The gravestone of Allan and Mary McAskill in the grounds of St John’s Anglican Church in Stroud. Picture: Max Mason-HubersLate on the afternoon of Thursday, January 31, 1878, Allan McAskill, the semi-retired manager of Booral Wharf,was brutally murdered on his way home from nearby Stroud.
The 73-year-old’s bloodied body –the skull was beaten so badly it wassoft to the touch – was thrown into a gully, where it came to rest against a stump. A fowling gun, broken into five pieces, and a ramrod werefound nearby, as were two sets of boot prints.
Eight hundred metres away, McAskill’s wife, Mary, was burning to death inside the flaming ruins of their house. Both she and the house had been doused in kerosene.
It was a crime that shocked the community. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser referred to it as “one of the most repulsive tragedies” in the nation’s 100-year history.
Two inquests were held in Stroud, then, after a £200 reward was offered,brothersPeter and William Gray, aged 23 and 21, whose family had servedtime for burglary in Maitland jail, were arrested and brought before a preliminary hearing.
The police case was based largely on hearsay evidence that William had incriminated his brother in two conversations, and witnesses put Peter, armed and onhorseback, near the scene of Mr McAskill’s murder.
A murder cold case reframes family histories in Stroud TweetFacebookFor some families it’s been a little bit of a shock. Some families do take it to heart that their ancestors may have been involved.
Dr Steding, who will release a book about the case in the next few months, believes an enragedNicholas confronted Mrs McAskill and murdered her. The evidence of the men who found her body suggests she was on her knees when she died, although her remains were little more than ashes.
Dr Steding has been in Stroud and Booral this week with 30 Swinburne students for a teaching exercise based on the case.
They have pored over the evidence, visited the murder sites and recreated the original inquests at Stroud Court House, where local actors played the roles of the coroner, court officials and inquest witnesses in front of a packed gallery. Those who could not fit in had to peer through the windows of the tiny court house from outside.
Dr Steding said the Grays had not been mentioned in either inquest in 1878.
“So why do they suddenly pop up when money comes on the scene?” she said.
“I looked at their family. The whole family, pretty much, was in Maitland jail for burglary.”
Rodney Gorton, the president of the Stroud historical society, said the main characters in the grisly storyhad many descendants living in the district.
“The Grays have a big presence, and one of the local landowners where the Booral wharf is, he’sactually descended from the Nicholases,” he said.
“With the theories Louise has come up with, it’s sort of got people, from their own family point of view, saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise they would have been suspects.’
“For some families it’s been a little bit of a shock.Some families do take it to heart that their ancestors may have been involved.
“Some families are going, ‘I knew it wasn’t them,’ and others are going, ‘I didn’t realise it was us.’”
Dr Steding said the historiesof families in the district intertwined.
“I bumped into a Gray in the street and told him it wasn’t the Grays, and he told me he was a Nicholas as well,” she said.
Some members of the prominent Farley family, descended from the McAskills, were at the court house to watch the mock inquest.
Mr Gorton, whose son played the court clerk on Thursday, said the mystery of the cold case was still part of the social fabric of the Stroud area.
“Anybody who’s been here for some time, we’re very familiar with the case.But there’s always been, ‘Who really did it?’ The question’s always been there in the back of the community, ‘If it wasn’t these Gray guys, who was it?’
“No one’s taken as much effort and time as what Louise has to come up with some sort ofconclusion, which, as a community, you’re sort of grateful for.”