Followers may have discerned that I enjoy exploring the stories of nutters. They provide the rabbit warrens that can steal away hours while you try to make sense of the crazy. Today’s offering is not from my family tree, or even from Wangaratta. One of his victims however, did have a Wangaratta connection so I feel it is right to borrow him from Chiltern. I’m sorry Chiltern for appropriating him but I’m sure you don’t really want him either. Likely, nor do any of the other multitude of towns he graced with his presence as he was run out of one place and took refuge in the next.
Today I present to you one C W Rohner, aka Charles William Rohner. Born around 1835 in Bregenz, Vorarlberg, Austria he was most likely Carl Wilhelm Rohner at birth. Charles belongs to a specific class of nutter. Ye of the Perpetually Outraged. Someone who HAS to react loudly and negatively to everything. Someone who HAS to have a violent response to things we might all just shrug at. Charles wasn’t just Perpetually Outraged and extremely reactionary, he also invited criticism with his outrageous behaviour. You see, Rohner was a body snatcher. Well, maybe not a body snatcher in the real sense. He didn’t dig up graves in the dead of night and cart away bodies for experimentation in that time honoured tradition. He merely ‘acquired’ body parts. He did this through his occupation of a medical doctor and coroner. In the 1870s when Rohner was doing his finest work of upsetting society, country doctors were often also appointed as district coroners. This often meant that they conducted the autopsies required for inquests, but it did not mean that they had any right to desecrate bodies.
Post mortem image of ‘Mad Dog’ Daniel Morgan, 1865.
This was the period of rising interest in phrenology and all types of morbid fascinations that were part of the development of medicine. Some doctors thought that the shape of a skull might hold the secrets to the inner workings of the brain, and so endeavoured to study them whenever possible. The most famous example of this in north-eastern Victoria prior to the 1870s was that of Dan Morgan. Shot as an outlaw in 1865, Morgan’s head was severed from his body in a most unscientific and needless way. Wangaratta’s own Dr William Augustus Dobbyn was a bystander/onlooker/participant? in the sordid affair that served no purpose except to brutalise the deceased. Outrage at Morgan’s mutilation was widespread, a sentiment that evidently did not deter Rohner. The key ingredient in these types of sad tales was a victim/body of someone whom the coroner had deemed a worthless member of society. It therefore didn’t matter if civil behaviour went out the window as there was likely no-one of importance to complain about the mutilation. The number who were involved in the various mutilations of Dan Morgan suggest that this view was not uncommon amongst medical men, although none were as rude and brazen as Rohner.
Phrenological Facts, Adelaide Punch Almanac, 16 February 1883.
Carl Wilhlem Rohner’s superior and contemptuous attitude to women and men he deemed inferior was on display in a lengthy letter he wrote to the Chiltern based Federal Standard in January 1871. His disregard for the widow of the man, and his celebration at ‘scoring’ another relic in the form of the skull of a man who had died in the Wangaratta police lockup is appalling by any standards. The display of misogyny and gaslighting is also something to behold.
RESURRECTION OF THE SKULL OFTHE LATE JOHN McCALLUM
A MOST WONDERFUL HISTORIE.
Motto.— De mortuis nil nisi bene— only the living may be slandered and calamniated with impunity. — Christian Proverb.
To the Editor of the Federal Standard.
Sir, In answer to a letter signed ” Margaret McCallum,” which appeared in your last issue’s report of the Indigo Road Board, held on 31st December, 1870, I shall, with your kind permission, make a few remarks explanatory of the now famous skull tragedy, in which I am represented as the chief actor. The best method of explanation I can adopt, I think, is the historical, and, in accordance with this plan, I shall give to the highly discriminative public, at whose bar I am arraigned to answer the charge of bone snatching, a succinct history of all that occurred with regard to this horrifying charnel house scene, to enable them to judge for themselves, and to pass whatever sentence they deem just, provided I am found guilty, on my own devoted skull. In the beginning of last August, about a week before the death of John McCallum, Margaret McCallum,who, it appears, thinks a great deal more of the dry bones of her departed husband than she did of his living soul and body, laid a complaint against her husband for brutal treatment, at the same time praying for the protection of her life, as she now, somewhat late, prays, the chairman of the Indigo Road Board for the protection of her departed husband’s poor skull. John McCallum did not appear to answer the charge preferred against him by his loving wife. A warrant was issued against him for disobedience of summons. All these steps, remember, were taken at the special request of Margaret McCallum, the darling wife of the accused. The public know that John McCallum died in the early part of the month of August, in the Chiltern lock-up, on the very night of his arrest. There was a post mortem ordered, and an inquest held, and a verdict arrived at in accordance with the medical evidence. The concluding scene was the burial of John McCallum’s earthly remains, minus a triangular fragment of the os frontis, measuring 4½ inches in length by 3½ inches in breadth, which — horrible dictu — remained in the hands of the wicked and irreligious coroner, who, as a medical man, had no business, in the interests of science, to keep in his possession any bones however interesting and instructive to professional men, that may be wanted on the grand day of general resurrection by John McCallum, the beloved husband of Margaret McCallum. The man I said was buried on a certain day, and on a certain a day, about a fortnight after his burial, the funeral of his memory took place, – Margaret McCallum being the chief mourner. I must confess I did not attend either ceremony ; but I was present, and a rather unpleasantly prominent spectator, at the august scene of resurrection of the only piece of John McCallum’s skull which will be saved a little longer than the rest of his bones from returning to that dust from which it was taken forty-two years ago. This somewhat anachronical scene of partial resurrection took place in the bar of a public-house in Couness-street, East (Chiltern), an improvised Jewish Rabbi pronouncing the incantation in the presence of an awe struck, clamoring crowd, whose refined feelings were terribly outraged at the thought suggested by the eloquent harangue of the ranting rabbi that a poor man’s bones should be desecrated in so wanton a manner. Margaret M’Callum, of course, came to hear of this resurrection drama, or rather a special messenger was specially despatched by my special friends for the special purpose of informing her of what had occurred at Chiltern anent an interesting piece of bone, once the property of her husband, and to urge her on to take the necessary preliminary steps for any prosecution. Heads were stuck together —mostly empty ones; lawyers were consulted — mostly unwilling ones ; plans were devised — mostly foolish ones — to bring about a deadly conflict between me and Margaret M’Callum. But Margaret M’Callum would not move in the matter at first, aud even positively refused to take steps to get possession of this dear relic of a still dearer husband.
Gutta cavat lapidem , non vi sed cepo cadendo. [A water drop hollows a stone, not by force, but by falling often]
This modifying and excavating drop was supplied by one Peter Grant, better known to Bacchus [God of Wine, insinuating Grant was an alcoholic] than to me, to whose urgent request the now softened brain of Margaret M’Callum at last yielded, being now fully determined, letter and memorial in hand, to kneel down before the powers of the earth, praying them to wrest the magic triangle out of the hands of an infidel doctor and ruthless deputy-coroner. This line of action on the part of Margaret McCallum is in perfect harmony with her previous proceedings, how ever unavoidable, against the then living owner of the triangular bone in question but I am under the impression that the proper course for Margaret McCallum to take in this matter,supposing her to have been seriously troubled about the safety of her late husband’s bones in my care and custody, was to have come to me and peremptorily demanded her property —bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh — from me ; and then when she had got it, which she no doubt would, she should have gone either tobury it where the rest of her husband’s perishable body lies, or to have it mounted in gold and worn it as a brooch in perpetual memory of what was dearest and nearest to her in this incomprehensible Vanity-Fair of human existence.
I have now come to the conclusion of this incubus-like mental agony. I am afraid that some of the remarks contained in this letter will wound the tender feelings of the bereaved and lonely widow, Margaret McCallum ; butI really cannot help it, as she has to thank herself and her friends and advisers for the consequences of her equally rash and foolish steps. If, instead of allowing herself to be “informed” by this person and that person of this tittle and that tattle, Margaret McCallum had come to me, like a straightforward woman and asked me for the much-coveted article in question, she would, without a doubt, have got it, and more than that, she would most probably have got a sincere apology from me for having unwittingly and unwillingly hurt her feelings and religions prejudices. But, instead of adopting this sensible course, she allows herself to be ” informed ” by a parasitical set of pretended friends of a most diabolical tissue of demonstrable falsehoods, and proceeding on the basis of those falsehoods she goes and copies, and signs a very respectable looking letter written specially for her by ” Judas Iscariot.” and addressed it to the chairman aud members of the Indigo Road Board, most respectfully desiring to request them that they would be pleased to take immediate action in the matter — and have Dr Rohner’s head struck off at once.
In conclusion, I must repeat once more that if Margaret McCallum’s feelings have been hurt by the spirit of this letter, she may console herself with the thought that she richly deserved it, and the only remedy I can suggest to her to calm down her mental agitation, is sincere repentance for all the conscious and semi-conscious cant and hypocrisy which might have influenced her to take the foolish step of writing or signing that foolish letter and foolishly addressing it to a public body who were utterly powerless to clear a road through the thick scrub of her troubles, without making fools of themselves.
Quos Deus perdere vult, prius dementat.
P.S. — For the information of those persons who are fond of the sport of hunting after dead men’s hones, I beg to state that my collection of osteological curiosities has, only a few days ago, been enriched By the addition of a fine specimen of an entire cranium— not a small triangular fragment only — which, in life, belonged to a celebrated Wangaratta drunkard, who died in the lock-up of that town some time ago. — C. W. R.
It is of note that other medicos leapt to the defence of Mrs McCallum, and against the actions of Rohner, one branding Rohner “a wilful and malicious liar“. Another wrote to the Federal Standard that Rohner had shown him the piece of skull on the morning of McCallum’s funeral and placed it on his own head to indicate where the piece of bone had been taken from. While Rohner conducted the inquest into John McCallum’s death, the autopsy was conducted by Chiltern’s Dr Fox, though both men had the opportunity to abuse the body. The report of the inquest upholds Rohner’s view that McCallum had a serious drinking problem and had abused his wife, a fact which Rohner used in his public letter to deny McCallum and his traumatised wife dignity and respect. Despite this, Margaret McCallum placed death notices in several major newspapers.
Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 10th September 1870, p 167.
Rohner was likely both a favourite of the local newspapers, and a thorn in their side. He was a frequent letter writer and his outlandish ideas and insults often tested the editor of the Ovens and Murray Advertiser who responded to Rohner’s often insane claims. Many times the title of news articles about him was merely “Dr. Rohner Again”. His lectures on ‘Spirtisim and Magic’ entertained Chiltern residents during 1871 before the town eventually rallied to oust him. Rohner’s life continued on this chaotic path and he was presumed to have committed suicide at San Remo near Phillip Island in 1890. For a summary of Rohner’s qualifications and career in Australia, see the very valuable Australian Medical Pioneers Index.
Ovens & Murray Advertiser 17th October 1871 p3
The much maligned Mrs McCallum in Rohner’s rant was 22 year old Margaret (nee Sweetman). The victim of the desecration was John McCallum, a Beechworth storekeeper and postmaster, and former member of the Indigo Roads Board. Poor Margaret did not fare much better with her second husband Joseph Cannon whom she married in 1871 and had two daughters with at Stanley. Joseph took his own life when intoxicated in 1873. Her third husband, John Tidyman at least lived until the 1880s and died in a hospital, though Margaret was widowed for the third time at the age of 38 years.
The identity of the “celebrated Wangaratta drunkard” whose body Rohner also desecrated has not yet been identified. Several men died in the police lockup before 1871 but it is not known how he acquired a skull if the owner had died “some time ago”. Most likely Rohner was the coroner at an inquest, or acquired the skull from the Wangaratta coroner William Augustus Dobbyn.