Murchison suicide bombing a world first

Murchison Courthouse the day after the suicide bombing in 1905.
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Murchison Courthouse the day after the suicide bombing in 1905.

Forget Islamic extremists or anything to do with the Middle East, the world's first strapped-on suicide bombing happened in Murchison.

Joseph Sewell was a 57-year-old farmer from Longford when he strapped himself with sticks of gelignite and blew himself up outside the Murchison Courthouse on Friday 14 July 1905. It was an event that got reported worldwide as "The Murchison Tragedy".

Considerable ill-feeling had been simmering for over a decade between Sewell and his neighbour across the Mangles River, Walter Neame, over a range of property issues. Around 1903, their ongoing dispute began to focus on a distinctive white-faced heifer which Neame claimed to have not seen for two years since branding and turning it out with four others along a river beach a mile upstream from Sewell's farm. 

When Neame finally did spy the distinctive animal, over on the Sewell property, he crossed the river for a closer look, but Sewell's daughter intercepted him, staunchly claiming the animal as theirs. The dispute ramped up after Neame wrote to his neighbour, formally claiming the heifer. Sewell responded by padlocking the wire "chair" that Neame used to cross the river. 

Constable Scott travelled up from Lyell to intervene in the escalating dispute, but pronounced there was little he could do. So when Neame next spotted his heifer, he waded across the river on foot and brought it home, only to have it retrieved by Sewell.

Local interest in the dispute ran higher with every passing week, and when Neame's application for restitution for the white-headed heifer plus another missing animal finally went to court, the public gallery of the Murchison Courthouse was jam packed with 50 locals. Both Neame and Sewell chose not to use counsel and represented themselves. 

From the court records...

His Worship: "Why didn't the heifer come home of his own accord?"

Plaintiff Neame: "It only needed a little persuasion."

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His Worship: "Cattle running on unfenced land must be branded. Your evidence that the beast is yours must be supported by evidence that another brand has been placed over yours."

Plaintiff Neame: "I am prepared to give evidence that I think will satisfy your Worship."

Defendant Sewell (interjecting excitedly): "Why is he telling so many blasted lies. It is a waste of time!"

Plaintiff proceeding…Sewell bursts forth again: "There is no sense him talking, I've been humbugged with this dammed fellow for 17 years, he will be eating my eggs next time. I'll blow the devil to hell, and I have enough dynamite to do just that."

The gravity of the situation was fast dawning on everyone, certainly both bench and police who were all now well aware that for his entire time in court, Sewell had not once removed his left hand from his vest pocket. Acting calmly, Magistrate Kenrick suggested an adjournment for Sewell to go outside and compose himself. With encouragement from his supporter, the agitated man was ushered out of the court, both Inspector Wilson and Constable Scott following closely ready to pinion Sewell's arm behind his back at the very first opportunity.

Before they could get their chance, Sewell turned to the inspector: "Keep back, I don't want to hurt you, you are a gentleman, but don't let Scott come near, he summoned me!" 

Backing outside, Sewell pulled out an elongated explosive and said he had 50 more of them wrapped around him. Bravely, the inspector walked up and put his hand on the man's shoulder in an attempt to calm him. But at that moment a terrific explosion took place when Sewell's body was reported "blown to atoms, portions of it recovered over 100 yards away".

Inspector Wilson who had been closest received the most terrible wound to his forehead, while Sewell's supporter was seriously injured, reportedly his trousers blown clean off along along with all his beard and whiskers. More wounded lay dazed and bleeding all around, while those still inside were cut by flying glass.

Dr Conlon of Reefton was immediately sent for to help attend the injured. Damage to property was extensive. Nearby Downies Hall was seriously damaged, along with several houses on each side which got their windows blown in. Worst hit was the Courthouse which got shifted several inches on its piles.

At the coroner's inquest, Sewell's three children all gave evidence acknowledging the considerable ill-feeling that had developed between the two men, and their father's growing obsession and despondency with it all.

On the night before, William Sewell heard his father say there was just not enough room in the Buller for himself and Neame, and that he intended to let the court know all about it. The son also informed the inquest that stored in the dryness of the family house had been 150 plugs of gelignite, for blowing out stumps, but 99 of them along with 70 detonators had all gone missing in the early morning of that fateful day. The inquest concluded Sewell had been in a state of "temporary insanity" when he set off walking to the courthouse at 5am that morning.

Whatever his mindset at the time, Joseph Sewell had developed an unshakeable belief in the efficacy of explosives to settle virtually any dispute. Some years before he had unsuccessfully sued the Buller County Council for damages to his property sustained by a careless cart driver along its road. After Westport solicitor Edward Harden sent Sewell three accounts with a final demand for payment for having represented him in the case, Sewell marched into his office.

"Do you intend to actually get this money?" asked Sewell.

"Certainly, people in my line of business do not usually go to the trouble or expense for nothing," replied the solicitor.

"Then we shall go to hell together!" expounded Sewell, who then produced from under his coat a package of dynamite with a detonator attached. The solicitor jumped up saying actually there was no hurry for the money, in fact he wouldn't bother if it was never paid, but it still took some persuading for Sewell to finally settle down and leave.

The solicitor had never reported this dramatic encounter in his office, so afraid was he that Sewell would return if he did. But it came out at the inquest, providing also the answer to how Sewell later used a nail to manually trigger the explosives outside the Courthouse, jabbing it sharply into a detonator inserted into one of the plugs of gelignite which were all strapped around him.

Miraculously, all the injured recovered from that fateful day, even if many took months and even years.

"The Murchison Tragedy" got reported far and wide throughout the Commonwealth as having no parallel in the history of the colony, indeed the world. Little could anyone imagine at the time it was a foreboding of things to come. 

 - Stuff

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