This story of supernatural revenge comes from western Australia.
In the late 1870s two English immigrants to Australia, one an engineer and the other an Anglican clergyman, set out on a September hiking expedition–early spring in the southern hemisphere. On September 20, they found themselves near a mountain down the side of which roared a beautiful cascade.
The two made camp for the night, and had just finished supper when a spring thunderstorm broke over their heads. They took shelter and were talking over postprandial pipes when they noticed–surely a trick of the storm!–that the waterfall had suddenly turned a garish red–almost as if the mountain was bleeding.
Worse yet, the phenomenon did not pass with the storm. As they watched, it seemed that a man appeared in the blood-red water–a man who beckoned to them. They worked their way a bit closer, and saw that he had the appearance of one long dead–flesh hanging from his bones, clothed in filthy rags.
And still he beckoned, his face contorted in anguish.
It took the intrepid pair a good three hours to climb to the spot where the waterfall came out of the mountain, but climb they did. Once there, they found the marked entrance to a cave, and a makeshift ladder down which they climbed. At the bottom, they found themselves in a stunningly beautiful subterranean chamber. The waterfall, in this chamber, was a mere echo. The walls of the room contained a fair amount of glittering quartz, in which small veins of gold caught the light.
Power, the clergyman, stood transfixed, while Rowley, the engineer, made his way into a side chamber. Seconds later, Rowley came back, pale and nauseous. We need to get out of here!
When Power demanded to know why, Rowley led him back to the side chamber and lifted his bull’s-eye lantern, illuminating a scene that would haunt both men to the end of their days.
The floor of the chamber was of clay, and into the clay a shallow pit had been dug sometime long past. Beside the pit, sitting on a flat rock, was a skeleton, clad in rags and rotting leather boots, looking into the pit with that sardonic grin none but a skull can grin.
In the pit lay two bodies. One lay on its back, staring upward with a look of horror on its ruined face. Atop that body was sprawled another skeleton, in rags of cloth and leather similar to those worn by the seated one.
The body at the bottom of the pit was in advanced decay–but it had not been dead nearly as long as the skeleton that covered it. Rowley and Power agreed, however, that the newer body was affirmatively that of the man who had beckoned to them from the waterfall.
In searching around the chamber, they found a coat. Rotting but well-tailored, it had a tag in it identifying it as having been made by a men’s shop in Sydney. In one of the pockets, they found a locked metal box, inscribed George Woodfall, Pott’s Point, Sydney.
Rowley and Power had known George Woodfall, a millionaire philanthropist who had vanished from Sydney without a trace some five years earlier. So: the body at the bottom of the pit must be Woodfall’s.
They forced the box open. Inside was a sheaf of paper, at the top of one page of which was written My name is George Woodfall. This is my confession. . .
George Woodfall was English by birth, well-educated and of good family. He had come to Australia in the early 1850s to rebuild a fortune he’d lost to speculation in England.
The great Australian gold rush of the 1850s, hard upon a similar one in California, USA, was in full swing upon his arrival. Woodfall had traveled immediately to the gold fields, and there formed a loose partnership with two bush characters named Harper and Freeth. Harper had fallen afoul of the law back in England and had arrived in Australia on a convict ship, years earlier. If Woodfall knew Freeth’s antecedents, he didn’t record them.
In any case, Harper and Freeth, illiterate good ol’ boys, were not criminals. George Woodfall was.
One September 20th the three, each carrying a goodly amount of gold in his backpack and on their way back to Sydney–Harper and Freeth to spend their gold on drink and women, Woodfall with very different plans–came up on the mountain and the waterfall. The mountain, with its wealth of quartz, looked promising–gold is usually found embedded in quartz–but, after they climbed up and found the cave, they found appearances deceiving; the quartz was gold-poor, not enough even to bother trying to pick out of the rock. Still, they decided to spend the night in the little side chamber, out of the uncertain spring weather.
Woodfall’s plans did not include drink and women–at any rate, not right away. He meant to build a real fortune, and for that he needed more than his share of gold. He needed what Harper and Freeth carried in their packs.
And so, he decided to kill the pair, leave their bodies in the cave, take their gold, make his way back to Sydney, and no one the wiser as to how he got his stake.
He lay awake until their little campfire burned low and his companions were fast asleep. Then he struck with the speed and coldbloodedness of one of Australia’s deadly snakes.
Freeth, nearest to him, died instantly; Woodfall stabbed him straight through the heart.
Harper, however, woke up.
He put up some fight, but Woodfall managed to throttle him nearly to death, then went for him with the knife. Harper’s last movement was a hand gesture of prayer for mercy. Woodfall had none. As he thrust his knife into Harper’s heart, Harper let out a horrible shriek of rage and pain. . .
a shriek that, though he didn’t know it, George Woodfall would hear again.
Before he left, though, he dug a shallow pit and placed both bodies in it, in a wholly inadequate attempt at Christian burial.
Back in Sydney, Woodfall converted his bloody gold to cash and invested in a promising mining venture. Within the week, his gamble paid off, and he found himself a bloody millionaire.
He spent the next year buying a fancy home in exclusive Pott’s Point and his way into high society. Come the next September, though, he found himself alone one evening, in a fit of depression, remembering what he had done. He thought about going to the police. . .and then thought, Nah. . .
He had been standing by a window, looking out, and as he turned back into the room, he recorded, he heard a voice say It is time. . .let us begin. . .
Whereupon there came an avalanche of sounds and smells–the waterfall, the coppery scent of blood, Harper’s death scream–
repeated over and over again. Woodfall thought surely his servants would hear the racket and come running. They didn’t, and he realized he alone was experiencing this auditory and olfactory episode of deja vu.
At last the ghastly concert came to an end, to be followed by Harper’s voice: Be in the cave on the twentieth. We’ll be waiting. . .
Woodfall made abrupt plans for a secret journey, returning a week later pale and ill. He never told anyone where he had been during that week; in his confession, he wrote that he had spent it traveling to the cave behind the waterfall, where he spent September 20th in the side chamber with the bodies of Harper and Freeth.
Woodfall made, and returned from, that dreadful pilgrimage nineteen times. He also made changes in his life: he gave up trying to buy his way into Sydney society and became a regular churchgoer and philanthropist, hoping to buy his way into heaven.
In the twentieth year, he wrote out his confession. In it he said he planned to make this journey one last time, and upon his return he would give himself up for punishment.
From that twentieth pilgrimage, he did not return. Not until Power and Rowley saw his apparition in the waterfall, and made the arduous climb to the cave of death, was he heard from again.
Power and Rowley, when they had read the confession, theorized that on that dire twentieth anniversary, Woodfall must have arrived in the cave to find Harper and Freeth, in all their skeletal glory, out of the pit and seated, waiting for him, and that, while Freeth watched, Harper killed Woodfall, but by what hellish ways and means they preferred not to speculate.
Instead, they placed all three bodies in the pit, and Power, the clergyman, read a solemn burial service over them. Then he and Power covered the bodies with clay, and over it built a cairn of hunks of quartz flecked with gold.
Although much of this account is based on Frank Usher, in John Canning’s 1971 volume 50 Great Ghost Stories, I first read the story of George Woodfall in a Ripley’s Believe It. . .or Not! anthology more than thirty years ago. The whole story was illustrated in full color, but the last panel–of two skeletons, seated and grinning down into the ground at their booted feet–at what, you cannot see–has haunted me ever since.
Believe it. . .or not!