By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE cause of publican Raglan Davey’s violent death in the early hours of October 21, 1886 remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of colonial Australia – was it suicide or murder?
Despite suspected foul play, a coroner gave an open verdict on Davey’s death, leaving the truth of his terrible end an unsolved puzzle to this day.
The Albury hotelier’s disappearance is an intriguing story, that at the time captured the imagination of the Australian public, grabbing newspaper headlines from Darwin to Hobart, and Perth to Sydney.
One Sydney newspaper, the Evening News sensationalised the story of Davey, engaging a clairvoyant to help solve the mystery. In fact, it was the mystic’s séance reading that led to one of the two police arrests in connection with the publican’s death. But more on that later.
The young father of four and new host of the Railway Commercial Hotel at Albury, on the New South Wales, Victorian border, was 32 when he went missing about midnight on Thursday October 21 1886. He told his wife Frances he was going out for a walk to get some fresh air, as he wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t seen alive again.
A week later Davey’s body was found floating face-up in the Murray River, eyes eaten from their sockets by fish, his throat cut ear from ear, and his windpipe severed. Foul play was immediately suspected, after a puddle of blood was found in the hotel yard, at least a 30 minute walk from the river. A witness reported seeing two men escorting a person, thought to be Davey, along a bush track towards the Murray River on the night he went missing.
Raglan Davey, 24, and his brother Charles, 20, are believed to have sailed to Sydney on the Pericles from Plymouth England in 1878. They were from Suffolk, both could read and write, and both eventually entered into business.
On their arrival to Australia, the brothers travelled to Victoria, where Raglan married Frances Emily Webb on August 20, 1879, at St Andrew’s Church of England at Brighton.
Raglan and Frances settled in Albury, where they raised a family. He established a water carrying business, with contracts with the local council, before the opportunity arose to buy a pub in 1886. It seemed he had everything to live for, and was about to enter an exciting new chapter in his life.
The Railway Commercial Hotel was established at the corner of Smollet Street and Cod Lane by Jane Pool in 1885, with Raglan and Frances taking the license on Monday October 18 1886. Raglan’s brother Charles was also involved in the business, and worked as a barman.
The Sydney Evening News broke the story of Davey’s disappearance, and followed the mystery with intense interest. The newspaper’s obsession with the story went as far as employing a clairvoyant to help solve the riddle. It reported on Friday October 22, 1886:
Mystery in Albury.
A HOTEL PROPRIETOR MISSING.
The town of Albury was thrown into a state of excitement on Thursday when it became known that Mr Raglan Davy, the new landlord of the Railway Commercial Hotel, was missing. A large pool of blood was found on the ground outside Davy’s window, and marks of blood were discovered on the gate; but up to noon on Thursday, no trace, of the missing man had been found. Several search parties are out. Suicide or murder is suspected. The medical officer who examined the spots of blood thinks it a matter of impossibility that Davy could have walked any distance after losing such a quantity of blood as the marks betoken. Davy’s brother, who acts as barman in the hotel, states that the missing man had a cheque for £461, together with cash, upon him when last seen, and that he went outside the house after the arrival of the Hay train, and waited for his brother to return. Mr. Davy took possession of the hotel on Monday last, and the cheque was the balance to be paid to the late owner. It is said that Davy had been troubled about business matters for a week or two past. He was an old resident of Albury.
Davey’s life was insured with the Australian Mutual Provident Association for £500. The Evening News reported that the publican was a member of the Independent Order of Oddfellows and “was always looked upon as a steady, industrious man”. “He has a wife whom he was very fond, and four children.”
In an attempt to find the missing publican, the Sydney Evening News organised a séance at Woollahra, in Sydney’s east, with the clairvoyant revealing that Davey had been murdered, and was struck by a man over the right ear. “He fell senseless, and was dragged to the Murray River and thrown in,” the mystic said.
“The body is now stuck in a snag in the bend of the river; and he says that the woman, living in a hut a quarter of a mile from the public house, knows the name of the murderer; she called him Bob. The particulars of the interview with the clairvoyant have been sent to the Albury police.”
The day after this interview was published, and despite the lack of a body, George Henry Little appeared in court on suspicion of being involved in the disappearance of Davey.
Little, a tailor was a petty criminal, who had a history of thieving and drunkenness. He had been reportedly in and out of the Railway Commercial Hotel for some days, and had been thrown-out of the bar by Davey for swearing on the Wednesday night before the publican’s disappearance.
In a remarkably similar account given by the clairvoyant and reported in the Sydney Evening News the day before, an old woman by the name of McBean appeared to give evidence at the court case against Little. She lived on the road between the Railway Commercial Hotel and the Murray River. The Melbourne Argus reported on Monday November 1, 1886:
THE ALBURY MYSTERY
(FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT)
George Henry Little, who was remanded at the local police court on Monday last on the charge of having murdered the missing man Davey, was again brought up today. Mrs McBean gave evidence of the circumstances already detailed with regard to the men who passed her house after midnight on the night of Davey’s disappearance. She also gave a somewhat vague description of the men. She was, however, unable to identify the prisoner as having been one of them and no new facts were brought to light in her examination. Charles Davey, brother of the missing man, deposed to being been present when Raglan Davey ejected the prisoner from the hotel. This witness also gave evidence as to the prisoner having apparently endeavoured to obliterate blood marks from the footpath in Hume-street. At the close of the investigation Mr Thorold, who appeared for the Crown, said he would not apply for any further remand. The prisoner would be in custody on another charge, and if any fresh evidence were obtained, proceedings could be commenced de novo. The prisoner was then discharged. He was subsequently charged under warrant with stealing a cheque in November last at Parramatta, and was remanded to that town.
The Maryborough Chronicle reported on Tuesday November 2, 1886:
The Albury mystery connected with the disappearance of Raglan Davey is still unsolved, but from a statement made by a woman named McBean, there seems reasons to fear that the missing man has been the victim of foul play. Mrs McBean lives on the Albury flat, by the side of the road leading from Smollett Street to the Murray River, and about a third of a mile from Davey’s Hotel. She says that during Wednesday night she was awakened by her dogs barking, and going out to ascertain the cause she observed three men going in the direction of the river. Two of the men were holding up the third between them. The third man seemed helpless, and his head was hanging down. She concluded it was merely two men taking home a drunken companion, and paid no more attention to the matter until Davey’s disappearance was reported, when she informed the police. The Police immediately proceeded to examine the road, and near the spot indicated by Mrs McBean they found blood on the footpath. As the track passes a large lagoon and creek between this spot and the river, both places were dragged carefully to-day by the police and a number of town’s people.
The Evening News’ reporter was adamant that his Sydney clairvoyant had no knowledge of the “Albury mystery”, as Davey’s disappearance had become known in the media. A search of the many newspaper reports prior to Little’s court case reveals no mentions of the “Old Lady” and her story.
A massive search for Davey’s body went on for days. On Sunday October 24, three days after he went missing, about 300 people gathered at Brown’s Lagoon, about a 20 minute walk from the Railway Commercial Hotel, watching as police dragged and dynamited the waterway, in an effort to bring a body to the surface. No trace was found. Black trackers also joined the search, along with hundreds of volunteers. Almost 12 days later Davey’s body was found in The Murray.
The Melbourne Argus reported on Tuesday November 2 1886:
THE ALBURY MYSTERY
DISCOVERY OF DAVEY’S BODY
(BY TELEGRAPH FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT)
The body of Raglan Davey was discovered this afternoon at McKenzie’s Point, about two miles down the river, floating face upwards, about 20 yards from the New South Wales bank. On the body were found the deceased’s watch, 16 shillings in silver, some small articles of personal jewellery, and a cheque for £461. It is believed that the deceased had from £10 to £15 in notes upon him on the night he disappeared, but no notes were found. A small four-bladed pocket-knife covered with blood was found in his trousers pocket. The face had been denuded of flesh by fishes. There was a large gash in the throat 6 inches long and 1½ inches deep, the wound severing the jugular vein, but the other main arteries and veins were untouched. There were no other external marks of violence.
The deceased’s watch had stopped at seven minutes to 11 o’clock.
The body was brought to Albury, where an inquest will be held tomorrow. A post-mortem examination showed than the internal organs of the deceased were generally in a healthy condition. The body was completely clothed.
The Sydney Evening News, who had claimed to have helped find Davey’s body through the clairvoyant, had another shot at trying to solve his mysterious death. The newspaper’s reporter paid another visit to the mystic at Woollahra on Tuesday November 2, revealing the interview the following day:
The Albury Mystery
THE CLAIRVOYANT AGAIN INTERVIEWED
ANOTHER SUSPECTED ACCOMPLICE
THE MURDERER TRACKED. DENOUEMENT!
(BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER)
Strange and startling as it may seem, nevertheless the solution given in Friday’s issue of the Evening News of the Albury mystery – the result of an interview with an amateur clairvoyant – has been borne out by the subsequent development of incidents in connection with this horrible tragedy. The body of the murdered man has been discovered under circumstances which, according to our telegraphic accounts, are believed by the local police to be identical with those predicted by the clairvoyant. I do not for one moment wish to affirm, or lead my readers to suppose that I am in accord with the exploded theory of “spirit agency,” but I can assure them this that I have taken every precaution to ensure against deception in any form, even were those concerned sufficiently interested to lend themselves to so contemptible a proceeding. The company has consisted of gentlemen who have nothing to gain by any disclosures in connection with this strange affair, and each has taken part solely with the view of conducting an inquiry unbiased in principle and searching in its results. What has transpired I have placed fairly before the public. They are left to form their own conclusions. Acting on the assumption that nothing succeeds like success, I determined, in conjunction with others, to prosecute my inquiry farther into the affair, which even now is enveloped in fearful mystery – hoping that what I might glean would be of as much service to the police, as I have no doubt it would be interesting to thousands of readers of the Evening News – sceptical though many of them maybe. Accordingly on Tuesday evening I, in company with several others, proceeded to the house of a gentleman in Ocean-street, Woollahra, where it had been agreed that the second séance should take place. No gentleman could have been more sceptical than our host. We left him a convert to what – as he himself put it – that “everything was fair, square, and above board.” The clairvoyant arrived shortly after those who had been invited to be present. He took me by the hand, and observed, “Did I say what you published the other day in connection with this Albury affair?” I thought this rather cool – if imputation there be, that it should rest on the unfortunate reporter. However, I assured my querist that everything I had written was perfectly correct. He declared he had nothing to gain by practising deception or fraud, and under the most solemn vow would proclaim that he had never in his life been in Albury, nor had he any indirect knowledge of the locality where it was sup-posed the murder took place. The clairvoyant seated himself in a chair, and after a lapse of a few minutes was the medium of mesmeric charms. His eyelids were closed. I lifted one. There was no resistance or twitching, as would undoubtedly have been the case had there been any attempt at deception. Nothing but the whites of the eyes were perceptible. The forehead was clammy with a cold perspiration. I raised the arm, and it fell with a natural thud as soon as I released my hold. The medium seemed bereft of all sense of feeling. He was then questioned as follows by Mr. J. Blair — a surveyor and draughtsman in the Public Lands Office:-
Can you hear me speak? The medium answered by a nod of his head. Afterwards answers to the questions were given in a clear tone of voice.
Go down to Albury. Are you there? – Yes.
There is an old woman named — living there? – Yes.
Does she know anything about the murder? – Which murder is that?
The murder of Raglan Davey? – Yes, she knows the men.
What men? – The one who did it, and another fellow who had a finger in the pie, but he kept out of the road.
Can you tell me where the murderer is? – She will tell you; he is planted. Is he hidden away? – Yes.
Is he hidden in the old woman’s hut? – No.
Where is he then? – Why the beggar has shaved himself. His jaws are quite clean now.
What clothes is he wearing? – What appears to be a rouseabout [A bush term for a number of odd articles constituting a suit]
Give me the color of them? – I cannot make them out for dirt.
Can you tell me whereabouts he is hidden? – I fancy I can see him – he is not far away.
Far from where? – From the old woman’s hut.
Can you describe where he is? – He comes in and out – he sneaks in for food.
Sneaks in where? – Looks like –
Like what? – Looks like a sort of tumbled down hut.
How far is it from the old woman’s? – There is a crooked road to it from there.
Does anybody live in it? – It is a deserted hut.
What time does he go for his meals? – I cannot see him.
Does he sleep in the hut? – Sometimes.
Has the murderer changed his appearance since he committed the murder? – He has shaved and changed his clothes; they are dirtier than the others, though.
Can you see any marks on his body? – Yes, one.
Where? – On the left arm.
What part of left arm? – Between the elbow and wrist.
Are there any other marks on his body? – I cannot see any.
Why not? – He is such a dirty devil.
You talk about another fellow being concerned in the murder? – Yes, he is a ginger sort of face fellow.
Is he tall or short? – Medium build.
Who is he? – He is the man who helped Bob.
What is Bob’s other name? – I cannot hear that.
Listen carefully; what does the ginger fellow call him? – The ginger fellow is not talking to him. The ginger fellow has cleared.
Is he not with Bob? – No, he has cleared.
Who gives Bob food? – An old woman.
What woman? – I don’t know her name. She is a stout woman.
How is she dressed? – I can’t make it out.
When does she go with the food? – Generally about – between – she is getting ready now.
What time is this? – Half past 8, [The medium was not within view of any time piece, and had been in a mesmeric state for upwards of forty minutes. The time was exactly half past 8.]
Half-past 8 in the morning? – No; at night.
How does she take it to him? – In a little bag – a ration bag; you know the sort.
Where does the old woman live? – In a hut about three-quarters of a mile from the public house on the road.
How are you to know it? – It is a little – It is not a garden. There is a little fenced-in place in front of it.
Can you tell me the ginger-haired man’s name? – I never heard it.
How is he dressed? – He has Sunday-go-to-meetings on.
What are they like? – After the murder he bought a regular reach-me-down sort of suit. [A term for slop clothes]
Where did he buy it? – At that big shop.
What shop? – The Jew’s shop.
What street is it in? – I don’t know.
How are you to tell it? – There is a public house three or four doors away. Look on the signboard and tell me the name of the store – It looks like Mandleson on the board.
Spell it? – M-a-n-d-l-e-s-o-n. There is something else, but I can’t make it out.
Can’t you tell me Bob’s other name? – No; I can’t.
Does not the woman call him anything else? – I have not heard her.
What did the ginger-haired fellow call him? – He called him a b—–
What did he call him that for? – Because he hit him.
What did he hit him for? – He killed him.
Who killed him? – That little fellow.
Do you mean the ginger-haired fellow? – No, Bob.
How did they kill him? – They hit him and knocked him down.
What else? – It’s all mixed up so.
Where did they hit him? – Near the right ear.
Was anything said? – The ginger haired fellow said, “Bob you b—-.”
What become of the ginger-haired fellow? – He cleared.
What did Bob do? – He dragged the body to the water.
Did he throw it in? – Yes.
Where is the ginger-haired fellow? – I can’t see him.
What did he do after he bought a change of clothes? – He went to the pub and had a drink.
What pub? – The one a few doors away.
What’s the name of the signboard? – I can’t see it. It’s getting foggy.
What time was it when the body was thrown into the water? – Nearly 11 o’clock. About ten minutes to 11.
How did the body come to break away from the snag? – The bobbies blew him out of it.
You say Bob is hidden in a deserted hut? – Yes.
How far is it from the old woman’s? – It is a crooked road round to it.
Can you describe the way to it? – Through a lot of rough scrubby stuff.
Is there a gully intervening? – No; the track is pretty level.
How far is it away? – About a mile, taking in the crooks.
What kind of looking hut is it? – A God-forsaken place.
Where does he sleep? – On a sheet of bark when he sleeps there.
Will the police catch Bob? – Yes.
When? – It is getting hot for Bob now.
How will he be caught? – He is a cur, and will be caught without much trouble.
Where? – In the hut.
When he is taking his meals? – No; when he is asleep.
At this stage the medium was awakened; and again expressed his ignorance of what had transpired and disclaimed having any knowledge of the locality.
The media response to the clairvoyant’s latest claims and the immense community interest in the mystery, seen newspapers all over the country reporting the story of the scarred man, and the reaction was swift.
A second man was arrested in connection with the publican’s death on Friday November 5 1886 in Junee, over 160 kilometres from Albury, after the reporting of the Sydney Evening News’ meeting with the clairvoyant.
George Chatham, a middle aged man, was noticed sitting outside a pub with the front of his trousers smeared with red spots, which some had taken to have had the appearance of being recently washed.
Catham was said to have matched the clairvoyant’s description of the alleged murderer of Davey. The Toowoomba Chronicle reported on Saturday, November 6, 1886:
A striking peculiarity is that the man in his appearance and dress tallies closely with the description of the murderer of Raglan Davey reported in one of the Sydney papers to have been given by a clairvoyant at Woollahra. The prisoner has a scar on his left arm, as described a few days ago by the clairvoyant. He was arrested by police.
The Kiama Independent reported on Friday November 12 1886:
The Albury Mystery.
A MAN giving the name of George Chatham has been charged with the death of Raglan Davy, the Albury publican, on the 21st ultimo. Stains of what is supposed to be human blood were found on his trousers. Prisoner was remanded for further evidence and again brought up on Monday last. All the statements he made as to his movements when arrested were corroborated by respectable witnesses. The police magistrate refused to grant the request of the police for a further remand to Albury, and the prisoner was discharged.
The fact that two men had been arrested and discharged – one on the evidence of a clairvoyant – didn’t escape the scrutiny of some newspapers. The Sydney Mail reported on Saturday November 1886:
Clairvoyancy and Crime.
If the arrest of George Chatham at Junee on suspicion of his having murdered Raglan Davey, the Albury innkeeper, was made, as reported, on the strength of certain alleged clairvoyant revelations, the act is something akin to an outrage. It is a marvel that any intelligent person in this age should believe that what is called clairvoyancy can serve any practical purpose. There is, probably, not a single scientist in the world who has a reputation to lose but laughs clairvoyancy to scorn. By scientists it is classed with necromancy, witchcraft, ani other delusions of a like nature which, none but the ignorant or the insane can regard as worthy of serious notice. Clairvoyancy has been practised, in every age, but no one can show that it has done anything for the benefit of mankind; it has not led to the discovery of a single truth, and it has never disclosed the author of a single crime. The conduct of the police which resulted from the published statements is to be censured… The Minister of Justice should take a course in regard to the Junee incident that will prevent the police from ever attempting a repetition thereof.
The Sydney Protestant Standard reported on Saturday November 13 1886:
The Clairvoyant and the Albury Murder.
The Evening News has been teeming with accounts of the marvellous revelations of a clairvoyant at séances in Ocean-street, Woollahra, about the mysterious murder or suicide of Raglan Davey, at Albury. The facts of the case were that the man had disappeared, blood-stains were seen, and a woman had seen two men carrying what she thought was a man blind drunk, towards the river. These facts were known to everybody, and, with slight embellishments, these circumstances were then related by the clairvoyant as being seen by him in a trance. The embellishments are the only part of the story that are really original, and these seem to be wrong. We do not remember that he told of the cutting of the man’s throat, which would have been a natural thing for him to do if in his mesmeric sleep he really saw the body. But he told of a woman and two men, and of the body being in the river, all which was not new. The man he said was dirty and dressed in a rouse-about. We are certain that description would suit either of the men, if murderers there were, who murder for a small sum. But he said the man whom he called Bob was getting his meals at an old woman’s hut, and would be taken asleep. So far this has proved the phantasy of a dream. He said the man would be known by a mark upon the left arm between the elbow and the wrist, and accordingly police and people went mad, and at last at Junee the befooled police found a man named George Chatham, who had a mark of an old wound on his arm below the elbow, and they pounced upon the astonished man as the murderer. The description of this man answered the clairvoyant’s description as it would any other bushman, and some stains on his clothes were assumed to be human blood. But Chatham was able to give a good account of himself. However, that would not be believed against the clairvoyant soothsayer, who, like the witch Gagool, had touched the man, and he must suffer as guilty. Fortunately Chatham was able to bring respectable witnesses to corroborate his statements, and the magistrate does not seem to have been bitten with the spiritualist insanity, and so he discharged Chatham to the great disgust of police and spiritists. If this sort of craze increases, special laws will have to be made to protect individuals against arrest for all sorts of crimes of which they have never heard, because, forsooth, a spiritualist clairvoyant dreams that a man of their description did the deed. If this sort of thing be allowed none of us will be safe. In saying this we desire to acquit the clairvoyant of all intention of fraud, but we have attended such séances, have seen people in such trances, and know their foolishness, by investigation. The fact seems to be that when people get into this peculiar nervous state, mesmeric trance, or whatever it be, their minds become peculiarly sensitive to the impressions conveyed to them in some mysterious way by the thoughts and wills of the minds around…
The coroner’s open finding into the death of Davey on Tuesday November 9 still left many questions unanswered, with the Sydney Mail reporting on Saturday November 13 1886:
What is probably the final act in the recent tragedy took place on Tuesday last, when a coroner’s inquest was held on the body of Raglan Davey, found on the previous day in the river with a large gash in the throat. The case is a very extraordinary one altogether. If the man cut his own throat, it seems most strange that he should have sufficient strength left to walk over a mile to the river. It is also strange that, whilst a few shillings in silver and some papers should have been found in his pockets, gold and notes to the value of £20 known to have been on his person at the time of his disappearance should have gone altogether. On the other hand, supposing him to have been murdered where the pool of blood was found, it is most extraordinary that there should have been no noise, no sign of any struggle at the scene of the tragedy, and no mark or bruise of any kind on the body of the deceased. On the whole the assumption of suicide appears the more easy – rather, the less difficult – to accept, though the jury did well to return an open verdict. The funeral of the unfortunate man Raglan Davey took place at the close of the inquest. The deceased was a member of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, and his remains were followed to the grave by the brethren of the order in funeral regalia.
The Sydney Mail’s assumption that the coroner’s finding was “probably the final act” in the tragedy, proved false. There was one last twist to the tale.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on June 29, 1888 that “a prisoner confined to gaol informed the siting magistrate today that he was in a position to give important evidence touching the death of Raglan Davey, whose body with the throat cut, was found under most mysterious circumstances in the Murray last year. Suspicions of murder were entertained at the time, as a large pool of blood was found under Davey’s bedroom window on the night of his disappearance.”
However, the reports proved false, and the mystery of Davey’s death remains unsolved to this day.
Davey’s wife, Frances, and her brother-in-law, Charles continued running the Railway Commercial Hotel for another year after Raglan’s death. His widow eventually remarried Francis Simpson in 1891.
The Railway Commercial Hotel continued trading for almost another century after Davey’s death. It closed as a pub during the 1970s. However, before its closure, there was yet another mysterious death associated with the pub.
A young couple were found dead at the Railway Commercial Hotel in 1946, which the coroner also gave an open finding. The Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser reported on Monday February 11 1946:
OPEN FINDING IN ALBURY STAB-KILLINGS
“Dear mother: Keep my things, or share them among friends: I am not coming home any more. I know I have made the right decision.” This was a passage from a letter written by Mrs. Jean Connelly, 26, to her mother at Marrickville two days before her body, stabbed beneath the heart, was found in a room of the Railway Commercial Hotel, Albury on the morning of January 24. Shortly before the body was found, George William Paul, 32, single, of Marrickville, made a death dive through the same window of the hotel into the lane below. He died three hours later in the Albury District Hospital, also from a stab wound below the heart and a gash in the stomach. The chief exhibit at the Inquest at Albury on Saturday was a long bladed, blood-stained knife, found in the hand of the dead woman. The deputy coroner, Mr. D. G. Padman, remarked at the conclusion of the Inquiry that while the evidence had established beyond reasonable doubt that the death had been brought about by one of the deceased, It was not sufficient to allow him to say whether Connelly or Paul was responsible for the tragedy and he returned an open finding.
The former pub is today converted to residential apartments, and is a heritage listed building in Albury.
First published 2020. Story updated 2022.
© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2022
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