Friday, September 16, 2011

Murder in the Cedar Scrub

In 1870, a German man named John Alexander Herrlich, a native of Frankfurt-on-Maine, was living by himself in the Cedar Scrub, about ten miles from Toowoomba. He was a cabinet maker by trade, and about 58 years of age. In the scrub, he made his living as a hunter, timber-getter, and sometime gold prospector. He had lived alone for several years and was a competent bushman.

In February 1870, a report reached Toowoomba that Herrlich had shot dead a local farmer, Michael Klein, a fellow German.

Highfields road with Cedar Scrub in the background

The Brisbane Courier reported[1]:

WE understand that the Police authorities have received a report from Police-sergeant Kean, of Toowoomba, respecting the shooting of Michael Klein on Saturday last. The facts, so far as they have been ascertained, are as follows: - Klein was a German farmer, residing about eight miles from Toowoomba, on the Highfields-road, near Perseverance station. Another German, J. A. Herrlich, has resided at the cedar scrub, some distance away, for the last four years, living in a hut by himself, and getting his living mostly with his gun. He always carried a double-barrelled gun and pistols about with him.

Old Bushman outside his Hut

It seems there was a long-standing disagreement between Herrlich and Klein over who had the right to take cedar[2] logs from the scrub.

On the 11th of December Herrlich wrote a letter, addressed from the scrub, to Mr. Turner, of Helidon, informing him that Klein was stealing and killing his cattle. On Saturday last Klein went to the scrub for cedar, which Herrlich claimed as his, and he told Klein that if he touched the timber he would shoot him. Klein did not desist, and thereupon Herrlich, when only a few feet distant, fired, the contents of the gun entering the breast, blowing away the top of the heart, and going out at the back. No trace of bullet or shot can be found. Death was instantaneous.

Police Station Toowoomba
The police travelled immediately to the scene of the homicide but there was no trace of Herrlich.

The Police Magistrate and constables endeavoured to pick up the tracks of the murderer, but without success. The doctor and constable McCaffery returned to Toowoomba on Sunday morning. It is pretty certain that Herrlich is hiding in the scrub, and a systematic search with trackers has been commenced.

Queensland Mounted Colonial Police Leaving on Patrol

Two months later Herrlich had still not been sighted. The Cedar Scrub was extremely difficult terrain in which to conduct the search. The correspondent from The Queenslander described the lay of the land[3]:

Timber Getters Track

Only those who have seen the cedar scrub at Highfields, and have had to traverse it, can possibly form any conception of its density and its precipitous rocks and ranges, as well as numerous gullies intersecting it in almost every direction. Besides these formidable barriers, gigantic vines lace the forest trees with an almost impenetrable kind of net-work that at nearly every step must be cut through with the tomahawk or hatchet. Equestrians can make no progress through it all, and even pedestrians have frequently to crawl on their hands and knees to make headway.

The Farms of German Settlers in the Toowoomba District

Then there was the considerable population of German settlers in the district who tended to look after their own.

Unfortunately for the ends of justice, considerable sympathy is still being shown towards Herrlich by some of his countrymen, and a few of them, it is rumoured, furnish him with supplies. It is net to be wondered at, therefore, that the fugitive, who has for many years lived in the scrub, should, under all these combined circumstances, be able to so long successfully baffle his pursuers.

In the end it was Herrlich himself who gave himself up.[4]

Yesterday, Herrlich, the murderer of Michael Klein at the Cedar Scrub some time ago, sent a messenger to a man named Murray, who is staying at the Queen's Arms Hotel, Toowoomba, to the effect that he wished to give himself up, and desired Murray to come and arrest him and secure the reward.

Murray talked a great deal of what he was going to do, and the police heard of it, and followed him so closely that they entered the house where Murray and Herrlich were conversing, and arrested Herrlich at once.

The house where he was arrested belongs to a man named Kahler, and is about fifteen miles from Toowoomba.

The police not only arrested the fugitive, but also took Murray and Kahler, the German farmer, into custody on a charge of harbouring Herrlich.

A Country Hotel

It came to light that Murray had become friendly with the bushman Herrlich during his temporary residence at the Queen's Arms Hotel some time before.

Murray had frequently assisted him with advice in many matters of business connected with the sale of timber procured by Herrlich in the scrub. Murray's version of the surrender is, that about 12 o'clock, on Friday morning, a German farmer named Heinrich Kahler came to his lodgings and told him that he had a message from Herrlich to the effect that he desired Murray to go out to him that day, as he wished to give himself up to a friend that would bring him into Toowoomba unfettered. Murray, for some unexplained reason, neglected to give any information to the police, but started for High Fields in company with Kahler about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, taking a bottle of brandy with them as a "comforter."

Colonial Farm House and Barn
Arriving at Kahler’s house with the “comforter”, Murray is reunited with his German friend, who looks the worst for wear.

Herrlich, on seeing Murray, rushed forward, exclaiming, "Good God, Mr Murray, I am so glad to see you, if you had not come out to night I should have been a dead man tomorrow morning, I am starved and hungered to death, can you give me some food?"

He then related his sufferings and privations in the bush, and said he had seen the police on several occasions, and once when he had been to the creek for water they passed within five yards of his hiding place, where he waited to see if the blackfellow would take up the tracks.

Letter to the Brisbane Courier complaining about
 the standard of German in a wanted poster.
 He denied that he had shot Klein deliberately, but that in the struggle for the possession of the rifle the trigger was accidentally struck, and the charge entered Klein's breast, his hands being so close to his antagonist at the time of the discharge that the blood "spouted out” over his wrists and coat sleeves, and ran down upon his trousers. After the black boy ran away, he went down to the creek, washed the blood from his hands, and rubbed some clay over the stains upon his trousers.

Later that evening the police suddenly appeared on Kahler’s verandah.

Kahler went outside, and some person on the verandah said, "have you any strangers here?'' Kahler replying, "No, only my wife." The party then answered, "we must see who you have inside," and Sergeant McCarthy, acting-sergeant Shea, Constable Quinn, and a black tracker entered the house. McCarthy and Shea immediately identified Herrlich, and covered him with their rifles, Murray at the same time stating that Herrlich was his prisoner, and had surrendered himself some time previously.

Taking their prisoner into Toowoomba, the police involved in the long were interest to know just how close they had come to Herrlich in the scrub.

 The constable then asked whether he had ever seen the police, and he replied, "Yes, I saw you on St. Patrick's Day in the scrub, at a distance of about twenty yards from where you passed.  I was lying behind a tree." The Acting Sergeant then said, "Did you see us on the high ridge near the saw pit, because I met with your tracks in the fern?" But he (Herrlich) could not remember that he had seen them on that occasion.

Court House Toowoomba

Herrlich was finally brought for trial in August that year.  There was much discussion as to whether the gun was accidently discharged or not. The evidence leaned heavily on the testimony an aboriginal boy with the curious name Epple. The boy, who worked for Klein, was the only other person at the scene of the murder. Herrlich was defended by a lawyer named Blake.

Mr. Blake then addressed the jury for the prisoner Herrlich. It appeared that Klein and Epple had gone out with other persons to obtain cedar from the scrub, and no doubt they went to get Herrlich's. The evidence of Mr. Murphy went to show that this was a very common practice, and they could then easily conceive that the prisoner being a foreigner and liable to sudden and impulsive passions, might in the heat of the moment make use of the expression, "If you take any more of my cedar I will shoot you dead."

A Courtroom of theTime
It was easy to suppose that the gun was discharged accidentally, more particularly as it appeared from the evidence of Epple that the gun was held loosely in the prisoner's left hand, and not in the manner usually adopted by a person when firing. The boy had told them that he was standing some distance behind Klein, and the natural inference was that when the prisoner slung round the gun Klein caught hold of the barrel, and the lock becoming entangled in the swag which the prisoner carried on his right shoulder, the discharge was accidental.

If they came to the conclusion that the death of the unfortunate man was the result of a deliberate intention to kill on the part of the prisoner, they would give a full vindication of the law; but if the case was not fully established, so as to admit of two constructions and throw such doubts upon their minds that they felt any difficulty in arriving at a conclusion, they would give the prisoner the benefit of that doubt, and return a verdict of not guilty.

Summing up, the judge gave the jury three options. If they decided that the killing was premeditated, they should find the accused guilty. If it was accidental, they should find him not guilty. If they found that the gun fired by the prisoner in the sudden heat of passion they would find the prisoner guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter.

The jury delivered a verdict of guilty of manslaughter.  Herrlich rose and spoke to the judge.

Judge Blakeney
Herrlich, then addressing His Honour, said: You are the minister of the law, and I submit myself to its sentence; but if the boy Epple had told the whole of the truth, he would have said that I warned Klein to go back three or four times. If he had done this I should not stand in the dock today. I have nothing more to say, and now submit myself to the sentence you may wish to pass upon me, and also to the will of God.

His Honour said the jury had taken the most favourable view of the case, but in passing sentence he could not but consider that the crime of which he had been found guilty was of a very serious character and demanded a very serious sentence. The sentence of the Court was that he, John Alexander Herrlich, be kept in penal servitude for the term of fifteen years.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] The Brisbane Courier 16.2.1870
[2] Cedar wood was highly valued commodity in the 19th Century, being easy to work, and used for furniture-making and ship-building.
[3] The Queenslander 2.4.1870
[4] The Brisbane Courier 11.4.1870


  1. Thanks for posting this. I am a descendent of Michael Klein and learnt a little more about the story behind his death from reading this.

    1. He There, I too am an direct descendant of Michael Klein, he was my 2nd Great Grand father. This article was very informative, thank you to the author.
      Arlene White (Matthews-Klein)

  2. Nice blog to see. Thanks for the informative post.
    landscape toowoomba