|241. SEVENTY EIGHT DAYS.|
|"78th day no food".|
|Idriess, Ion, L. Lasseter's Last Ride. 227.|
Lasseter's '78th Day Letter', "scrawled on the back of his small son's childish letters", was found on Lasseter's body by Bob Buck on 29/03/1931. Another four letters were found on the body and all of them pose significant conundrums and contradictions regarding the common history surrounding the Lasseter saga, but none more so than the 78 day letter. The letter raises questions about the officially recorded date of death.
Fortunately for the historical record, both V. G. Carrington, the Government Resident of Central Australia, and a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Home Affairs made, 'certified and true' copies of the letters before passing them onto Lasseter's employer, the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company, where they were received at the end of May 1931. In time for Ion Idriess to peruse the letters in John Bailey's office, and use them to add colour to Lasseter's Last Ride before publication of his bestseller on the first day of September 1931.
An excerpt of the 78 day letter appears at page 227 of Lasseter's Last Ride from the first edition on, but excerpts from the diary only appear in the book from the fourth edition onwards, understandable given that the diary was found by the second C.A.G.E. Expedition in late September. It's a measure of the success of Idriess's book that a third edition was published within the month. Perhaps Idriess also pondered the significance of the letter and rather than having Lasseter slowly starving in a cave for eleven weeks, instead has him travelling with an Aboriginal tribe in their constant search for food.
A larger issue is the validity of the date of death, as recorded on the Death Certificates issued by Heinrich and Carrington, both certificates show that Lasseter died of starvation on 30/01/31, an approximation deduced from Bucks reluctantly sworn statement based on what the Aboriginals had told him. Or as the Adelaide Advertiser and the Sydney Mirror reported at the end of April, "White man live with us four moons close up, and him finish two feller moon next time jump up", meaning the end of January 1931. The timing of the press reports caused significant problems for Buck and Carrington, Buck had committed himself in a sworn statement to Heinrich, the assistant coroner at Hermannsburg, and by communicating with the Press, to a date of death in January, and as a result of the press reports, Carrington was immediately besieged by 'please explains' from his Head Office, the Department of Home Affairs in Canberra.
It seems that Heinrich and Buck did not appreciate the anomaly between the 78 day letter and Lasseter's supposed date of death in January, but the records indicate that neither man was overly sagacious. On the other hand Carrington immediately noticed the discrepancy, especially as he was reading another of Lasseter's last letters where he clearly stated that his camels had bolted on 27/12/30. Therefore 11 weeks from the last week in December 1930 is about a fortnight before Buck found Lasseter's decomposing body on 29/03/31. Leaving Carrington in an awkward position, if he gainsays his assistant Coroner and the Press he will have to initiate a formal inquest into Lasseter's death, a process that Central Australia did not have the resources to carry out. And an inquest would not change the situation, Lasseter was dead from starvation in remote Central Australia, the only issue in question was the date.
Carrington, who was the youngest Government Resident in the Commonwealth and possibly the Empire at the time, had a keen sense of political consequence, a formal enquiry into Lasseter's death may reveal the Government's involvement with the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company and certainly the gross negligence and incompetence of the Company in abandoning Lasseter to his fate. There was also the considerable political influence of John Bailey, the Chairman of the Company, and Arthur Blakeley, the Minister for Home Affairs, to consider. There would be no profit in antagonising certain Centralians or Federal politicians and their cohorts over Lasseter's date of death, best let the matter stand and on the 9th of May 1931 Carrington signed Lasseter's second Death Certificate with the same date and cause of death as the original. This satisfied the Baileys, who now had formal legal documents to substantiate insurance claims and retrieve Lasseter's invisible ink letter from the bank.
As for Bob Buck's interpretation of events in the Petermanns, they were given little credence by Carrington who already knew, "that notable Centralian bushman", as venal, unreliable and somewhat incompetent, and an outrageous teller of tall tales. And it's possible that Carrington reminded Buck that if he had started the search immediately he was hired by Philip Taylor, he may have been in time to save Lasseter, instead of waiting at Hermannsburg for several days for his liquor supply to arrive from Alice Springs, or making unwarranted side trips to Illbilla. It seems that Buck never considered the implications of his dallying or the 78 day letter, as he made it known to any who would listen, that if he had arrived at Winters Glen a week earlier the grim story may have had a different ending.
Buck's statement to Walter Gill is enlightening, "Well, I just dug a bloody 'ole an' poured the poor bastard in", suggesting that Buck had found a decaying body, perhaps dead by only a few days and not two months earlier as the death certificates stated. If Lasseter had died towards the end of January there would not have been a decaying body for Buck to bury in March. The dingoes, crows, hawks and all the meat hungry scavengers down to the ants of the desert would have scattered the remains far and wide within a matter of days. As it was Buck found the dogs had already made off with an arm. A week later and all that may have been left of Lasseter would have been as Walter Gill observed, "the spot where he died, the sands were still stained with putrefaction in the shape of a human body. An attempt had been made to scarify the outline with a stick, but with little success".
An observation regarding the meticulous transcription of the original letter, it has been folded lengthways, the writing to the inside, and the missing words and phrases are on the exposed outside edges of the letter. And Idriess, having seen the letter, now has a villain to add to Lasseter's Last Ride, the nefarious Wattee Mitta Mitta, the bane of Lasseter's life while he was stranded in the Petermanns.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006