USING her creative talent, Burracoppin artist Jo Millington always wanted to portray the true story of the 1930s Rabbit Proof Fence murders (also referred to as the Murchison murders) of the Mid West.
The gruesome tale is well-known throughout the Mid West and Wheatbelt and after moving to Burracoppin 34 years ago from Watheroo, Jo was one of many who developed a fascination with the true crime story.
After a seven-month long process of researching the narrative, deciding on the key events to depict and putting brush to paper, Jo completed a masterpiece comprising seven individual paintings to tell the story, titled ‘Murders on the Rabbit Proof Fence’.
The Millington’s broadacre property, who Jo farms with her husband Harold, sonwhich Glenn, daughter-in-law Narelle and grandchildren Cameron, Ben and Ned, straddles the Rabbit Proof Fence on two sides, which added to her interest of the murder story.
“I have wanted to do this for a very long time,” Jo said.
“When I moved to Burracoppin and first heard the story, I thought it would make a good topic for a series of paintings.
“And I thought it would be good for the art exhibition because it is quite a special event.
Having been painting for about 40 years, Jo said the seven-piece series was quite different to her typical style of painting which has usually been landscapes, as well as the occasional still life.
Another local tale that Jo has painted was of a girl by the name of Joan from Westonia who Jo said, “leapt over a shaft by the skin of her teeth and the shaft was later named ‘Joan’s Leap’.
To understand the full meaning of Jo’s most recent creations, you really need to know the story that motivated her to paint them.
This information on the murders is based on Terry Walker’s account of the events from ‘Murder on the Rabbit Proof Fence’ which Jo also used for research.
The method of the murders were inspired by English-born author and local fence runner Arthur Upfield’s unpublished book ‘The Sands of Windee’.
One night in the Mid West, Arthur met with two station workers from the region – John Smith (known as Snowy Rowles) and George Ritchie to toy with the plot for his book.
The novel revolved around a detective named Napolean Bonaparte (Bony) trying to solve a murder without a body and Arthur was trying to come up with a method to dispose of the body that would leave no trace.
George (Ritchie) pitched the idea of burning the corpse and then grinding down the remains using a miner’s dolly-pot.
Arthur ended up using this method in his book which was published in 1931.
Sometime after the campfire discussion with Arthur and George (Ritchie), Snowy met with self-employed fencing contractor James Ryan in the hope of working with him.
At the time James was employed by George Lloyd and the three headed out to the outpost, Challi Bore, to do some fencing on Narndee station.
When Snowy was seen next, he was alone driving James’ Dodge ute which he said James had sold to him and that the pair had gone to Mt Magnet.
Then in early 1930, Snowy teamed up with Leslie Brown (alias Louis Carron), New Zealand and John Lemmon, South Australia.
Three days after they set out in ‘Snowy’s’ Dodge, Snowy was seen in Paynesville where he cashed a cheque of Louis’, claiming that he had left Louis out in the bush trapping.
As weeks passed, John had not heard from Louis and started to worry.
Louis was reported missing early the following year.
It only took constables Hearn and McArthur two days to find the body which was in ashes of what looked like would have been a large fire, close to the 183 mile gate on the Rabbit Proof Fence.
Snowy was apprehended on an outstanding arrest warrant for burglary and escaping custody and was sent to Fremantle Prison where he was sentenced to three years imprisonment.
He was charged with Louis’ murder which went to trial in 1932 and Arthur Upfield was called as a witness.
“I shall never forget Mr Justice Draper, the trial judge and how he looked at me in the witness stand,” as Arthur was quoted from ‘Murder on the Rabbit Proof Fence’.
“However, he defended me against the defending counsel and later I was told that he read The Sands of Windee and liked it.”
Snowy was found guilty of Louis Carron’s murder and executed at Fremantle Prison on June 13, 1932.
No one knows how the other victims, James Ryan and George Lloyd died but strychnine poisoning has been suspected.
After his arrest, Snowy was quoted saying to constable Fawcett, “death by strychnine poisoning is a terrible thing”.
“A man goes off in a trance or fit, then recovers, then seems to stare at you as if he recognises you before he finally goes off,” Snowy supposedly said.
It’s also believed that Snowy used the method featured in Arthur’s book to dispose of James and George Lloyd’s bodies.
So perhaps Arthur achieved a fool-proof body disposal method for his fictional novel a little too well.
With the details in mind, Jo managed to convey the grim story through paint, perfectly capturing the horror that locals would have experienced at the time.
The first painting is of Arthur Upfield writing at night at Burracoppin, which was where he was based.
The second piece shows Arthur working as a ‘fence runner’ which involved taking camels to Dromedary station (also known as Camel station), which was managed by George Ritchie.
The third artwork features Dromedary station which had the State government’s camel breeding program.
The fourth painting depicts Snowy, George and Arthur sitting around the Dromedary station homestead discussing ideas for Arthur’s book, which was when Ritchie came up with the ‘clever’ idea that Arthur used in the book and Snowy took on literally.
The fifth piece makes reference to the gruesome disposal method that Snowy supposedly used by depicting three bodies in the fire to represent the three men he killed.
The sixth painting is of a detective sifting through the ashes for evidence.
The final piece is of Fremantle Prison, where Snowy ultimately paid the price for his crimes.
As an artist who loves to paint with bright colours, Jo has used colour to sophisticatedly portray the horrific tale to evoke emotion and curiosity.
“Crows are a symbol of death and are through all seven paintings,” she said.
“It took a while to figure out how to fit the story into seven paintings and it was quite hard getting the composition.”
Jo is a member of the Merredin Fine Arts Society and the group has collectively entered pieces into competitions and exhibitions across the State.
Over the past 25 years, she has also held three solo exhibitions and won various awards, but the modest Jo said she “doesn’t keep track”.
With the next generation being more involved in the farm, Jo said she has enjoyed having more time to paint.
“I have lots of spare time to devote to painting now, more than I ever have before,” she said.