The unsolved mystery of the body in Kananook Creek

By Peter McCullough

One hundred and sixty-four years have elapsed since the body of a woman was found in Kananook Creek. The press reports of the time were both confusing and spasmodic and the two key questions were never resolved: ‘Who was the woman in the creek?’ and ‘Who killed her?’ 

First Report

Under the headline ‘Suspected Murder’ The Argus of 10 February, 1855 informed the residents of the colony of Victoria that “The Government have offered a reward of 100 pounds to anyone giving information as will lead to the conviction of the murderer of the woman whose dead body was found, on 10th ult., in the Canakoke Creek, about two miles and a half from the Frankston Hotel. The description of the body as published in the Government Gazette is as follows: ‘Much decomposed; height about 5 feet 4 inches; age 30 to 35; hole in the skull as if made by an ounce bullet.’”

A Charge of Murder

On Thursday 22 March, 1855 The Argus reported that John Davey had appeared in the District Police Court “…charged with the murder of his late wife.” The account that follows is rather confusing: first we are informed that Davey had “again married”, then that the prisoner’s wife had applied for possession of the horse that was in his possession when arrested. At this point the officer conducting the case (Captain Vignolles) said that “…if the woman in question came forward the charge would fall to the ground.” The report then states: “Notwithstanding this intimation, she was not produced, although understood to be in the court.” So we are left to guess: Which wife was supposedly in court and why was she reluctant to come forward?

Prisoner Discharged

The Age reported on Saturday 14 April, 1855 that, after the case had been remanded five times, the Bench “…seeing no prospect of additional evidence, discharged the prisoner.” 

At the same court hearing James Davey, brother of the accused, was convicted of assaulting a special constable, thereby allowing an Aborigine (Toby), who had been charged with murder, to escape.

Charge of Bigamy

Sub-Inspector Smith, for the prosecution in the aborted murder trial, was not to be denied. The Age of 14 April went on to report that “…John Davey, who immediately on his discharge from the more serious charge of murder, was apprehended on a charge of bigamy.” Sub-Inspector Smith stated that he “…had good reason to believe the prisoner had married a woman named Amelia Smith, a previous wife being at the time alive.” It was announced in Court that the two women were outside. This case was then remanded while evidence was sought as to whether John Davey had in fact married Amelia Smith. Three days later, on 17 April, The Argus reported that the brother of the accused, James Davey, had appeared in court to testify that he had been a witness at the marriage of John Davey to Amelia Smith. Meanwhile, although only three days had elapsed since her court appearance, Amelia Smith appears to have vanished: ” Sub-Inspector Smith…stated that although he had used every effort to find the woman, he had not succeeded, as he lost all traces of her when she left the court after the previous examination. The prisoner was fully committed to take his trial, the Bench refusing to accept bail.”

Suspected Murder

Under this headline The Argus of 19 May reported: “The two Aborigines , Benjy and Toby, suspected of having murdered the woman whose body was recently discovered in the Kananook Creek, perforated by gunshot wounds, were yesterday brought up for examination by the District Court,” Benjy, who gave evidence, was definite: “I saw John Davey shoot his lubra while I was spearing eels…Davey then took his wife up and threw her in the creek.”

Another Possibility

Little credence seems to have been given to Benjy’s evidence but on 2 June, 1855 The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser provided its readers with a summary of the case. Admittedly, it is hard to see the connection between the Hunter River and Kananook Creek. However the account concluded: “A clue to the mystery has now been obtained. About the time of the murder Davey put up at a public house in Prahran, with a female whom he represented to be his wife, and in the morning she was heard sobbing bitterly, and upbraiding him for not having previously told her that he was a married man. In the course of the day Davey prevailed on her to drink to excess, and then drove off with her to his own residence in the dray. The police are using every exertion to discover who the female was.” 

Cleared of Bigamy

In a report on court proceedings The Age, on 20 June, 1855, stated, almost as an aside: “John Davey, charged with bigamy, was discharged.”

Conclusion

Nothing further can be found in the newspapers regarding the mystery. Was the woman conveyed in the dray from Prahran the excitable Amelia Smith, or was it a third woman? Was the testimony of Benjy not considered reliable enough to pursue John Davey a bit harder? And what of Davey’s first wife (named in evidence as Mary Finn); why wasn’t she produced in court to clear up lingering suspicions that she may have been the body in the creek? A cold case that will remain unsolved!

Peninsula Essence – June 2019

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