In January 1878, the Booral Wharf store was alight and there was no sign of the wharfinger1 Alan McAskill or his wife Mary. After a search of the area a gruesome discovery was made. Alan’s 73 year old body was found beaten to death and dumped in a ravine called Gallow’s Hill just 500 metres from his home. Mary’s charred remains were found in their house which had been burnt to the ground.2
The question still remains ‘Who would want to murder two elderly and respectable citizens?’ Money was first thought to be the motive but when £46 was found in the burnt out house, this theory was dismissed.3 A number of early arrests were made but all were released soon afterwards (including a detective working on the case!).4 After the government offered a £200 reward, two young brothers Peter and William Gray were arrested following a supposed drunken confession.5 They were denied bail and held in custody for two weeks before they too were released due to insufficient evidence.6 No more arrests were made and the case went cold.
“This is the most diabolical murder that has ever been committed” Coroner.
In 2017, Dr Louise Steding, lecturer in criminology and forensics, reopened the cold case when she brought a group of university students to examine the evidence and re-enact the coronial inquests at the Stroud Court House. It is Steding’s belief that a neighbour William Nicholas killed the McAskills after a dispute over cattle.7 The revelations have rocked the small community but perhaps after 140 years this mystery has finally been solved?
Author: Janine Roberts
1 Wharfinger: owner or keeper of a wharf. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wharfinger
2 Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1878, 5; Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 5 February 1878, 4.
3 Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1878, 5.
4 Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 1878, 2.
5 Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 1878, 3.
6 Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 14 March 1878, 5.
7 Michael Parris, The Herald, 3 November 2017, https://www.theherald.com.au/story/5032428/a-murder-cold-case-reframes-family-histories-in-stroud/