Grisly mystery of strange wild ‘beast’
IN November 1891 in the rough country about 30km north west of Mount Gambier in South Australia, a mysterious animal was on the prowl.
Aboriginal shearers working on grazier John Cameron's property at German Creek came running to him one night, scared by a strange wild animal they said didn't belong in Australia.
This beast, they said, had so frightened their dogs that the mutts were cowering in their hut.
The grazier took no notice - until the next night when it happened again.
This time John Cameron found tracks and while they looked like that of a dog, were far larger, measuring about 10cm across.
Nine months later, also at German Creek, sheep station manager John Livingstone was told by an Aborigine of a strange animal stalking the property.
Then, in December 1892, at the nearby town of Tantanoola, Walter Taylor and his wife were driving home in their horse buggy when they saw a strange animal slinking across the road ahead.
This beast was brown, with stripes, about 6.5cm tall and 91cms long with a long sweeping tail that brought its overall length to about 1.5 metres.
The animal, which he swore wasn't a dingo, disappeared into a stand of thick bush known as Nitschke's Ti-Tree.
Several property owners also came forward to report finding sheep that had been devoured - leaving only bloody skins and bones that have been licked clean. A man named Long said he found one of his bullocks with the flesh eaten from its back.
The phantom predator was soon dubbed "The Tantanoola Tiger" by newspapers all across Australia. Locals were worried that it was only a matter of time before the enemy of their flocks becomes a man-eater.
There was only one thing to do. Gather men and rifles. Mount a search party. And find and slay this monster.
In mid-May 1893 property manager John Livingston, who believed the sheep station he managed was at the centre of tiger activity, convinced nearly two dozen men to join him in a search of the German Creek area.
He led the men to Nitschke's Ti-Tree. They broke into small groups and took up positions all around this patch, while riflemen were posted at strategic points waiting to shoot the tiger.
The men walked into the ti-tree from the south and beat the grass from the north, shouting and yelling to scare anything towards the rifles.
A dog with one of the groups got the scent of something and ran into a thicket. Then it jumped back in fright. There was something dark moving in the bushes. The excited hunters closed in … and found a black swan on its nest. Another group of men set a small fire to scare the tiger out of hiding. Wallabies bounded ahead of the men and flame but nothing else tried to escape.
On arriving back in town, the search was declared a failure. "It is not probable that another hunt will be organised till some further evidence of the strange animal in the locality is forthcoming," wrote The Border Watch newspaper's correspondent.
But something was still out there killing livestock and sightings continued. In September 1893 farmer William Johns of Vulcan Park was woken at 2am by his dogs and chickens going crazy. He found big paw prints - measuring 11cm across - and a policeman the next day took plaster casts, which he sent to the Adelaide Zoo. A zoologist compared them with those of a tiger and a Saint Bernard and found it was likely whatever was stalking the Tantanoola countryside wasn't feline but canine.
Then, in October 1893, the nightmare appeared to be over. The beast was dead - and it wasn't feline or canine but porcine.
A man from the town of Millicent named Kenny Mathison succeeded in poisoning a huge feral pig that he reckoned had killed 200 sheep a year on his property alone.
It had even completely skinned one of his horses from the chest to the knee. Mr Mathison said this pig had hidden in ti-tree scrub by day and hunted livestock by night.
After many unsuccessful attempts to shoot and poison the beast, he finally got it by mixing a paste of flour, sugar and phosphorous and pouring it over a dead sheep. The boar, he said, was more than 2.7 metres long from snout to tail and had sharp nine-inch tusks. He sent these tusks of the boar to the Express & Telegraph newspaper along with a letter describing how he'd killed the monster.
"I feel quite satisfied," he wrote, "that in killing this pig I have killed the tiger that was doing so much damage to my sheep and weak cattle in the district of Tantanoola."
The newspaper reckoned he was right: "It appears as though Mr. Mathieson has achieved the killing of the Tantanoola Tiger" one of their writers concluded.
Except that he hadn't. Something continued killing sheep and leaving big paw prints.
In August 1894, John Livingston's 17-year-old nephew Donald Smith was riding the German Creek property near Lake Bonney when he noticed a flock of sheep in distress. Investigating, he saw - at a distance of just a few yards - a large strange animal, walking firmly towards the ti-trees, with a full-grown sheep struggling in its mouth.
Smith had never seen a tiger but felt sure he was now looking at one. It stood about 75 cms off the ground, was about 1.3 metres long and had dull stripes all over its light brown body, with much more distinctive stripes on its head and face.
Frightened, Smith rode to his uncle's house at Burrungule, and John Livingston sent him to the Mount Gambier police to demand they do something. The inspector in charge believed the claim and dispatched two mounted constables and a black tracker to search for the tiger. These men returned to the ti-tree stands and spent a day beating the bush. While the search the year before had been a farce, this one yielded something tangible near a spot where Donald Smith had seen the tiger.
The soil showed claw marks and evidence of a struggle. Following tracks, the policemen and the black tracker found small tufts of bloody wool hung up on ferns, leading them to believe the beast had carried a sheep this way. They also found a big paw print, measuring 13cm wide and deep enough to suggest the animal was heavy.
Through 1895 there were sightings of the Tantanoola Tiger every month or so, including several around German Creek's Duckhole Swamp. In response, John Livingston sent two men and a blacktracker to stake out the area for a week. But they had competition.
Thomas Donovan, from Nelson, on the Glenelg River, was a crack shot who'd spent many years hunting in the bush. Recently he'd been on the prowl for the tiger near Albrecht's Creek. But, after two sightings by reliable witnesses on an estate near Mount Salt, Donovan and his partner William Taylor arrived in this area on Tuesday 21 August 1895.
They consulted with estate manager Mr R.G. Watson and told him they planned to spend a week or more in search of the beast. Mr Watson told them to start their hunt on a range 6.5kms west of Mount Salt, where the most recent sightings had been. Donovan and Taylor struck out, camping the night about halfway to their destination.
They got an early start and hiked to the appointed spot, arriving just before dawn. The sun had barely cracked the horizon when the men saw something out of the ordinary. About 300 metres away across the plain, a herd of sheep was clearly in distress, disturbed by a large animal. The hunters were too far away to see it clearly but at this distance it didn't look like a tiger. It looked like a large dog.
Whatever it was, the beast was singling out sheep and attacking them. The men crept closer until they were about 90 metres away. As they watched, the beast knocked a sheep over and sat over it on its haunches. Seizing the opportunity, Donovan raised his Winchester rifle, took steady aim and fired.
The beast was hit … hard. But rather than drop, it bolted, running away as fast as it could go, with Donovan and Watson chasing after it. After more than 180 metres, the creature tumbled, fell to the earth and didn't get up. Approaching cautiously, Donovan and Taylor found the animal dying.
The bullet had entered just below the right shoulder blade, pierced the heart and exited through the ribs on the left side. What they saw dead in front of them wasn't a tiger. It looked like a male dog. But no breed of dog they'd ever seen before.
Just before 2pm, Thomas Donovan arrived in Mount Gambier with the body, immediately handing it over to a taxidermist named Mr Marks. Dozens of people crowded around the taxidermist's shop hoping for a glimpse of the process.
Everyone speculated on what it was. Too big for a dingo. Maybe a dingo cross-bred with a larger dog. Mr Marks and several others who'd been to Germany and other parts of Europe declared it was neither. They agreed it was a European wolf. Another gent suggested it was a Syrian wolf.
It stood close to 91cms and was nearly 1.5 metres from snout to tail. The beast had a wolf-like head, 25 cms from the back of its skull to its nose and 33 cms from ear-tip to ear-tip. Its teeth were almost 2.5 cms long. The fur was dark brown along the back and tail and fawn and grey on the head, sides, belly and flanks, while its powerful legs were a yellowy colour. The paws more closely resembled those of a wolf than a dog and made a track 11cm wide - marrying up with the prints that had been cast in 1893 at Mr John's yard in Tantanoola.
By Thursday night Thomas Donovan had received eight or nine telegrams from Adelaide asking how much they wanted for the wolf. But he kept it for himself, charging more than 400 people one shilling each to gaze at the animal. He'd soon take it to the Adelaide Zoo and would for years display it in his hometown of Nelson.
In those first few days after he'd shot the wolf, some who'd been the most vocal believers in a beast roaming the countryside now didn't believe this was the creature. John Livingston wasn't satisfied it was the same animal described by so many witnesses. Mr Unger, a witness who'd followed the creature, was absolutely sure it wasn't the same animal. So, too, was Mr Houston, who'd seen it just a few weeks ago at Duckhole Paddock. However, Mr Maclay, who'd also spotted it in that area, reckoned it was the same beast. As did young Donald Smith.
The Border Watch sided with the doubters. "However frightened one might be at it, it seems inconceivable that the idea of a tiger should come to mind", their correspondent wrote. That said, the paper couldn't see how it couldn't be the creature. "It is highly improbable that two such animals as a wolf and a tiger should be roaming in the same locality in this district."
Unless, of course, what some witnesses had seen was actually a Thylacine - the Tasmanian Tiger believed extinct on the mainland. Many - most - descriptions more closely matched the marsupial wolf.
Back then, though, conversation centred on how a wolf had wound up in the South Australian countryside. One theory was that it had survived a shipwreck on the rugged coastline. Another - offered by the Adelaide Zoo's director - was that it was a crossbred wolf that had escaped from a Victorian zoo, where several such specimens had once been kept.
It might have been stuffed, but the Tantanoola Tiger was still on the prowl. On the very same day the wolf was first exhibited, a youth named Mounce, working for a Mrs Wehl on the range between Tantanoola and the coast, said he saw the creature in broad daylight. The animal was, he said, unquestionably a tiger and not a wolf or dog
In the next few years, the Tantanoola Tiger would be seen repeatedly in the district. But gradually memory of the tiger began to fade after the turn of the century, revived only now and again by sightings of what were called Tantanoola Tigers in Victoria and even New South Wales.
Then as the first decade of the 20th century progressed, Tantanoola's graziers were suddenly again losing sheep in huge numbers. One, James Chant, reckoned he'd lost as many as 200 per year for the past seven or eight years.
In December 1910 three hunters from Tantanoola drove down to the Lake Bonney flats for day of snipeshooting on Mr Chant's land. The men started working a big scrub paddock but as a south-west wind picked up they were hit by a dreadful stench.
The awful smell of death was coming from a dense stand of ti-tree about 800 mteres away.
One of the men went to investigate, the stench becoming more powerful as he got closer. But finding a way into the ti-tree was difficult until he stumbled upon a hidden but well-worn path into the labyrinth. About 23 metres in he beheld a chamber of horrors.
Someone had carved a yard out of the middle of the thick ti-tree. All around were freshly killed sheep and lambs, and more rotting carcasses besides, while overhead on wires hung long lines of bloody sheepskins. Another of the hunters arrived and the two men were astounded to find a second hidden yard, larger than the first, which contained 42 recently slaughtered sheep and lambs piled two and three deep - all which bore the brand of Mr Chant.
While the police tried to keep the story quiet, details leaked out and the killing ground became a morbid tourist attraction. Meanwhile, locals at the Tantanoola Hotel were amused by the appearance of a tramp called "Weary Willie" who'd recently arrived in town and who seemed to be asking a lot of questions. Locals were also getting fed up with the police, who didn't seem to be making any progress in bringing the sheep-killers to justice.
Then, in the hotel, on the evening of the 5 January 1911, all eyes were on the tramp - as he led a cadaverous middle-aged Tantanoola creep named Robert Charles Edmondson through the bar in handcuffs. The hobo was in reality Detective Herbert Allchurch, sent from Adelaide in disguise, to snoop around and find out who'd been selling sheep skins on the sly. Allchurch had elicited more information and discovered five other concealed slaughter yards and shearing stations.
This new Tantanoola Tiger was every bit the newspaper sensation his predecessor had been and hundreds of people now flocked to the rough country to see these charnel houses for themselves, with photographers selling postcard souvenirs.
The committal hearing of Robert Charles Edmondson was held on the 18 January, with him charged with having killed 76 of Mr Chant's sheep. The accused's accomplice - 20-year-old labourer James Bald - made a full confession. From September 1910, he said he'd made good money helping Edmondson round up, kill and skin sheep. But in December, when their lair was discovered, the older man had threatened to blow his brains out if he said anything about their crimes.
When Edmondson went to trial in April 1911 in Mount Gambier, he pleaded guilty and also admitted to having been sentenced to 12 months for sheep stealing in 1899 in Horsham, Victoria. He was sentenced to six years hard labour.
"The Tiger Caged" read the headline of Adelaide's Evening Journal.
But he didn't stay behind bars long enough. Nor was his other previous more monstrous alleged crime publicised, during or after the trial. In 1905 Edmondson had been accused of twice raping the 15-year-old daughter of a man for whom he'd worked. But because the testimony of the pregnant victim, her brother and mother was deemed "too precise" by the magistrate, the charge was dismissed and Edmondson walked free.
Edmondson was released in Christmas Eve in 1914, having served just over half his sentence for the sheep theft and slaughter. But this Tantanoola Tiger's monstrous impulses still lurked inside him. In September and October 1917 Edmondson sexually assaulted two sisters aged nine and eleven. The first rape took place in a paddock. The second in his favoured haunt: the ti-trees.
Caught again by detective Herbert Allchurch, Edmondson shrugged off the offences, saying, "No harm was done and nothing serious happened." He thought the crimes trivial compared to his sheep-stealing conviction. In the eyes of the law at the time, he was right. The maximum penalty was two years' gaol. Edmundson was sentenced to that term on both counts of rape, but served them concurrently and was released in 1920.
As for the four-legged Tantanoola Tiger, it was immortalised by poet Max Harris in a 1945 poem of the same name. Yet questions remain as to what exactly was stalking the South Australian countryside.
In 1962 the tale of the Tantanoola Tiger was revived when, across the Victorian border in the tiny Wimmera town of Ozenkadnook, local inhabitants swore they'd seen a Tasmanian Tiger.
Thyalcine reports continued and in 1968 Walkabout magazine did a special investigation, speaking to people in coastal south-eastern South Australia and north-western Victoria who swore they'd seen the thylacine. The report said more than 100 people had reported the creature, including a busload of people who'd seen what they said was a Thylacine running beside the vehicle.
In the 50 years since that article, sightings of Thylacines continue in south-eastern South Australia, with the most recent cluster of sightings just a few years ago, including several captured on intriguing if not conclusive videos.
But there's one place you can be assured of seeing the creature shot by Thomas Donovan in 1895. That's the Tantanoola Tiger Hotel, where the taxidermied beast still holds pride of place in its glass case.