Illustrated Sydney News November 29 1879, p4 via Trove

Illustrated Sydney News November 29 1879, p4 via Trove

It’s Halloween, so in keeping with the season, today we’re sharing a very Sydney ghost story. Join Dictionary of Sydney special guest Dr Rachel Franks and host Jess Klajman around the 2SER breakfast camp fire and settle in…

 Listen to the audio of Jess and Rachel’s conversation on 2SER here 

George Worrall was a shoemaker in London when he was sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in New South Wales in 1815. Frederick  Fisher, like Worrall, was a Londoner. He was arrested for being in possession of forged bank notes in 1815 and sentenced to fourteen years transportation, arriving in New South Wales the following year.[1] The two men were in their mid-30s when granted tickets-of-leave and began making new lives for themselves in Campbelltown. They became neighbours, friends and even housemates while Fisher was having a house built on his property.[2]

In 1825, Fisher got into a fight with a carpenter named William Brooker who’d come to his house chasing a debt. Fisher had pulled out a knife and stabbed Brooker ‘in several places [which] caused him to be confined to his bed for some weeks’ and Fisher, still on a ticket-of-leave, realised he was at risk of returning to prison, or possibly even hanging. He turned to Worrall for help and arranged for Worrall to have ‘power of attorney over his possessions and to manage his affairs while he was in prison’.[3]

Fortunately for Fisher, the court was lenient and the convict-turned-successful-landholder was given a sentence of only six months behind bars and a fine of £50.[4] Fisher would soon be back in control of his valuable properties. The ambitious Worrall had other ideas.

Fisher had been released from prison about March or April 1826, but on 17 June 1826 he disappeared from the colony. Worrall, with control of all Fisher’s assets, advised their friends and acquaintances that Fisher had returned to England.[5] Fisher’s absence was so suspicious however that on 23 September 1826, the Sydney Gazette published a notice for the Colonial Secretary’s Office:

Sydney Gazette, 23 September 1826, p 1 via Trove

Sydney Gazette, 23 September 1826, p 1 via Trove

This notice was published several times [6] before a breakthrough in the mystery came in October 1826. Three young boys who had been out fishing took a shortcut home from Bow Bowring Creek across Fisher’s horse paddock. Climbing a fence separating the Fisher and Worrall properties, they saw blood on the fence rail and told police. Aboriginal men working with the police as trackers were instrumental in locating Fisher’s body. At the creek behind Fisher’s house, one of the trackers  ‘[o]bserved some scum on the water. He took up a leaf and skimmed with it a little of the water, which he smelled at, and then proceeded further on. He stopped at a particular spot, and shoved an iron rod he held in his hand into the ground. On drawing the iron out he smelled at it also, and then exclaimed, that the body of a dead man, or of something else, was buried underneath.[7]

Digging commenced and the body of Fisher was quickly revealed in its shallow grave.’The face was completely flattened, the head fractured, and the body in a state of decay.'[8] Worrall was arrested for murder and, despite his loud protests of innocence, was tried on 2 February 1827. Many witnesses gave evidence that Worrall had tried to sell them Fisher’s property or had acted suspiciously in some way.[9]

Worrall was found guilty and was hanged in early 1827.[10]

Although he continued to protest his innocence, at the final hour Worrall offered a confession, albeit a completely unbelievable one: ‘[T]hey were going together with a bottle to get some rum, and in passing the paddock, discovered there was a horse there. Worrall said […] he seized part of the paling, and made a blow which he intended for the horse, and that he did not know of the deed he had committed [… until] he saw Fisher lying weltering in his blood.'[11]

So where does the ghost story come in?

The first mention of a ghost in print is ‘The Sprite of the Creek’, an anonymous poem published in 1832 in the short-lived weekly sporting newspaper Hill’s Life in New South Wales and republished and revised in 1846 in another newspaper, Bell’s Life in Sydney[12]. In the poem it was claimed the mystery of the Fisher’s disappearance was in fact solved when one night after the murder, local farmer John Farley saw, sitting upon a fence rail, the ghost of Fisher, pointing to where his own corpse lay buried. After recovering from the fright, Farley approached authorities and told them what he had seen.

Australian barrister and author John Lang introduced the story to an international audience when he wrote another version of the story called ‘Fisher’s Ghost’ that was published in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words in 1853.[13] Lang wrote several stories about Fisher’s Ghost and its possible that he wrote the original  poem published in 1832 as well when he was just a teenager.[14]

The story of Fisher’s Ghost certainly captured the public imagination, and continues to do so more than 190 years after the original events with poems, stories, plays, films and even pop songs (You can listen to Johnny Ashcroft’s 1961 spooky song here).

In 1956, on the 130th anniversary of Fisher’s murder, a crowd of over 400 people gathered at Campbelltown to see if Fisher’s Ghost would make an appearance. One cranky copper complained about all the fuss and said if the ghost did turn up he was going to ‘charge him with offensive behaviour.'[15]

By 1960 Campbelltown City Council had embraced the story, both fact and fiction, and began to formally celebrate the area’s ‘most infamous resident’ every year with the Festival of Fisher’s Ghost. The festival includes an art prize, fun run and street fair.[16] In the early days, there was even a beauty pageant, with the winner named ‘Miss Spirit’.

The Festival of Fisher’s Ghost starts this coming Friday, and you can find out more about it on the Campbelltown City Council website here: https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/FishersGhost/ProgramOfEvents

THE SPRITE OF THE CREEK.

AN AUSTRALIAN TALE—FOUNDED ON FACTS.

BY FELIX.

“———— They say, blood will have blood :

Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak;

Augurs, and understood relations,, have,

By maggot-pies, and choughs, and rooks, brought

Forth the secret’st man of blood.”   —MACBETH.

“—Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ.”   —HAMLET.

DRAINED flagons proclaim that ’tis time to give o’er,

The hour for departure is come,

The hostess complacently pockets the score,

The stirrup-glass presses the lip, at the door,

And the rider spurs forward for home.

Doors, windows, and gateways, securely made fast,

Tired inmates prepare for repose ;

The day’s toil and bustle are over and past,

An air of calm silence succeeds the rude blast,

That from jovial carousal arose.*

But ere his soft pillow, the weary host prest,

The fleet, clatt’ring steps of a steed

His threshold approaches ;—he starts—half undrest

—A fearful forboding just enters his breast ;

For ill news mostly travels with speed.

“Ope the door!” cried a voice, in wild tones of affright,

“And grant me admittance, I pray !

O, grant me admittance, till morning’s blest light

Shall hence chase the phantoms that wander to-night,

In death’s most appalling array!”

Through the half-opened portal, with frenzied like air

Falconis† now furiously springs ;

From his brow rolls the cold drop, erect is his hair,

Exhausted and trembling he sinks on a chair,

Whilst around fearful glances he flings.

Dismay blanched his cheek, for each tributary vein

Sent its stream to the citadel heart ;

That fortress alarmed, to support it they drain

Their channels; nor back call those currents again,

Till by safety allowed to depart.

All that kindness with cheering assurance could do,

From the panic-struck group, standing by,

Was lost on Falconis, till calmer he grew ;

Yet, a glance of mute horror at intervals flew

From his staring, or wild rolling, eye.

Now, stout was the heart of Falconis, and bold ;

Nor weak superstition dwelt there ;

And hideous that object must be to behold,

That could daunt his fierce spirit, his blood curdle cold,

Or stamp on his cheek palid fear.

And, hideous, in sooth, was the object that scared

And turned him from homeward that night;

In shuddering amazement his hearers all stared,

Whilst, with half-lessened terror, Falconis declared

He had met with a murder’d man’s Sprite.

‘Twas on the rude structure that spans the deep creek,

The horrible figure appeared;

On its pale, ghastly visage, was seen the red streak,

And sunken its eye-balls, and hollow its cheek,

And crimsoned with blood was its beard.

Through the wide gaping wound, the assassin had made,

Issued brains, mixed with streams of dark gore ;

Deep gashes more hideous still rendered the shade,

And well might Falconis’s heart feel dismayed,

Though fear it ne’er cherished before.

‘Twas the spectre of Fredro,* who long had been lost

To his friends, his dependents, and home;

False rumour gave forth that the seas he had cross’d,

Resolved on beholding once more that lov’d coast,

Whence fortune had doom’d him to roam.

His absence did many with wonder regard,

Through leaving behind him his wealth ;

For, with him had industry met its reward,

Snug dwellings and acres acknowledged him lord,

And these blessings were gilded by health.

But, the man of all others, he trusted and loved,

For whom his regard knew no end,

In a dark guilty moment by Satan was moved

(Vile lucre his object, as afterwards proved,)

To spill the life’s blood of his friend.

‘Twas over the wine-cup, as cheerful they sate,

The hell-inspired thought filled his mind ;

The day’s toil was over, the hour drawing late—

O, hour of destruction ! by all-ruling fate

To murder’s fell purpose consigned !

Night’s murkiest mantle the pale moon o’erspread,

When Fredro, unconscious of harm,

Stept forth from his threshold; a blow on the head

His defenceless scull shatters—the victim falls dead,

‘Neath false, treacherous Warlof’s fierce arm !

From the red reeking spot then the body he bore,

(Unhallowed and lone was the grave)

On the creek’s reedy margin he covered it o’er;

No track marked the spot, though odd blotches of gore,

Slight traces of violence† gave.

But means beyond human were wisely decreed

To bring the foul act to the light;

Falconis’s words to a search quickly lead ;

The Agents of Justice with promptness proceed,

To the spot where appeared the dread Sprite.

Here one join’d the band, as though sent from on high,

To follow the blood shedder’s trail;

An instance most strange of those chances, whereby

The foul crime of murder gets bared to the eye,

And height’ning with interest the tale.

‘Mid the wild sable sons of Australia, but few

With Gilbert ‡ (a Chief) could compete ;

Unerring his aim, when his barbed spear flew,

Nor less so, when air-cleaving boom’rang he threw,

To lay the wing’d prize at his feet.

The footstep of bandit o’er forest or plain,

Through brushwood and deepest ravine,

Or devious, or straight, he ne’er followed in vain;

Which shewed as if instinct itself held the rein,

And guided, where track was unseen.

With strange power of vision and keenness of scent,

Few objects could hide from his view;

Thus gifted, his aid to the searchers he lent,

And seemed as a being by Providence sent,

To take up the spectre seen clew.

(Man’s natural gifts are designed to provide

For the wants his bare frame should create:

Hence, by just distribution, is freely supplied

To the untutored savage, what’s wisely denied

To man, in his civilized state.)

Each darksome recess ‘twixt the timbers that prop

The bridge is examined with care;

The creek’s stagnant waters they traverse—they stop!

The eagle-eyed Chief sees a scum on the top—

And all for dread tidings prepare.

A thrilling forebodement around quickly flies

As the Chief smells to part of that scum—

Which something near hidden had caus’d to arise;

‘”Tis whitefellow’s fat!”—such the phrase he applies—

His hearers with wonder are dumb.

Quite close to that spot was the mangled corse found;

A spectacle ghastly to see ;

On the victim’s bared scull gaped the wide-mouthed wound,

Through which the seared life a quick passage had found

To a mansion more peaceful to flee.

False statements and dealings exposed, loudly plead,

And fix upon Warlof deep guilt;*

Stern Justice awards him the homicide’s meed;

For “He, who man’s blood spills,” (as Heaven has decreed)

“By man shall his own blood be spilt.”

Condemned and in fetters the culprit behold!

(Even pity recoils from his doom)

By agonised conscience upbraided and told

That the friend of his bosom he slaughtered for gold;

Whilst fiends point his way to the tomb.

From the scaffold the murderer’s spirit has fled,

The Fountain of Mercy to seek :

To appease Fredro’s ghost was his guilty blood shed ;

And ne’er, from that time (as by neighbors ’tis said)

Has been seen the dread SPRITE OF THE CREEK.

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer 27 June 1846, p1 

 

Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel! 

Listen to the podcast with Rachel & Jess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.

Further reading:

Andrew Finegan, National Library of Australia blog: FINDING FREDERICK FISHER AUSTRALIA’S MOST FAMOUS FORGOTTEN GHOST STORY https://www.nla.gov.au/blogs/behind-the-scenes/2017/10/30/finding-frederick-fisher

Campbelltown City Library Local Information Blog: Locations from the Fisher’s Ghost Legend  http://campbelltown-library.blogspot.com/2012/10/locations-from-fishers-ghost-legend.html

Carol Liston, Fisher, Frederick, Campbelltown City Council website: https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/AboutCampbelltown/History/ProminentPeopleFromOurPast/FisherFrederick

Fisher, Frederick

Notes

[1] Frederick Fisher and the Legend of Fisher’s Ghost: Your Guide to Campbelltown’s Most Infamous Resident. (Campbelltown: Campbelltown City Council, 2014), pp3,7 https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/files/assets/public/document-resources/festivaloffishersghost/frederickfisherandthelegendoffishersghost-emailversion2014.pdf

[3] Supreme Criminal Court, The Australian, 3 February 1827, p5 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37073157

[3] Verlie Fowler, Colonial Days in Campbelltown: The Legend of Fisher’s Ghost, (Campbelltown: Campbelltown & Airds Historical Society, 1981/1991), p4

[5] Criminal Court (Monday), The Australian, 15 September 1825, p4 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37073241/4248606

[5] Frederick Fisher and the Legend of Fisher’s Ghost: Your Guide to Campbelltown’s Most Infamous Resident, (Campbelltown: Campbelltown City Council, 2014), p8 https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/files/assets/public/document-resources/festivaloffishersghost/frederickfisherandthelegendoffishersghost-emailversion2014.pdf

[6] Supposed Murder, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 23 September 1826, p1 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2186570 ;  The notice Supposed Murder was dated 22 September 1826 for publication the following day in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The Colonial Secretary offered the reward again on: 27 September; 30 September; 4 October; and 7 October 1826

[7] A Coroner’s Inquest, The Australian, 1 November 1826, p3 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37071549/4248969

[8] Domestic Intelligence, The Monitor, 3 November 1826, p2 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/31757965

[9] Supreme Court (Yesterday), The Australian 3 February 1827, p3 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/37073157

[10] Supreme Criminal Court, Tuesday, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 3 February 1827, p3 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2187586

[11] Execution, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 6 February 1827, p2 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2187613

[12] FELIX, The Sprite of the Creek,  Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer 27 June 1846, p1  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59764633

[13] John Lang, Fisher’s Ghost, Household Words,  5 March 1853, Vol VII, No. 154 , p6-9, Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/householdwordsa06dickgoog/page/n16

[14] Cecil Hadgraft and Elizabeth Webby, ‘More Substance to Fisher’s Ghost?’, Australian Literary Studies 3.3 (1968), p198 and Victor Crittenden, ‘The Five Ghosts of John Lang’, Margin 71 (2007), pp4-14

[15] Ghost Disappoints a Midnight Crowd, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1956, p1

[16] Frederick Fisher and the Legend of Fisher’s Ghost: Your Guide to Campbelltown’s Most Infamous Resident, (Campbelltown: Campbelltown City Council, 2014), https://www.campbelltown.nsw.gov.au/files/assets/public/document-resources/festivaloffishersghost/frederickfisherandthelegendoffishersghost-emailversion2014.pdf

 

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