Who stole the head of Thomas Robert Griffin?
THIS is the latest instalment in our 1918 historical feature where we look back at the stories, people and events that shaped our region from the 1918 editions of The Morning Bulletin.
In 1868, disgraced police officer and Gold Commissioner Thomas Robert Griffin was hanged for murder and robbery after he killed two of his former fellow troopers and made off with the proceeds of the Clermont Gold Escort. A week after he was buried in a Rockhampton cemetery someone stole his head. At the time it was determined that that person had stolen the head from a corpse buried above Griffin. In this 1918 article it is claimed that the head was indeed that of Griffin and claims it was a local doctor who removed it.
WHOSE HEAD WAS TAKEN?
A GRIFFIN MYSTERY
The following is taken from the "Queenslander” of the 5th instant:-
We have been permitted to peruse a very interesting letter written privately fifty years ago by Mr. W.H. Wiseman, then Police Magistrate at Rockhampton, to a prominent member of the then Queensland Government, on the subject of the desecration of the grave of Thomas John Griffin, who was hanged at Rockhampton Gaol on the 1st of June 1868, for the murder and robbery of troopers Power and Cahill, on the Mackenzie River.
The letter, which is dated the 8th of June, 1868, raises the question as to whether, when the grave was surreptitiously opened, it was really the head of Griffin that was taken.
Mr. Wiseman relates that a Rockhampton lady was taking "a sentimental stroll” through the cemetery on the previous afternoon (June 7), when she noticed certain indication that the grave of the robber and murderer had been tampered with.”
He continues - "Today ... the grave was opened and it was found that some persons had opened the grave and had beheaded a corpse and had taken it (the head) away. But it was not Griffin's but that of a poor pauper who was very improperly buried above him in the same grave. Nevertheless, I daresay some professor of the now obsolete pseudo-science of phrenology will be lecturing on that very head to gaping audiences as the head of that monster Griffin.”
The facts do not tally with those given in the "Courier” file of fifty years ago. It is there stated that, after the burial of the corpse of Griffin, the sexton opened the grave to place another coffin there, the second interment being the body of a man who had died on board ship.
As his reasons for putting the two coffins in the one grave, the sexton explained that the second body was brought to him late at night and "he had suspicions that an attempt would be made to remove Griffin's remains.” This statement, which reached the "Courier” by telegram on the 8th of June and appeared in the issue of the 9th of June, is a singular one - yet it appears to have been justified within the week!
On the 11th of June the correspondent of the "Courier” at Rockhampton wired that on the 10th of June the grave was reopened in the presence of the trustees of the cemetery, some police, and Drs. Thon and Salmond.
Two coffins were taken out. The lid of the upper one appeared to have been taken off, and afterwards replaced. The coffin was examined, and the corpse found undisturbed.
The coffin was then placed in a new grave. The lid of the other coffin was found unfastened. The head of the body it contained, which was identified as the body of Griffin, had been stolen.
The trustees telegraphed the facts to the Colonial Secretary and the Government offered a reward of £20 for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrators of the outrage. These facts were corroborated by reports which the "Courier” of the 20th of June reproduced from the Rockhampton "Bulletin” and the "Northern Argus” of the 11th of June.
In connection with the above, Mr. J.T.S. Bird writes as follows from Wynnum -
"Though the particulars published make it pretty clear that it was Griffin's head that was taken from the grave in which the murderer was buried, I should like to add my version of the affair as obtained by me from the chief actor, a well-known Rockhampton surgeon.
"There were two concerned in the taking of the head, the surgeon, whom I will designate 'Dr. Blank,' and a well-known mariner, who I will call 'Dutch.'
"The night after Griffin was buried the two named went to the grave and removed the earth until they reached the coffin. This was opened and found not to be Griffin's and the coffin was removed from the grave and Griffin's coffin found underneath.
"I am inclined to think Dr. Blank told me the first coffin contained the body of a Chinaman, who was brought in from somewhere and buried late. The doctor gave me full details of the affair, which were much more gruesome than I published in 'The early history of Rockhampton.'
"Dr. Blank took the head away and hid it in the garden of a friend until an opportunity was afforded to further deal with it. I should add that Dr. Blank was intimately acquainted with Griffin, as was also Dutch, and neither could possibly have been deceived even had the other coffin contained a white man.
"Dr. Blank no doubt desired to have the head for scientific reasons and he had the skull in his surgery until the day of his death, which occurred a few years ago, at the age of eighty-two.
"Dutch has also been dead for some years. As at least two or three persons knew that another coffin had been placed on top of Griffin's it is easy to surmise how the report spread that it was not Griffin's head that was taken.”