemetery, and Who Killed Betty Shanks?. His ghost tours and crime and murder tours around Brisbane visit spots like the old Boggo Road Gaol, Toowong Cemetery, and the Tower Mill on Wickham Terrace. He said he’d seen a couple of ghosts, but he was skeptical about tv psychics and paranormal types. You had to know the history of a place to really understand anything about its ghosts, he said. It seems it’s the history of Brisbane that really haunts him.
Brisbane is about half-way up the east coast of Australia and was founded on the Brisbane River which runs into Moreton Bay. Moreton Bay is enclosed by Moreton Island, and the whole area had been settled by Aborigines for thousands of years when in the 1823 Governor Brisbane, based in Sydney, decided they needed somewhere else to dump some of the Sydney convicts.
He sent Surveyor-General John Oxley sailing north to find a site for a new penal settlement, and he came across a couple of shipwrecked convicts who’d been living with aborigines. They told Oxley about the Brisbane River, and he went up the river — later claiming to have discovered it — and found a good location for a penal settlement.
The penal settlement was developed by a reputed martinet, Captain Logan, a veteran of the Napoleanic Wars. Today’s central business district of Brisbane was the site of barracks for the soldiers and convicts, as well as gardens for vegetables and fields of wheat. Captain Logan was a bit liberal with the lash, and convicts were more or less slaves breaking rocks in the tropical heat. So they weren’t that upset when they learned Logan had been killed, probably by aborigines, on one of his frequent expeditions into the countryside around Brisbane.
One of the ghosts Jack Sim writes about in Haunted Brisbane, Ghosts of the River City is the ghost of Captain Logan, said to have been seen on horseback at what is now the South Bank area of the Brisbane River, waiting to be ferried back to North Brisbane where the convict settlement was. Mr Sim said this was Australia’s oldest ghost story.
Later, free settlers arrived, and Brisbane was the main port for wool and other rural produce for export. There are still some examples of architecture from the late 19th century that have survived in Brisbane. Jack Sim said that every high-rise in the CBD marks the location of some 19th century building that’s been demolished.
Classic Crime covers some of the highlights or lowlights of crimes that have happened in Brisbane and Australian history over the last hundred years or so. They’re sensational crimes, the tabloid variety, and the book is written in snappy concise language. Author Ken Blanch is a veteran Brisbane crime journalist and knows how to tell a story. Jack Sim said Ken Blanch was a journalist whose by-line he used to look for in the newspaper when he was a kid, because he was such a good story-teller.
There are chapters about: the Pyjama Girl murder case of 1948; a shark in a Coogee aquarium, Sydney, coughing up a tattooed arm in 1935; the man they couldn’t hang in 1885; the Betty Shanks murder of 1952; the likely suicide-simulated 1972 murder of Shirley Brifman, a witness at an Inquiry concerning the activities of police at the National Hotel in Brisbane in the early 1960s; and other tales of Australia’s sordid history.
I asked Mr Sim if he could recommend any other books besides his own fascinating books on Brisbane history. He mentioned Moreton Bay People by Peter Ludlow – an interesting oral history of Moreton Bay. Another historian recommended the same book…
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-copyright Simon Sandall