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The Normanby Woman

Mystery and intrigue surround the origins of the 'Normanby Woman'. Over the years, fact and fiction have mingled. Here is one rendition of the story.

From the early days of the Palmer gold rush, travellers had sighted a fair skinned woman living with Aborigines of the Normanby River. The police, despite their best efforts, failed to contact her. She became known as the 'Normanby Woman', and was eventually captured near Byerstown. C.E Jodrell, the local storekeeper, Joseph Williams, the Monto Christo mine manager and Constable William Cowan, enticed her from an Aboriginal camp with the promise of food. When taken prisoner she apparently knew three words of English 'Mary', 'white' and 'potato'!

The woman was washed, dressed, fed and put astride a horse bound for her new home in Cooktown. Aborigines attacked the party. They demanded her release. Shots were fired to disperse the Aborigines. The strategy worked but with a tragic result. In the commotion, the woman's horse bolted and threw her. She lay unconscious and badly injured. Two Chinese were hired to take her by stretcher to Cooktown - a journey that took two days.

She died at the hospital in Cooktown on 30 August 1887, the day after she arrived. The cause of death was noted to be the severe head injuries, sustained from the fall. During her short time at the hospital, interest ran high and the authorities charged curious people one shilling to view the 'Normanby Woman'.

At the inquest of 'a supposed European woman', Mr. Williams described the woman 'to be about sixty years of age. She was a skeleton. Her hair was flaxen, about 3 inches long. Her eyes were brown or hazel ... she had the appearance of a European'.

Cooktown's medical practicioner, Dr Helmuth Kortum, supported this description but not the conclusion. 'The formation of her head was that of an Aboriginal gin' (sic).

The doctor was in no doubt 'that she belonged to an Aboriginal race of this part of the country'.

Similar sightings of fair skinned Aborigines had been recorded previously. The fact that she knew three words of English is not surprising. Oral history from the Palmer, records female Aborigines frequently visiting miners' camps looking for food. This did not deter the locals who maintained she had survived a German shipwreck near the mouth of the Bloomfield River in 1852 and was raised by local Aborigines.

What was the truth of the 'Normanby Woman'?


Johnston, W.T., The Normanby Woman, Historical Society, Cairns.

Cooktown Library, The Normanby Woman.