Murder in Port Douglas
It’s July 2017. A trio of women almost frozen stiff by Melbourne’s wintry chill fly north to Port Douglas in Queensland where we are warmly greeted with a heavenly 27 degrees Celsius.
The area being tropical they get plenty of water and they had just had five days of rain before we arrived and on the day we left the forecast was for another five days of rain. But during our short stay we were blessed with sunny days and balmy evenings.
On our first stroll through the town I knew immediately it was the perfect setting for the fourth Dusty Kent Murder Mystery planned for release at the end of 2018. Port Douglas is a village with one main street, lots of cafes and several pubs - of course. One of the pubs features a wall mural depicting all the pub’s drinkers painted in the 1980s by Strom Gould, one of the many eccentric local identities of the time. Yep, Port Douglas is the perfect place for a murder! A fictional murder, that is. It was difficult to imagine a real murder taking place in this friendly, laid-back town populated with little over 3000 people.
But I discovered a real murder had been committed in Port (as the locals like to call it) and the perpetrators had been hanged. One of the convicted murderers was 42-year-old Ellen Thomson. In 1887, only ten years after Port Douglas had been named, Ellen and her alleged lover, 27-year-old John Harrison, were convicted of killing Billy Thompson, Ellen’s physically violent and verbally abusive husband.
To be precise, John Harrison was convicted of killing Billy Thomson. Ellen was convicted of ‘aiding and abetting’ Harrison, not murder. But they hanged her just the same. On the eve of his execution, Harrison confessed to being solely responsible for the murder but despite that admission being reported to the Under-Sheriff, Ellen was not spared. “It’s too late,” they said. Even as she stepped up to the drop, Ellen maintained her innocence, forgave those who had wronged her and asked that her children be taken care of. This uneducated mother of five whose family brought her to Australia at the age of eleven from Ireland is the only woman ever sent to the gallows in Queensland. Heartbreaking.
One hundred years later another potential murder victim, perhaps an even more deserving target than Billy Thomson, arrived in Port Douglas. Not that anyone in Port would wish Christopher Skase harm, but plenty of Australians and the Australian government were out for his blood. Skase, a millionaire entrepreneur from Melbourne who stole millions of dollars from shareholders, saw Port Douglas as an opportunity waiting to be milked. Eventually, this white-collar criminal became Australia’s most wanted fugitive when he fled to Spain to escape prosecution and to hide the stolen money. A real oily snake!
For Port Douglas residents, however, Skase was the knight in shining armour who put the town on the tourist map in 1988 when he built the Port Douglas Sheraton Mirage, a five star luxury resort backing onto Four Mile Beach. Port Douglas people remain grateful to Skase to this day but acknowledge his use of stolen money. In a publication called Port’s People, John Morris ‘who is sometimes known as the king or father of Port Douglas’ admits, “...we’ve got to thank the share holders that put up the dough to develop it...”.
Although my friends and I didn’t stay at the Sheraton Mirage, we did enjoy lovely long walks along Four Mile Beach. One of our party, who grew up in Goa, India was transported to ‘nostalgia lane’ when she saw the beach was fringed with coconut palms abundant with fruit. (See picture of Four Mile Beach above.) At the north end of the beach is the start of the not-too-steep climb to Flagstaff Lookout Hill. Spectacular views reward you when you reach the top.
Apart from leisurely discovering Port Douglas and trying as many eating places as we could, we also spent a memorable day on a tour of the Daintree Rainforest with Tony’s Tropical Tours. Port Douglas is the only place on Earth where two World Heritage Listed sites meet: the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. The rainforests we walked through were so lush and fertile we almost had to fight our way through the vines and palm fronds.
Included in our tour was an outdoor lunch and walking expedition in Noah Valley, a World Heritage Listed private property. I judged the pristine clear waters in Noah Valley to be a smidge too cold to swim in, but one brave Norwegian from our tour group couldn’t wait to strip down to his bathers and jump in. He enjoyed it so much we almost had to leave him behind.
Our last evening in Port Douglas (when we dined on exquisite Italian food at Bel Cibo) arrived way too soon.
Claudette (in the butterfly shirt), Kay and JB (in pink) drinking cocktails at Bel Cibo.
Reluctant to leave, we thought perhaps we would need to come back and do a little more research on this particular book setting.
The first two photos in this blog taken by Claudette.
The last one was taken by our helpful waitress at Bel Cibo.
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Brigid George is the pen name for JB Rowley. Brigid George writes murder mysteries like Murder in Murloo. JB Rowley writes other books like Whisper My Secret.