Late in October 1882, officials gathered around the grave of Francis Heenan in Ararat Cemetery, in rural Victoria. He’d been dead three years, but questions had recently been raised about the manner of his death.
Had he really died as a result of “English cholera”, as ruled by a coroner in 1879? Or was he, as police believed, a victim of strychnine or arsenic poisoning? They already had a suspect for his murder: a workmate of Heenan’s called Robert Francis Burns. Police just needed an exhumation to provide them with enough evidence to charge him.
But when the grave was opened up, the officers discovered the body was badly decomposed. As The Herald, a Melbourne-based newspaper, told their readers on October 26:
… the coffin was full of fluid which had acted as a solvent of the fleshy portions of the body, and that little but the bones remained for examination. Portions of the fluid into which the softer parts of the body had decomposed were, however, taken by Mr Johnson [Government Analytical Chemist] , as also some samples of the soil round tho grave, and these have been subjected to analysis. This has proved that the body has become so decomposed that no possibility of identifying poisonous agents if present exists …
The case against Robert Francis Burns collapsed for lack of evidence. But police managed to get him on a different murder charge. He was convicted and sentenced to death on 23 July 1883 for the killing of Michael Quinlivan. Burns went to the gallows at the prison in Ararat on September 25, 1883.
A Murderer’s Surprise Confession
When the hangman Elijah Upjohn, visited him in his cell minutes before the execution, Burns made an extraordinary claim.
He had, he said, killed eight men; five in Victoria and three in other colonies within Australia. According to Upjohn, Burns said:
I have cooked 8 – and now you are going to cook me.
If true, it made him the first serial killer in the history of Australia.
The question was whether Burns had really made such a confession. Confronted with challenges from the media as to his veracity, Upjohn swore an affidavit that he was telling the truth. The police however were in no doubt that Burns was a multiple murderer.
Even before his conviction for the killing of Michael Quinlivan, they’d charged him with the murder of another workmate, Charles Forbes, whose headless, naked body had been found near a mineshaft. Burns had been acquitted on that charge in 1881 due to lack of evidence. Police believed they knew of a third victim: Francis Heenan.
After Burns’ execution, newspapers in Victoria began trying to piece together information about other possible victims. In December 1883, the Mount Alexander Mail triumphantly announced they had identified seven of the eight to which Burns had confessed. Among them was the name Francis Heenan.
On The Trail of A Murderer
Francis Heenan was born in County Limerick, Ireland, the son of Denis Heenan and Mary Dwyer. At the time of his death he was described by his brother Joseph, also a railway labourer, as 34 years old, “always a very healthy man” and “a moderate man with regards to drink.” He’d been working as a labourer on a railway line in the area of Wickliffe, a small town near the city of Ararat.
The city of Ararat had become a boomtown when gold was discovered in the region in 1857. The railway arrived in 1875 and Ararat became a major rail junction. In the 1880s, at the time of the murders, the timber industry was growing and new railroad stations were opening up. Men working on those lines travelled the roads together as “mates”, probably because there was safety in numbers. They camped in tents near the place they were working.
In February 1879 Francis Heenan was sharing one such tent with two men: Robert Francis Burns and Henry Wells. They had been working in the same gang for about a month.
The only account of his death comes from evidence given by Burns to a magisterial inquiry before William James J.P on 21 February 1879.
How Did Francis Heenan Die?
Burns said that on the morning 19th February 1979, Francis Heenan broke off from work and went to the bank. When he returned about 15 minutes later Heenan said he was seriously ill. He was vomiting and had diarrhoea. He complained of feeling chilly so the men put a coat over him.
“I told him the best thing he could was to go home, meaning to his tent which was about two miles from where we were then at work. He remained where he was till the three o’clock [train] came up and then we ….. took him to the tent.
He still continued vomiting and purging. He took some [rum] and [porter] and said the latter quenched his thirst. I remained with him after taking him to the tent all the time. He died about 18 minutes to seven o clock. He continued to vomit and to be purged. He vomited about 15 minutes before he died. I left him about 10 minutes and then found him very quiet. I did not know whether he was dead or not.
The policeman called to the scene, Constable Dominick Healy, told the inquiry that
I ascertained that he and his mate were on very friendly terms and found no marks on the body and could not have any circumstances to foul play.
The inquiry ended with a verdict of death as a result of English cholera. William James ruled that:
From the evidence both before me in this case and from a post mortem examination made by myself I am decidedly of the opinion that the deceased died of an attack of English Cholera.
The symptoms detailed by his mate were consistent with that disease and the post mortem appearance did not indicate any appearance of poison having been taken, on the contrary from the peculiar condition and colour of the blood tend to the inference that English cholera was the cause of death
That would have been the end of the matter but then, in 1882, Burns was charged with the murder of Charles Forbes whose headless remains had been found at Deep Lead, a gold mining township north of Wickliffe. He’d been a mate of Forbes and had been seen in his company, drinking with him in a bar. It was the last time Forbes was seen alive.
Police believed they had a strong case, even though one based on circumstantial evidence.To their astonishment. the jury thought otherwise and Burns was acquitted.
Burns must have felt triumphant. He supposedly strode out of the court “head erect, grinning evilly.”.
The Net Closes In
But he hadn’t reckoned on the diligence of a police constable called Hillard who, in the lead up to the trial, had gathered substantial information about Burns and his character. Two years earlier, in 1880, the body of a man had been found in a paddock at Reedy Creek in the eastern part of Victoria. His head had been smashed in with an axe. Inquiries identified him as navvy by the name of Michael Quinlivin. He’d worked with Burns for more than a year. The similarity between the deaths of Forbes and Quinlivin was too much of a coincidence for Hillard and his superintendent.
Burns had barely left the environs of the court when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Constable Hillard confronted him:
“I arrest, you in the name of the Queen, for the murder of Michael Quinlivan, at Reedy Creek, on a day in August 1880.”
This time Burns did not escape justice.
Over time police and journalists uncovered more evidence about Burns. He’d arrived as a convict from Ireland, sentenced to transportation for theft. A picture emerged of a man who made a habit of befriending fellow workers and then convincing them to withdrawal their life savings. Shortly after they would disappear.
History has labelled him one of the most viscious mass murderers in the history of Australia. More than 40 years later his exploits continued to feature in the media as an example of callous planning and cold-blooded execution by a man who “slew for the sheer lust of killing.” He is also one of the cases featured in Grave Tales: True Crime, published in Australia in 2019 as part of a series of books about interesting graves.
“Accidents and Offences” The Australasian, 16 Sept 1882, page 19; Accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
“Burns’s Confession Sustained”. Mount Alexander Mail 3 December 1883. p. 3 Accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
Local Intelligence: Another Terrible Murder”. Wagga Wagga Express, 27 August 1879. p. 2. Accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
“The Deep Lead Murder”. The Argus 19 August 1882. p. 10. Accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
“Australia, Victoria, Index to Probate Registers, 1841-1989,” database FamilySearch entry for Francis Heenan, 20 Mar 1879; citing Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, series 18, record 763, Public Record Office, Victoria; FamilySearch digital folder 004104463.
“Australia, Victoria, Inquest Deposition Files, 1840-1925,” database FamilySearch, entry for Francis Heenan, 21 Feb 1879; citing Probate, Wickliffe, Victoria, Australia, Public Record Office of Victoria, North Melbourne; FHL microfilm
“The Wickliffe Murder: The Execution of Robert Francis Burns” ; Portland Guardian; 27 Sept 1883; accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
‘The Murder of His Mates” ; Smiths Weekly, Sydney, Sept 26, 1925, page 15; Accessed via http://nla.gov.au/nla.newspaper
“Australia, Death Index, 1787-1985: database FamilySearch , Entry for Francis Heenan, 1879, registration number 3344
“Grave Tales: True Crime” Goltz, Helen & Adams, Chris; Atlas Productions 2019