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When you start off researching a book like this, you never know which paths you’ll end up heading down. Below is one of the stranger threads of the story — it’s from Chapter Nine…

* * * *

The Royal Commission concluded at 3.30pm. The lawyers packed their cases and left the courthouse for the last time. The commissioners still had much work ahead of them.On the same day, a new tale of gothic horror found its way into the Tasmanian press.A week earlier a Hobart woman named Ada Valentine had received a letter in the mail from a man she did not know; a gravedigger named George Young. Young explained that he had, until the start of January, been employed as a gravedigger at the Queenborough cemetery at Sandy Bay. He had urgent and important business to discuss with her — could she please meet him at the cemetery between 5pm and 6pm?The woman had relatives buried at the cemetery, and decided to go. Her 10-year-old sister, Sarah Florence Valentine, had been buried in the cemetery only five months ago; perhaps there was an issue with the family plot. She met Young at the cemetery gates, and he told her that two coffins had been exhumed from her family plot to make room for her sister’s coffin.Young had done this himself, he was sorry to say, but only under the direct instructions of his superior, the caretaker George Luckman. Removing older coffins to make room for new burials was done in other parts of the cemetery; he had been ordered to do it more than once.
The woman was shocked.
“What happened to the two coffins?” she asked.
“They were burnt,” Young answered. “I will show you.”
He led her about 20 paces away from the grave to the remains of a bonfire. Among the ashes and rubbish were pieces of wood, clearly broken from several different coffins.
“These all belonged to various people,” Young said, looking down at the shattered coffins.
He led her a little further to another pile of ash and rubbish, and said, “Under here lie many more.”
Young’s admission set in train a series of events that would have severe consequences for the cemetery’s caretaker Luckman. Within days a group of serious men representing the local council, the health department, the police and the media were knocking on Luckman’s door.
Despite Luckman’s protests, the men began a stern and meticulous inspection of the cemetery. They exchanged few words with the cemetery caretaker, and viewed him with open suspicion. There were a number of rubbish heaps, and the remains of several fires, dotted around the grounds. In one of the heaps the men found portions of a coffin, which had apparently been burnt. The coffin was small, that of a child’s.
A rusty coffin plate was also found, which had clearly come loose from the coffin. The men could not make out the entire inscription, but they could clearly read the words ‘seven months’. On the face of it, this evidence backed up Young’s story.
Confronted, Luckman told them the things they had found were ‘the accumulation of years’, and that it was not uncommon, for various reasons, to have extra coffins lying around in a cemetery.
“I would not be such a brute as to do these things,” Luckman insisted, “and, besides, my interests are bound up with the cemetery and I would not be likely to do things to injure the reputation of the cemetery. You need not be apprehensive, if you have any relations and friends buried in the Queenborough cemetery, about their welfare. They will be all right.”
The men told Luckman that they had no relatives or friends in the cemetery. They were here representing altogether different concerns; namely the allegations made by George Young.
“I can only say that those allegations are not founded on fact,” Luckman replied peevishly.
After the inspection, the men departed and Luckman was left alone with the reporter from The Mercury.
“(Luckman) gave a flat denial to the statements made by Mr Young,” the paper duly reported. “He said the latter had been employed at the cemetery as a gravedigger but had left his employment. In his opinion, Young was now endeavouring to injure him by spreading false reports. Allusion was then made to the visit of inspection and Mr Luckman said that a sort of inspection had certainly been made. Certain remains of coffins had been seen, but these were the accumulation of years. Often when people had a vault it was found when burials were made that old coffins were falling to
pieces. The coffins, or perhaps, only the lids, were replaced by new ones and the pieces thrown out. Many people would burn them, but he could not bear to do that, so had them put away. As to the little coffin found, it was lying under some bushes and he did not know it was there. It was certainly not disinterred with his knowledge, still less with his authority. Bodies were sometimes taken up for various reasons, but
everything was done decently and in order. He had been in and about the cemetery for 40 years and now owned half of it, and everything, as far as he was aware, was done decently and in order. During the 40 years he spoke of, some 10,000 people had been buried in the Queenborough cemetery, and the cemetery was as well managed as need be.”
For some months leading up to the inspection, there had been complaints about the cemetery. The Mercury had published letters from readers concerned about the “foul odours” emanating from the place, some saying it was “a menace to public health”.
Within a few days of the inspection, the men were back, this time with permission to open the grave of the Valentine family plot. They arrived in darkness, in the early hours of the morning. Young was with them, as was a man carrying a shovel.
There should have been five coffins in the grave, but Young told them they would only find three. The men poked around the cemetery again as one of their number began digging by lamp light. They did not have to wait long; after digging down only 1ft 7in, the shovelman struck the first coffin.
It belonged to the ten year old girl who had been buried five months earlier. Beneath that they found the coffin of her father, who had been buried in 1909. At the bottom of the grave they found a third coffin. In all, the grave was only 4ft 6in deep; by regulations it should be 6ft or more. Two coffins were missing.
Luckman again said that no coffins had been removed on his authority, or with his knowledge.
The men just looked at him.
“I am not thin-skinned,” one of them said afterwards, “and I have had to see and do some very unpleasant things in my time, but nothing like this. I never want to be present at another such opening.”
Luckman was prosecuted for removing the bodies of John Aloysius Valentine and Joshua Valentine from their grave without the permission of the Health Department.
He pleaded not guilty.
George Young took the stand to explain what had happened on the day he was
ordered to remove the bodies.
The little girl, Sarah Florence Valentine, had died, he explained. She was due to be buried in the family plot.
Luckman had ordered him to open the grave, which he did. However, on digging
down, Young had found there would be no room for a new coffin; the grave was
already too shallow.
“You ought to get another grave,” Young had told Luckman, who was watching from above.
“No, take them out,” Luckman said, gesturing to the two smaller coffins, “they’re only squeakers.”
By ‘squeakers’, Young had assumed, Luckman meant, ‘babies’.
Luckman leaned down and handed Young some hessian bags to put over his hands.
Young lifted out the two coffins, and they were placed out of sight under some bushes. In the afternoon, Florence Valentine’s coffin was lowered into the grave.
When the funeral procession had departed, the coffin was lifted out again and placed in the chapel overnight.
Early the next day, Mr Clark, the undertaker, had arrived with two other men, Young stated, and they “had a look at the body in the coffin”.
Luckman had then come to him and ordered the coffin be placed back in the grave.
Young said, “What about the two small ones?”
“Oh,” Luckman sighed, “they’re only bits of board; leave them where they are. The big coffin is too near the surface now.”
Young’s testimony thrilled the packed public gallery.
The former gravedigger was asked why he had obeyed Luckman’s instructions.
“Simply because Luckman said every other gravedigger had done so,” Young
answered. “I would sooner dig two fresh graves than reopen a grave.”
Luckman’s lawyer, Louis Dobson cross-examined Young.
“Did you make a statement to a press reporter about a body being given to the pigs?” Dobson asked.
“No,” Young replied, “But I certainly admit stating that I have cut through bodies. I have cut through very many bodies in order to make a grave deep enough for Mr Luckman.”
Luckman took the stand and attempted to explain that the two missing coffins might well have degraded naturally.
“From my experience I know that a body will be quite absorbed after only a few years,” Luckman told the court. “I know of one case where a man died from consumption and was buried at the cemetery. The coffin was opened two years later, and the body had entirely disappeared. The soil in the cemetery is of a very consuming nature. Expert observations have proved this. It is not an unusual thing for removals to take place. It is only people’s unfamiliarity with such proceedings that makes them appear so gruesome and heinous.”
Luckman maintained that he knew nothing of the removal of the two coffins.
A throng of witnesses showed up to testify against him. Luckman did not have a leg to stand on. He was found guilty, and fined £5, plus costs, in lieu of one month’s imprisonment.
With the Royal Commission into the North Lyell disaster now having wound up, this brand new narrative of crypts, exhumations by moonlight, and bonfires fed by coffins consumed the state.
At Lyell, the case did spark some interest — a prosecution under the little-used Cemeteries Act was a rare thing, after all.
And though the case took place in the state’s capital, it may have influenced another strange set of circumstances that were to arise a month later, at Queenstown.

* * * *

Brimstone: The North Lyell Mine Disaster is available in the Apple iBooks store and on the Amazon Kindle sites. You can also find it in other online bookstores run by Sony and Barnes & Noble. But no matter what your device, you’ll find a version that suits your needs on Smashwords.

Never read an ebook? Don’t know which version you need to support your particular device? Need some help? You’ll find it here.

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