The Skeleton Woman

This post is the second part of my three-part writeup on the King Parrot Creek Skeleton Woman, who was discovered buried in the banks of a creek in rural Victoria, Australia just under seventy years ago. Despite massive public interest, intensive media coverage, and an enormous police investigation, the woman was never identified and her case gradually slipped into obscurity. However, the wealth of newspaper coverage gives us an amazing level of detail about a case which is so forgotten that there is zero searchable information about it online. My goal with this writeup is to compile and summarise these archival sources about the unidentified woman, in the hopes that her case and story will once again be known.

If you haven’t read Part 1 (available at this link), I would recommend starting there – it provides an overview of the discovery of the King Parrot Creek Skeleton Woman’s remains and the initial investigation into her death. In Part 2 (you are here), we tackle the range of evidence which was recovered over the course of the investigation into the unknown woman. Finally, in Part 3, we will examine the theories surrounding the woman’s identity and the circumstances of her murder.

Summary of Key Information

The remains of an unidentified woman aged between 40 and 50 were found buried in the banks of King Parrot Creek near the small town of Strath Creek, Victoria, Australia on 6 April, 1954. Her skeleton was almost complete except for some missing components of her facial structure and a portion of her breastbone, and part of her skull was found downstream from the rest of her body. Victorian police immediately launched a massive search of the crime scene, recovering some small bones and fragments of the woman’s clothing which were used to reconstruct her outfit.

The Lower Denture

A lower denture was lying in loose soil next to the woman’s remains: this was one of the first clues which alerted the farmhands who found her to the fact that they had stumbled across a human body. While such a find might initially seem like a great piece of evidence, it quickly became apparent that having only the woman’s lower denture did not give police a good chance of identifying her. In the words of one expert, a lower denture provided ‘none of the distinctive characteristics of an upper set’. Another leading dental surgeon said it would be a ‘chance in a million’ if the woman could be identified through her lower denture alone.

Nonetheless, police got to work disseminating information about the lower denture as widely as possible. Photographs were circulated in the media in case there were distinctive features such as the type of material or arrangement of teeth. For the first time since the Pyjama Girl mystery (discussed in Part 1) twenty years prior, the same photographs were also sent to the Dental Board, who distributed them to dentists in Victoria and other regions of Australia, with a request for reports on any flaws or unusual characteristics which could identify the owner. More than 30 dentists called in after seeing this description: some told police they made dentures using similar material, while others asked to see the denture and thought the work could have been theirs. Unfortunately, the initial photo which was distributed was not of great quality: many thought the denture contained 15 teeth (3 molars on one side and 2 on other), which would have been very unusual, but subsequent inspection showed only 14. You can see pictures of the dentures, as well as full technical details about their manufacture, at this link.

As it turned out, there were some unusual characteristics to the denture with respect to both its shape and their manufacture. Firstly, the molars of the denture were set outside (instead of inside) the gum ridge, and the anteriors were set forward. This indicates that the lower denture was very likely made to fit in the woman’s mouth alongside an upper pair of dentures. Secondly, the forming of the teeth was strange: the anterior teeth were all ground back by hand, and this (plus an unusual set of molars) indicates the woman’s bite was wrong. Finally, the imprints in the base of the denture indicated that the natural teeth from the woman’s lower jaw were probably extracted in two lots, and the denture plate was made and fitted shortly after the last extraction. On her first dentist visit, the woman had about seven natural teeth left in lower jawbone, and these would have been removed over several appointments. The rest of the teeth had been removed long before this time as the gums were ‘well-settled’. The removal of teeth most likely occurred 4-8 weeks prior to the taking of an impression for the woman’s denture plate.

Regarding the manufacture of the denture, many of the dentists who wrote in after seeing the description thought that it was made by a dentist ‘of the old school’: to quote one response, ‘The denture is well made, but we are not taught to make them that way today’. It was made of relatively cheap materials which were more commonly seen before World War II, and was believed to indicate that the woman was in ‘reasonably poor circumstances’ when she acquired it. Furthermore, the denture’s teeth had been ground back by hand, indicating that it was made by a small-scale dentist or a dental technician using poor-quality equipment.

Initial reports stated that the acrylic plate of the denture was ‘well worn’, but later articles seem to contradict this, stating that the denture was ‘in excellent condition’. Dental experts stated that its cleanliness showed that it was not worn often, and may have only recently been acquired by the woman before her death. There was also no tartar or nicotine buildup on the denture, suggesting that the woman did not smoke.

As a side note to this clue, police were desperate to locate the woman’s upper denture: report after report discusses their continued search for this object. The reasons for this were twofold: not only would the upper denture be more useful as an identifying feature than the lower set, but having both sets of dentures would also give an idea of the shape of the woman’s chin and permit a more accurate reconstruction of her face. Although investigators mentioned at various times their intention to make a full ‘headless dummy’ or ‘coloured portrait’ of the woman based on her clothing and bones, for circulation to police and newspapers throughout Australia and New Zealand, it seems like this never eventuated. The last report mentioning a reconstruction indicates that a ‘dummy’ may have been prepared for viewing by police in early May, but it was certainly never made available publicly.

The Hair

Despite the skeletonisation of the woman’s remains and the estimate that at least two years had passed since her death at the time of discovery, police were eager to find any hair samples from the earliest point of the investigation. The reasoning for this is that they wanted to test these samples and see if the woman had been poisoned, as her cause of death was not obvious.

Several weeks into the investigation, police got their wish in the most gruesome way imaginable: a ‘full head’ or ‘scalp’ of hair was found half a mile upstream from the skeleton, having detached in one piece from the woman’s skull. This hair was light brown with only a few grey hairs, and it was about 7.5 inches (19 cm) long. Police intended to test whether the hair had been dyed or permed, but the results of these tests were not reported publicly.

This hair was found snagged among other flood debris under a small tea-tree on the bank of the creek which was well clear of the water level, and it appeared to have been there for about two years. It would have taken some time for the scalp to decompose enough that it would detach from the body in one piece, indicating that some time may have passed between the woman’s death and her body’s journey down the stream borne by floodwaters. These pieces of information about the hair sample were very useful in ruling out some theories about how the woman had died, a topic which will be addressed more extensively in Part 3.

The Clothing

Forensic investigation revealed that the woman was wearing several items of clothing at the time of her death: a crepe short-sleeve blouse, a tweed skirt, a brown khaki jacket, a singlet, underpants, and a bra. The heaviness of this clothing (especially the woollen skirt and jacket) led police to believe that the woman died in the winter: even accounting for changing fashion tastes, the Australian climate is generally too hot to wear these kinds of garment outside of winter. Combining this with an estimate of how long the woman had been dead, police surmised that she died in the winter of 1951 or 1952.

One later discovery worth mentioning is a corset (or pair of corsets) which was found on 22 April at a camping ground located at a bridge upstream from where the woman’s body was discovered. The corset was ‘of the type worn by a middle-aged woman’ and had apparently been at this camping ground for several years. However, it was unclear whether this corset even belonged to the woman: police were said to ’not yet [have] attached much importance to the find’.

The Burial

As detailed in Part 1, King Parrot Creek Skeleton Woman was discovered in a creek bank which had been eroded by a major flood. The way that the woman’s body ended up in this location was one of the most perplexing parts of the investigation, and police changed their beliefs on this topic several times in the face of apparently contradictory information.

At the start of the investigation, police believed that the woman was buried in a rabbit warren which was in close proximity to where her remains were embedded. Some pieces of evidence seemed to corroborate the idea that the woman was put into the rabbit warren: the opening of the warren faced downstream, which made it unlikely that her body was washed in there. Furthermore, the entrance to the rabbit warren seemed to have been enlarged: old spade and pick marks were found around its sides during initial excavation of the skeleton, and the warren had also been partially dug out by terrier dogs who were hunting rabbits.

However, there was more evidence against this idea in favour of it. Most importantly, the woman’s body was buried 5 feet and 2 inches (157 cm) below the level of surrounding paddocks, and the rabbit warren only extended to a depth of 2 feet (61cm). Furthermore, there was compelling evidence in favour of an alternate scenario: the woman’s body became wedged at a bend of the creek in the position where she was found, and silt from the creek accumulated over it. The body was found against the roots of an old wattle tree which had been washed away in recent floods, and it was thought that the tree becoming dislodged may have partly uncovered the body. Another version of this theory is that the woman’s body was washed up on a low-lying part of the creek bank, and flooding subsequently collapsed the creek bank onto the body.

Local opinion about how the woman’s body came to be at the site was divided. Some local people who know the creek well said that silt did not gather at the part of the creek where the body was found – floodwaters hitting that part of the bank would have eaten silt away rather than depositing it. Conversely, some aspects of the silt accumulation story were corroborated by 78-year-old local Sam Annard, who remembered the wattle tree growing at the site prior to the floods, and even pointed it out lying in the creek a few yards from where the body was found.

The Shot

For some time, police were stumped by the woman’s cause of death: there was no telltale sign of a specific injury which might have killed her, and there was no trace of bloodstains on any of her clothing. Indeed, during the early stages of the investigation, the possibility of an accidental drowning could not be ruled out conclusively. However, the single most sensational revelation in the case came a fortnight after the woman’s discovery: she had been shot to death with a shotgun.

As discussed in Part 1, while police obviously did not have a modern arsenal of forensic tools at their disposal, their investigation of evidence from the scene was impressively meticulous. When X-raying the available parts of the woman’s lower jawbone, the pathologist found a single piece of Number 10 shot embedded in it. This shot was so small that it was not visible to the naked eye, and it was difficult to tell apart from stone and other substances which were embedded in the bones of the skeleton. (Note that based on information from early newspaper reports, the Part 1 write-up stated that the woman’s ‘jawbone’ was missing – as the lower jawbone was implicated in this discovery, it seems likely that only her upper jawbone or maxilla was missing.)

Back at police headquarters, careful sifting through many bags of soil recovered from the crime scene ultimately revealed a further 14 pellets of shot from the dirt around the woman’s body. Some of these were intact, while others were dented as though they had struck bone. The loose pellets of shot were believed to have been in the woman’s body, but ended up in the dirt as she decomposed. There was no evidence that the woman was shot at the scene of her discovery; police searched King Parrot Creek for a cartridge case or its metal cap, but nothing was ever found.

Combining information from the newspaper reporting and some googling, Number 10 shot is one of the smallest types of shot (each pellet is only 0.07 inches or 1.8 mm in diameter). It is also known as birdshot, as it is traditionally used for shooting small game birds like quail. (I personally have zero knowledge about firearms and would appreciate any further insights on this topic!)

With this definitive proof of how the woman died, the police pathologist offered a tentative reconstruction of the murder. Despite the large number of pellets recovered, he believed that the woman had been shot only once or twice in the face and chest at close range. This apparently blew away her upper jawbone and the roof of her mouth, explaining why the remains of her facial structure were incomplete and her upper denture was missing. By contrast, the lack of shot pellet damage to the woman’s lower denture suggests that she seldom wore it and may actually have had it in her pocket at the time of her murder.

The Handbag?

One of the most tantalising potential pieces of evidence from the case of the King Parrot Creek Skeleton Woman appears only in a couple of brief newspaper reports dating from around a month after her discovery. After an appeal to the public for items found in the area which could have belonged to the woman, a young married woman who lived in the nearby town of Seymour contacted the police. She reported that about two to three years earlier, she had found a handbag only a quarter of a mile (400 m) from the site of the woman’s discovery. This handbag contained a set of upper dentures, as well as a little money and some ‘private papers’. The woman thought she might still have the handbag, and at the time of reporting she was about to be interviewed by detectives. However, nothing more was ever shared about this potentially monumental find: we have no way of knowing if the woman had disposed of the handbag and/or its contents in the interim, or if it simply turned out to be irrelevant to the case. Either way, the idea that a lead with so much potential apparently went nowhere must have been deeply frustrating to investigators.

Takeaways

Based on this review of the evidence from the King Parrot Creek Skeleton Woman’s case, we can draw two important conclusions which were not evident in the early stages of the investigation. Firstly, this woman’s death was no innocent accident: she was the victim of a particularly horrible murder which involved her being shot in the face. Secondly, the discovery of the woman’s hair upstream and above the waterline, as well as the theories about how her body came to be buried on the creek bank, point against her being interred by her killer(s) at the place where she was found. Instead, it seems more likely that her body was disposed of upstream, and it floated to its final resting place when King Parrot Creek was in flood.

Check back in soon for Part 3, which will conclude this write-up. This final part will examine theories as to the woman’s identity and manner of death, which are heavily informed by the evidence we have just examined in Part 2

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