The bad doctor

(Warning to Aboriginal readers: this post contains an image of a person who has died.)

If we’re going to look at the recruiting practices of the Pacific labour trade, and whether they were as mutually consensual as the recruiters claimed, or whether kidnapping and coercion were more prevalent, then it makes sense to start with the worst documented case: the massacre on board the Carl, and the man who made it happen, its owner Dr James Patrick Murray.

Dr Murray is now largely forgotten in Australia’s cultural history, but he deserves a return to infamy. He was a man who literally got away with mass-murder through charm, ingenuity and deviousness. Now I’m well aware that we have a bit of a love of scoundrels in this country, so when you read the following story please try not to be seduced—remember, this is a man responsible for the deaths of over 70 people.

Photo of the Ladies' Leichhardt Search Expedition, with 10 men and 3 camels. Dr James Patrick Murray is seated front and centre (click to embiggen)

Photo of the Ladies’ Leichhardt Search Expedition 1865, with Dr James Patrick Murray seated front and centre (State Library of Victoria)

James Patrick Murray was born in Roscommon, Ireland about 1839. He was the son of James Murray, a merchant and storekeeper during the gold rush on the West Coast of New Zealand.

Murray entered Trinity College, Dublin on 25 September 1856, aged only 17. Four years later when he qualified he followed his father to work in the southern hemisphere.

While he was practising in Invercargill, New Zealand in April 1863, the Southland News described him as: “…a young man of neat, rather dandified appearance, good-looking and with any amount of assurance and self-confidence, suave and ingratiating in manner which ‘went down’ particularly well with the ladies.”

But even then cracks were beginning to show, as the newspapers were also printing letters that complained about him charging public patients at the Southland Provincial Hospital.

However, this wasn’t his first hospital appointment, and medical work wasn’t his only passion. While resident physician and surgeon at the Melbourne Hospital he also sought adventure, offering his services to the Royal Society of Victoria’s Exploration Committee. In a letter to them, he claimed to be “animated by an honourable desire for fame—and an ardent love of science.”

It was the Exploration Committee that had organised the ill-fated journey of Burke and Wills, and in 1862 Murray joined Alfred Howitt’s expedition to recover their bodies.

Apparently Murray performed quite well on this trip, impressing Howitt enough to have a mountain and a creek named after him (although today Mt Murray is no longer shown on maps, and the creek is now Candradecka Creek). When he returned, he described how the party had prevented scurvy by growing vegetables at Cooper’s Creek; he also showed off botanical samples he’d collected on his own initiative (The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 January 1863).

This experience led to him being chosen as medical officer and second-in-command of Duncan McIntyre’s 1865 expedition in search of another lost explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, who had disappeared while trying to cross the continent from east to west. This party was funded by the Ladies’ Leichhardt Search Committee, a project of botanist and noted supporter of female collectors, Ferdinand Von Mueller.

The group of 12 men, 42 horses and 14 camels trekked all the way from Victoria to outback Queensland, finally reaching Cooper’s Creek in November 1865. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the creek was dry. Desperately needing water, McIntyre went on ahead with only one companion, leaving Murray in charge of the rest.

As soon as the leader was gone, Murray broke out brandy that had been hidden in flour bags, and he and the other men got drunk and lost the horses and most of their equipment.

After being saved by Aboriginal people and camel drovers, Murray and three others made it back to Melbourne in January 1866, shortly before a letter from McIntyre exposing his behaviour. Taking the defense, he claimed the alcohol was necessary for survival: “I had been delirious for many hours, and the brandy, of course, increased this delirium, but it also enabled me to work, and aided by another man I unpacked all the camels before ‘falling asleep'” (Bendigo Advertiser, 2 April 1866).

However, McIntyre’s version of events prevailed, mainly due to his death from ‘gulf fever’ (probably either malaria or typhoid) near Burketown, on the Gulf of Carpentaria. It emerged that he had been carrying medicines that might have saved his life, if he had only had a doctor to tell him what to take.

The Riverina Herald of 7 February 1866 said, “We know of no single instance in the history of exploration where a leader has been deserted as Mr McIntyre has been.”

Despite this, Murray seemed to do alright. He gained work at Melbourne’s Benevolent Asylum (where he allegedly drugged his patients with morphine so he could take the weekend off).

On 8 September 1866 he married Caroline Louisa Patterson, daughter of the eminent Dr James Patterson of Robe St, St Kilda. Together, the couple had three children: George Edward Patter, born in 1868, Mary Eleanor Caroline in 1870, and Leslie P. in 1872.

However, Murray didn’t stick with domestic life for very long. In April 1871 he sold his Brighton practice to Dr C.G. Casey, and with the proceeds he bought the 280-ton brig Carl.

The brig Mary Celeste in 1861, when it was called the Amazon

According to Wikipedia, a brig or brigantine is a two-masted vessel with the first mast square-rigged. Pictured here is another 280-ton brig, the Mary Celeste, of which you may have heard…

The Carl left Melbourne on 1 June 1871, carrying Murray and 11 other passengers, including six young Melbourne men who’d each put in £50 in the hope of establishing cotton plantations on a South Sea island.

They reached Levuka, then the capital of Fiji, on 28 June 1871. The aspiring planters hoped to settle there, but Murray persuaded them to try for Vanuatu, which was then known as the New Hebrides. He also replaced the entire crew except for the mate, Joseph Armstrong, who he promoted to captain. And he obtained a certificate from the British Consul, authorising him to procure labour.

So prepared, they set off again. The first stop was the island of Tanna, in southern Vanuatu. There he quarrelled with two of the would-be planters, Bell and Grut, and put them ashore with Grut’s wife and child, and another passenger, Miss Chapman.

(Things turned out pretty badly for these castaways: there was a civil war on the island, and supposedly the two men were eaten by cannibals, while the women and child were sheltered by a missionary before returning to Melbourne.)

The next stop was Epi, where Murray bought 3 square miles of land on behalf of the remaining planters. But as soon as the ship had been refitted to hold labourers he set off again, before the planters had a chance to disembark.

At the small island of Paama they made their first, amateur attempt at recruiting. Having heard that it was possible to trick islanders into coming aboard by masquerading as missionaries, Murray got Armstrong to wear his jacket inside-out—so the red lining showed—and draped a rug over one of the planters, William Charles Morris, while another, Henry Clarke Mount, wore a red dressing-gown.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work. The response from the islanders was either mocking laughter or poison arrows.

Frustrated, Murray came up with a new plan: they hid lead weights and a cannon in the ship’s shrouds (part of the rigging that supports the masts) and dropped them to smash any canoes that came alongside.

Using this technique at Malakula they easily captured 12 people, and then they headed for the Solomon Islands.

At Santa Ana and Malaita they picked up another 25, then nearly 20 more at Isabel and Guadalcanal, and a further 20 at Rubiana Lagoon (between New Georgia and Rendova), before stopping again at Choiseul and heading north towards Bougainville.

The first voyage of the Carl from Melbourne, stopping at Levuka in Fiji, then Tanna, Epi, Paama and Malakula in Vanuatu, then Owaraha (Santa An), Malaita, Isabel, Guadalcanal, Rubiana Lagoon and Choisel in the Solomon Islands, then finally Bougainville and Buka Passage in Papua New Guinea

The first voyage of the Carl, from its departure in Melbourne to the furthest point reached, Buka Passage in Papua New Guinea. The ship then returned to Levuka via Epi

It was at Buka Passage, between the islands of Bougainville and Buka, that they got their greatest haul: 40 in one day, 45 the next. With about 160 captives on board—the Bukamen under the main hatch, with the others kept forward and aft—Murray and the crew decided to head back to Fiji.

Two days later, the prisoners started to fight back. At about 10 pm on 14 September 1871, the Bukamen broke up their bunks and tried to force open the hatch; according to one version of events, they started a fire as well.

“Shoot them, shoot them, shoot every one of them,” was Murray’s response. For the next few hours, that’s what they did, intermittently firing rifles and revolvers through the hatch.

Finally, around 4 am, things quieted down. One of the crew members reported, “Why, there is not a man dead in the hold.” At this, Murray put down his coffee and went to get his revolver, while the second-mate Lewis fetched an augur.

Together, Lewis and Murray bored holes into the bulkhead so they could fire directly—albeit blindly—into the hold. This appeared to be far more effective, with a cheerful Murray reportedly singing the popular tune “Marching Through Georgia” while he fired.

In the morning they cleared out the hold. There were 35 dead bodies, which were quickly thrown overboard. Another 35 severely wounded had their hands tied, and Murray asked, “Well, boys, what do you think of doing with these men?” Henry Mount replied, “What do you think of doing?”

“Well,” said Murray, “I think that the best we can do is to go the leeward of the island and land them there.” When asked how far they were from land, Murray answered, “I don’t know, but not very far.”

With that, the 35 wounded men, helplessly bound, were thrown into the water and left to die. Another 15 un- or less-wounded jumped in as well, to swim ashore.

With 70 people massacred and 15 escaped, there were still about 70 left on board. The Carl continued to Epi, where they cleaned and white-washed the ship’s hold, with bullet holes the only trace of the crime.

This was done just in time, because they soon encountered the naval ship HMS Rosario. Well, not so much encountered but stopped with a cannon ball to the mast and boarded. But apparently reluctance to stop was typical of labour recruiters, and the lieutenant who inspected the hold found nothing amiss.

Murray left the ship at Epi along with another passenger, Scott, and 12-14 natives, with the aim of finally starting a farm. The three passengers remaining—Mount, Morris and Wilson—stayed with the Carl until they reached Levuka, then borrowed the fares to return to Australia.

Meanwhile, Captain Armstrong sold the surviving 59 islanders for about £10 a head, and prepared for another voyage. Joining them as passenger this time was one Archibald Watson, who was later to become Professor of Anatomy at the University of Adelaide, and whose journals give an account of what happened on this second voyage.

(Incidentally, we do know something of the fate of the kidnapped islanders from the first voyage. Twelve turned against their new masters after they had been transferred to the cutter Meva, while the 25 from Malaita did the same on the schooner Peri. Not terribly surprising, given the way they were “recruited.”)

The first stop on the Carl‘s second voyage was at Epi, to pick up Murray and Scott, and afterwards they continued recruiting. This time though it was mostly by-the-book, although there were some escapes by unwilling recruits, and one islander died—supposedly of pneumonia.

Murray, however, started behaving more erratically. At one point he threw himself overboard and had to be rescued, and then a week later Watson wrote, “Doctor in a terrible state lying amongst the natives whom he got to drench him with buckets of salt water … mind wandering very much.”

When they returned to Levuka on 18 April 1872, Murray first spent a week convalescing, then went to stay at the home of the British Consul, Edward March. There, he accused Armstrong, Watson, Charles Dowden (the second mate) and Saul McCarthy of trying to poison him, and of murdering the man who died on the second voyage.

After a court martial on board HMS Cossack, Armstrong and seven of his crew were sent back to Sydney for trial, with Murray given immunity as Queens’ Evidence (Watson was released on bail and took the opportunity to skip out to Melbourne).

Sketch of Dr James Patrick Murray

A sketch of James Patrick Murray that appeared in the Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 March 1873. Due to fear of him being lynched, they thought it best not to publish his likeness until after he’d left the country (Image via Trove)

Before the trial commenced, Murray took up a job at a sanatorium set up to handle a smallpox outbreak at Sandhurst (the official name at the time for the town formerly known as Bendigo—it was later changed back because people preferred the original). It wasn’t a big outbreak, affecting 10 people, mostly from one family of new immigrants; and Murray, who had previously written pro-vaccination essays, was probably immune. But still the City Council voted to pay him a bonus, because “Dr. Murray had nobly volunteered his services when no other medical man would undertake the dangerous duty” (Bendigo Advertiser, 28 September 1872).

However he only really got this recognition after he’d pointed out the heroism himself. And in a follow-up letter to the Sandhurst City Council he boldly claimed, “My object from the date of my conversion (towards the close of the Carl‘s last voyage) has been the suppression of South Sea slavery, and my revelations were uncompulsatively made at the sacrifice of name, position, fortune—in short, all that is most dear to man, with a view to accomplish this work” (Bendigo Advertiser, 16 November 1872).

By this time though, the trial was well under way, and testimony about the massacre was turning public opinion sharply against him. The same day that his letter to the council was published, an editorial in Melbourne’s Argus railed against his hypocrisy, saying, “At all events, we hope that we shall not be nauseated by any more communications from this murdering MAWWORM” (The Argus, 18 November 1872).

On 19 November 1872, all but two of the accused were found guilty of assault, and the following day Armstrong and Dowden were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At about the same time, Morris and Mount were arrested in Melbourne and charged with murder for the events of the first voyage.

Murray again gave evidence in this second trial, but the testimony of other witnesses made his complicity clear. His notoriety increased, to the extent that a waxworks at 101 Bourke St displayed a figure of him—presumably in a “chamber of horrors” section.

It got so bad that in January 1873, while the trial still had three months to go, Murray left Australia to return to England, leaving his wife and children behind.

Murray’s father, disowning him in a letter published in the Melbourne Herald on 23 May 1873, wrote, “though opposed to capital punishment on principle…if any of the Carl crew murderers should ever ascend the gibbet for the kidnapped seventy cruelly slaughtered poor Polynesians, Dr. Murray should be the first, as head.”

However, in England Murray seemed to fare slightly better. Somehow he endeared himself to Samuel Wilberforce, the former Bishop of Oxford, famous opponent of the theory of evolution and son of abolitionist William Wilberforce. Through Wilberforce he gained the support of the Anti-Slavery Society, who offered to publish a book of his views. However, it wasn’t enough to get him a meeting with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, who Murray wanted to advise on how to prevent kidnapping.

But although the feeling against Murray was strong, he did perhaps make a convenient villain. The condemnation didn’t really seem to carry across to the labour trade itself, nor did it necessarily extend to his ship-mates. Armstrong and Dowden’s death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment (with the first three years to be served in irons).

Mount and Morris were likewise found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to fifteen years hard labour; but six months later they were released on a legal technicality, to the cheers of their supporters.

Murray though, despite his immunity from criminal charges, continued to wear some consequences and the public’s ire. In 1879 he was finally struck off the medical register, and four years later off the dentists’ register as well.

What became of him after this gets a little hazy. A letter from Murray to The Lancet in January 1879, on the topic of the Aboriginal drug pituri, gave his address as Newlands, Manchester. The proceedings of the General Medical Council later that year also listed his residence as Manchester (although he did appear in Ireland to plead his case, once again making up excuses for his actions).

In 1884, when he was struck off the Dentists’ Register, a note from the General Medical Council states that he was said to be in Africa at the time.

By 1887, when the similar kidnapping case of the Hopeful was getting press attention, a passing mention says, “It is said that Murray went mad and committed suicide” (The Western Champion, 5 April 1887).

And indeed, by the 1891 census his wife Caroline, who had moved back to England with two of the children—never to live with Murray, mind you—was describing herself as a widow.

And yet, I recently found a reference to a James Patrick Murray in passenger lists for ships travelling to the USA in 1900 and 1904. The name, age and place of birth match the infamous Murray, and his place of residence is given as Edinburgh. But he’s somehow still describing himself as a doctor, and as married.

Is this the last known reference for James Patrick Murray? It's a passenger list of the SS Corean at Boston, 7 September 1904. The person listed here is 64 years old, Irish by nationality, based in Edinburgh, a doctor(?) and married(?). Click to embiggen...

Is this the last known reference for James Patrick Murray? It’s a passenger list of the SS Corean at Boston, 7 September 1904. The person listed here is 64 years old, Irish by nationality, based in Edinburgh, a doctor(?) and married(?). Click to embiggen…

So what did happen to him? I’d really love to know—seriously, I would. If anyone has any clues, or knows anything of his descendants, please tell me in the comments below.

One thing we can say is that the fact that records of him are so scant after he left Australia must surely mean that he didn’t get involved in any other scandalous incidents—at least, not any we’ve heard about.

Surely that counts as good news.



Filed under History

9 responses to “The bad doctor

  1. A cracking good read.

  2. Paul Daffey

    When the Leichhardt search Party set out from Victoria, Murray led the group until they reached Duncan McIntyre. A newspaper article at the time stated,
    “………. it would have been impossible to select a fitter man for the responsible task of leading a expedition of this kind: indeed, we have so high an opinion of this gentleman’s qualifications that, even if the search was left to him alone, we should not despair of his conducting it in a manner the best calculated to lead to tangible result” (The Mount Alexander Mail 03-Jul-1865). Oh how wrong they were!
    A photograph always had pride of place on my Grandfather’s mantle piece. He told us how my great, great Grandfather, Alexander Gray, was on an expedition to search for Leichhardt (same photograph as your article – second from the right standing up). Alexander Gray nearly died, but came back to Victoria carrying his saddle because it was so precious to him. That is all my Grandfather knew (I think) and it was all the information that my relatives had.
    I inherited that photograph. I took it upon myself to discover more about this group. What I discovered was not only the story of this group, but the amazing story of Dr. James Patrick Murray. I recently told a group of friends the story of Murray and was met with the usual incredulity. I decided it was finally time to pull together my hours of research into a summary of the life a times of this man. What a surprise when I did a search to find out if there was any new information out there and found your article. Well done – you have compiled this almost identically to how I was intending!
    I too am intrigued to know what was the ultimate fate of Murray – the passenger record to America is a very interesting twist. I’ve also wondered if Murray has any living descendants.
    It really is amazing to think that this man got away with mass murder and is virtually a forgotten part of Australian history.
    One final point. I have Alexander Gray’s small handwritten journal from his time in the search party. Within it is a glowing reference from Duncan McIntrye, describing Alexander as a trustworthy, hard working man. A very important document for our family history – given the controversy surrounding the decision to break out the brandy!
    Great Job.
    Paul Daffey

    • Mark Razzel

      I know for a fact that he headed back to Fiji and bought an Island which is known as Murray’s Island. He married a Fiji Native, and I am one of his descendants .

      • Chris

        It’s so fascinating to hear all these additional stories! And I’m so glad Alexander Gray at least got an endorsement from Duncan McIntyre, who wasn’t at all reticent about condemning Murray…

        I would really love to hear more about Murray’s Fijian descendants, when he returned to Fiji and where the island is. If you have more details you’d like to share, you can email me at

      • Mark Razzell

        Hi Chris,  this is amazing .  I had only heard bits and pieces of Dr Murray from an Aunty and my Mother. My Great great grand ma was Murray’s daughter.  Her mother, who James Murray married was his wife whom he met in Lau . She was bought up by missionaries.  I only learnt more details like the ‘Burke and Wills expedition from the ‘Bells’  article.  I knew about his cowardly murdering on board the Carl and how he turned Queen’s evidence to get off.  I’m not sure where ‘Murray’s Island is , but know it exists. I think it was sold after he died , out of family hands.  I live in New Zealand, and I’m mixed Portuguese and English / Irish .  I’m curious, what’s your interest in the story ? Mark

      • Chris

        Hi Mark, I’m interested in James Patrick Murray because he’s such a colourful character, with such a terrible story, and yet is so unknown today. And also because he represents one of the extremes of the Pacific labour trade.

        I reckon I’ll quiz you over email about the specifics of your family history – hopefully we can get to the bottom of Murray’s life in Fiji!

  3. Dr. James Patrick Murray was the doctor for Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australia’s first poet of note. Noted historian Alexander Sutherland in his article below “Searching for Leichhardt” points the finger at Dr. Murray for the death of the poet Gordon. Murray was Adam Lindsay Gordon’s doctor, and Murray had known Gordon for 12 months prior to Gordon’s suicide.

    Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 – 1916), Thursday 8 September 1898, page 11
    Searching for Leichhardt. by Alexander Sutherland.
    “When the full story of the death of Adam Lindsay Gordon can eventually be written,it will be found that Dr. Murray was the evil genius of the poet for some months before that fatal morning on the Brighton Beach. Truly a black record for one man.”

    Our Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee Inc. had also researched Dr. Murray, and congratulate Chris Lassig for this excellen in-depth article.

  4. Evelyn May ( née Cairns-Cowan) Shepherd

    WRT Dr James Patrick Murray – family stories relate he had multiple families across Various parts of Fiji – also it is family history passed down that he met his death after an alcoholic binge when he fell from a ship into a smaller rowing boat becoming impaled on one of the rowlocks. Several members of my family have told me this story over the years.

    • Chris

      It’s always great to hear more tales from Fiji! I’m currently trying to match these family stories up with official records, in the hope of confirming that it is indeed the same Dr James Patrick Murray. However, based on some of the info provided by commenter Mark (above), I’ve found suggestions that it could have instead been one William Lathrop Murray, born in Launceston. And I’ve just located an obituary for this William Lathrop Murray that sounds very similar to the story you told – please have a read and tell me what you think:

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