Grisly Millers Flat mystery remains unsolved to this day

The Otago Witness records Yorky’s violent death in its edition of March 28, 1863.
The Otago Witness records Yorky’s violent death in its edition of March 28, 1863.
St John Branigan, the flamboyant Commissioner of Police who 
...
St John Branigan, the flamboyant Commissioner of Police who investigated Yorky’s death.PHOTO: ODT FILES
Early days in Millers Flat; Portuguese Hill can be seen in the background to the right of the...
Early days in Millers Flat; Portuguese Hill can be seen in the background to the right of the first church spire. PHOTO: TE PAPA
Christchurch writer Jonathan Allan delves into a mystery from the tumultuous days of the Otago gold rush and uncovers a tale of police incompetence, mistaken identity, and - murder!

On the morning of Tuesday, March 24, 1863, the brutally murdered body of a man was discovered near Millers Flat.

The victim was one "Yorky", described as being "an old and weather-beaten looking man; and of a very quiet and inoffensive disposition". In one report Yorky was politely described as being "of very intemperate habits". At the time, he was working as a carrier by pack-horses between Tuapeka (Lawrence) and Millers Flat.

On the discovery of the body in the vicinity of Yorky’s abode, local identity Walter Miller (after whom Millers Flat is named) was informed and immediately began a search for the culprit. Yorky had been seen in the company of another man in recent days, the name of whom no-one knew, and who was an immediate suspect, particularly as there was no sign of him in the vicinity of the crime. Neither to be seen were Yorky’s two distinctive horses.

Miller very quickly took off down river in search of the culprit, questioning everyone with whom he crossed paths. It seemed that the individual was heading towards Dunedin, but unfortunately the trail seemed to peter out closer to Dunedin.

News of the crime and the following investigation, including gruesome details of the injuries poor Yorky suffered, was sensationally reported in great detail by the local newspapers. The motive for the crime seems to have been money, as Yorky was known to be in possession of about £30 at the time, which today would have been worth the tidy sum of about $3500. Such was the interest in the case and all its eventual twists and turns that coverage continued for months, and even for years afterwards the subject of the crime kept resurfacing in the press from time to time.

Prominent in the police investigation was the flamboyant local Commissioner of Police for the Otago provincial government, St John Branigan. By the next Saturday morning, the police, under Mr Branigan’s supervision were, as they thought, hot on the trail of Yorky’s murderer in the vicinity of Saddle Hill. They were confident of his whereabouts and that they would very speedily capture him. This was at the time the news media was expressing the view that despite Miller’s perseverance, he may been on the track of the wrong man.

As it eventually turned out, this particular manhunt was a red herring. The person in question was arrested, found to be suffering from delirium tremens and discharged.

No sooner had this episode been resolved than another arrest was made after several people identified a suspect. This was the start of what Robert Gilkison named "The Strange Case of Job Johnson" when he devoted a whole chapter to Yorky’s murder in his book Early Days in Central Otago.

As the man arrested, one Job Johnson, seemed to fit the description of someone seen in possession of Yorky’s horses, he was intercepted by police on arrival in Dunedin. He was no doubt, as we shall see, bemused and frightened by his arrest and subsequent trial in the magistrates court in Lawrence for the murder of Yorky. Despite unconvincing evidence, including reference to Johnson having been in the Shotover about the time of the murder, he was committed to stand trial at the next sitting of the Supreme Court. The Otago Daily Times, in reporting on this hearing, expressed scepticism of the Crown’s case and criticism of the police’s thoroughness of preparation for the trial. However, the Supreme Court hearing duly began in Dunedin on Thursday, June 11 before Justice Richmond.

During evidence for the prosecution, it was established by two witnesses that Yorky’s real name was Joseph Smith. Evidence that the accused was identical to the person seen in the company of Yorky and in possession of his horses was inconclusive. The trial continued the next day, evidence for the defence showing conclusively that Johnson could not have been in the vicinity of Millers Flat around the time of Yorky’s murder.

The most compelling evidence, however, was given by John Nugent Wood, the Warden and Resident Magistrate at the Lake District. He was able to produce a jury list from an inquest he held at Queenstown on March 19 which included the name of Job Johnson. With the Crown Prosecutor conceding that the evidence placing Johnson in Queenstown was compelling, the judge summed up briefly, and the jury, after consulting among themselves without leaving the court room, returned a verdict of "not guilty".

The jury also took the unusual step of asking his Honour "to say to Johnson that he leaves the court without the slightest imputation on him". This the judge duly did and with clear emotion, saying to Johnson, "you leave this court with an unsullied reputation", and "with a conscience void of offence in this weighty matter."

Thus ended a trial which most would have said should never have proceeded — except, perhaps, for Commissioner Branigan! In Gilkison’s book he says, "Nugent Wood informed the writer that to his dying day Commissioner Branigan never forgave him for proving the alibi, and never spoke to him again..."

In the terminology of the day, the name "Yorky" was referred to in newspaper reports as his "cognomen", a term used at the time for a nickname. Early in the reporting of his murder, it was stated that Yorky’s name was John McEldon, with no source identified. This was later amended to the surname Eldon, and again unsourced. During evidence given at the Supreme Court trial of Johnson, two witnesses stated that Yorky had given his name to them separately as "Joseph Smith", which may or may not have been the truth. It seems typical of the time that nicknames were commonplace among an itinerant population, where friendships were often fleeting, and suspicions between fellow men were not uncommon where fortunes in gold were a prospect.

The Johnson case was not, however, the end of the quest for Yorky’s murderer. Commissioner Branigan was no doubt determined for a conviction, so he must have been pleased to learn of the existence of another suspect.

In October, Charles Kestring, a German, was arrested in Picton on suspicion of being Yorky’s murderer — apparently on the basis that his peculiar appearance had some similarities to the description of the murderer circulated by the police. In Dunedin, he was remanded to the Magistrates’ Court at Tuapeka, and after three witnesses declared that the man before them was not the person they had seen en route to Dunedin in the days following the murder, the magistrate was of no doubt that the police were mistaken in their identity of the accused.

On the second day of the trial Wednesday, October 14, and after two more witnesses had failed to identify the accused as the one who was seen under suspicious circumstances after the murder, the magistrate discharged Kestring, saying there was not the slightest stain on his character.

And there the hunt for the murderer of Yorky seems to have been exhausted, with Commissioner Branigan unable to bring any further suspects to trial.

Yorky was buried not far from the spot where he was murdered, and where others who died in the earlier mining days are also buried. Local miners initially erected a fence around Yorky’s grave, and this site is where the Millers Flat cemetery now stands. Unfortunately, no trace remains of Yorky’s grave — the early cemetery records were destroyed during the Faigan Store fire of 1936, and the cemetery was partially destroyed in the 1950s when vegetation was cleared by fire and wooden grave markers and surrounds were destroyed. Unfortunately, there are 90 unmarked graves in this cemetery.

Where was Yorky’s tent store located? Gilkison says in his chapter on Yorky that he "had a tent store at the Minzion Burn, near Millers Flat". The Minzion Burn is a stream which flows into the Clutha River/Mata-Au close to the junction of Craig Flat Rd and Beaumont Station Rd below Millers Flat. In the press coverage of Yorky’s murder, no mention is made of the Minzion Burn.

In the reporting of the murder, references were made to "a small blind gully about two miles from Mr Miller’s store", the body being found "in the hollow of the creek", and the body "lying in a dry creek". Similar comments were made by several different witnesses, and the creek referred to was close to Yorky’s tent. None of these comments seem to fit with the crime scene being at the Minzion Burn. This stream is some 4.5km from Millers Flat and is most unlikely to have ever run dry.

Just to confuse things further, a correspondent to the Otago Daily Times in 1911 gave some personal insight into Yorky’s murder. According to a "R M Ledlie", the author of the letter, writing from Blue Spur, which was a mining town at the top of Gabriels Gully, Yorky had sent to Ballarat for the accused murderer, paying his fare, as he was an "old mate". The letter also refers to Yorky’s "store at Portuguese Creek at the Lawrence end of Millers Flat".

No other references can be found to this creek, but on the New Zealand topographical map there is a small hill between Millers Flat and the Minzion Burn named Portuguese Hill (377 metres), with several streams marked running down towards the Clutha. All these, at least today, would normally be dry, and barely discernable, so one of these may have been known in the early days as Portuguese Creek. An early (c.1900) photo of Millers Flat shows several dwellings spread along the roadside running south and parallel to the Clutha River. It is quite likely that around the time of Yorky being in the area there were several temporary structures south of Millers Flat, Yorky’s being one of them.

So, did Yorky’s murderer remain at large and undetected, or were there more strands to this mystery? Did he manage to return to Australia from whence he came at the invitation of Yorky?

Gilkison raises several options as to what might have happened to the murderer. One of these concerns the infamous Burgess, or Sullivan, gang who were responsible for the Maungatapu murders in 1866. Two members of the gang were arrested in the year before Yorky’s murder in the vicinity of Waitahuna, so Gilkison conjectures that the murderer may have known of their hiding places in the area, and that he waited there for the hue and cry to pass.

Another thought of his was that the criminal may have committed suicide by hurling himself down a shaft or into a river or the sea. In this context of drowning, Gilkison claimed that there was a story that a man was drowned at the time of Yorky’s murder at the Taieri Bar under suspicious circumstances. As a curious coincidence, a report in the Western Star, a Riverton newspaper, in 1905 claimed that "it was suggested that it was a member of the infamous Sullivan gang that committed the Millers Flat crime". However, the two arrested at Waitahuna were imprisoned at the time of the murder.

The case remains an unsolved mystery to this day.

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