The Boot Box Tragedy
An Australian murder-mystery from Rachael Weaver’s article “The Morgue” in Meanjin:
On 17 December 1898 three boys reported having seen a wooden trunk bobbing in the Yarra River near the Church Street bridge. The Richmond police soon managed to retrieve it—still floating though wired to a heavy stone. As they raised it from the water, the side of the box broke away, revealing a human leg, so they prised it open on the spot and found the naked body of a young woman. […] There was nothing to identify the woman’s body and so it was put on display in the hope that she would be recognised. Those who hurried to view it were described as ‘sensation-hunters eager to describe the appearance of the body to their acquaintances’. Parties of clairvoyants joined the throngs, offering their services to help unravel the mystery.
By 22 December, due to warm weather accelerating the deterioration of the corpse, authorities undertook to bury the body after first removing the jaws, which were missing several teeth, with a view to a future identification. But this was not to be. Two days after Christmas it was announced instead that the whole head had been severed from the body, plunged into a glass cylinder of methylated spirits, and placed on exhibition. The head alone continued to draw unparalleled public interest, but no useful information, so on 5 January 1899 two police detectives carried it to the General Post Office inside a cedar box. There it was removed from the spirits by cords that had been fixed to it for the purpose and mounted on a wire mesh partition in the letter carrier’s room where it was shown to all the city’s postmen that evening.