This story of retired ship captain John Martin and his mysterious death on western Kangaroo Island has intrigued historians for years.
Members of the KI Pioneers Association (KIPA) know that Captain Martin, or possibly Martini, died at Western River around 1871.
Chris Ward of the association said local residents Beverley and Jo-Anne Overton had some knowledge of the captain, and Deputy Prime Minister Vickie Chapman also had an interest.
The first recording Mr. Ward can find of this story is in The Chronicle of March 16, 1933, where it was mentioned as part of a report on the sad deaths of three local children:
“In Western River, just nine miles from where the previous tragedy occurred (the death of three Snelling children from typhoid in 1866) lived a man and his wife in a cabin.
The man was busy building a boat. He fell ill and, due to lack of medical help, he died.
“His wife dug a big hole in front of the fireplace, and there she buried it, using the couch he died on as a coffin. She then walked over 50 miles through dense brush to Kingscote. to report the case.“
Meanwhile, Mr. Ward also spoke to the late Kangaroo Island author Jill Gloyne about the mystery.
“I spoke to Jill Gloyne about this a few years ago and she suggested that there might be something on her tapes of the research she had done for her book,” he said.
He found the tapes at the Kingscote Public Library, but they have since disappeared before he could listen to them.
He is not sure of the correctness of the Christian name of John.
“There are people called Martini around. They seem to be from Germany. There are lots of Martins and a lot of them called John, but the South Australian Biography Index doesn’t lists no sailors, ”he said. “They appear to have been miners or farm workers.”
He hopes this article can highlight someone who knows more about the identity of the Martin or Martini couple mentioned in the 1933 report.
Many questions remain, including whether they visited any neighbors nearby – the Hirsts in Snug Cove or the Snellings in Middle River and if so, was it by boat or by land?
“The basic facts are that he was sick and then died, she stayed and took care of him, and when he was dead she dug a hole and rolled it up and covered it. OK!” Mr. Ward said
“It is written that the cottage / house had a dirt floor and the walls were presumably of wood. He was buried inside the cottage in a shallow grave.”
About 70 years earlier, explorers Flinders and Baudin left “poultry and pigs” in various sheltered areas around Kangaroo Island for use by sailors.
These wild animals are said to have proliferated in the years between Martini / Martin’s release and death, he said.
“So the Sheridan family’s suggestion may be correct – dirt floor, hungry pigs – it is easy for them to dig under the door or along the walls, then dig the body enough to feast on the body in. decomposition. “
Mr Ward said it was presumed his wife had likely traveled to Middle River to the Snelling House for help.
“Think of the very steep county, up to 200 meters above sea level and five deep ravines,” he said. “Did she walk? “
Breakneck Ridge and the trail cross what is now Chapman property and it could have taken him at least a day and a night to cover the 12 to 15 km, he said.
“Did she have a horse and a cart?” ” he said. “If so, for steep downhill slopes, she may have tied a heavy tree branch or tree trunk to the back of the cart to act as a brake!
“The horse should have been strong and well fed to be able to go up the steep slope and not get ‘run over’ by the cart going down the steep slope.
“Was she carrying food and water in the horse spring cart?” Did she have food, water and clothes for herself? Was there a well worn trail to and from Western River and Middle River? “
Maybe they also visited Hirsts at Snug Cove and Cape Borda Lighthouse,but to get there there was another extremely steep hill.
Historians also wonder if she went by sea and perhaps was able to launch the “new” smaller boat he built and sail it.
But there is evidence that the boat wassold in Port Adelaide, so maybe not.
“Did she re-dig the ‘grave’ deeper and leave it there,or did she get help from her neighbors to dig it up, transfer its body to the spring cart? “
The possible overland route Ms Martini would have taken if she took her husband’s body in the horse-drawn cart to Kingscote for burial would have been along a narrow track, possibly hand-ax cleaned .
The track would have gone to Stokes Bay, along the north coast, then inland to Springs Road, a journey of at least a 41 km trip, to where this track hilly ended at the “Palm Trees”.
Now she would have used any track wide enough for the horse to walk while pulling the cart and her; at the very least, it was 25 km further to the pioneer cemetery, probably 66 km in all.
Or was she taken by Snelling in his boat to the Kingscote Pioneer Cemetery, having already arranged for a horse and cart to transfer the body?
“What a beautiful mystery,” Mr. Ward said. “We will never know the answer unless there are children or relatives close to him or her who may know more about it.”
Other reports of this story, with variations, have been found in the following publications:
- Kingscote CWA’s Kangaroo Island Past & Present published in 1951 (page 41)
- Time on Kangaroo Island by Alan Osterstock published in 1973 (pages 37 & 69)
- Alan Osterstock’s Story of Kangaroo Island published in 1975 (page 47)
- Kangaroo Island Doctor by Joy Seager published in 1980 (pages 41 and 42)
- This Southern Land by Jean Nunn published in 1989 (page 122)
- You Just had to Deal with it by Jill Gloyne published in 1997 (page 79)