HISTORIC MURDER: Leyburn Court House with police residence on right, c1910. CREDIT: State Library of Queensland.
HISTORIC MURDER: Leyburn Court House with police residence on right, c1910. CREDIT: State Library of Queensland.

The Southern Downs murderer that made Queensland history

LONG before tales of gangland figures and satanic rituals, the Southern Downs made its way into the true crime history books with the murder of Charles Owens.

Over 150 years ago, Mr Owens' convicted murderer, Leyburn man Alexander Ritchie, became Toowoomba's first hanging.

The vindictive crime, long forgotten, was recently unearthed by local historian David Owens who shared clippings from The Brisbane Courier at the time of the execution.

"On 1 August 1864. the condemned man from the cell and filed into the yard in which the scaffold stood erected," the paper read.

"The prisoner's demeanour - if not defiant - was bold and determined and he marched to the gallows foot and ascended the scaffold without hesitation or assistance."

Records from Bill Wynn in the 1964 book The Leyburn Story show Alexander Ritchie was a Irishman who emigrated when he was 16 and that his vendetta against Owens was as a result of being fired from Yandilla Station, of which Justice of the Peace Owens partly owned.

When Ritchie wasn't paid for his time at the station, he sued them for 20 pounds, but was dismissed.

"He was often heard to mutter threats within his cups but no one took any notice; he was just another wild Irishman letting off steam," Mr Wynn wrote ominously.

In April 29 of 1864, Owens was summoned to Leyburn from Yandilla, and Ritchie hearing Owens was in town, called in at Mrs Murray's Hotel, asking the owners if Owens was still so he could collect his money.

"Miss Murray then told him that if he asked Mr Owens for it he would get it, whereupon, Ritchie replied, 'I will shake my hands with him some day'," Mr Wynn wrote.

That same day Owens was in his buggy when he was shot down through the back of his head.

A Reverend Thackeray was with Mr Owens, but due to the quickness of the attack, was unable to identify the assailant except for the old hat he was wearing.

 

SEVERED TIES: Man (note: not Alexander Ritchie) riding a horse in front of the stables on Yandilla Station, the place where Ritchie worked before he was fired.
SEVERED TIES: Man (note: not Alexander Ritchie) riding a horse in front of the stables on Yandilla Station, the place where Ritchie worked before he was fired.

 

Police investigations soon found out Anne Ritchie bought a new hat for her husband just after the murder.

Police charged Ritchie and during his trial, many witnesses came forth to testify against him, including Mrs Murphy, who at the time. told police, "Boys I'm as sure as eggs Ritchie did it."

However, it was his own wife's confession which tightened the noose around Ritchie's neck.

Charged with accessory to the murder, local legend questioned Mrs Ritchie's devotion to her husband, as seen in this except from The Leyburn News.

"Ritchie was anxious to see his wife before his execution; when she received the communication, her reply was, ' I have had one tramp already to Brisbane on his account, and I'll not take another." God help the man who yokes his fate with that of such a woman!," the paper reported.

In the end, Ritchie was buried in the Old Toowoomba Burial Ground, and Mr Owens at the rear of the Yandilla church; Ritchie was only 22, and Owens in his early 30s.

Not only a story which cemented Leyburn in the history of Queensland crime, but it is one as Mr Wynn says, speaks to the "tragedy" of lives in "Australia's youngest colony."