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5/ The murder of Peter Lumberg: an arrest

With Inspector Durham still away, Sub-Inspector Bowen presided over the investigation into Peter Lumberg’s murder. Percy Le Vaux remained the main person of interest. A magisterial inquiry opened into the homicide, but police swooped in to arrest a witness even before the completion of the proceedings.

The story of a Cairns murder, the attempted framing of an innocent First Nations man, the sexual assault on a young constable by one of Queensland’s most senior cops and a suicide. The Queensland Police hushed up this story. It stayed hidden for over a century before this writer found the documentation that shows these crimes were the tip of a torrid, tropical iceberg. The story of taboo sex, blackmail, a serial killer and the police and government corruption that enabled the cover-up.

Hubert Durham, gay policeman and the great police cover-up:

The gay scandal QLD Police hushed up for over a century.

1/ The murder

2/ Sandy Gallop

3/ The Essence of the Dear Departed

4/ Percy Le Vaux – the victim’s ‘most intimate friend’.

5/ An arrest

1905 was not a good year to be a friend or relative of Percy Le Vaux.

The year began with the unexpected death of his wife Blanche’s 54-year-old father. Dr O’Brien attributed the death to bronchopneumonia and heart failure.

Louis Severin left no will. His oldest daughter Pauline took on the role as executor of his estate and, after sufficient pestering from Percy, gave Blanche £300 despite the pair’s animosity. This was a good amount of money — one hundred times the Inspector of Nuisances’ weekly wage. Percy banked the money for Blanche, who then fell seriously ill with an undiagnosed complaint.

“In March, my husband drew up a will for me by which I left all real and personal estate to him. I was very ill at the time. My father had put some property in my name.”

Blanche went to Townsville for treatment by Dr Bacot, North Queensland’s most respected doctor. After Townsville, she travelled to Mareeba and spent a fortnight in hospital there under Dr Savage.

Peter Lumberg lived at the time in a shed in the yard of one of his houses, neighbouring the Le Vaux’s.  He was also struck down with a mysterious ailment. He got better for a while, but then fell ill again.

Peter diagnosed his own complaint. Terminal cancer. He paid Nurse Stephens to call regularly and Dr O’Brien also made occasional shed calls.

Neither disputed the old man’s self-diagnosis. Everyone waited for the illness to run its course. Dr O’Brien and Nurse Stephens suggested he move to the hospital. But Peter thought if he went into hospital, he might never come out.

Peter decided to move out of the shed and into somewhere more comfortable, something that did not please Blanche Le Vaux.

“Lumberg then came into a room on the ground floor of my house. The nurse told me Peter was downstairs, and he was pretty bad. I said to her, ‘We can never get rid of old Peter. I won’t have Peter dying in my house’.”

Blanche instructed Nurse Stephens to ask Peter to leave.

Nevertheless, at Percy’s prompting, the old man made a will, leaving everything to Blanche, with Percy as executor.

Then, while Percy Le Vaux was away for a while, Peter began to feel better. In fact, a police detective later noted a pattern. Peter and Blanche both seemed to recover during Percy’s absences from Cairns but then go downhill on his return. However, no one noticed at the time — including the man most qualified to do so — Dr O’Brien.

Peter eventually gave up on O’Brien and headed for Townsville, where he sought a second opinion from Dr Bacot. No cancer, said Bacot, just indigestion. And just like that, the dying man recovered.

With his health recovered, Peter moved back into a downstairs room at the Le Vaux house.

Meanwhile, Percy Le Vaux’s life was a constant whirl of travel, drink and argument. Undeterred by his loss in the 1904 election, he travelled to towns around the north, publicising his likely candidacy in future polls. He drank seven days a week, often with Peter Lumberg, Alfred Chisholm and Marston Mayers. Peter was no longer a notorious drunk, usually sticking to shandies, but he still constantly in Percy’s company.

Percy argued with anyone and everyone, sometimes obviously drunk in court. Then came the murder of his best friend.

On Friday, September 8, 1905, a magisterial inquiry opened into the death of Peter Lumberg.

Acting Sergeant McGuire testified first. He listed the wounds observed on the body and estimated the time of death as about 12 hours before he first saw the body, around midnight the night before.

However, the next witness begged to differ. Dr O’Brien gave the time of death as at least 24 hours before his examination, sometime before 1 pm Monday. In the weeks to come, he would elaborate on his reasoning.

“In my opinion, the body had been dead more than 24 hours. The place was an exposed place. Rigor mortis was well marked. The dry mass of blood alongside the head had reached the stage of decomposition, and it would take at least 24 hours to reach that.

“The abdomen was extended with gas, and the characteristic green colour of the decomposition reached to the navel. On opening the abdomen, the characteristic smell of advanced decomposition was present. I think 24 hours was the minimum time; 48 hours might be the maximum. I doubt if it were more.

“The minimum time in which rigor mortis would become well marked at that time would be from five to ten hours. I am referring to climatic conditions when I say at that time. The probability is that decomposition would set in quicker in a weak man. In my opinion, the deceased must have been dead before 1 on Monday afternoon.”

That conflicted not only with Acting Sergeant McGuire’s estimated time of death but with evidence Dr Webster later gave regarding the death of Charlie Jamaica at Aloomba on the same date. Charlie was 36, almost half Peter Lumberg’s age.  Dr Webster noted that he enjoyed good health — if you ignored the bullet shot into his heart. Charlie’s body was less exposed to the elements than Peter’s, lying not in a swamp but under a shop veranda. Webster noted rigor mortis and estimated the time of death as 12 hours before, which corresponded with witness testimony of the time of the shooting

  • Rigor mortis can occur as soon as four hours after death and begins to pass within hours. It occurs more quickly in hotter temperatures, in older people and after violent deaths. Doctors knew this in 1905. Well, most did. It seems Dr O’Brien never read Post Mortem Examinations with Especial Reference to Medico-Legal Practice by Professor Rudolph Virchow, the father of modern pathology. A shame. There was at least one copy in Cairns. Louis Severin, whose death certificate O’Brien signed in January, owned a copy.

Richard Alfred O’Brien graduated Melbourne University in 1902 and arrived in Cairns in 1904 as the youthful protégé of Queensland’s first Commissioner for Public Health, the highly regarded Dr Ham. After that first visit, O’Brien resigned his government position and returned to Cairns in 1905 to take up private practice.

At 27, he was young. The Morning Post called him ‘a very young man indeed’, and the paper did not intend that as a compliment. In his time in Cairns, Dr O’Brien, who would go on to become an internationally renowned bacteriologist, proved a self-assured young man who did not take kindly to criticism or disagreement. The good doctor went for the throat of anyone who questioned his judgment, whether a patient, the local Ambulance Brigade or even the Cairns Municipal Council.

He also misled the inquiry on the subject of the blood on Le Vaux’s tomahawk found at the crime scene. When Detective Constable Seymour asked O’Brien if the blood came from a chook, he agreed it did. But he can’t have known. It takes more than a glance to differentiate between human and poultry blood. An examination with a microscope will offer some certainty. O’Brien boasted of owning the first microscope in Cairns he didn’t take it to the swamp that day. Nor did he use it to examine the suspected murder weapons in subsequent weeks, convinced of the accuracy of his original judgments.

By the time Percy Le Vaux took the stand at the magisterial inquiry, he seemed aware of the suspicions surrounding his recent actions.

He came with his alibi ready.

But it seems he planned his defence based on Acting Sergeant McGuire’s estimated time of death. Percy’s alibi was for Monday night.

Although he usually slept in a separate room, Percy claimed that on Monday night, he slept with his wife.

However, McGuire’s estimated time of death had been superseded by O’Brien’s, and it was now accepted the murder occurred before 1 pm Monday.

But Percy Le Vaux was unsure of his movements that day. He remembered visiting various hotels and drinking but not who served him or who he talked to.

The magistrate and Sub-Inspector Bowen pressed him for facts.

During the lunch break, a panicked Percy returned to his office, spoke to his clerk and examined his correspondence in an attempt to piece together his movements the previous Monday.

After lunch, he detailed his movements.

He began the day with a stroll to work at 8.30 am, before quenching his thirst with a whisky at the Strand Hotel at 10 am, and another at the Mining Exchange.

After squeezing in an hour’s work, he revisited the Mining Exchange before popping into the Federal and then the Court House Hotels for yet more refreshing beverages. He headed home for lunch from 1.30 pm till 2.30 pm.

On his return, he slaved diligently over book-work for an exhausting hour and a half, before accompanying a friend for another invigorating brew at the Mining Exchange, and thence home for dinner at 6 pm.

After dinner, he tottered off to the Club House Hotel, before heading with a different friend to the Crown, from whence they decided to visit Lumberg at his camp. Not finding him there, they stopped off at the nearby Royal.  Admirably, after leaving there, they walked straight by the Queen’s, but their willpower deserted them when they reached the Crown. Their thirst still unsated after a couple of drinks there, they moved on to the Club House for their final nightcap.

Percy obviously understood the need to remain hydrated in the topics.

Sub-Inspector Bowen questioned Percy about Peter’s real estate holdings. He wanted to know why Percy had gone months without paying his rent. Percy explained that Lumberg intended leaving the house to Blanche Le Vaux who he’d known since childhood and regarded as a daughter. (That same Blanche Le Vaux who complained constantly about Peter’s dirty habits and asked Nurse Stephens to ask him to find somewhere else to live when she thought he might die of cancer under her roof.)

Sub-Inspector Bowen asked about Percy’s black tweed suit with white stripes. It was the lawyer’s best suit and most commonly worn, until the days after the murder.

Percy explained that on the Thursday before the murder, he came to blows in the street with Lionel Draper, the husband of Blanche’s unloved sister Pauline. He suffered a nosebleed, and Blanche, who usually paid to have her laundry done, washed and pressed the suit herself to remove the blood.

Ler Vaux was walking with Peter Lumberg at the time of the fight. A neighbour testified that later that night, the pair argued, apparently over Le Vaux’s temper.  Le Vaux denied the neighbour’s testimony that he screamed abuse at his elderly landlord, including, “You God Damned old scoundrel, I’ll screw your neck.”

Nevertheless, the next morning, Peter moved many of his possessions from under Le Vaux’s house to the bush camp across the road from Mrs Dunwoodie’s Royal Hotel.

On Monday night, while drinking at the Crown Hotel, Le Vaux and Marston Mayers saw an article in the Charters Towers Telegraph about Le Vaux’s recent visit to the town. The article mentioned Peter and the pair decided to take the paper to the camp of the barely literate miner.

Not finding him in the tent, they left the paper on Peter’s bed in the tent and went over the road for a drink at the Royal.

Percy took advantage of his time in the dock to sing the praises of his dead friend and assure onlookers of their steadfast friendship.

“Deceased was the most intimate friend I had in Cairns, and he was a man who thought a good deal of me. He had a great liking for me and there was hardly a day when he was in Cairns passed that he did not call on me or inquire after me. He always looked upon my place as a home.

“When he was up the country, and heard of my standing for the Cook Electorate, he came down at his own expense and went with me to the Cook in order to influence the old miners in my favour.

“He always consulted me before he did any business. He had also a great regard for Mrs Le Vaux and had known her since she was a baby. When I spoke to him about the arrears of rent deceased said he would not charge rent. The house is Mrs Le Vaux’s, and as he made it his home, he did not see why he should charge any rent. He did not want to charge me at all. I have no knowledge of Lumberg ever having an enemy. He was an inoffensive old man. He was very stubborn when once he took an idea into his head. I never heard him say he was afraid of anyone. He was fond of roving about.”

The inquiry continued for a few days with witnesses testifying that Peter spoke discreetly of wanting to cut his lawyer and ‘most intimate friend’ from his life.

“I am full up of it. Le Vaux is no good. I wish I had nothing to do with him,” he told a night watchman a few weeks before his death. On the Friday before his death: “I am being humbugged by Le Vaux. I wish I had nothing to do with the bloody thing.”

Then, as Le Vaux left the inquiry one afternoon, First-class Constable Seymour stepped in front of him.

“From instructions received from Sub-Inspector Bowen, I arrest you for the wilful murder of Peter Lumberg.”

“Good gracious!” said Le Vaux, trembling and tears welling in his eyes.

“This is the cruellest thing that has ever happened to me. I am as innocent as anyone can be. It is awful. Good gracious!

Hubert Durham, gay policeman and the great police cover-up:

The gay scandal QLD Police hushed up for over a century.

1/ The murder

2/ Sandy Gallop

3/ The Essence of the Dear Departed

4/ Percy Le Vaux – the victim’s ‘most intimate friend’.

5/ An arrest

For the latest LGBTIQA+ Sister Girl and Brother Boy news, entertainment, community stories in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd.
She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford’s ‘Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns’ as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote ‘The Queen’s Ball’, chronicling the history of the world’s longest-running continuous queer event.
Her investigative work on the history of Australia’s COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication ‘COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese’, a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan.
Destiny’s journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018.
However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing.

For contact, please reach out at [email protected].

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