Post by Graveyardbride on Jul 27, 2018 16:15:18 GMT -5
A little more than three miles southeast of Kapunda, a town with a population of around 3,000 on the southern plains of Australia, is St. Johns Cemetery, where many of the Irish Catholics of Johnstown are buried. The Church of St. John the Evangelist opened its doors in 1854, a school was established in 1859 and by 1867, Johnstown had a post office. But as nearby Kapunda grew and the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church opened for services, St. John’s was turned into a school and in 1897, it became part of a girls’ reformatory operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. One of the inmates was Ruby Olive Murray Bland, an 18-year-old girl who died November 28, 1909, and it is her grave that attracts so much attention.
According to legend, Ruby was impregnated by a crazed priest and died as a result of the injuries she sustained while he was physically abusing her in an attempt to abort the child. Extant records indicate Ruby was experiencing abdominal pains so severe that on November 15, 1909, she was admitted to the hospital in Kapunda. The doctors suspected she was suffering from a stone in the bile duct of her liver and she died on the operating table. Admission forms identify her as a “Catholic of no fixed address” and allege she had suffered from the condition that killed her five years, though gallstones in one so young are unusual.
Oddly, during her hospitalization, Ruby was issued a baptismal certificate and a note attached thereto reads: “Ruby Bland Baptised conditionally at the hospital before going into surgery. Afterwards she died.” Why would a girl born into a Catholic family require baptism? However, she was interned at a reformatory and the girl may have requested she be baptized again because of some youthful indiscretion that she considered a mortal sin.
Her death certificate indicates she died of “cholelithiasis (biliary tract obstruction) - postoperative shock.” Kevin McNeil, who has examined the document, reports under the cause of death, someone wrote “5 years” in different ink, though the addition appeared to have been written around the same time.
Some have suggested the Church may have attempted to hide the fact she was an inmate at St. John’s Reformatory by admitting her as a “Catholic of no fixed address,” but if this were the case, what was the Church attempting to hide? It is also unusual that she remained hospitalized 13 days before doctors determined she required surgery. McNeil believes she may have been physically disciplined by the residing chaplain at the reformatory as punishment for some infraction and as a consequence, suffered severe trauma that led to her death.
The death certificate also lists her address as Mt. Poole, NSW (New South Wales), and her next-of-kin as Elizabeth Pens of Renmark, NSW. This is strange because her parents, William and Margaret Bland, were very much alive at the time and didn’t die until 1923 and 1946, respectively. According to McNeil, the Bland family history indicates Ruby was the youngest of six children, born in 1892 – St. John’s records list her date of birth as 1891. Her parents married in 1868 and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July 1918, at which time they were living in Berri, South Australia. The National Archives of Australia maintains an old newspaper article in which the celebration is reported and clearly states the pair had five children, the youngest of whom was Tom, born in 1877. This means Elizabeth, Ruby’s older sister, had to have been born prior to 1877 and at the time of Ruby’s birth, would have been at least 15-years-old – she was probably closer to 20. This, of course, suggests Elizabeth, not Margaret Bland, gave birth to Ruby and is the most likely reason Elizabeth Pens – not her parents – was listed as next-of-kin. Following Ruby’s death, no family member claimed the poor girl’s body and this was probably because Elizabeth’s husband, Fred Pens, did not know his wife had an illegitimate child in a reformatory school.
The foregoing explains a lot, but it doesn’t explain what killed Ruby and the “crazy priest” theory can’t be totally dismissed – even if it is reported on just about every ghost-hunting site in Australia. There was, in fact, an unstable priest at the reformatory at the time of Ruby Bland’s death. Father James Martin, born in Ireland in 1864 (or earlier) and ordained in 1890, ended up in Australia and in 1897, was assigned to the St. John’s Reformatory as resident chaplain and there were problems. In August 1909 – just four months prior to Ruby’s mysterious death – James Gray, head of the Children’s Department of South Australia, wrote a letter of complaint to the archbishop. According to Gray, he had heard allegations about a priest residing at the reformatory whose “mental condition was at least unstable, while his physical frame powerful.” This, people have taken to mean Martin was physically abusing the female inmates. The archbishop replied, denying Martin was physically abusing the girls, but adding that “mentally he is not robust I unreservedly admit.”
Whatever the circumstances of Ruby’s premature death, within 24 hours of her demise, she was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, a hundred yards from the reformatory where she had spent the final years of her young life. Of course, it was late spring, just three weeks prior to the summer solstice and the warm temperature may have necessitated a speedy burial. There was no autopsy, nor did anyone investigate her death – which wasn’t unusual at the time. Because she was buried so quickly, relatives had no time to travel from their homes to attend her funeral – but because she was probably born out of wedlock and considered an embarrassment, there’s a possibility they wouldn’t have attended even if the funeral had been delayed to accommodate them.
By the end of 1909, the Church had closed St. John’s Reformatory. The furnishings were sold at auction, the nuns returned to Adelaide and the place was totally abandoned – except by Fr. Martin, who remained on the premises. He appeared to live on his own, though it is likely he received a small stipend, perhaps as caretaker, because the Church owned the property. He remained at St. John’s for 12 years, until his death in 1921. Though only 64 (according to his grave marker, by that time, he was a sick, malnourished old man. He was buried by the Church at St. John’s Cemetery, approximately 20 yards from the grave of Ruby Bland.
A sizeable proportion of Kapunda’s citizens would say nothing good came of The Most Haunted Town in Australia, the September 2001 documentary that attracted ghost hunters and thrill-seekers from all over the country. There were a few phantoms in and around town: Everyone knew the spirit of Ruby Bland was supposed to haunt St. John’s in search of her child, and there were also stories that the specter of a “mad priest” stalked the old reformatory and cemetery. But the film makers had exaggerated and sensationalized these tales to the point that suddenly, people in search of the paranormal were camping out at the old St. John’s site, leaving trash all over the place, using drugs, practicing dark rituals, trampling fields of grain and even vandalizing tombstones. The destructiveness continued unabated until January 2002 when the Catholic Church bulldozed the site – destroying an irreplaceable part of local history.
The only thing left was the cemetery and paranormal “investigators” could be found skulking about at all hours of the day and night, which led to the posting of signs forbidding anyone to enter the burial ground after sundown. Most were searching for Ruby’s grave, which isn’t difficult to find during daylight hours. Shortly after Ruby was featured in the documentary, Peter Swann, a local historian and curator of St. John’s, had the resting place of the 18-year-old girl marked with a wrought iron cross surrounded by an ornate fence. It’s easy for ghost hunters or anyone else visiting St. John’s to locate the grave, for it is painted bright green – a conspicuous memorial among the marble, granite and rusted metal markers.
Following the documentary, stories have circulated that St. John’s Reformatory was a horrible place where teenage girls were sexually assaulted, harshly disciplined and scores died. The truth is, only two other inmates died at Kapunda: a 16-year-old, who succumbed to meningitis, and a girl of 13, who died of tetanus. Both were in halfway houses when they fell ill and unlike the remains of poor Ruby, their bodies were claimed by their families.
Seventeen years after the documentary aired, ghost hunters still visit St. John’s Cemetery and post photos and videos of what they consider anomalies and absurd EVPs they claim are the voices of the dead. Just recently, a woman posted a cellphone video of herself at Ruby’s grave asking a series of ridiculous questions. Ruby remained silent.
Sources: Saint John’s Reformatory Research Project; Kevin McNeil; National Archives of Australia; Flinders Ranges Research; The Most Haunted Town in Australia with Warwick Moss; True Ghosts by Valerie Lawton; “Vandals force church to raze building,” The Adelaide Advertiser, February 16, 2002; “Historic site remembered,” The Angaston Leader, January 15, 2003; and Find-a-Grave.