"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Swamp Lady Vanishes

The life of Margaret Clement reads like a fairy tale in reverse: an idyllic beginning, with a dark and tragic end.

Her father, Peter Clement, was a classic rags-to-riches story. This penniless Scottish laborer emigrated to Australia, hoping to change his luck. He did. By the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in the country, thanks to his remarkable success investing in real estate and goldmines.

This dramatic reversal of fortune failed to bring him happiness, however. He was remembered as a gaunt-looking, quiet man who never was really able to put his hardscrabble past behind him. He was determined that his six children would never experience anything like the deprivation and desperate hard work he had known. The Clement brood had the best of everything: excellent educations, luxurious travel, a mansion full of servants. It could be argued that Peter succeeded too well. While deprivation and struggle can scar a person, a complete absence of such experiences often leaves one completely unfit to deal with the ordinary troubles that are an inevitable part of even the most sheltered life.

Margaret Clement was, unfortunately, a perfect example of this. In 1890, her father died of heart failure. Margaret was only nine years old at the time. The sensitive, pampered girl was unable to cope with her loss, growing up as a sad, withdrawn young woman. When she graduated from school, her mother sent Margaret and her sister Jean on a round-the-world trip, hoping this would bring the girls "out of themselves" a bit and expand their horizons. It was a great success. The two well-mannered, cultured girls were warmly welcomed everywhere they went. They were even presented at the British court almost as if they were fellow royals. The pair, unsurprisingly, received many marriage proposals. However, the Clement girls were having far too much fun to want to settle down quite yet. "There'll be plenty of time for husbands later on," Margaret often said. They also took no interest in the management of their vast wealth, preferring to leave such mundane details in the hands of others. They grew up knowing as little about handling money and property as a pair of infants.

By the time they finally returned to Australia, the sisters had bought so many artworks and antiques that there was literally no room for them in the family home. The solution the Clements found was to move to a bigger house, an 18-room mansion named Tullaree. It was located in an area that was vulnerable to flooding, so its builder, Charles Widdis, placed the home on a steep rise and installed a complex drainage system to keep excess water away from Tullaree and its surrounding farmland. It was a clever system which worked quite well, but it required a good deal of upkeep. With their habitual carelessness in practical matters, Margaret and Jean ignored this necessity. Their negligence would eventually bring them both to disaster.

In 1907, the Clements moved their art treasures into Tullaree, and stocked its paddocks with fine livestock. A farm manager and a team of workers were hired to run the establishment. Although Mrs. Clement and all her children officially became "tenants" of the farm, receiving a share in the profits, the only family members who actually lived there were Jean and Margaret. Their other siblings had married by this point, and had homes and families of their own.

The two sisters loved their home, and for good reason. It was a private paradise, with landscaped gardens, sparkling fountains, and lush, rolling farmland. Their farm manager capably tended the crops and livestock, while the mansion's team of servants kept the Clements in well-bred comfort. The two young women had no work and no responsibilities, leaving them free to do nothing but enjoy life in any way they pleased.

The Clement girls loved to show off their lovely new home. They gave lavish garden parties for hundreds of their friends and neighbors. Their eldest brother, Peter Jr., became uneasy with their careless profligacy, and occasionally warned them of the need to keep track of their spending. Jean and Margaret ignored him. The farm was proving to be a great success, bringing all the Clements a generous income, and the sisters saw no reason why the good times would not last forever.

The Great War began to change that, as it changed so many things in the world. In 1914, Peter Clement enlisted in the Australian army. He survived, but was left gravely wounded and suffering from shell shock. He was never the same man again. After the end of WWI, he was too shattered mentally and physically to interest himself in Tullaree. Peter died from a mysterious gunshot wound in 1944. The coroner returned an open verdict, but it was generally believed that he committed suicide. The other brother, William, was too busy with his own life to manage the estate, leaving Tullaree entirely in the hands of Jean and Margaret. For the first time in their lives, the sisters had to assume responsibility for something.

At first, this made no difference to their charmed existence. The sisters resumed their pre-war lifestyle of lavish parties and unbridled spending. As they grew older, however, they realized something was missing. For the first time, they began to think longingly of marriage and children of their own. The women were growing tired of a life spent doing nothing but chasing pleasure, and envied the comforting domesticity of their siblings. But by then, it was too late. All their old beaus had either married or died in the war, and no new ones seemed eager to take their place.

They discovered other differences in the post-war world. The working class had more opportunities in life than just acting as hired help. The sisters were finding servants harder to find, and these employees were less well-trained than in the old days, and they demanded better salaries. The estate's palatial gardens and expansive farmland slowly began to show signs of neglect. Some of their new employees took advantage of Jean and Margaret's ignorance of business matters by swindling them. One of their farm workers had taken to secretly selling their best cattle and replacing them with inferior animals. When this fraud was finally uncovered, the man fled, taking with him a good deal of Tullaree's money.

The most ominous sign of decay was in the estate's drainage system. It had been neglected during the war, with the result that water from the area's frequent rainstorms was beginning to stagnate under the property. The sisters were in great danger of having their grand estate turn into a giant swampland. Efforts were finally made to clear the drains, but by then the system was too clogged for any amateur efforts to fix it. The sisters were urged to hire an engineer to deal with the drains, but the thought of overseeing something as complex as draining and replumbing their estate was simply too much for them. The cost of such an undertaking was also daunting. Margaret and Jean had no idea what had happened, but for the first time in their lives they did not have an unlimited supply of money.

Their lives quickly crumbled, along with their once-elegant estate. The water was beginning to be a serious problem. The increasing wetness of their land led to many of their sheep dying of foot-rot. Floods drowned their cattle. Tullaree's roof began to leak badly, damaging their carpets and furniture. Naturally, the farm's income was badly depleted. The sisters' debts began mounting.

Jean and Margaret's alarmed siblings finally put their collective foot down and demanded--rather late in the day--that their sisters grow up. They presented the two women with a list of demands--not suggestions, but demands. Tullaree's house servants would all have to be let go. The farm employees would have to be fired as well, except for one man who would get the cattle into decent enough shape to be sold. There were to be no more banquets, garden parties, or holidays abroad. Some of the farm land was to be sold, with the proceeds going towards repairing the house and its drainage system.

Margaret and Jean meekly agreed, but this plan proved to be too little, too late. They could find no buyers for their waterlogged farmland. They were finally forced to heavily mortgage Tullaree, just barely meeting the interest payments by renting out the driest areas of their land to neighboring farmers.

The once envied and celebrated Clement sisters had devolved into two aging, penniless spinsters living uncomfortably in a damp, crumbling home. If they failed to keep up their mortgage payments, eviction and homelessness loomed. They were completely dependent on handouts from their more fortunate siblings.

One morning, after a night of hard rain, Margaret prepared to make the long walk into town to buy the small amount of provisions they could afford. When she opened the front door, she nearly fainted from shock. Overnight, the rain-swollen river nearby had overwhelmed Tullaree's frail drainage system, leaving the entire property completely underwater. All she could see over the lake that surrounded her was the roof of their garden's gazebo and the tops of a couple of the larger statues.

The sisters became virtual island-dwellers, surrounded by a moat. The water never really receded. The house was soon invaded by snakes and rats seeking to escape the floods. Neighbors began to refer to the Clement sisters as "the swamp ladies." The women were virtual recluses. Their only company was a host of stray felines--the sisters loved cats--and a small dog named Dingo. Margaret became accustomed to wade through chest-deep water whenever she needed to leave her home. Jean, who had become a cripple, never left Tullaree, a prisoner in her once-grand home. In 1950, Jean died, leaving Margaret alone.

A wealthy local real-estate developer named Stan Livingstone now entered the picture. He wanted to buy the ravaged Tullaree at a bargain rate, drain the place, fix it up a bit, and then sell the estate for a large profit. He made Margaret an offer: If she agreed to give him Tullaree, he would pay off the mortgages, build a small home on the property where she could live rent-free for the rest of her days, and give her a lump sum payment of $12,000.

Margaret's relatives smelled a rat, and urged her to refuse the offer. But the lonely, frightened old woman was desperate for some sense of security. She had longed for someone to just take the horrible problem of Tullaree off her hands, so Livingstone's deal seemed perfect. She agreed almost instantly.

Livingstone and his wife Esme appeared to treat Margaret with great warmth and kindness. They lavished her with gifts and dined with her nearly every day. Margaret Clement felt that at long last, her troubles were over.

They soon were, but hardly in the way she had wished.

On May 24, 1952, Livingstone told the police that Margaret had vanished. He had gone to her house to find the front door wide open. Her walking stick, which she carried with her everywhere she went, was lying in the hall. Her bed had not been slept in. A massive search was carried out in the dismal, swampy land around Tullaree, but no trace of her was discovered. Livingstone carried out his renovations of the estate, and in 1963 sold it for a tidy profit.

The police were convinced Margaret had been murdered--and you probably can guess who their chief suspect was--but they had no evidence of this until 1978, when human bones were found in a shallow grave about two and a half miles from Tullaree. At that same site was discovered a shovel, a hammer, a woman's shawl and a small purse containing a few pennies. Many people believed that at long last, Margaret Clement had been found, but the coroner could not positively identify the remains.

People began casting very baleful glances at Stan Livingstone, but he stoutly denied having caused any harm to Margaret Clement, and it was impossible for anyone to prove otherwise. He died in 1992, wealthy and powerful, but with a cloud over his reputation that has yet to diminish. His wife passed away the following year. If the pair had any dark secrets, they took them to the grave. Livingstone had proposed that Margaret was murdered by Clement Carnaghan, a nephew of hers with whom she had quarreled shortly before her disappearance.  However, to date, no clues indicating Carnaghan's guilt have been uncovered.

It is probable that the mystery of what became of the "swamp lady" will never really be answered.


  1. What a sad tale. You'd think one or more of the siblings would have kept an eye on the property, knowing how poorly the sisters looked after their affairs. And then one could have given them a better place to live.

    1. You know, I've wondered about that, too. If someone with an interest in their welfare had just stepped in earlier and given them some firm counseling, their story would probably have ended much differently. The sisters may have been unworldly, but they weren't stupid. I can't say why that didn't happen. I guess some families are just less inclined to support each other.

  2. Sad story. I couldn't have stood the rats and snakes. Poor old dears.

  3. Did Livingstone really have any motive for murder? It sounds as though he was going to make a healthy profit no matter how long Margaret Clement lived. If she had reneged on the deal she wouldn't have been likely to live many more years in such an unhealthy environment. Then the family would have needed to find a buyer for the land, and even if they didn't like Livingstone very much he might well have been the only bidder. Even if there was a risk of the deal falling through, would a rich and successful man - who must have had big deals fail before - really be willing to kill someone over it? I know it's not impossible but it seems more like typical movie villain behaviour than how people usually react in real life.

    There's also a question of whether the nephew Clement Carnaghan had any motive to kill his aunt. He might have believed that she was selling the land too cheaply, which would explain the argument, but it wouldn't have made any real difference to him unless he expected to inherit it. If that was the case we have to explain how an obvious suspect can commit what looks like an impulsive murder with no plan for how to properly dispose of the body and then still manage to cover up everything else that might link him to the crime. Again, it's not impossible but it doesn't sound highly probable.

    But the local tycoon buying an old mansion in the swamp with a glamorous history would have got a lot of coverage in the local media. So perhaps the most likely explanation is that a local criminal saw the story and decided to go loot the place. In this scenario the perpetrator was never caught because he had no prior connection to anyone else involved in the case and never tried to sell any identifiable objects taken from the house. It's possible that he didn't want to risk taking anything that might be linked to the crime but it's even more likely that there just wasn't anything left worth stealing, which would make it a particularly senseless murder.


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