Burke and Wills Expedition — Forensic Analysis of the Death of Charlie Gray

Arrival of Burke, Wills at Cooper's Creek on their return
The arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek. Painted by John Longstaff in 1907. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Charlie Gray (? – 1861 ) is the forgotten man of the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-1. Burke and Wills are credited with the first crossing of Australia from south to north and then south to Cooper’s Creek [1] again. That they were accompanied by John King (1841 – 72) is commonly remembered because he was the only member of the crossing party to survive. Charlie Gray is often only remembered as a footnote: that he crossed the continent with Burke and Wills but died on the return from the Gulf of Carpentaria, the day that the crossing party spent burying his body, was instrumental in the tragedy that was to follow.

The death of Charlie Gray has attracted a good deal of controversy, as I’ll examine in this article.

It is my belief that this article is the first time that the events leading up to his death have been subjected to a detailed forensic scientific examination.

My conclusions show that the likely cause of Gray’s death was from a parasitic disease that compounded his generally poor health and malnutrition. Furthermore, this same parasitic disease affected the other members of the party, hastened their worsening malnutrition, leading indirectly to the deaths of Burke and Wills some months later. John King was also close to death but was fortunate in finding the native Yandruwandha people who showed him kindness and made him part of their tribe until the Victorian Relief Expedition was able to rescue him.

The Burke and Wills Expedition

What is most remembered of the Burke and Wills expedition is depicted in the painting above: Burke, Wills and King returned to Cooper’s Creek, after crossing the continent, bone-weary and debilitated from malnutrition,  They found that the depot party had departed that very morning. So near had a reunion been that the campfire ashes were still hot. The depot party had buried what supplies they could spare under a tree on which they famously inscribed the word “DIG”.

Gray is conspicuously missing from the Longstaff painting above after having passed away at Camp 58R, Lignum Lake on the 16 April. On 17 April they spent the entire day burying Gray’s body, before setting off for and reaching the Dig tree on Cooper’s Creek in the late afternoon of 21 April.

The depot party consisting of William Brahe, Tom McDonough, William Patten and their camel driver Dost Mahomed had left the morning of 21 April. William Patten, who was desperately ill, perished on the return to Menindee. He had initially suffered from a knee injury when kicked from a horse, but his injury was slow to recover, likely because of the effects of scurvy. His condition worsened as the scurvy took hold of his body.

As a side note, the expedition had originally carried some 20 gallons of lime juice with them to prevent scurvy. This was left behind on 15 Sept ’60 at Balranald when Burke, frustrated by slow progress, decides to leave half of their supplies and equipment behind.

Despite being only several hours behind Brahe and his party, Robert O’Hara Burke reckons that owing to their poor condition and the knocked up state of the two remaining camels, that his party would be unlikely to make up the distance to Brahe’s party. Instead, he decides to head for the sheep station at Mount Hopeless in South Australia and thence return to Adelaide. Burke was remembering that contemporary explorer Augustus C. Gregory had been saved on his 1858 expedition when he had first found this route.

Mount Hopeless

On this occasion the name Mount Hopeless was apropos; for the party were unable to find the crossing between Cooper’s Creek and Strzelecki Creek, that Gregory had found, both Creeks were mostly dried out river beds at this time. Unfortunately, the party are without navigational instruments excepting for a simple compass carried by Wills.

Wills had abandoned most of his belongings when they were only a few days from the Depot Camp, thinking that he would be able to return for them once resupplied at the Depot. Later, on the upstream part of Cooper’s Creek, without knowing exactly where they were and without maps, they perished in the attempt to reach Mount Hopeless, excepting for King who only survived through good luck, as mentioned above.

Nardoo (Marsilea) produces special structures called sporocarps, where spores are produced
Nardoo (Marsilea) produces structures called sporocarps, where spores are produced [3].
Much has been made of the food source nardoo (Marsilea drummondii) that the Burke and Wills party prepared to sustain themselves in their last dying weeks on Cooper’s Creek [2]. They had learnt from the Yandruwandha people that sporocarps from the aquatic fern called “nardoo” (see photograph) could be ground into a thin porridge with water or baked into a flatbread. Wills had written that the nardoo had made him feel satisfied even though it provided little or no nutrition and he continued to starve despite consuming nardoo:

Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives the greatest satisfaction.William Wills, 26 June ’61

Many believe that Burke and Wills failed to learn from the indigenous people how to properly prepare the nardoo, which contains Thiaminase if prepared incorrectly. Thiaminase depletes the body of Thiamine (Vitamin B1) leading to beriberi and death.

Death of Charlie Gray

It’s the author’s contention that the nardoo was irrelevant to the deaths of Burke and Wills because the underlying cause of their malnutrition and debilitation were laid down earlier in their return trip when members of the party, including Charlie Gray, had become sick with what the author has research findings to show was likely a parasitic disease. All 4 members of the party became infected with the disease but only Charlie Gray became seriously ill and subsequently died.

Charlie Gray had been ailing since they had left the Gulf country and continually complained of weakness, dizziness, pain in his legs and back and suffered severe headaches. In late March ’61, Burke told Wills and King that he thought that Gray was “shamming” by feigning illness, hoping to avoid work and perhaps gain sympathy from the others so that he would be fed more food. A few days later John King is also feeling weak and starting to complain of the same symptoms.

Then Wills discovers Gray hiding behind a tree and eating skilligolee, a thin porridge made from flour he had stolen from the expedition supplies. Gray tries to explain that he needed the extra rations of flour to try to relieve him of dysentery that he was suffering from. When Burke was informed he became angry and disciplined him severely,. Wills notes this as a “good thrashing” in his journal. In Gray’s weakened state this would have exacerbated his failing health. Nevertheless, the later Royal Commission on the expedition absolved Burke from any blame over the death of Charlie Gray.

The other point of controversy concerning the death of Charlie Gray is the finding of bones from a European man, presumed to be that of Gray, by the South Australian Burke Relief expedition lead by John McKinlay. McKinlay found a skull with scars that been detached and placed head facing downwards. The scars, some thought, could have been from deep wounds from sabre cuts before death.  Some days later, McKinlay also found other remains and erroneously believed that the entire Burke and Wills expedition had been massacred there, so he called the place Lake Massacre. It is still called by the same name, even though the supposed massacre was erroneous.

Stature to Burke and Wills in Melbourne.
Stature to Burke and Wills at the corner Swanston St and Collins St, Melbourne.

The remains identified by McKinlay have never been satisfactorily resolved. nor have they been recovered since the time they were reburied deeper at the same location by McKinlay. Alfred Howitt was commissioned to return to Cooper’s Creek to exhume (for a second time) the remains of Burke and Wills and bring them to Melbourne for a State Funeral at the Melbourne Cemetary. However,  he was not given instructions about Gray nor did Howitt search for Gray’s remains.

Sales Pitch

As no remains are known to be in existence for Charlie Gray, the best way to examine the cause of death of Gray is to examine the events that led up to it, an ailment that was shared by at least one other member of the party in John King who complained of similar symptoms to Gray. Though he may not have complained or kept records about it, Robert O’Hara Burke also suffered obvious signs of dysentery at the same time as Gray.

From these evident facts, I conclude that there is a yet untold story about the Burke and Wills expedition that needs to be made known.

A story waiting to be told about a debilitating infection, that the author believes to be parasitic, that travelled with the members of the crossing party on their return journey to Cooper’s Creek.

The story deserves to be told more widely than I can reach with this blog on its own. As yet, I don’t use advertisements to fund this blog. I rely on income from selling freelance articles and eLearning pieces (coming soon).

At some point, I hope the conclusion of my research into Charlie Gray and the Victorian Exploring Expedition will appear at this website but for now, I’m seeking a commercial publisher who can promote the story to as wide an audience as possible.

My PhD is in Analytical Chemistry from the University of NSW (1985) and I’ve conducted research and teaching in Forensic Science for 25+ years at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Recommended Reading

I highly recommend the book by Peter Fitzsimons, “Burke and Wills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia’s Most Famous Explorers” published by Hachette Australia (2017).

The PhD Thesis by David Gary Phoenix, “More Like a Picnic Party”: Burke and Wills: an analysis of the Victorian Exploring Expedition 1860-1861, PhD Thesis, James Cook University (2017); available online, published: 5 Feb 2018; accessed 10 January 2019.


[1] Cooper’s Creek as it was known at the time of Burke and Wills, is now known as Cooper Creek, is a river in Queensland and South Australia.

[2] Bush Telegraph, “Burke and Wills’ fatal error” ABC Radio RN, produced by Belinda Tromp, presented by Cameron Wilson, available online, published: 7 August 2013; accessed: 10 January.

[3] The photograph of Marsilea drummondii is obtained from the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, available online, accessed 11 January. This image is copyright by the ANBG and CANBR website, owned by those organisations and used here under a public access license.

3 Replies to “Burke and Wills Expedition — Forensic Analysis of the Death of Charlie Gray”

  1. Very interesting. I’ve been completely unaware of this piece of Australian history. Id like to learn more about the interaction between the explorers and the natives.

    1. I recommend the fairly recent book by Peter Fitzsimons, “Burke and Wills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia’s Most Famous Explorers”. It has a lot of detail about the interactions of the explorers with the indigenous people..

  2. This was taught in primary school. but they had the students research as much as they could from the library, there was no goggle back then. Made us do a page report of what we found.

    Interesting.. easy to conclude it was hard back then, not good they left the lemon juice behind that would of helped them. Most of the time the supplies, aren’t specific, when your young and looking, what explains a bit. Found this interesting. I enjoy history like this.. Terrible they left Gray out of history.

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