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Bertha Schippan Murder Mystery

Bertha Elisabeth Schippan aged 14 years was murdered on the night of January the 1st 1902. She was at home with her sister and two brothers. Her parents had gone to Eden Valley to do some business and it was just the four children at their parents’ farmhouse just out of Towitta. Towitta was a small settlement between Sedan and Keyneton. They had retired early that evening and about 10.30 or 11.00 o’clock Mary, Bertha’s sister had woken up and became conscious of a heavy weight across her. She immediately tried to rise but when she did so, a man caught her by the wrists and a struggle started. While they were struggling, Mary said she had heard a knife drop onto the ground. While the man grabbed for it she managed to run out to where her two brothers were sleeping. It was 100 yards away and she found her way through the darkness. Bertha was left screaming in the hands of the intruder. While going out Mary said she had picked up a skirt lying near the doorway.

One of her brothers Gustave, aged 18, ran around half a mile for help. Mary and William, 15, stayed where they were. When Gustave returned, without help, he, Mary and William armed themselves with pitchforks and went to the kitchen of the house where they lit a lamp. They called to their sister, but there was no reply. The three of them then walked a mile to inform the constable, Alfred Lambert. Alfred and the three Schippans returned to the house and found Bertha lying in a pool of blood, dead. There was no sign of an intruder.

After Mary had put on a pair of boots, Alfred took the three Schippans to his house for the remainder of the night. It was the next morning when Alfred informed Mounted Constable Mowbray, of Truro and Mowbray sent a telegram to the Police Commissioner in Adelaide. Not long after news reached the offices of The Advertiser and its rival The Register which immediately sent reporters to the scene of the crime.

There were interviews with Mary Schippan, Gustave Schippan, Mr and Mrs Schippan and neighbours.

Bertha was buried in the Sedan Cemetery on the 3rd of January in grave 88 North Side, marked only now with a cement pillar and plaque.

On January the 4th The Advertiser reported- The person who is guilty of the dastardly act must be more of a fiend than a human being. It is rumoured that there were tracks around the house, but on such ground they would soon be obliterated, and it is hard to distinguish anything. The police are trying hard to try and discover a trace of the assassin, but if they have any clue, they are very reticent.

On January the 6th the paper also reported that a tracker by the name of Thomas King had arrived to help assist the police in the investigation. January 9th came and an inquest into the death of Bertha Schippan began at a shed at Towitta. Reporters from both The Advertiser and The Register wanted to both be the first ones to get the news in their paper. Not only had relays of a cyclist and horseman been arranged to deliver to the telegraph station, but a huge advantage was secured by the use of a motor car. This made the journey from Towitta to Angaston during the earlier part of the day in surprisingly fast time. It enabled the news to be sent through telegraph to The Advertiser, long before any other source reached the wires. This was the first time ever a motor car had been used for such a purpose in Australia. The place of the car was usually filled by a speedy cyclist.

The inquest lasted from 10am until about 9pm on January 9 and went from 8am to 7pm on January the 10th. The inquest was conducted by the coroner, Mr J. Mulligan with a jury of six. A vast amount of evidence was heard including the blood stains on the skirt that Mary had picked up on the way out.

When the coroner rose to sum up the evidence, he was so deeply moved that he could only mutter a few words. The jury then retired to consider their verdict. It was around fifty five minutes later that the jury had the verdict. The coroner then announced - We the jury are of opinion that Bertha Elisabeth Schippan met her death on the first night of January 1902, by having her throat cut by Mary Augusta Schippan. Mary Schippan was then committed for trial at the Adelaide Supreme court. Mary was escorted to Adelaide the day after with her parents. The mother clasped her hands and both cried bitterly. Mary said “I didn’t do it, mother”. “We know you didn’t do it Mary”, said both of her parents.

Within three weeks of Berthas burial, the police exhumed her body in their search for more evidence.

Mary’s trial took place in the early part of March and went for six days. When the Chief Justice summed up the evidence, he said that in all his experience he had never had to present to a jury a case of greater difficulties. He explained it is an awful thing that one of the sisters who had been living together in perfect happiness could possibly be guilty of the crime. They continued to deliberate the evidence but after 2 hours the jury returned a verdict of not guilty and Mary was discharged.

Mary left the district and died later at the age of 43 and is buried in the Bower cemetery.

In covering the murder The Advertiser used a motor car for the first time and became the first newspaper in Australia to do so. The Towitta murder was therefore an important landmark in the history of Australian journalism and it is interesting to recall the details of it and the exciting way in which it was covered.

A book “The Trial of Mary Schippan” was written in 2004 and in the 1984 the ABC made a telemovie ‘The Schippan Mystery” based on the case.

The above information was compiled in 2007 from an Advertiser Newspaper article in the book “Cambrai and Beyond”, the Sedan Cemetery book and the Bower Cemetery records.

Photos

Mary Schippan Schippan Farmhouse The grave of Bertha Schippan at Sedan Cemetery Coroner's Inquest in a shed at Towitta The first motor car used to carry news for a newspaper in 1902