Misc //

Blood Sacrifice

Peter Walsh sold his soul to write this article.

The Wall 2

True History of Occult Rituals on Campus,‘64

While one calendar year can’t be said to have a monopoly on summoning Satan, 1964 is worth our attention. It was the year the university actually mounted a formal investigation into the practice. What follows is an account of that investigation, based on how it was formally reported by the university,[1] along with new information gleaned from the biographies of those involved.

* * *

It was that asinine period at the beginning of term, where classes are more or less guided readings of the course outline, when a goat went missing from the Veterinary Science faculty. It’s Michaelmas Term, 1964, and college boys from the country were the main suspects. They had been known to set livestock upon suburban boarders, and the university administration, who were at that point being murdered in the Herald for students dressing up as the KKK for a prank, preemptively threatened expulsion to anyone caught involved. That weekend, a set of stainless steel dissection tools were also stolen, this time from the Medicine faculty, and again college students, who drank away their textbook money and couldn’t afford the extortionately priced kits, were the suspects. Room inspections revealed nothing, and a wider search of the grounds around John’s showed no sign of the goat. Not even a pellet.

Three weeks later, the goat was found sans head in the shadow of a freestanding wall beside John’s. On the face of the wall was a crudely painted pentagram and beside the goat’s corpse were a pair of dining room candles burnt down to the nub.

* * *

It was difficult to keep under wraps, as what came to be known as the ritual site—or, officially, ‘the vandalism site’—was in clear view of the boarding house windows. The parents who heard of it were loudly concerned, and the then-rector of John’s, Fr. John Burnheim, demanded an immediate investigation into the possibility of Satanists on campus. The Vice Chancellor, Stephen Henry Roberts, an historian who disdained the supernatural in every sense, was understandably unimpressed by the vigor of what he saw as the church’s claims. But he’d also published The House That Hitler Built—one of the early predictors of World War II—showing, if nothing else, that he could see the writing when it was painted in pentagrams on the wall, and so opted for an investigation now over a lynching down the track.

A banal disagreement over jurisdiction meant that the case was not quite Sydney University’s to solve, but also not quite St. John’s. A compromise was met, where both parties would elect a chief inquisitor (“How I detest that phrase”, VC Roberts would write in his journal) to administer the case. St. John’s selected a visiting Jesuit, Walter Halloran SJ, for (public reason) his lack of institutional prejudice; and (private reason) for his apparent experience in exorcisms overseas. The university, meanwhile, elected freshly capped Challis Chair of Philosophy, D.M. Armstrong, who was serving the academic equivalent of community service for a number of nigh-violent outbursts during departmental meetings. The pair were thrust together and told they would have the complete cooperation of all involved, and two weeks.

* * *

“The cuts are imprecise, not anyone who studied anatomy,” concluded Armstrong, as he fingered the particularly coarse gash where the goat’s head once met neck. (His internal monologue, we can only imagine, was with whether we could even call this a goat when it was disembodied from that particularly goaty head). The corpse had been stored in the deep freeze within St. John’s, and Professor Armstrong now sat, the rigid frozen thing along his lap, running through unbloodied strands of fur with a comb. Halloran sat beside him, mostly silent save for briefly subvocalised glimpses of thought, reviewing photographs from the scene taken before the groundskeeper acetoned the pentagram off. An eye test matched the wax grime from the candles to those used in the John’s dining room and this, in conjunction with the location of the site, drew the investigators to focus exclusively on students from St. John’s. The inaccuracy of the cuts excluded all medical students and (Armstrong succeeding with the comb) an orange hair drawn from the corpse of the goat gave a cosmetic lead to the suspect.[2]

What followed was a protracted period of interview and surveillance on the ground. The goat’s head had still not turned up (nor would it), and so members of the college administration took to turning bedrooms during formal dinner to avoid suspicion. Armstrong took the lead interviewing red-headed students, while Halloran divided his time between dossing holy water around the college ground and doing research in his study.

Armstrong, who wrote that his time was being “misappropriated… for the sake of persecuting vandals”, was combative in interview. The procession of suspects—broad pimpled shoulders and pock-marked faces—that faced him were said to have left the interview room deflated, as if shorter or lighter, their intellectual stuffing firmly beaten by an academic who wanted you not just to confirm what you said was true, but also to mount a defense of truth from first principles. Still, students who couldn’t account for their time before the goat went missing could for the weekend of the dissecting kit (and vice versa) and any hope of collaboration went when everyone interviewed was able to provide an excuse for the night the ritual took place.

On the 10th day of investigation, Halloran and Armstrong reconvened in Armstrong’s office in the quad. There, Armstrong ran through notes he had written during the interviews, and thumbed through passport-sized photographs of suspects from St. John’s. Fr. Halloran was stern, and had concluded that what took place at John’s that night was merely practice for the real thing. Armstrong, who had some problems discerning a real Satanic ritual from a practice one, was mostly just interested in concluding the matter, but Halloran was convinced—the culprit would strike again.

The following morning, both men were contacted individually by a small, cherry-nosed woman with fierce eyes and—you couldn’t help but notice from the way she brandished them—sharp elbows. Her name was Claire Bowditch, a second year vaguely known to Armstrong from his epistemology class, who had followed the investigation with enough care as to realise it wasn’t simply about theft. In her purse, she carried—among other things—an underexposed polaroid of a boy who couldn’t be twenty but was. His name was Stuart Colony, a Johnsman of ill repute who had been punished in first year for snooping around Women’s College. He had a vague malignance in his eyes, as if trying to intimidate the camera, to accompany anemic lips and sandpaper skin. (The polaroid, it turned out, was candid, unconsented to, and taken by one of the girls who caught him after hours; circulated as a warning among the colleges. It came to Claire who was big in the Women’s Union so that it might be disseminated outwards and elsewhere). His hair was, however, clearly brown.

“He dyes it,” she said. “I can tell.”

* * *

In interview, Colony was uncooperative. He answered questions slowly and inconsistently, and evaded talk of past brushes with authority. His brown hair had passed the prime meridian of his eyebrows, and the roots had begun to show orange. He couldn’t recall where he was one night; nor another; and kept to himself to the point of being incapable of calling upon anyone else for an alibi. Armstrong, who trusted his eyes, diverted from strategy and showed Colony the photographs taken of the scene. He just stared through. And then asked if he could go.

* * *

Presenting their findings to the Vice Chancellor, Armstrong summarised that the culprit was more than likely a student from John’s not enrolled in a medical degree. Both men were convinced the culprit acted alone, and neither could comprehensively settle on anyone to accuse. In a private meeting at St. John’s, Halloran spoke of the ritual as a failure, one designed not to summon anything specifically, but rather to invite a kind of atmosphere of depravity over the college. He could see no evidence of that, though warned that these kinds of things sometimes take time. He left the university that year, and eventually ended up as a chaplain in Vietnam. Armstrong continued at the university as Chair of Philosophy, and was never again called upon to lead any investigation. Stuart Colony left John’s before census due to a death in the family. He did not continue his studies. Claire Bowditch spent the rest of her time at USyd pushing for unification of the Men’s and Women’s Unions, without success. The goat’s head was dug up by accident over the summer break during renovations of the St. John’s College oval. Its eyes and skin had since decomposed, and all that remained was a pallid white skull in which a number of markings—initials?—had been etched. While nobody on hand could date the skull’s burial, they did note it would have been recent: “sometime in the last eight weeks”, or within a fortnight of the investigation taking off.


[1] You might be wondering where Honi was for all this? Frankly, we don’t know. The archives don’t record issues from the latter half of the year, for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: 1. The editor was sacked midway through the year for a number of very questionable editorial decisions about Nazis, 2. The paper was mainly caught covering a particularly rabid Commemoration Day celebration that saw upward of 30 students arrested, 3. And when they weren’t covering that they were covering the 35 paid members of the Nazi party on campus (while the party had formally disbanded in Hitler’s bunker, there still existed a splinter group in Sydney, and yes they took dues by mail); and later, Nelson Mandela. Goats were low priority.

[2] Offhandedly announcing the finding to his friends in the philosophy department, Armstrong became something of a laughing stock for a week or two for the flippancy with which he concluded that the hair was orange. His peers wanted him to establish the first principles from which anything could be said to be any-coloured, though Armstrong, who would later conclude “the assumption that all that exists is the space time world [is] the physical world as we say”, was to his credit unencumbered by their ridicule.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

Michael Spence

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