Podcast Available Here- The Sandhills (14:10) – Dark Stories True Crimes




David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press) alongside having work in the journals Overland and Mascara.

Murray has a keen interest in historical true crime and its protagonists, who are often marginalised or ignored by big picture history. True crime can open an intimate window on the raw violence, resilience, humour and dumb luck characterising their world.

Murray’s research into the criminal/cultural history of convict Newcastle has resulted in a series of true crime vignettes to be published in Coal River as “Endnotes and cold mercy: Crime stories from colonial Newcastle”

The Sandhills

Days should speak …[i]

Returning from an ocean swim on a hot day in January 1866, the four boys broomstick legs hopped effortlessly over the vast sandhills separating the township from its peninsula beaches. As they neared the wooden planked pathway connecting to the town proper, one of them noticed something round, white and shining on the sand.


They shared their find – a smallish, jawless human skull – like it was some otherworldly jewel. It felt addictively smooth in their spindly hands except for a few wiry, residual strands of auburn hair. The left side was perfectly white in consequence of being exposed to the air, while the right side was of brownish hue, from being imbedded in the sand.[ii]Just above its mesmerizingly empty eye sockets was a hole through the right temple, about the size of a small bullet. As the eldest and biggest of the four boys William Broughton Jnr took custody of the prize only to have his father deny it entrance to their home. By evening it was on display in George Mackenzie’s bakery in Watt Street, the Broughton’s neighbour having quickly recognised the skull’s banal carny potential, which he hoped to commercially exploit as a preternatural confrontation with death.

By the following day authorities had taken possession of the skull and with assistance from the four boys they unearthed an almost perfectly intact skeleton angelically lying as if in a mould.[iii]Nearby it was found a single frayed coat button and some loose, matted strings of reddish hair.

Three months after in the cool darkwood lounge of the Metropolitan Hotel, an inquest would declare the skeleton had been beneath the sands for at least three years. Former gaoler John Butler Hewson knew well the leviathan peaks where the skeleton was found, viz. on the Sandhills, between the gaol and the town; I do not believe that there has been anybody interred there for the last forty-three years; where the remains were found the ground is much higher on account of the sand being blown up from the sea beach; I think it was much higher three or four years ago than it is now.[iv]The local doctor Richard Harris assisting the coroner Dr Knaggs concluded the bones were the remains of a female name unknown[v]just under four feet five inches in height and around 25 years of age.[vi] Harris noted that once the skull and lower jaw were reunited, the complete skeleton was perfect even to its most minute and delicate parts,apart from the temple perforation that he speculated was not caused by a bullet … if such were the case the inner table would be more splintered than the outward; I have no doubt the injury to the skull was during life by some force of violence; it must have been by a blow of some pointed instrument.[vii]

When William Broughton Snr was called on to confirm his son’s find he explained that in the days before William Jnr appeared with it, he had — by some coincidence — been told by Captain Lackie of the Lily, and Captain McCallum of the Phillis, that in going across the sand hill, one of them struck his foot against a skull before they threw it some distance.[viii] Like those now departed officers, Broughton Snr dismissed his son’s find as the remains as aboriginal or some other worthless flotsam washed up by the ocean. For many in the town though especially long term Sandhill residents of the East End — the evidence soon pointed back four years to the night of January 4, 1862 when a local woman Margaret Rae vanished into the dark and out of life.

The sandblasted and ramshackle houses of the East End stoically shouldered the Olympian sandhills. For the shift working maritime, mining and factory families it was an overcrowded, rough and tumble world of undesired intimacy; no place for secrets. Margaret Rae shared a surprisingly well kept, askance leaning terrace with her ship carpenter husband James and their lodger couple, the Masseys. Both the women were ill at the time of Margaret’s disappearance: Mrs Massey with consumption and Margaret with puerperal fever, an infection of the female reproductive organs progressing after a miscarriage or, as in Margaret case, giving birth. The only cure was to ride out the days of debilitating fever and fierce abdominal pain. In more severe and potentially fatal cases like Margaret’s the fever remained dangerously persistent and high, often resulting in paranoid or hallucinatory episodes. This had made Margaret incapable of safely caring for her new child, who was removed into the care of relatives. Despite this, Margaret was said to have been slow but calm when she was last seen before 10 pm on the Tuesday evening, having performed her own ablutions, changed into fresh clothes and eaten a bowl of simple food.


James Rae would tell police he worked the afternoon shift at a Stockton shipyard that Tuesday. He’d been delayed crossing the river back to Newcastle by a heavy storm. He made it home around midnight to find the front door open, a heavy brass candlestick discarded in the hallway, clothes scattered about, some money taken and his wife missing.

Oh remember that my life is wind…[ix]

Except for a mischievously unfounded sighting of a severed arm, days of searching the sandhills, township and peninsula beaches would find no trace of Margaret Rae. The local police, an inept mix of ex-convicts diluted with new recruits from Britain, decided that illness and grog had given way to suicidal madness after Margaret’s treating doctor told how he had given strict instructions that she was not to be left alone, and that she was to be allowed no spirits – an instruction which seems to have been disobeyed in both particulars, although from no fault of her husband’s, as we understand.[x] On this information it was supposed that Mrs Rae has destroyed herself, as she was heard to say that she would make away with herself. In the wisdom of hindsight her apparent suicide became a public health warning: This fact, however, has only come out since her disappearance, and it shows the necessity of making known such matters to the proper parties at once. Had it been done in this case, no doubt, as Mrs Rae was suffering puerperal fever, steps would have been taken to prevent her doing herself an injury.[xi]

Police never questioned James Rae’s version of events and despite claiming to have thoroughly investigated with neighbours, scant interviews were conducted. Alice Shuckman was a single mother and long term sandhills local. When recalled to the inquest four years later she told how I knew Mrs Rae and recollect her disappearing between three and four years ago. She had been confined ten days before she disappeared and was very light-hearted in consequence of the derangement in her system; on the morning of the day on which Mrs Rae disappeared I spoke with her; her child was taken from her by order of her husband; I never saw her again; I was informed the next morning by Rae that she had gone away; James Rae’s candlestick was found in the morning with a piece of candle in it; another girl, who was in attendance on Mrs Massey told me that Mrs Rae had a basin of gruel then left her home, dressed herself afresh, and went out about ten o’clock and never came back — To a juror — I don’t know where Rae was; Massey told me a day or two after that Rae was working over on the North Shore; I recollect there was a southerly buster that night.[xii]

The clear probability of the remains being Margaret placed an unexpected re-emphasis on the Rae’s marriage. Folk now remembered James publically declaring ‘it’s a good job the brute’s gone‘[xiii] just a day or two after Margaret’s disappearance. Other stories surfaced portraying a bullying and jealous thirty-eight year old husband who used his younger wife with great cruelty.[xiv]Having never been interviewed in 1862, Margaret Rae’s brother-in-law Joseph Smith confirmed James Rae being a very jealous and possessive man; I have seen him strike his wife more than once when in a passion.[xv]He saw James manipulate Margaret’s illness by threatening to keep the baby from her unless she did as he ordered. Smith remembered James coming to his Glebe home the day after Margaret went missing before returning into town with Rae and going with him to his own residence, which was situated on the Sandhills; the house was occupied partly by Rae, and the other part by Massey; when I went to the house the Masseys were at home; we examined boxes to see if Mrs Rae had taken any of her clothing with her; the clothes were scattered about the floor, but none was missing; Rae said there ought to be £5 and some other money in a stocking; the money was missing, but the stocking was there; they (the Masseys) were in the house all that night, but did not know when Mrs Rae left.[xvi] After confirming to the inquest that Margaret was red headed, Joseph sadly apologised for his wife being unable to attend, as she had recently died in an asylum after a long illness.

Under the bold shafts of white light leaking through the Metropolitan Hotel windows, the new, accumulating evidence also fractured Alice Shuckman’s seemingly honest and straightforward narrative, turning into the reckless rumour of someone aping whatever they were told at the time, while never actually witnessing anything. The Masseys and their carer were also crucially, unavailable. The carer had left the country for San Francisco. Mrs Massey had died from consumption in the months after Margaret’s disappearance and Mr Massey drowned near Taree in late 1865.


The inquest would hear that in the months after his wife’s disappearance – and the subsequent death of his child – Rae became singularly strange and gloomy in his habits, though certainly not from grief at her loss. After the Masseys moved out Rae invited replacement lodgers to keep up with the rent: A fellow lodger named Butler, since dead, who slept in the same room with him, said he used to start up in the night in great terror, and say that he could not sleep in the room. Rae used to conduct himself like a maniac, so that Butler was glad to leave the room in a very short time, and said that nothing would induce him to dwell under the same roof with Rae again.[xvii]

… and where is the place of understanding?[xviii]

By 1864, Rae had returned to the water as crew on the pilot tug the Zone. He was in a dinghy lowered into rough waters during the recovery of a struggling coal barque cut adrift from its harbour mooring during a night storm. Four of the dinghy crew drowned after it capsized while attempting to untangle a mess of ropes pairing the tug to the barque. James Rae would be one of four survivors remarkably fished out from the black water that night, though this was soon forgotten in a very public rancor of guilt and recrimination that followed. Later in that year Rae signed on as a stowaway carpenter for the Royal Exchange that was making a detour to Adelaide from its regular San Francisco-Newcastle coal run. Being an uncontracted stowaway allowed Rae to work his one-way passage, but leaving Newcastle for the relative anonymity of a new town didn’t halt his mental deterioration, and he died raving mad the following year in an Adelaide asylum. When this information was made public at the inquest, some Newcastle locals saw it as proof of a bad man’s consummation by his guilt. In terms of the inquest’s narrative though he was just one person of interest — like Butler the lodger and Mrs Massey — who would never help illuminate the true story of Margaret’s disappearance.

The inquest would turn a single household’s bedevilled past into a hauntingly ludicrous pattern of death. It would represent a frustrating silence perhaps only understood symbolically by reference to the nearby sandhills: remorselessly accumulating what they consumed, it nonetheless returned Margaret to the living, momentarily allowing her to be more than a female name unknown on the sandhill at Newcastle … who had died violently … but by what means done, when, why and by whom there is no evidence to show.[xix]  


[i] The Book of Job 32.7, from The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[ii]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News Sat 6 Jan 1866 (page 3)

[iii]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. (p.2)

[iv] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News Sat 6 Jan 1866 page 3

[v]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[vi]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[vii]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[viii]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News Sat 6 Jan 1866 page 3

[ix] The Book of Job 7.7

[x] Newcastle Chronicle, Wednesday, February 12th. 1862.

[xi] Newcastle, Chronicle, Saturday, February 8th, 1862

[xii] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[xiii] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News 20 Jan 1866 page 3

[xiv] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News Sat 6 Jan 1866 page 3

[xv]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[xvi] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

[xvii]The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News Sat 6 Jan 1866 page 3

[xviii] The Book of Job 7.7

[xix] The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW: 1859 – 1866) Saturday 14 April, 1866. p.2)

Photographs: Photographs of Sydney, Melbourne and regional New South Wales and miscellaneous personal photographs from B. O. Holtermann , ca 1870- ca 1880



  1. Interesting study of investigation of a body found ….no conclusion l but varying theories put forward …judgements defined by people’s attitudes and connections .Very clear picture drawn .

  2. Hmmm, started out as a fiction crime novel in my view! then went on to explain a missing lady and her household. No proof the remains were of Margaret tho. husband guilty by dare I say written words!!!
    no evidence of anyone else!!!! so the body could be anyone!! would be very interested in knowing if they truly confirmed the remains.

  3. Interesting account, written as a description of the time. Interesting how the conclusion of who the victim was made. Not much care in the preservation of the physical evidence.

  4. It’s interesting how much “madness” there seemed to be around at the time. I wonder if they would be locked up now

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