Fiction, folklore or fact?
GUYRA NSW April 25 (1921): “An interesting development in connection with the mysterious noises and the throwing of stones at the house of a family named Bowen is that a girl, Minnie Bowen, aged 12 has admitted to Police Sergeant Ridge that she caused the tappings on three occasions. She said she did so for a joke; also, she admitted that on Saturday last see threw three small stones on the roof to frighten her sister-in-law. However, she denies all knowledge of complicity in the other things. The police gave credence to the child’s story”.
Hobart Mercury, Tuesday 26 April 1921: “Surely not before it was time the police have solved the Guyra stone throwing mystery. On the face of it the thing was just puerile trickery.
Armidale Chronicle, 30 April, 1921: The Guyra mystery was now “partially cleared up” with the girl’s confession, said other newspaper reports at the time. Even the Inspector General of Police thought the girls’ admission to some stone throwing and tapping a wall was sufficient to dismiss the entire matter as a prank.
The Guyra Mystery
Many people to this day believe there was more to the events of April 1921 in Guyra than a child’s prank.
The “Guyra Mystery” captured the attention – and imagination – of most of Australia and other parts of the world through April 1921.
At the centre of the story was Minnie Bowen, the 12-year-old daughter of shire council ganger William Bowen and his wife, Catherine.
Guyra is a town in a rural community on the Northern Tablelands of NSW, Australia, between Armidale and Glen Innes. In 1921 the population was about 1000.
Much was written in newspapers at the time about the stone throwing at the Bowen family house. There have been books and even a silent black and white film (which seems to have disappeared). In the modern age of the internet much can still be found about this mystery.
One of the first newspaper reports of the stone-throwing appeared in the Armidale Chronicle of 9 April, 1921: “Sensational stone throwing has caused mild excitement in Guyra during this past week, when a house on the outskirts of town has been bombarded in some mysterious manner. The windows have been broken and the inmates nearly frightened out of their lives. Though the police have the matter in hand, assisted by a number of residents, the stones keep coming.”
There are two schools of thought: either Minnie was the target of a ghostly attack, or she was the perpetrator of a prank.
If that latter, it will go down as one of the all-time greats. It drew in investigators from around the country and even overseas.
Many hours of police time were devoted to solving the mystery.
That Minnie was a target of a ghost gained great traction, particularly among the locals. From around 8 April 1921 stones crashed through her bedroom window and fell on to her bed. Heavy bumps and blows to the walls of the house followed her as she moved around. Townspeople stood watch outside the house during the night, night after night. The stone throwing continued.
It is safe to say the people of Guyra were a little on edge – it was reported that just a couple of weeks earlier an elderly Irishwoman, a Mrs Doran, had disappeared near the town. She was supposedly seen by a farm worker walking across a paddock towards a hilltop, carrying potatoes in her hands. As she reached the top of the rise, she disappeared and was never seen again. Or so the story goes.
Nevertheless, it is little wonder local residents were a bit spooked as the mysterious stone throwing increased in tempo.
A case of larrikinism
Local police officer Sergeant Ridge was joined by Constable Hardy from Sydney, who at one time had lived in the Guyra area. The Armidale Chronicle reported on developments from police headquarters in Sydney on 20 April: “The Inspector General of Police regards the stone throwing at Guyra as purely a case of larrikinism. He says he is determined to stamp the ting out. With this end in view he intends to send a number of extra men to Guyra.” Surely an overreaction if it was genuinely thought a 12-year-old girl was responsible.
It is recorded that on the night of April 15, Minnie sat in her bedroom watched by two police officers. The lights were on. Outside, 50 people patrolled the street and around the house. All was quiet. Until about 9 pm when there was a loud knock on the bedroom wall, followed by a couple of further thumps. The house shook.
Present in the gathered throng was a Mr Davies, said to be interested in spiritualism. He suggested Minnie ask a question of the “ghost”. Minnie obliged, asking “Is that you May”. May was her half-sister who had died some months before.
No one heard a response but Minnie said later May had answered her: “Tell mother I am in heaven, and quite happy. Tell her it was her prayers which got me here and I will look after her for the rest of my life”.
Two days later the Bowens returned home to find the shutters and battens that had been affixed to the windows and doors of their house had been smashed and piled up on the verandah of the house.
Car headlights were trained on the house to act as spotlights. A few nights later to large stones crashed on to a wall right near where a policeman was standing. There was no sign of a thrower.
Not long after, the Bowens sent Minnie off to her grandmother, Mrs Shelton, in Glen Innes, another Tablelands town about 40 minutes by road north of Guyra. All remained quiet in Guyra. But on May 11 and 12 the Shelton family told of hearing knocks, bumps and a shower of stones on their roof. Police were called and laid the blame on Minnie.
Despite Minnie’s confession to having thrown a few stones and tapping on the walls with a stick to scare her sister-in-law after the disturbances began, no one could safely say she was responsible for the heavy lifting required to shake a house or tear down battens from windows. As well, some of the stones had been thrown while she was being watched by adults.
And some of them were so big they could not be removed through a window. Or so the story goes.
The poltergeist theory emerged. At one stage someone put up 500 pounds guarantee that Minnie was not responsible for the incidents.
Minnie returned to Guyra in August 1921 and the disturbances abated then ceased. Permanently by all accounts.
Minnie Frances Bowen married Frank E. Ince in Armidale in 1928. She never spoke of the “ghost’ period of her life.
She was killed while walking along Grafton Road in Armidale in 1971 by a car that some said inexplicably swerved towards her across the roadway.
The Guyra ghost story was a media sensation. Almost every newspaper in Australia carried reports. One film was made, The Guyra Ghost Story. It took just three days to make. The Bowen family themselves appeared in the cast. The director, producer, writer and leading actor was actor John Cosgrove. Cosgrove played the character of Sherlock Doyle, a spoof of a Mr Moors who actually turned up in Guyra from England to investigate. Moors was a friend of the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Moors announced his impending arrival in Guyra with a telegram to the police station: “Chief of Police, Guyra. Please reserve room, best hotel. Leaving tonight”.
More than 90 years later, the Guyra Ghost was still making headlines. This from the Daily Mail Online:
The ‘supernatural attacks’ on a 12-year-old girl that were so severe police were forced to surround a country home: Australia’s most terrifying haunting has baffled investigators since 1921 A ghost terrorised a local community in Northern NSW in the 1920s
A 12-year-old girl was haunted by her half-sister’s ghost
The walls of her house apparently shook and stones were thrown
Investigators say the ‘Guyra ghost’ is one of Australia’s most baffling
‘Supernatural attacks’ have never been explained even after a police probe
By Martha Azzi For Daily Mail Australia 31 October 2015 | Updated: 1 February 2016
And of course the myriad of websites devoted to the paranormal and supernatural phenomena still rank it among the great poltergeist stories.
Paranormal.com.au posted a report on 17 November 2013 that began: The case of the Guyra Ghost or rather Poltergeist began in April 1921 with “tremendous thumpings” on the walls followed by showers of stones which eventually broke every window in the tiny weather-board cottage just outside Guyra.
The ghost may by now have been laid to rest, but the story hasn’t.
During the war years Mrs Minnie Ince joined the Women’s Auxiliary Security Producers Service (WASPS) founded by Armidale grazier Donald Shand to work the farms in place of the men who went to fight.
She was pictured in a Women’s Weekly special report on the WASPS:
CM for Flogger-blogger. November 2017. The author once worked with the son of Minnie Ince but gained no insight into the mystery. Main Sources: newspaper articles of the time via TROVE.com.au.
MORE GUYRA YARNS
Little Boy Lost
The Guyra Ghost was not the only story from the tiny town to captivate the nation.
Almost 40 years after the ghost story, Guyra was the focal point again when four-year-old Steven Walls wandered off from his father and disappeared into the rugged bush near, Tubbamurra, about 20km from Guyra on the Northern Tablelands of New England, NSW.
A child missing in that area for any length of time would be given little chance of survival. So it was little wonder hundreds of townspeople rallied for a four-day search through country most would not tackle on their own. They were joined by many volunteers from around the state and even interstate. At one time the number of searchers was put at 4,000 – far more than the population of the township. One search line was said to have 1,000 men walking the ground an arm’s length apart.
Steven spent four days hiding in the bush – he’d heard searchers but was frightened so stayed hidden.
The search was launched on the morning of Friday 5 February. It was the following Monday before he was found, hiding in a gully.
HIS first words when they found him were, “Where’s my daddy?” and his next were, “Look at the burrs in my socks.” In Steven’s view it was “daddy” who was lost and he’d been looking for him.
One group checking gorge country near Backwater made a last sweep on Monday morning after reports of footprints. Bill Scrivener, a boiler attendant from Glenn Innes Hospital, saw something that looked like a boy sitting on a log. It was Steven, scratches on his legs, sunburnt and thirsty but otherwise well. He was 11 km from where he wandered off. Steven made a full recovery but his story lives on.
Singer Johnny Ashcroft recorded “Little Boy Lost” not long after the searchers found Steven.
“Little Boy Lost” topped the music charts for six weeks. It was awarded the first 45rpm Gold Records struck in both Australia and New Zealand.
“In the wild New England ranges came the word one fateful day To every town and village that a boy had lost his way All the town folk quickly gathered and the wild bush horses tossed They went out to search the ranges for this little boy lost.”
Johnny Ashcroft composed the song from an idea from disc jockey Tony Withers.
Steven Walls passed away in April 2020.
Body in the well
A relatively modern Guyra mystery involved the discovery of the body of a local motor trader in a well.
The partly decomposed body of Claude Harold Heagney was found in a well on a property on 14 March 1960. The left arm was missing. Claude Heagney had been missing for 14 months, having disappeared from Guyra on 21 January 1959.
The local fire brigade was called in to drain the well which was about 18 ft (5.5 m) deep. Bones, a broken rifle and bullets were found in the silt at the bottom of the well. There were two bullet holes in the skull. Claude Heagney’s brother identified the rifle as Claude’s.
The property owner said he had put heavy railway sleepers of the well two years previously to stop children falling in. The sleepers were still there when the owner went to install a motor pump at the well on the Monday before the body was found.
The night Claude Heagney was last seen, his car was left outside his garage with the keys still in it. The same night residents heard a shot somewhere in North Guyra – Heagney’s garage was at the northern end of the township and the property where the body was found was a little further north.
A coronial inquest held in Guyra during July 1960 heard that a witness saw two men carry a long “rolled up” bundle from the darkened garage and place it in the boot of a car on 22 January 1959.
The coroner also heard of arguments between Claude Heagney and his son Douglas.
A doctor told the coroner that Claude Heagney could have fired the shots that killed him but it would have been “awkward.”
A police officer, Sergeant William Denis Culla, who was stationed at Guyra at the time said he had known Claude Heagney for about 16 years and had been on shooting trips with him. He found him to be an excellent shot: “He was a very good shot. He could shoot from either shoulder.”
Sgt Culla said he searched the garage and reported Claude Heagney’s disappearance to Armidale police. He and an officer from Armidale (a city to the south of Guyra) found specks of blood on the garage floor.
A police officer from Armidale said it would have been impossible for someone in the well to pull the sleepers back over it after getting in.
A mechanic who worked at the garage told the coroner that Claude and Douglas Heagney bickered about the business.
Evidence also was given about Claude Heagney drinking heavily sometimes.
Based on evidence to the coronial hearing the question was whether Claude Heagney was murdered or committed suicide.
The coroner recorded an open finding and the mystery remained unsolved for around 30 years.
A paragraph in a Sydney afternoon newspaper gave the answer.
Upon the death in Sydney of William Denis Culla his solicitor opened a letter in which the former policeman confessed to the murder. He and Claude Heagney had been involved in a stolen car racket. Cars stolen in Sydney were reworked at the Guyra garage and moved on to Queensland for sale.
The confession perhaps also explained why Sgt Culla had spent many of his days off working for local farmers – the extra income from the car racket might have otherwise raised suspicions of something untoward.
The Heagney inquest was extensively reported in the Sydney Morning Herald which is the source of much of this material along with the writer’s own knowledge of the case.