On the evening of 15 August 1944, beside a creek in northern Queensland, a figure strode up to a young, sleeping soldier and swung a blacksmith’s hammer three times into his skull. The first two blows punctured the twenty-year-old’s brain, spraying blood onto a nearby fence. The third blow created a deep gash across his face. The attacker kicked his victim in the crotch and face, too; a tooth rolled onto the ground. The soldier was left for dead on the cold grass.
His mates soon found his broken body, his mouth choked with blood, and rushed to find help. Medical staff at a nearby army hospital monitored his condition for two days but he didn’t once stir from his coma. With head injuries so severe, there was next to no hope of recovery. At 8.30am on 17 August 1944, thirty-six hours after the bludgeoning, he was declared dead.
The victim was Warwick Meale and, though he died almost fifty years before I was born, his murder changed my life. Warwick was family. He was my grandmother’s cousin, but I’ve always felt much closer to him than that.
My first encounter with Warwick was in the form of a photograph, taken in 1928, which I adored as a child. It was enclosed in a wooden frame decorated with pressed flowers, and it hung next to my parents’ bed. My mother had placed it on her side, so she saw it before she slept and when she woke. I’d often crawl on top of the fluffy doona to get a better look at the faded sepia image.
In the photo, two smiling children stand on a patch of grass in front of a wooden fence in Warwick’s family home in Sydney. They are playing dress-ups, with one child dressed as Daddy, the other dressed as Mummy. The ‘Daddy’ is my maternal grandmother, Winifred, wearing a homburg hat, floppy tie and oversized suit jacket. ‘Mummy’, in a dress and heels a few sizes too big, holds a doll in one hand and a parasol in the other. This is Warwick.
As a child I found it soothing to gaze at that image of a boy in a dress. It offered me hope that maybe I wasn’t so different. The older I got, the more I struggled with an alarming feeling growing inside me, a feeling I couldn’t name at the time. It was an urge to wear my sisters’ clothes, play with dolls and be free from typical ‘boy things’: behaviour that resulted in worried looks from my parents and taunts from my sisters.
But that photo of Warwick was evidence that I wasn’t broken, and that little boys from the olden days also sometimes slipped on a dress for fun. I found it exciting that a camera-wielding adult had celebrated Warwick’s cross-dressing. No shame. No hiding. It was a stamp of approval sent to me across time and space.
The photo had a different significance to my mother, Rosemary. She loved to tell stories about Winifred and Warwick. In her mind, they were an iconic duo, like Vada and Thomas J from the movie My Girl. For my mum, the photo was a rare, precious glimpse of Winifred in her early years, long before the hardships of her adulthood.
My mother also knew that the little boy in the photo never grew old, that he was mysteriously murdered in Townsville, a mere sixteen years after the photograph was taken. But that was the extent of her knowledge. Winifred grew up to be an intensely secretive woman and shut down any mention of her cousin. The void around Warwick’s brief life and early death frustrated my mother. When Winifred died in 1985, many family stories and secrets went with her.
By the time I was born, my mother had formed a theory that Warwick could have been gay and that his murder had something to do with his sexuality. But it wasn’t until I was in my teens that she told me what little she knew of the tragedy and what informed her theory about that boy in a dress. I was devastated. What had once been a symbol of hope became a cautionary tale of the dangers of being gay.
Haunted by this unsolved, unfathomable crime, my mum and I started our own cold-case investigation in 2008, when I was sixteen years old. With the launch of the National Library of Australia’s online archive, Trove, in 2009, we were able to transport ourselves to the Queensland World War II home front. The headlines alone from that time made it clear that Warwick’s death had caused a nationwide sensation:
Fiendish assassin batters Sydney soldier to death
Search for Townsville killer
Ross Creek slayer still at large
Brutal murder of soldier without motive
North Queensland police are searching for a murdering madman!
Despite an eight-month national investigation, the identity and motive of the perpetrator who had wielded the hammer remained a mystery. The coroner concluded that Warwick had been murdered, entirely unprovoked, as he dozed under the Queensland sky. I knew that couldn’t be the whole story. How does a soldier survive the New Guinea campaign but die in Townsville? Why would someone brutally kill him, miles away from enemy lines?
My investigation over the next ten years took me on an unexpected journey through a time and place that certainly wasn’t covered in my Year 10 World War II syllabus. Article by article, I pieced together extraordinarily ugly and ungallant truths about this era, including state-sponsored homophobia, military disgraces, corruption, lies, substance abuse and extreme violence at every turn.
But it was my secret determination to find evidence of Warwick’s sexuality kept me on the case all these years. I, like countless other queer people from across the world, have had many external and internal battles with my sexuality. But what I gained in the process of my research was cathartic. Learning about Australia’s shameful, government-supported homophobia, and the joy of the gay communities of yesteryear, who loved despite the odds, helped me reflect on my own life, and opened me up to a world that has totally changed how I see my place in history.
Although I may never know for sure who Warwick’s killer was, or what drove them to commit such a barbaric act, I’m thankful for the journey I’ve taken and the lifelong passion for queer history it has sparked. It has been a humbling journey that led me to many queer people who have been erased, forgotten or treated like criminals, even after death. I first encountered another soldier named Jack Lloyd, who was murdered in 1945, but his killer walked free thanks to the dubious concept of ‘gay panic’, a legal defence strategy which continued to be available until 2020 in Australia, with South Australia the last jurisdiction to abolish it. Tragic violence has also led to ground breaking change. The murder of the academic George Duncan at an Adelaide beat helped propel reluctant Australian legislators into passing a bill to decriminalise homosexuality in South Australia in 1975. And the truth behind the wave of inadequately investigated gay hate murders from the 1970s in Sydney is only now being uncovered. Namely, Scott Johnson, whose killer recently pleaded guilty, 34 years later, after the NSW Police initially concluded it was a suicide.
The day I came out as gay to my mother, when I was seventeen years old, I became Warwick in her eyes. I was the one sleeping by the banks of Ross Creek in Townsville as a killer dealt those hammer blows. It was a terrifying vision and one that stopped her from accepting who I was for a long time. But through sharing my research into Warwick’s case, she came to see that the worrying inequalities and risks for queer people is reason to act, not shy away. Somewhere along the way, I started to accept myself too.
This is an edited extract from The Boy in the Dress by Jonathan Butler ($32.99), out now with Affirm Press.
Jonathan Butler is a writer and content producer living in Melbourne. He has been researching The Boy in the Dress for more than ten years, a process which has ignited his passion for queer history. His work has appeared in The Guardian.