John Lynch: The Berrima Axe Murderer
Wales, Australia: 1840-41
on the southern highlands of New South Wales in eastern Australia, about
an hour and a half drive from Sydney, the historic village of Berrima,
population 284, is a welcome sight for the travelers seeking to relax
over a cup of tea and country-style scones before resuming their
laid-back Berrima is steeped in history, and has many arts and crafts
shops, a museum, an old courthouse, and Australia’s oldest hotel, The
also home to Australia’s worst serial killer.
the Berrima district almost a century and a half before the term
serial killer was coined, murdering at will until he was finally
brought to justice, tried at the Berrima Courthouse and put to death on
the gallows in the Berrima Gaol (jail).
extraordinary story of the Berrima Axe Murders -- and the ultimate
capture of John Lynch, convict, bush ranger and serial killer -- began
on the morning of February 19, 1841, when a drover, Hugh Tinney on his
way to Sydney with a team of bullocks, stopped near the Ironstone Bridge
just outside Berrima and noticed a dingo rummaging around a pile of
brush and trying to get at what ever was concealed beneath.
inspection revealed the body of a man whose skull had been pulverised at
the back, suggesting that he had been bashed to death with a heavy blunt
instrument. The man was lying on his back with a smile on his face,
indicating that he had been in good humor when attacked from behind and
had no idea what hit him.
items found on the body, he was identified as a local farmhand named
Kearns Landregan who was last seen in the company of a farmer named
Dunleavy when the pair had dinner two nights earlier at the Woolpack Inn
at Nattai not far from where Landregan’s body was discovered.
led to a nearby farm once owned by the Mulligan family but now owned by
John Dunleavy, who had allegedly bought it from the Mulligans for £700
before the family of Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan and their teenage son and
daughter had mysteriously packed up and left town without telling a
barmaid from the Woolpack Inn identified the mysterious farmer Dunleavy
as a local whose real name was John Lynch. With that and other
irrefutable evidence gathered by police, on February 21, 1841, John
Lynch was charged with the murder of Kearns Landregan.
the light of the overwhelming evidence against him, Lynch steadfastly
maintained his innocence in the belief that he would be exonerated and
21, 1842, just more than a year after he was charged, Lynch appeared
before the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir James Dowling at
Berrima Court House. It took the jury only an hour of deliberating to
find him guilty of murder.
guilty verdict was handed down the court heard that Lynch was also
implicated in the murder-disappearances of at least eight other people.
The court also heard that Lynch had narrowly escaped the gallows in 1835
when, as an active bushranger, he had been incriminated in a murder
committed in the district, had admitted his guilt, but had come out of
it miraculously unscathed.
was not to be the case this time. Sir James Dowling had no hesitation in
sentencing Lynch to death by hanging. Before passing sentence Justice
Lynch, the trade in blood which has so long marked your career is at
last terminated, not by any sense of remorse, or the sating of any
appetite for slaughter on your part, but by the energy of a few zealous
spirits, roused into activity by the frightful picture of atrocity which
the last tragic passage of your worthless life exhibits.
now credibly believed, if not actually ascertained, that no less than
eight other individuals have fallen by your hands. How many more have
been violently ushered into the next world remains undiscovered, save it
in the dark pages of your memory.
own confession it is admitted that as late as 1835 justice was invoked
on your head for a wilful murder committed in this immediate
neighbourhood. Your unlucky escape on that occasion has, it would seem,
whetted your tigrine relish for human gore but at length you have fallen
into toils from which you cannot escape.”
Lynch stood unmoved in the dock, a smirk of defiant indifference on his
face as the judge announced, “You are sentenced to be hanged by the neck
until you are dead.”
even the harsh words from the judge and the death sentence could dampen
the optimistic Lynch’s belief that he would be reprieved and eventually
set free. After all, God had lead him this far, why would he desert him
steadfastly clung to the story that he was innocent, and only after
every avenue of appeal was exhausted did John Lynch confess to his
confession Lynch said that he believed he had gone about his robbing and
killing under the watchful, approving eye of God. Only when there was no
hope left did he lose his faith in the Lord. On the eve of his execution
John Lynch called a priest and police magistrates to his cell to witness
his full confession.
It was a
confession that rocked the fledging colony of New South Wales and
ensured John Lynch’s place in the annals of Australian crime forever.
diminutive but solidly built man of just 5-foot-3 with a fair, rugged
complexion and brown hair, John Lynch was just 19 when he arrived in
Australia in 1832 on the convict ship Dunregon Castle after being
sentenced to deportation for stealing offences in County Cavan, Ireland,
where he was born.
working as a convict laborer at numerous farms in the area, he joined a
renegade gang and became a bushranger (highway robber), robbing and
stealing throughout the countryside and selling his ill-gotten gain
around the district.
Lynch had a close shave with the hangman in 1835 when he was charged
with the murder of Tom Smith shortly after Smith had given evidence
against Lynch’s gang. Lynch and two other bushrangers were tried for
Smith’s murder and even though he had admitted to taking part in killing
Smith, the jury chose not to believe him and he was set free while the
other two bushrangers were found guilty and hanged.
farmer Mulligan had purchased land that Lynch had stolen during his
bushranging exploits. In his confession Lynch maintained that a dispute
with Mulligan over the price of stolen items started him on his career
as a multiple murderer.
asked Mulligan for payment for some stolen goods, but Mulligan was only
prepared to pay about a quarter of what Lynch was asking. A bitter
argument ensued and Lynch stormed off swearing revenge. He went to a
farm at nearby Oldbury where he had once worked for the owner, T. B.
Humphrey, and stole an eight-bullock team and drove them off. “I’d
broken them myself,” Lynch said in his confession. “I took them because
I wanted to start out again honest. I intended taking the bullocks to
Sydney and selling them.”
didn’t take long for Lynch to forget about his “honest new start” and
lapse back into crime. “At razorback Mountain,” Lynch said, “I met a
cove named Ireland and fell in with him.”
was traveling with a black (aboriginal) boy, and together they were
driving a full bullock team and its load of wheat, bacon and other
produce to Sydney to deliver it for its owner, Thomas Cowper, who was a
stranger to Lynch.
seemed to me,” said Lynch in his confession, “that it would pay me
better to kill Ireland and take possession of the dray and its load of
saleable produce than to drive Mr. Humphrey’s bullocks to Sydney.”
took quite a liking to the diminutive Irishman Lynch, and when they
pulled up for the night he prepared him dinner and finished the evening
off with one of Ireland’s cigars. All the while Lynch was plotting to
murder Ireland and his young helper and make off with their wares.
to Lynch’s confession, he lay awake that night asking God what to do.
didn’t say whether God gave his blessing to the forthcoming massacre,
but Lynch said that, having consulted God was as good as getting the
following morning Lynch asked the boy to help him round up his bullocks.
The lad was happy to oblige. As the boy walked ahead in the scrub and
well away from the camp, Lynch crept up behind him and smashed the back
of the lad’s head in with a tomahawk. “All it needed to kill him,” Lynch
said, “was just one tap with the tomahawk. He dropped like a log of
returned to the camp to find Ireland preparing breakfast and rather than
murder the unsuspecting farmhand immediately, he explained that the boy
had gone looking for the bullocks and they should eat without him.
Ireland was about to serve breakfast, Lynch distracted him, and when
Ireland’s back was turned, Lynch cracked his head open with the
tomahawk. As the man lay dead at his feet, Lynch wolfed down a hearty
meal before dragging both bodies to a cleft between two rocks and
covering them with brush and stones.
Lynch pointed the team of bullocks and dray in the direction of Berrima
and set them loose, anticipating that someone would round them up and
return them to the Oldbury farm and nothing would come of it. He then
took possession of Ireland’s team, which was carrying the farm produce.
the Lord was looking out for him, Lynch was in no hurry and remained at
the camp for two days. On the second day, he was joined by two men named
Lagge and Lee who were in charge of a team of horses. Lynch said he
enjoyed the company of the two men and they ate, drank and sang well
into the night.
even performed an Irish jig for Lynch’s entertainment. For these reasons
Lynch didn’t dispatch the men with his tomahawk as they slept, conceal
their bodies with the luckless Ireland and the black boy and steal their
possessions and sell them in Sydney.
following morning, blissfully unaware of their narrow escape from death,
Lagge and Lee invited Lynch to travel behind them for company, an offer
he readily accepted. As they approached Liverpool on the outskirts of
southern Sydney, Lynch nearly died of shock when a man cantered his
horse alongside the dray that Lynch was driving and asked him what he
was doing driving his team.
was Thomas Cowper. As quick as a flash Lynch smiled at the man and said,
“I’m glad I’ve seen you. I was just wondering whether I’d knock into
you. The fact is that your man Ireland was taken ill back there and
begged me to take the load to Sydney for you. He said I’d probably meet
you somewhere along the way.”
Lynch explained that Ireland was very ill and that he had left the boy
to look after him at the camp, Cowper expressed his gratitude that Lynch
had taken the load of perishables ahead toward Sydney. He was even more
grateful when Lynch agreed to continue to Sydney with the dray and its
load while Cowper went back and looked for Ireland.
thanking the Lord for looking after him through his close call with
Cowper, Lynch arranged to meet Cowper in Sydney in a few days. He pushed
on with the bullock team until he caught up with Lagge and Lee. They
parted company at the junction of Liverpool Road and Dog Trap Road, when
the two men turned in the opposite direction and headed toward
driving all day and night, Lynch reached Sydney two days before his
scheduled time to meet Cowper. He knew he had no time to lose because,
when Cowper couldn’t find his missing employees, he would come looking
employed the services of a drunk to sell the produce so that he could
not be incriminated at a later date and if questioned by police could
stick to his story about Ireland being taken ill, adding that the
produce had been stolen from the back of the dray while it was
pocketing the cash from the sale, Lynch headed out of town south along
the Illawarra Road toward the Berrima Road. There he had another shock
that further convinced him the Lord was on his side.
neared the George’s River I saw Chief Constable McAlister of
Campbelltown, and fearing he’d recognise me I turned into a cross track
leading towards the Berrima Road,” Lynch said in his confession. “This
close shave frightened the living daylights out of me and I decided that
I would get rid of Cowper’s team at the first opportunity as it could
only eventually get me into trouble.”
approached Razorback Mountain where he had killed Ireland and the boy,
he met the Frazers, a hard-working father and son who were making their
way toward Berrima with a team owned by G. Bawten.
took an immediate fancy to the team and, from the minute he was in the
Frazer’s company, began plotting the duo’s deaths and the theft of their
traveled with the Frazers to a campsite at the Bargo Brush, where two
married couples were already camped. “We all had supper,” Lynch said,
“then I crawled under my dray with the intention of sleeping. No sooner
had I got there than I saw a trooper ride into the camp. He asked Frazer
if he had seen the dray I had stolen from Cowper, and Frazer shook his
head and said he didn’t know anything about it.
trooper didn’t see me under the dray,” Lynch said, “and much to my
surprise he rode off.”
said that his escape was nothing short of a miracle since the Cowper
dray couldn’t have stood out any more if it had been painted bright
pink. Yet again the Lord had intervened and saved Lynch from capture. He
believed he was invincible and could go on killing as he desired. Lynch
claimed to have consulted with the Lord, who told him that, in light of
his narrow escape, the Frazers had to be killed and their team stolen.
the night Lynch set his bullock team free. “My team appears to have
strayed,” Lynch told the Frazers in the morning. “I’ll have to go home
and fetch another one. Meanwhile I’d better hide the dray. Could you
give me a hand.”
unsuspecting Frazers were only too happy to assist John Lynch in his
scheme to murder and rob them. After the three men had hidden the dray,
Lynch said, “I helped them hitch their horses to their cart and we drove
out of Bargo Brush. They agreed to let me travel as near the place as
possible where I was supposed to live.”
traveled all day until they reached Cordeaux Flat, where they made camp
for the night. “In the morning young Frazer and I went in search of the
horses,” said Lynch. “I put on my coat so as to hide the tomahawk. I let
the youngster go ahead. Then when we were in the bush I thought to
myself there’s no difficulty in settling him. So I crept up behind him
and hit him with one blow and the young fellow fell like a log of wood.”
the boy’s body beneath some wood and returned to the camp with one
horse. The elder Frazer inquired about the whereabouts of his son. “When
I told him he was looking for the other horse,” Lynch said, “he became
agitated, not because he suspected I killed the boy, but because the
horses had never strayed before.”
distracted Frazer by pointing to what he said was his son in the bushes
and when the man turned to look he hit him “a nice one on the back of
the head and he dropped like a log of wood.”
thanking the Lord for his assistance in murdering the father and son
Lynch dragged their bodies into the bush and buried them in a shallow
bush grave, hitched their team of horses to the dray and headed toward
the Mulligan farm to settle an old score.
rode up to the farmhouse, he saw Mrs. Mulligan sitting in a rocking
chair on the porch. She asked where he had gotten the horses and dray
and he replied that they belonged to a man in Sydney. Lynch inquired
about the whereabouts of her husband, son and daughter, and Mrs.
Mulligan told him that they were in the fields working.
you want?” the woman asked.
your husband owes me,” he replied.
£30?” she asked.
very well what -- for the articles which I got from burglaries and
highway robberies I did at the risk of my life and which your old man
was supposed to be holding for me,” Lynch said.
only £9 in the house,” Mrs Mulligan replied, giving Lynch the impression
that she was fobbing him off until she could talk to her husband.
confession Lynch said, “I was much discouraged by her putting me off but
I didn’t show it. Being a fair man I decided to wait until her husband
returned and give him the chance to pay me my money and if he refused
then I would see to it that he would get to meet the Almighty.”
then elected to walk to the Black Horse Hotel at Berrima and buy some
rum in the belief that it would get Mulligan in the right frame of mind
to pay him the money. On his return he saw Mr. and Mrs. Mulligan
together on the verandah and they greeted him in a friendly manner.
Mulligan fetched glasses for the rum, and they sat on the verandah
drinking and chatting. Lynch eventually brought up the matter of the
£30, and Mr. Mulligan asked him to be reasonable about the amount. Lynch
left the verandah and sat brooding on a log nearby, deep in consultation
with the Lord about what he was going to do next. The Lord gave Lynch
his blessing to murder them.
Mulligan had returned to the fields and Mrs. Mulligan had disappeared
into the house, Lynch lured their young son Johnny into the woods on the
pretext of cutting some wood for his mother.
of sight, Lynch killed the boy with a single blow from his axe to the
back of his skull, covered his body with brush and returned to the
Johnny?” Mrs. Mulligan inquired.
the paddock with the horses,” Lynch said.
thought Mrs. Mulligan suspected that he had murdered her son because she
became hysterical and told Lynch to fire his gun to attract attention.
all the urgency?” he asked. “He’s all right. I only saw him a few
woman insisted that Lynch shoot his gun indicating to anyone within ear
shot that all was not well.
“But if I
do it will alert the police,” Lynch said as Mr. Mulligan appeared and
asked what was going on. Both the Mulligans were suspicious now. In
fright Mrs. Mulligan returned to the house while her husband headed to
the woods in search of his missing son.
get far. Lynch ran up behind him and, with one swing of the axe, felled
him. After dragging the body into the woods, Lynch saw Mrs. Mulligan
coming toward him. He tripped her up and killed her with one blow to the
head from the axe.
knew that the Mulligan’s 14-year-old daughter was in the house, and as
he entered he saw her standing in the kitchen in terror. She had seen at
least one of the murders.
her standing behind a table holding a butcher’s knife,” Lynch confessed.
“She was sobbing with fear and trembling violently. I hadn’t been
prepared for this so I just stood there staring at her. Then I yelled
‘put that knife down’ but she didn’t move so I yelled again ‘put that
stiffened, her eyes bulging fearfully from their sockets, with a strange
animal noise squealing from her tightly compressed mouth. The lobes of
her nostrils were flared and she stood there impotent with terror.
that knife down,’” I told her. “’I don’t want to kill you, but if I let
you live you’ll only put me away.’” I then ordered her to get down on
her knees and prey as she only had ten minutes to live.”
then took the terrified young girl into the bedroom and repeatedly raped
her. “I then brought her back out into the kitchen and tried to comfort
her saying that life was full of trouble and that she’d be better off
dead. Then I mercifully distracted her attention and as she turned away
I struck her with the axe and she fell dead without a murmur,” he
then assembled the Mulligan family’s bodies in the bush and set them
alight atop a huge pyre. “They burnt like bags of fat,” he said.
on Lynch’s confession dealt with how clever he was at getting rid of the
Lynch’s possessions and taking over the farm as if it were his own.
Every personal item and all of the dead family’s clothing were burned.
Then he inserted an advertisement in the Sydney Gazette stating that
Mrs. Mulligan had left the family home without her husband’s consent and
that he, John Mulligan, wouldn’t be responsible for her debts.
gave the impression that the Mulligans had broken up, which would
explain why the farm had been sold. Next Lynch, again under the name of
John Mulligan, wrote to all his creditors telling them he had sold the
farm to John Dunleavy for £700, and Dunleavy had taken responsibility
for any outstanding debts. Then he forged a deed of assignment stating
that John Mulligan had signed over the farm and all its affects to John
in order Lynch became Squire Dunleavy and, considering that he was well
known throughout the district and still moved about freely (though under
the name of John Dunleavy) without anyone becoming suspicious about the
name change, Lynch probably couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the
good Lord truly was looking after him.
even hired a couple, Terence and Clara Barnett, to run the farm for him
while he took the produce to the markets. The bodies of the four other
people he had murdered hadn’t been discovered and no one seemed to be
looking for them.
next six months Lynch lived a charmed existence, and had it not been for
his murder of the Irishman Kearns Landregan, he might have lived his
life on the Mulligan’s farm without anyone being the wiser. John
Dunleavy, aka Lynch, was a good farmer who was loved by his staff and
trusted by his creditors and was from all accounts a gentle and
reason that Lynch could give as to why he committed his ninth murder,
leaving clues and witnesses all over the district, was that he was
convinced that he was under the protection of a supreme being and beyond
capture. The normally thorough Lynch hadn’t even gone to the trouble to
prepare an alibi for the Landregan killing.
Lynch’s confession he described the circumstances leading up to the
murder. He said that he met Landregan on his way back from Sydney and
offered him a job fencing on his farm. As they passed Crisp’s Inn,
Landregan hid himself and explained to Lynch that he didn’t want to be
seen because Crisp had summonsed him for stealing a bundle of clothes.
heard that I was determined to get rid of him,” said Lynch, despite his
own history of theft and armed robbery. Perhaps he had by then truly
transformed himself into the respectable farmer John Dunleavy, who
thought thieving rabble were best put to death.
they had dinner together at the Woolpack Inn, which was witnessed by all
of the staff and numerous patrons, Lynch drove Landregan to the Ironside
Bridge where they set up camp for the night. As Landregan sat on a log
chuckling away to himself at a joke that Lynch had told him, Lynch snuck
up behind him and cracked him over the back of the skull with his
huge man didn’t die with the first blow. He rolled to the ground
unconscious with the smile still on his face. It took a couple more
blows to smash in the back of his skull and kill him. Lynch then took
£40 from the dead man’s pockets.
Lynch was hanged at Berrima Jail on April 22, 1842.
With the gruesome tally of nine victims, John Lynch is
Australia’s most prolific individual serial killer.