It is likely that the person who shot two people at Wallerawang, New South Wales in 1948 is still alive. I have referred to him here as Bennie Harvey. It’s not his real name, but one his friends used at the time of the murders.
The shotgun deaths of wealthy pastoralist James Barton and his sister Lue at Wallerawang created great debate in Australia. What on earth had led 17 year old Bennie Harvey to commit such a brutal crime? Blame was attributed to a range of social issues, including the effects of the recent war, parental indulgence, the breakdown of family life, and declining church attendance. There had already been several murders by young offenders that same year.
Harvey was born in Sydney. He was only a few weeks old when his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. His mother remarried in 1941, when he was ten. He spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother. By the time he left school at 15 he had been charged with theft and several burglaries. For the next two years he worked in a series of jobs; as a mill hand, storeman, chauffeur and finally as the operator of a bottle washing machine in a glass factory. He was earning good money at the factory, but disliked the shift work required and decided to leave Sydney. It was through the agency Boys For Farms that Bennie Harvey ended up at Barton Park early in September, 1948.
On a Sunday morning less than two weeks after he arrived, Harvey picked up a rifle and shot James Barton in the head as he garaged his car after returning from church. He then shot Lue Barton twice in the back before stealing the car, savings bonds and bottles of liquor.
A friend called at the property that afternoon and discovered Lue’s body in the pantry. Later, James was found in the barn, covered by hessian bags.
INFLUENCED BY CRIME STORIES?
Detectives found a pile of crime and horror novels in the farmhand’s room. An Australian magazine of short stories by crime reporter Hal Bridgman was of particular interest. Two of the stories dealt with double murder. One in particular had an eerie resemblance to the Barton slayings. The Man Who Signed His Crime told of two women living alone in a large home. Like the Barton siblings, they were well known for their charity work and like the Bartons their bodies were discovered on a Sunday afternoon.
On the lawn where Bennie had been sunbathing on the morning of the shootings was another book; A Knight On Wheels, by Ian Hay. It was lying open at page 151. The novel’s youthful hero had described his work in a car factory to an eccentric older friend , who considered the job rather uninspiring and said;
‘Well if that’s the sort of life your tastes incline too, why not go the while hog and get ten years penal servitude right away? That strikes me as an equally suitable and much more economical method of satisfying your desires. Consider. You would get 10 years of continuous employment of a kind almost identical with your present occupation…….That’s the plan, Philip. Put the thing on a business plan at once. Get arrested……Suppose you burn down the House of Parliament, or better still, the Imperial Institute. Or get to work on some of your personal friends with a chopper and carve ten years worth out of them.’
Ironically, this book had been a gift to a young James Barton from his uncle.
After hiding the bodies in a cursory manner Harvey drove to Sydney, where he took a couple of friends on a joyride. He cashed some of the stolen bonds and splurged on new clothes. Always a ‘snappy’ dresser, his appearance contributed to a widely held view that self indulgent young hoodlums considered themselves above the law.
Speaking of the case a Brisbane padre said; I think the earliest thing which gripped my attention was the extraordinary way in which he dressed. Police described his coat as multi-coloured, his shirt as canary-coloured, his socks as green. he was obviously as ‘flash as paint’ – the personification of that phrase ‘mug lair’ (Truth, Brisbane, December 19 1948.)
From a court reporter; His dark hair is brushed back in a high pompadour, almost in the Cornel Wilde affectation, and he has short sideburns.
It is worth quoting the trial judge’s remarks while pronouncing a life sentence; ‘This was a terrible crime on your part. In fact, it is too terrible to dwell upon. This was a Christian man and woman you sent to their doom. Their only fault, as you said, was that they were too kind to you. You showed them no mercy; therefore the law will show you no mercy.
You belong, in my opinion. to the class of juvenile criminals who needs to be told emphatically that murder will be put down with the utmost rigour….I hope that you spend your days perhaps in some appeal to the Almighty to right the terrible wrong that you have done.’
But was Bennie Harvey capable of self-reflection? He definitely displayed sociopathic traits. Throughout the inquest and trial he showed no remorse or compassion whatsoever. He chewed gum and waved to people he knew. Photographs were shown of a shallow grave he had dug, intending to bury the Bartons (he had hit rock and abandoned the plan). When the grave was being discussed he thumped his chest and laughed.
Leaving court after he was sentenced he raised his clasped hands above his head in some sort of victory salute. He said he would probably only be in his thirties when released and intended saving all the money he would earn as a prisoner.
Harvey simply had no explanation for killing his employers. At one point he said it was because he didn’t like the Bartons, but later (as the Judge noted) he admitted they had been very nice to him. If there was anything to be said in his favour it was that never once did he try to deflect any ‘blame’ onto his victims. Lue Barton had told friends that he had settled in well and was doing a good job. A daily visitor testified that there had not been the slightest sign of discord at Barton Park.
Bennie’s young mother was devastated by her son’s actions, and his life sentence. In April the following year she spoke to the Daily Telegraph. She said he was keeping busy in Long Bay Gaol, and had learned to knit. He was already proficient and had produced three sweaters and four pairs of socks. ‘I think he would give his right arm to right the wrong he has done’, she said. He has a perfect conduct sheet and expects to be moved to Goulburn soon. He wants to learn cabinet making while he is in prison and go into that business when he comes out.’ She sent him books and magazines every week.
Whether her son had begun to feel any sympathy toward the victims he so callously murdered is impossible to know. However, the high price his own family were paying for his crimes may have shaken his self-absorbed indifference. His mother lost two stone in weight following the trial. She was forced to send her seven year old younger son away, due to the bullying he received. Bennie’s older sister was fired from the job she had held for five years.
As it turned out, Judge Herron was wrong about the law showing no mercy. In the 1940s and 50s there was a strong training programme in place at Goulburn Gaol. Bennie Harvey came under the influence of the enlightened Governor, Mr H. J. O’Kelly. A remarkable talent for music was uncovered in the young man and he found a new direction in life. The story is told HERE.
We can only hope that before his release in 1967 he also came to some realization of what he had done to James and Lue Barton, and to those who loved them.
NOTE – I do have other interests beside crime, especially birds and flowers.