The McCarthy Family Tragedy

St. John's Cemetery — Kapunda

Kapunda , a former copper mining town, has the reputation of being the most haunted town in Australia. Much of the paranormal activity is claimed to occur at the site of the former Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Evangelist.

The church was about three miles (five kilometres) south east of the town. Kapunda is approximately fifty miles (eighty kilometres) north of Adelaide. It was built to serve the predominantly Irish community at nearby Bakers Flat. The church was also the place of worship for the Catholic residents of fledgling town of Kapunda. The church and presbytery were completed on 30 April 1854. These days all that remains is the cemetery, and a solitary palm, marking the site of the church and the presbytery.

When a new church, St. Rose's, was built in Kapunda, the St. John's church became a school and the presbytery a convent. Later the buildings were used as a reformatory for girls. Mother Mary McKillop, now a saint, was the first Matron.

The first girls arrived at the reformatory in June 1897. In conformity with the standards of the time, they were taught domestic duties, embroidery, laundering, corsetry and dressmaking. For girls of unconventional, independent thought and spirited character, usually the reason they were consigned to the reformatory in the first place, the rigid discipline was not welcome. Many rebelled or absconded and in an attempt to prevent this a telephone line was installed to the Kapunda Police Station. However, the girls soon discovered how to cut this connection. Even a ten foot (three metre) high perimeter fence failed to restrict their freedom.

The reformatory was closed in 1909 and the church abandoned. It was demolished in 1946, but the presbytery was used as a private house until the 1950s. That was demolished in 2002 by the Catholic Church in an effort to curtail the increasing public interest in the paranormal notoriety of the ruins.

The cemetery is a more lasting reminder of the lives and hardships the pioneers experienced. Naturally Irish names predominate on the older headstones, and one elaborate broken column, on the right of a large plot, is particularly unexpected. The epitaph hints at a tragedy that occurred far from St John's, at Franklin Harbour on the east coast of the Eyre peninsular, over two hundred and fifty miles (four hundred kilometres) from St. Johns by road.

This headstone marks the grave of the McCarthy family. On 30 December 1880, seven members of the family perished in a bush fire that destroyed their home at Carpa, fifteen miles (twenty-five kilometres) south west of Franklin Harbour on the east coast of the Eyre Peninsula. These days Franklin Harbour is known as Cowell.

The McCarthy Family

Martin McCarthy had been a carter, carrying copper ore from Kapunda to Port Adelaide. In 1878 he moved to Carpa where he established a farm.

December 30, 1880 was a day of strong winds with the temperature over 105oF (40oC). During the morning Martin and his three eldest sons were reaping in the fields. His youngest son, seven years old Joseph, was with them. They could see smoke from a fire about twelve miles (19 km) to the north, but as the wind was from the south-south-west they were in no danger.

A daughter brought their lunch at midday. After they'd eaten, Martin sent young Joseph home because of the heat, ignoring the boy's pleas to stay with him and his elder brothers. Soon afterwards, the wind increased in strength and veered, blowing from the north west, so placing Martin and his whole family in extreme danger. The flames, over forty feet (13m) high, raced towards them.

Martin and his sons were about a mile (1.6 km) from their home, but because of the speed of the fire they realised it was impossible to reach the cottage before the flames. They took refuge, with their horses, in a fallow paddock. It was mid afternoon before Martin and his sons were able to return to their home.

They must have been overwhelmed by the scene. All that remained of the plank and daub cottage was the stone chimney and some still burning timbers. A steel tank, which had been on a wagon, had collapsed and was lying on the ground. At its side was the body of Mary McCarthy, Martin's wife. Martin found the bodies of his five daughters huddled in the kitchen. Mary was nineteen, Honora eleven, Catherine nine and Bridget four. Ellen, who was only two, was clasped in the arms of Mary. Joseph's body was outside, about five yards (5 m) from the cottage.

In addition to the deaths of seven of his family, Martin lost everything he owned; his house, forty acres of standing wheat, his horse wagon, a bullock wagon, his dray, a spring cart, a roller, a winnowing machine and over four hundred and thirty chains (8.6 km) of fencing and most of his livestock. The poor man was emotionally and financially devastated.

Offers of help poured in from all the neighbours. Martin expressed the desire to bury his family at his former church, St. John's at Kapunda, where his father was buried and close to where his mother still lived. A carpenter set about making the coffins. Mary, the mother, occupied one with two year Ellen. The second held Joseph and Catherine and the third Mary, Honora and Bridget.

While the coffins were being fabricated, Mr Miller, the postmaster at Franklin Harbour, organised the loan of a boat to take the bodies and the survivors across the Spencer Gulf, from Franklin Harbour to Wallaroo. At daylight on the Friday morning the coffins were loaded onto a dray and a procession started for Franklin Harbour. It was seven in the evening before the boat was able to set sail for Wallaroo at the top of the Yorke Peninsular, about forty-five miles (seventy-two kilometres) due east across across the Spencer Gulf. The party consisted of five mourners, three crew, and the seven bodies. The weather was bad with strong winds and heavy, dangerous seas, and it was Saturday afternoon before the boat docked at Wallaroo.

Over the weekend, the mayor of Wallaroo had arranged for a special train to take the bodies and the mourners to Roseworthy, where they would transfer to the scheduled train to continue their journey to Kapunda. They reached Roseworthy on the Monday, but as it was a public holiday, they had to wait until Tuesday for the connection. The news of the tragedy had preceded them and the party were greeted by a huge crowd at the Kapunda railway station.

The coffins were taken to St. Rose's church for the funeral service and it was here that Martin experienced less than whole hearted support. The priest refused to allow the coffins into the church for the service. He objected to the blood oozing from the coffins as "it would have sullied the floor". They were left outside while the funeral mass was celebrated. This must have added further distress to Martin's grief.

After the service, the bodies were taken to St. John's Cemetery for internment. At St John's, a large gathering had already assembled for the burial and to show their empathy for the McCarthy family.

The Kapunda Herald offered to run an appeal, but Martin declined their offer of financial aid. Against Martin's objections a committee was formed to administer the fund and subscriptions poured in from every centre in the Kapunda area. The final sum raised was reputed to be over one thousand pounds. Perhaps the money was used to pay for the elaborate headstone.

When Martin McCarthy died in 1908, he was buried with his wife and children at St. John's.

What became of the McCarthys after the fire is not known, but one son at least remained in the Carpa area. Peter McCarthy became prominent in the Franklin Harbour district and built a school close to the scene of the tragedy. The ruins remain and are identified by a marker about one kilometre to the north of Carpa, on the road that runs directly north to meet the Cowell to Cleve road. A few metres south of the school marker is a memorial to the McCarthys, but this is not conspicuous and is easy to overlook, especially from a vehicle.

The front of the headstone on the family grave, the north face, reads;

Mary McCarthy

aged 50 years

Mary      19

Honora      11

Catherine      9

JosH      7

BridT Anasta      4

Ellen Agnes      2


in peace

On the plinth at the foot a later addition is worded;

Also MARTIN McCARTHY. Husband and father of the above

who died 29TH June 1908. Aged 74 years


The Ghosts of the Cemetery

'This is a remarkable cemetery. Peculiar things happen.' These were the words of Kevin McNeil.

We were standing by the gates to the St John's Cemetery early one morning. The light had been wrong when I'd recorded the details the previous day and I'd returned to the cemetery to take some photographs.

'It's interesting you should say that,' I replied. 'Yesterday, as I was transcribing the inscription on Father Fallon's headstone, I felt as if someone was looking over my shoulder. When I turned round though, I could see no one else in the cemetery, so I dismissed the feelings as imagination.'

'You shouldn't do that,' Kevin said. 'There would have been someone. This cemetery is haunted.'

My scepticism must have shown for Kevin continued, 'All the first five priests died in unusual circumstances and relatively young. A group of us carried out a temperature survey one night and just beyond Father Fallon's grave the temperature plummeted from about 18 Celsius to below -50. The area was only about three metres across before the temperature came back up again. But you didn't need instruments to tell you, you could feel the difference.'

'Are you serious?' I asked.

'Most definitely,' Kevin said. 'People, who knew nothing of the McCarthy tragedy have reported seeing children playing hide and seek around the headstones at night. The ages they describe tie in with the ages of the McCarthy children.'

'Now that is interesting.'

'There are more tales of unexplained happenings,' Kevin said and pointed to a grave across the cemetery. 'That's the grave of a two years old boy. He's often seen on that stone cross, by that large cast iron crucifix.' He now pointed to a pair of crosses at the centre of the cemetery. 'He's just sitting there, all dejected, as if he's lost or bewildered and not sure of what's happening. He hangs his head, and his arms are floppy at his side.'

Kevin pointed to another grave. 'There's another one. That's the grave of a young man who's sometimes seen outside the fence. He's called the Weeping Ghost. When people ask him what's wrong he turns round without a word, walks straight through the fence and any headstones in his way, and goes back to his own grave.

'But that's not all. There are stories about strange happenings when the girls' reformatory was here. The girls would get into trouble, and that couldn't be the nuns. The reformatory was closed down after one girl died in hospital, but the Church won't tell you about that.'

© Jim Ditchfield 2015

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