"...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, February 22, 2021

"The Slab" and the Mysterious Death of Margaret Boyce

There are certain cases where it seems obvious that a person has been murdered, and everyone has a reasonably certain idea who did it, but either the suspect’s guilt cannot be proven, or they are never apprehended, leaving a permanent air of mystery about the death.  A perfect example of such cases is the following long-forgotten tragedy with a downright eerie atmosphere.  Call it “Australia Noir.”

Twenty-one year old Margaret Boyce was a waitress in a Sydney restaurant on George Street owned by Richard Thame and his wife.  The Irish-born Boyce was a comely young woman, with a striking crop of curly, flaming red hair.  As she also had a cheerful, vivacious personality, she attracted more than her share of male admirers.  However, although she enjoyed flirting and bantering with the men, her relations with them went no further.  One gets the impression that she was an unremarkable, but pleasant girl who was universally liked.

George Street in 1870

Margaret’s most persistent beau was by far the strangest of the lot.  No one who knew Margaret ever learned the slightest thing about him, not even his name.  Odder still, he always held his head down in such a way that nobody ever got a clear look at his face.  All anyone could say was that he was a dark-complected young man, with a dark mustache, who always wore black.  As he was very tall and thin, one of Margaret’s other gentlemen friends dubbed him, “Maggie’s long slab.”  He added a bit resentfully that she could certainly do better than a man who never even looked people in the eye.  Margaret herself volunteered no information about him.  Her only recorded comment about “The Slab” was when she told a friend that she did not care for the man, and only talked to him because she was slightly afraid of him. She added that he was always trying to get her to go on lonely walks with him, something she would never do unless someone else was with them.

Margaret and the rest of the restaurant’s staff lived dormitory-style above the establishment, with a 10 p.m. curfew.  However, January 19, 1870, was Margaret’s night off work.  She visited her sister Annie, who was “in service” at a place in Lyons Terrace.  Joining them there was Margaret’s other sister Bridget and brother Patrick.  The siblings visited until close to 10 p.m.  Margaret was in her usual good spirits, laughing and talking animatedly.  Before she left, Annie gave her a gift--a parcel containing two chemises.  Patrick and Bridget accompanied Margaret on her walk back until they were just 100 yards from the restaurant.  It was then about 10:15.  A hard rain was falling, causing Margaret to sprint for home, as she feared her dashing new Garibaldi hat would be ruined.  As far as they could see, the streets were otherwise deserted.

All one can say for certain about what happened next is that Margaret never made it to her lodgings.  Early the following morning, two men were walking near Darling Harbour, not far from Thame’s shop, when they saw something floating in the river.  When they got in a boat to investigate, it was soon realized they had found the body of Margaret Boyce.

Her body was drifting face downwards.  Her clothes were clean and not disarranged; they were not saturated with water, suggesting she had not been in the river long.  Her arms were drifting freely, but her left leg was closely doubled back from the knee.

The autopsy confirmed that she had been dead only a few hours.  There was nothing to indicate sexual assault, and there were no bruises or other visible injuries on the body.  No drugs or alcohol were found in her stomach.  The doctor who examined her stated that she had drowned, but was unable to say whether this was a case of suicide, accident, or murder.

"Sydney Herald," January 22, 1870, via Newspapers.com

A boy named Charles Pickering, who was acquainted with the dead woman, told police that around 10:45 on the night Margaret disappeared, he saw her outside Thame’s restaurant in the company of a tall thin man.  Pickering greeted her with “Maggie, I have you now!”  Boyce smiled at him, but said nothing.  Pickering heard the man say to Margaret, “Will you come up now?”  She replied, “No, it is too late.”

Mary Ann Emerson, who was in the Robert Burns Tavern on the night of the 19th, came forward with a curious story.  She said that sometime between 10:30 and 11, a young man and woman went into the bar parlor.  She had no idea who the man was, but the girl’s distinctive red hair enabled Emerson to identify her as Margaret Boyce.  The man ordered two drinks: brandy and port wine.  He was tall and dark, but Mrs. Emerson did not get a good look at his face.  She thought Margaret’s manner odd, as if she was drunk.  The couple conversed in such a low tone that Mrs. Emerson could not hear much of what they said.  All she caught was Margaret saying that she “would not go down that night.”  After about 20 minutes, the pair left.

When another customer, a man named Harmer, left the tavern just after 11, he found a parcel lying on the ground near the door.  This was later identified as the underclothing Annie Boyce had given her sister.  The next morning, a woman found a broken imitation jet necklace and a jet earring about 40 yards from where the parcel had been discovered.  They were part of the jewelry Margaret had worn the night before.  Finally, the dead woman’s Garibaldi hat was found in an outhouse in that same area.  It was practically torn to pieces.

Those proved to be the only clues that were ever found about how Margaret died.  Naturally, detectives concentrated their efforts on finding “The Slab,” but they totally failed to track any sign of this most elusive of suitors.  At the inquest into Margaret’s death, the coroner rightly pointed out that the young man’s failure to come forward was extremely suspicious.

The coroner instructed the jury that after hearing the available evidence, the only reasonable verdict they could come to was that of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

That was the last official word about the sinister death of Margaret Boyce.  And after the night of January 19, no one in Sydney ever saw “The Slab” again.


  1. An unknown man whom no one could idenitfy need only leave town to escape justice. That's probably what happened in this case.

  2. "The Toothpick" might have been a more appropriate nickname.

  3. Quite disturbing. Maybe several reasons why the "Slab" person never raised his head, other than the obvious that he didn't want people to see and identify him: that he was on the autistic spectrum and had difficulty looking people in they eye; that he had a facial deformity he didn't want people to see; that he had a physical disability preventing him from raising his head. Though any of these would probably make him a less-than-ideal suitor. In any case, the young woman's death is a sad mystery.


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