The Towitta Murders

As we approach the end of another year, it is inevitable that we start looking towards the future. A Cinderellaesque moment as on 31 December the clock strikes midnight, separating one year from another. It is a time that can be shared with friends, family, and neighbors. However, on 1 January 1902, it would be a new year to remember for the wrong reason. It was on this night that a murder took place, that is still unsolved today.

As someone who lives in a country town, I am surrounded by small farming communities. When tragedy strikes, news travels fast and can shake it to its core. During the night 13-year-old, Johanne Elizabeth Schippan known as “Bertha” was murdered.  She was the youngest member of a large family who resided in the town.

Bertha was the youngest of 7 children: Pauline Auguste (b. 1875), Maria Auguste (Mary) (b.1877), Carl Frederich (Fritz Carl Martin) (b. 1879), Heinrich Johan Gustav (Henry ‘Harry’ Shepard) (b. 1881), August Wilhelm (Gustav) (b. 1883), Wilhelm Johan Gottlieb (b.1886) and Bertha being born in 1888.

On 27 December 1901, Johan Matthes ‘Martian’ Schippan and his wife Johanne Louise Elizabeth (nee Dohnt) had left their house to go and spend new years with friends. Three children were away working on other farms, the two younger boys had chosen to sleep in a nearby barn that night. Alternatively, there are reports that claim that they were sleeping in the detached outhouse that their father had built previously. Either way, this left Mary and Bertha at the house alone. They had dinner and both went to bed.

At around 10pm Mary was startled awake. She quickly became aware that a heavyweight was laying across her body. She screamed and was grabbed by the wrists and thrown across the room. She hit her head against the wall, before falling to the floor. The noise awoke Bertha and after both yelling for their brother, Gustav, Mary was instructed to leave the bedroom and go to the kitchen. The voice of the intruder was described as gruff. As Mary moved she caught a glimpse of something in his coat. She heard it clatter on the floor, with the intruder distracted Mary took her chance and escaped.

Mary found her brothers, who did not believe her until a scream from the house broke the quiet night. Gustav got up and headed to a nearby farmstead while Mary and Wilhelm stayed in the outhouse. Gustav made it to the Henke household, but after being told there was nothing he could do Gustav returned back to the outhouse.

The three siblings knew they had to go and see what had happened, the kitchen door had been swung open and all was silent once more. They each grabbed a pitchfork before slowly entering the house. Finding the lights they turned them on to reveal pools of blood were all over the kitchen floor. Not daring to go any further, they headed to another farmstead. This farmstead was home to the Lambert family, particularly Alfred Charles Lambert, who was the district constable.

Constable Lambert headed back to the house with the children. Once there he lit a lamp and with the children following him began to follow the trail of blood inside the house. As well as the floor blood had been splattered in the fireplace and on the walls and bed of Mary and Bertha’s room. It was in their room where Bertha was found, face down, arms tucked around her head with her legs stretched out.

Bertha’s cause of death was stab wounds. She had been stabbed in the back of the neck. She also had gashes on her chin, cheeks as well as some bruizing on her lower body. It was the slit to the throat however that was most likely the fatal wound as it severed the carotid artery. She had not been sexually assaulted. The weapon, two of the fathers’ knives were found in the lounge room, one was soaked in Bertha’s blood.

Ushering the children back to his house Constable Lambert headed into the night, to the local police station to find help. Johan and Johanne found out about what had happened and quickly returned home.

An inquest into the death was opened. Coroner, Dr Ramsey Smith had found some hair that had been ripped from the roots at the crime scene. He also said that blood was found on Bertha’s body, but also on Mary’s clothes. The blood wasn’t able to be determined whether it was from a human, or as Mary claimed from a sheep she had slaughtered with her father a few days before. Constable Lambert had found that there was no sign of forced entry and no reports of a stranger were made prior to the murder. The inquest itself was held in one of the outbuildings on the property. Media and townsfolk gathered around this small house eager to hear every detail.

Doctor Steel, who had examined Bertha, had found pieces of clothing around her that ended up belonging to Mary. Mary was found to have scratches on her arms, several bruizes, and a sore neck. Her neck had been recently washed and upon examination, the doctor found no injury to her neck.

It was on 11 January that Mary was interviewed for over 4 hours, answering every question that they had. It was while being questioned that she made a surprising and scandalous claim for the time: she had been in a secret relationship with a Towitta laborour, Gustav Nitschke. The relationship had been ongoing for around a year and it was discovered that Bertha had knowledge of it.

Upon being questioned Gustave explained that in fact ‘improper conduct’ had passed between Mary and himself. It was further explained that they had sexual intercourse three times. Though he was seen at the house on 27 December, shortly after the parents had departed, it was found that he couldn’t have committed the murder due to being in Adelaide.

On 11 January at 5.55pm the jury retired to consider the evidence. Just over an hour later, at 7pm they had reached a verdict. Amos Baker, the foreman of the jury handed the decision to the coroner who read it out.

‘We, the jury, are all of opinion that Bertha Elizabeth Schippan met her death on the first night of January, 1902, by having her throat cut by Mary Augusta Schippan.’

Evening Journal, Adeliade

Mary was allowed to go home and collect some belongings before heading to a nearby town’s jail. She was transferred to Adelaide Goal until the trial which began on 4 March 1902. Throughout the trial there was public support for Mary, the public instead focusing on Gustave as the more likely perpetrator. After Gustave gave his testimony he was forced to flee from an angry mob that was out for blood. Their motives had been fueled by Mary’s lawyer painting her as ‘a woman of good character, who would never cause harm to anyone.’

After 6 days of hearing witnesses and 2 hours of deliberation, the jury brought back the verdict. Just after 8pm, Mary was found not guilty. The family made their way back home though life was never really the same.

For years after rumors began to circulate around the community. A popular one is that the father had actually murdered Bertha. This was to keep her quiet about another murder of a hawker that Johan was rumored to have done. Mary retreated from the community and became known around town as the ‘Grey Lady’.

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