Paddle boat captain suicides after losing wife and son

The dry desolation of the Wilcannia cemetery in outback New South Wales is a sad resting place for two-year-old John Robert Mack.

He died on the paddle boat Ethel Jackson as it steamed along the Darling River on  June 9, 1878. At the time the boat was the flagship of the McCulloch Company which employed John’s father, Captain Moses Mercer Mack.

While it is unknown how little John died, it seems to have been the beginning of a trail of tragedy for his dad Mercer.

He and John’s mother Maggie had married four years earlier in 1874, when she was just 18 and he was about 44.

Mercer was later publican of the Echuca Hotel, where Maggie died aged 24 in 1880 (she is buried in the Echuca cemetery).

He carried on, later being elected president of the Master Mariners’ Association and then holding  the position of Marine surveyor at Echuca up to a few months before his death in 1883, when he resigned and managed a mining claim.

The Ethel Jackson in the 1890s, Courtesy of State Library of South Australia

Newspapers reported a “most determined suicide,’ when he took his own life in November 6.

They said he had been despondent since being relieved of his position managing the mining claim, but it appears he had not been of right mind for some time. It was claimed that he drank heavily and had suffered a severe sunstroke which affected his health.

He had been living at the Pastoral Hotel in Echuca and left a letter and his jewellery for the licencee J Johnson.

The letter included two miner’s rights, and a paper transferring his property.

The letter said:

“Dear Johnson – When you receive this I will have known the grand secret. I can’t bear to live any longer. I have been out of my mind this last month  – sometimes right for a little while, then all in a fog.

My head is gone. I am living in misery. They say it is an awful sin to kill one’s self. I think it is more so to live on sinning…

…God bless you all.  Farewell. Mercer Mack.”

The letter was handed to the police, who were about to take out a warrant for Mack’s arrest as a lunatic – in those times anyone who could no longer manage their own affairs could be arrested and sent to gaol or hospital.

But then news was received that his body had been found near the pound with the head almost completely blown off. Apparently it had been the equivalent of Guy Fawkes night, and the gunshot had not been heard, or recognised for what it was.

 A double-barrelled gun was found beside the body, one barrel being discharged. Portions of the skull were found nearly 20 yards away, and fragments of the brain were scattered in various directions, as the newspapers duly reported.

The reported cause of death was suicide while suffering a fit of insanity probably caused from the effects of sunstroke.

The little Mercer family was no more. Mercer does not appear to have been buried with either his wife or child.

Wilcannia NSW


Murray-Darling steamboat people, viewed at Wikipaedia,

State Library of South Australia PRG 1528/1039

The Riverine Grazier  Wednesday 19 June 1878 p 2

The Riverine Herald  Tuesday 7 September 1880 p 2

 The Riverine Grazier Saturday 10 November 1883 – Page 2

The Telegraph Wednesday 7 November 1883 – Page 2

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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