OUTBACK publicans have to be resourceful.
During the early 1930s the body of a veteran prospector was discovered down an old shaft in Widgiemooltha, now an abandoned gold mining town 630kms east of Perth in Western Australia.
As there was no police station in town, the publican, Gordon Hack was put in charge of the body. He fashioned a coffin for the body out of timber beer boxes and arranged the burial.
There was the inevitable wake at Hack’s pub after the burial. During the wake a challenge was made for a ‘quid’ to any person brave enough to go down the shaft at midnight and retrieve the old prospector’s pick.
Nothing more was heard of the dare and the drinking continued into the early hours, when all-of-a-sudden a pick flew through an open pub window, and a shout was heard: “There’s your pick, now where’s my quid”.
Gordon Guy Hack was one of Western Australia’s most successful hoteliers during the first half of the 20th century. In an interview in 1939, the hotelier put his success down to hard work and “a degree of luck”.
There’s no doubt Lady Luck was his constant companion, dishing out plenty of rewards right-up until she deserted him at the age of 47. Born to Ralph and Jessie Hack in the bustling port city of Fremantle in 1904, his hotel career spanned for almost 30 years, during Western Australia’s boom gold rush period.
The story of the beer-case coffin was told in the Perth Mirror newspaper on March 25 1939:
Prospector Found Poisoned in Old Shaft
Doctor Holds Post Mortem in Tent — Shock for TwoTravellers.
DOWN an old shaft the dead body of a veteran prospector was found.
Heavy cyanide fumes left little doubt as to the manner of his death.
A man from Widgiemooltha was telling the story at the Savoy this week. And he went on: “Widgiemooltha didn’t have a police station and it was regarded as the accepted thing that the publican should take charge of the body and make arrangements of the old man’s burial.
“Gordon Hack was up there then and he and others fashioned a coffin out of beer cases.
“Word was sent to the nearest police station and a doctor came over and conducted a post mortem.
“Only place that could be used as a morgue was, of course, the hotel, but Gordon Hack didn’t fancy that at all and he rigged up a tent at the mouth of the shaft.
“A few hours later two insurance travellers arrived from Perth, and seeing the tent, walked over to see what it was all about.
“Anybody there,” one of them called out as he reached the tent and a voice from inside grunted, “Yes, come in.” They walked in and you can just imagine the shock they got. There on a rough table the body of the old prospector was stretched out. His torso had been cut up in the usual style for a post mortem and there were bits of him here and there. And right in the middle of the tent the doctor was standing calmly examining the old chaps liver in his fingers.
As you might imagine they left hurriedly. Anyway the old chap was duly buried and there was the inevitable wake at the hotel afterwards. One of the listening group snorted “Hooey”. And the speaker, surprised at having any doubts cast on his good story, retorted, “Alright, we’ll find Gordon Hack and ask him about it.
“Widgiemooltha’s former licensee, Gordon Hack, gave a wry smile, as the story was repeated to him, and then he said: “Yes, that’s about what happened. But you haven’t told the whole of the story.”
“While the crowd were drinking after the funeral someone bet someone else that he wasn’t game to go down the shaft at midnight and recover the old prospector’s pick.
“We didn’t hear any more about it til some hours later when all of a sudden a pick shot through an open window of the hotel and I heard someone shout, “There’s your #@*% pick, now where’s my quid.” He was paid.
“Another bright idea that same night was a bet that someone should sleep down the shaft where the body had been found. But this fortunately was promptly scotched. Cyanide fumes might easily have killed the man who attempted it.”
For my full story about Hack’s life visit: Gordon was no ‘Hack’ hotelier
On the subject of Widgiemooltha and coffins, I can’t go past adding this little gem, found in the contributors column, Strange But True, published in Smith’s Weekly on April 22, 1922:
Death’s Washing Trough
When Widgiemooltha (W.A.), on the road from Coolgardle to Norseman, was booming, a generous Irishman kept a pub. His wife was apparently dying, so he went into Coolgardie and drove home with a ready-made coffin lashed behind his buck-board. He hid the box in the scrub, and went inside, to find his wife up and well. Later, she used the coffin as a washing trough. It was the swankiest washing day utensil outside Perth. — “Muggins”.
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