The Tarcutta Mystery: Stumping Scientists Since 1949

Hume Highway near Tarcutta, New South Wales

In our previous post, in which we discussed a few of the most baffling cases of poltergeist activity, we mentioned the infamous Tarcutta Mystery, which took place on an Australian dairy farm throughout 1949. Since some of our readers expressed an interest in learning more about this case, we've decided to devote an entire post to this bewildering mystery.

Lawrence A. Wilkinson owned a dairy farm in sparsely populated region of New South Wales not far from the village of Tarcutta, whose reputation as a sheep and cattle raising center dates back to the late 19th century. The first white men to set foot in the region were the European explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell, who encountered a tribe of Wiradjuri aborigines there in January of 1825. Within three decades, a post office would be built in Tarcutta and the village officially sprang into existence in 1890.

It was in early 1949 when witnesses began seeing strange things happening on Lawrence "Laurie" Wilkinson's farm. Heavy pieces of farm machinery were flung great distances by an unseen hand, and milking machines and other pieces of equipment seemed to disassemble themselves before the very eyes of stunned witnesses.

"You might think we are loco here, but I've got about sixteen witnesses," said a local mechanical engineer named Alexander Portors to a Sydney newspaper reporter in January of 1949. Portors, who ran an engineering operation for thirty years, had traveled to the Wilkinson farm in order to solve the mystery. Like everyone else, he left the scene baffled.

Lawrence "Laurie" Wilkinson

Most of the mysterious mischief seemed to center around a milking machine owned by Wilkinson. In broad daylight, neighbors saw metal parts of the machine rise and hover in mid-air before being flung violently into the distance. One two-pound brass part was later discovered 250 yards away from the milking shed.

Hundreds of pieces of brass and iron met this fate, including 3-inch pulsator plates and a 65-pound cast iron axle, which lifted itself from the ground before Wilkinson's disbelieving eyes.

The manufacturer of the machine sent a representative from Albury to Tarcutta to have a look at the milking machine. However, by the time he had arrived Wilkinson had repaired the machine and the representative angrily went away thinking that the whole thing had been a hoax or a publicity stunt.

But the mad milking machine continued to fling off its plates, no matter how many times the farmer attempted to make repairs. This only seemed to anger whatever unseen force was behind the mystery; the plates began to fly off the machine with greater force and were flung greater distances. Wilkinson became so frightened that he refused to go anywhere near his milking shed. Neighbors claimed that he began milking his herd by hand-- an enormous, backbreaking task. If Laurie Wilkinson was determined to pull off a hoax, he was certainly putting a lot of sweat equity into it.

Engineers, who sought a logical explanation behind the mystery, came up with a theory. They speculated that there must be a buildup of electricity somewhere in the works and that the surge of power only exerted itself for a brief second, causing the plates to pick up speed and fly off the machine. "It's always thrown in a northernly direction," observed Portors. "It is noiseless, too. I've watched for a plate leaving the machine but could not see it. It's so fast you just can't see it."

There was just one tiny problem with this explanation-- the parts continued to fly off the machine even after if was disconnected from its power source.

Wilsonson's  15-year-old son, Robin, then had a terrifying experience. While holding an iron bar, the bar was wrenched out of his hand by an unseen force. It became embedded deep into the concrete floor of the milking shed and one of the brass plates flew off the machine. This plate was found later more than 200 yards away.

"I saw it, but I wish to God I had not seen it," said a witness, Roy Donohoe. "There's no reason so far as I can see why this should happen, and I'm a mechanical man. I wish I'd never seen it because it disturbs me greatly."

As word of the Tarcutta mystery spread throughout Australia, several experts and government officials descended upon the Wilkinson farm. On January 19, the president of the Dairyman's Association, L.C. Turton, offered an explanation. "The pulsator plates work up and down on a metal slide. They are operated by a suction pump. Possibly something has gone wrong with the pump and, instead of sucking, it is blowing," said Turton, who apparently wasn't satisfied with his own theory. "If this is so, the blow seems to be in the hurricane category," he added.

Robin Wilkinson

The ensuing government investigation lasted eleven months. Dairy inspectors from the New South Wales Department of Agriculture visited the farm several times throughout 1949, but each time they found the milking machine to not be defective in any way. They were stumped. Investigations by the Public Works Department and the local police department also fell flat.

But the most credible experts who investigated the Tarcutta incident were the scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the federal agency in Australia which has helped develop everything from atomic absorption spectroscopes to flu vaccines. In fact, it was scientists from CSIRO who played a crucial role in the development of Wi-Fi technology. It was CSIRO who built Australia's first computer, along with the world's first solar radiospectrograph. It was CSIRO who built the Parkes Radio Telescope and invented the insect repellent Aerogard. If scientists from CSIRO could not solve the mystery of Laurie Wilkinson's haunted milking machine, then who could?

CSIRO left no stone unturned. In December of 1949 the government scientists who investigated the Tarcutta mystery issued their report. They brought in three independent experts on milking machines and three other farmers who used the same brand of machine. All six testified under oath that Wilkinson's machine was in perfect working order. This ruled out the possibility of a mechanical defect.

But what about magnetic disturbance? CSIRO easily ruled out this possibility after tests for ground magnetism were negative. Brass-- the component of the parts that most often flew through the air-- is also non-magnetic.

Radio waves? CSIRO also ruled out this possibility after working with radio experts from the R.A.A.F. military base at Forest Hill and finding that the electrical impulses near Wilkinson's farm were far too weak to have any effect on farm machinery.

CSIRO also explored non-conventional possibilities as well. They investigated, then ruled out, hypnosis and mass hysteria. They ruled out trickery. They ruled out stage magic. They interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses who had seen the phenomena and found them all to be credible. These witnesses included everyone from police officers to dairy inspectors, mechanics and electrical engineers.

The CSIRO report also explored the possibility of "poltergeist activity", and though this possibility was never confirmed by Australia's top scientists, it was the one-- and only-- possibility that CSIRO could not rule out.

Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 20, 1949. Page 3.
Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 4, 1949. Page 4.