Menu

Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech were decapitated after hanging for murder in 1843

Nov 22, 2020
Well into the 20th century it was common for human skeletons to be bought, sold and collected for medical and other scientific studies, a fate to befall Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech.
Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech were decapitated after hanging for murder in 1843

Among the dead wildlife given to the Australian Museum in October 1854 by members of the public were a black-browed albatross, a white-throated goat-sucker and a heron shot on Sydney's Cooks River.

As well as those birds other specimens of fauna donated to the institution that month were tusks from a dugong, several iguanas, and 'a malformation of the horn of a bullock'.

A Lieutenant Davis of the 11th Regiment handed over a large sea worm picked up at Cockatoo Island and Mr T Samuel sent in a 'flying squirrel' collected near Bathurst. 

New South Wales politician Arthur Holroyd parted with 'two mummies of crocodiles from the crocodile mummy pits on the Nile, Egypt', according to a newspaper notice. 

But most remarkable of all was the contribution of William Ramsay Esq, a surgeon from the village of Berrima in the NSW Southern Highlands.  

Dr Ramsay's gift was listed in The Sydney Morning Herald as 'the skulls of Lucretia Dunkley, and Martin Beech, who were executed in 1843, for the murder of Henry Dunkley, at Berrima.'

Intriguingly, he also included in his bequest 'the foetal skull of the infant of Lucretia Dunkley.'

The skulls of Lucretia Dunkley (right) and her lover Martin Beech (left) were donated to the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1854. The pair's heads had been cut off after their 1843 execution for the murder of Dunkley's husband on the NSW Southern Tablelands a year earlier 

Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech were tried at Berrima Court House and hanged at Berrima Gaol next door. It is believed Beech impregnated Dunkley when they were incarcerated together in the prison. She aborted a foetus while being executed. Mannequins representing the pair are used in a sound and light show at the Berrima Court House Museum (pictured) 

This newspaper notice shows items donated to the Australian Museum in October 1854

Among the examples of flora and fauna given to the Australian Museum were 'the skulls of Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech... also, the foetal skull of the infant of Lucretia Dunkley'

At the time, readers of the Herald and visitors to the museum were still well aware of the heinous crimes of murderous lovers Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech.

So intense was interest in the pair's offending both their heads were cut off after they were hanged and before they were buried - supposedly standing up, so they could never rest in peace. 

The skulls were then subjected to the pseudoscience of phrenology which involved the study and measurement of bumps on the cranium which were believed to indicate particular mental traits. 

Eleven years after Dunkley and Beech were executed their skulls were donated to the Australian Museum w they were put in boxes and remain today. The skull of the foetus, likely to have been fatd by Beech, has disintegrated. 

Well into the 20th century it was common for human skeletons to be bought, sold and collected, particularly for medical and other scientific studies.

Those practices are now heavily regulated under the Human Tissue Act. 

Over the years the Australian Museum has repatriated human remains - particularly of Aborigines - but the Dunkley skulls have remained in its collection for 166 years. 

'Australian Museum has a large collection of natural history specimens and cultural objects, including a very small number of human remains,' a museum spokesman told Daily Mail Australia. 

'The Museum has worked for more than 35 years on returning human remains held within its collections to communities. The Australian Museum confirms that these skulls currently rest within a special, secure store at the Museum.' 

Henry Dunkley (sometimes Dunckley) is buried on grounds now inside the Gunning Water Treatment Plant. When earth works for the local sewerage plant began a headstone and footstone were found collapsed under blackberry brambles. Dunkley's grave is pictured

The inscription on Henry Dunkley's headstone reads he was 'cruelly and barbarously murdered by his wife and manservant on 13 September 1842. Aged 40 years he was cut down in his prime by a treacherous woman's hand'

Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech's crimes are still talked about at Gunning, on the NSW Southern Tablelands, w they murdered her husband Henry, and at Berrima in the Southern Highlands w they were hanged. 

Henry Dunkley (sometimes Dunckley) is buried on grounds now inside the Gunning Water Treatment Plant and his wife's headless ghost is said to haunt the pine trees around Berrima Court House and Gaol. 

When earth works for the local sewerage plant began a headstone and footstone were found collapsed under blackberry brambles. 

What is phrenology?

Phrenology, from the Ancient Greek words for mind and knowledge, is a pseudoscience which involves the examination of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits.

Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in 1796, the discipline was influential in the 19th century, especially from about 1810 until 1840.

The central phrenological notion that measuring the contour of the skull can indicate criminal tendencies is discredited by empirical research.

The methodological rigour of phrenology was doubtful even for the standards of its time.

However, Gall's assumption that character, thoughts, and emotions are located in specific areas of the brain is considered an important historical advance toward neuro-psychology.

The inscription on the headstone reads Henry Dunkley 'was cruelly and barbarously murdered by his wife and manservant on 13 September 1842.'

'Aged 40 years he was cut down in his prime by a treacherous woman's hand,' it says.

Even that colourful tribute to Dunkley does not come close to adequately describing his horrible demise.  

Lucretia Davies was baptised in 1807 at Glamorgan in Wales, convicted of serious crimes in July 1831 and sentenced to life. 

She was transported to Australia the same year on the ship Pyramus and in 1834  married Henry Dunkley in All Saints Church at Sutton Forest.

In 1842, paroled convict Martin Beech came to work on the Dunkley farm near Gunning and became Lucretia's lover. 

Gunning was then a remote rest stop on the Old Hume Highway which linked Sydney and Melbourne. The surrounding hills were notorious bushranger country. 

In mid September 1842 Henry Dunkley went missing and within days neighbours turned their attention to the behaviour of Lucretia and Beech.

Dunkley was 43 - not 40 as the tombstone suggested - his wife about 37 and Beech about 34. 

The Herald reported on September 28: 'Henry Dunkley, of Gunning, having been missing for ten days, suspicions are afloat that all is not right.'

'His wife cohabits with another man; and they, with a bullock-driver, were ransacking the house, and taking away the property. 

'This, with the circumstance of Dunkley being missing, caused the neighbours to give information to the Police Magistrate , who ordered the parties to be taken into custody, till some tidings can be had of him.'

The same paper reported on October 4 that Dunkley's disappearance 'has turned out to be one of those deep laid preconcerted acts of human butchery, which occasionally take place to the disgrace of human nature.'

Keith Brown, author of The Day That Dunkley Died: Murder and retribution in colonial Gunning, is pictured at the Australian Museum with the skulls of Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech

Dunkley and Beech's heads were removed with a surgical saw and placed in separate boxes. Later their hair and flesh were removed so the skulls could be examined. The rest of their bodies were buried within Berrima Gaol's walls (pictured)

The Dunkleys' neighbours had seen Lucretia and Beech come home early one morning 'very dirty, as if they had been working in a clay hole'.

Suspicions were further raised when the pair could not adequately explain themselves. Lucretia eventually confessed.

On the night of September 13 Beech had entered the room w the Dunkleys were in bed together, lit a candle and set it down. 

He then swung an axe into the forehead of the farmer, who was sleeping soundly, causing his adulteress wife to express alarm Beech would be found out. 

Beech apparently responded he had murdered another man at home in Ireland and had not been caught for that crime then struck Dunkley twice more with the axe. 

The couple was arrested at Bradley & Shelly’s Mill on Bungonia Road in Goulburn after driving t on a dray and offering for a sale a load of Henry Dunkley’s wheat. 

Descriptions of Dunkley's murder became even more graphic as news spread through the colony of what his wife and her lover had done. 

The Australasian Chronicle reported on the coronial inquest into Dunkley's death under the headline, 'Horrible murder of a husband by his wife.'

'From what has transpired today, t is not perhaps on record a more revolting murder than that just committed ,' it stated. 

Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech were hanged at Berrima Gaol (pictured) on October 16, 1843. Their heads were cut off before they were buried within the prison's grounds 

Dunkley and Beech pleaded not guilty to murder and were tried before a jury at Berrima Court House in September. One reporter described her as 'an elderly woman, of a most forbidding aspect' and him as a 'tall, powerful looking young fellow'

'Beech with a heavy axe struck his victim on the neck and breast, and the force of the blows broke even his backbone, the blood pouring out and besmearing the bed and the wall near which it lay.

'At this part of the horrible tragedy the abominable wife took from underneath the bed a vessel, and held it so as to receive the gore from the mangled body of her husband, in order to prevent any traces of the blood being discovered. 

'The body was next sewed up in a sack, and carried to the brink of a neighbouring waterhole, near which a hole was dug, and the body placed in it. 

'The murderers then repaired to the house, and endeavoured to remove from the bed, walls, and floor every trace of blood, which being done, they prepared and partook of a hearty breakfast of tea, bread, bacon, and eggs. 

'The occurrence has caused quite a thrill of horror in this quarter, poor old Dunkley having been so well known and generally liked.'

Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech were arrested and remanded in custody to await trial.

'Beech with a heavy axe struck his victim on the neck and breast, and the force of the blows broke even his backbone, the blood pouring out and besmearing the bed and the wall near which it lay,' one newspaper reported. Keith Brown (right) is pictured with Dunkley and Beech's skulls

In February 1843 it was reported prison matron Mrs Foster had found  Dunkley and Beech in bed together in 'unlimited and unrestrained liberty in the body of Berrima Gaol.' Beech had apparently climbed over a wall to get to his lover. Berrima Gaol is pictured

In February 1843 it was reported prison matron Mrs Foster had found the pair in bed together in 'unlimited and unrestrained liberty in the body of Berrima Gaol.' 

Both pleaded not guilty to murder and were tried before a jury at the adjacent Berrima Court House in September.

One reporter described her as 'an elderly woman, of a most forbidding aspect' and him as a 'tall, powerful looking young fellow'.

During the hearing Dunkley made regular outbursts and abused Crown witnesses, saying of one, 'That woman would hang Jesus Christ, let alone me.' 

Beech appears to have remained calmer during the process, and his 'whole demeanour showed great indifference to the result.'

A jury quickly found the pair guilty of murder and Chief Justice James Dowling seemed to relish sentencing them to death. 

The judge described the pair as 'monsters of human depravity' and said an adulterous murderer such as Dunkley would have in earlier times been burnt alive.  

'You, Lucretia - a name ill assorted with the adulteress and the murderer! - exhibited on your trial, a tone and manner, accompanied by language, which might well excite doubt of your kindred with the human species, and lead to the conviction that the Devil himself had, for a time, assumed the female form,' he said.

During their trial at Berrima Court House (pictured) Dunkley made regular outbursts and abused Crown witnesses, saying of one, 'That woman would hang Jesus Christ, let alone me'

'Your demeanour, even in this closing stage of the proceedings, leaves no room to doubt that you are still possessed by the same diabolical spirit.'

Chief Justice Dowling ordered the pair be taken to a place of public execution on a date to be set by the governor and 'hanged by the neck until your bodies be dead.'

Dunkley leaned her head on the rail of the dock while receiving her sentence and shook slightly during the most damning parts of the judge's address. 

Both prisoners responded by claiming they had not had a fair trial and neither showed any sign of remorse. 

Dunkley, who was pregnant, and Beech were put to death at Berrima Gaol on October 16, 1843. She was the only woman ever hanged at the prison.

The Morning Chronicle reported: 'Both prisoners exhibited the like apathy upon the scaffold, and died as they had lived, hardened and unrepentant.' 

Dunkley and Beech's heads were removed with a surgical saw and placed in separate boxes. Later their hair and flesh were removed so the skulls could be examined. 

The rest of their bodies were buried withing the prison walls but the exact location of their graves is no longer known. 

Keith Brown from the Gunning and District Historical Society wrote a book called The Day That Dunkley Died: Murder and retribution in colonial Gunning. 

He believes two crosses in a sandstone block inside Berrima Gaol may indicate the burial spot of Dunkley and the foetus she aborted while being hanged. 

'T have been some requests for the skulls to be passed to the Berrima Gaol for re-interment with the skeletons,' Brown told Daily Mail Australia.

'Since the skeletons are, I understand, buried in the Gaol yard and are under a concrete slab, any attempt to "reconnect" the skulls would be difficult to say the least.' 

Well into the 20th century it was common for human skeletons to be bought, sold and collected, particularly for medical and other scientific studies. The Australian Museum in Sydney has a vast collection of natural specimens

The story of Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech has continued to inspire writers and filmmakers. 

In 2013 the ABC aired an episode of Who's Been Sleeping In My House? which looked at the history of a former police lock-up at Gunning w Dunkley and Beech might have been held after their arrest. 

In 2015 Berrima resident Cheetah Richards published a work of historical fiction called Summoned Souls which was based on the crimes of the murderous lovers. 

In 2019 Canberra film-maker Sebastian Chan and producer Justin Bush made a short film called The Tragedy of Henry Dunkley which featured dramatic recreations of the grisly event.

A sound and light show at Berrima Court House recreates the trial of Dunkley and Beech for visitors curious about the macabre events.

Copies of The Day Dunkley Died by Keith Brown are available from the Gunning and District Historical Society at [email protected] 

The Australian Museum will reopen to the public on November 28 after a 15-month redevelopment. 

  

'Monsters of human depravity': How judge sentenced pair to death  

Chief Justice on NSW Sir James Dowling sentenced Dunkley and Beech to death

The following is an edited version of Chief Justice Sir James Dowling's remarks upon sentencing Lucretia Dunkley and Martin Beech at Berrima in 1844: 

'The season has at last arrived for announcing to you, after an elaborate trial of two days' duration, the fate which by the laws of God and man attends convicted murderers.

Circumstances have afforded you both sufficient time for preparation to meet death in the most terrific and ignominious form.

The sanguinary tragedy in which you two wretched beings have been the actors almost exceeds belief of its reality. In modern times, your case is without a parallel for atrocity, in all its circumstances of aggravation.

A servant - dipping his hand in the same dish with his master, drinking of the same cup, with Judas treachery stealing upon the sanctity of the marriage bed, and then extinguishing with Macbethian blood-thirstiness the life of that master, and looking to inherit his adulterous wife and his worldly goods as the reward of your murderous treason. 

A wife - the drunken polluter of the rites of Hymen, the violator of every tie by which the sacred institution of marriage can unite in holy wedlock, yielding to brutal lust, and with her paramour consummating her guilty passion in the blood of her husband!

These are but faint pictures of the blasted and unwholesome specimens of human nature now publicly exhibited at the bar of justice.

Miserable beings! You now find how unavailing were your subsequent devices to conceal your dreadful crime. The finger of God was all along pointed at you! 

You have struggled in the meshes of wickedness - have been caught - and you are now to be held up to the execration of mankind as monsters of human depravity.

I forbear dwelling longer on a recital of your misdeeds. The time has arrived for Justice to claim her sacrifice. A speedy and ignominious death now awaits you. The human spirit of the present age forbids the dreadful severity which in times not long gone by, when the treason of a murderous wife was expiated by burning alive. 

Were you now penetrated with a sense of the awful gulph into which you are about to be precipitated, no human device for suffering could aggravate your miserable fate. 

In neither of your breasts can the voice of conscience be stilled. Stifle it, you cannot, by any human art. The ghost of your murdered victim, in ghastly shape, must day and night present itself to your guilty minds, and his gaping wounds demand that retribution which laws divine and human award.

READ MORE
Tags: ,
Back to Top

Shopping cart

Close

No products in the cart.