September marks the 60th anniversary of Queensland’s oldest cold case, the murder of Betty Shanks. It’s a crime that shocked Queenslanders to the core due to the brutality of the murder and the apparent lack of motive. Queensland Police are still offering a reward of $50,000 for any new information which leads to the arrest and conviction of the killer. However with the passing of each year it appears likely the case will remain unsolved.
On the evening of 19 September 1952, Betty Shanks was travelling home to the Brisbane suburb of Wilston after attending a night lecture at the State Commercial High School. Betty was 23 years old, a University of Queensland graduate and a Commonwealth public servant with the Department of Interior. Betty had grown up in the neighbourhood and still lived with her parents.
Betty was last seen alive at 9:32 pm departing a tram at the Days Road Tram Terminus. It was only a short walk from the terminus at The Grange to home on Montpelier Street, Wilston, walking via Thomas Street.
Some time before 10pm screams were heard by several residents. Many believed it was teenagers misbehaving in the nearby Wilston State School grounds. An off-duty policeman, Alex Stewart, heard the screams, but after looking out his window and seeing nothing he returned to bed.
According to newspaper accounts Betty’s father David had stayed up when she did not return home. At 1:30am her parents reported her missing to the local police.
The next morning at 5:39am Alex Stewart went outside to collect his newspaper when he discovered the body of Betty Shanks in his neighbour’s front garden. This was on the corner of Thomas and Carberry Street, only 150 metres from the tram terminus. Stewart immediately notified the CIB and 15 detectives rushed to the scene.
The scene was an especially grizzly one. Betty had been savagely kicked, beaten and then strangled. Although her underwear had been removed there was no evidence of sexual assault. Police speculated that the killer may have been disturbed when Alex Stewart switched on his light. It appeared that theft was not the motive as her jewellery and handbag were not taken, although the contents of her handbag were scattered all over the yard.
Betty’s parents both spoke to the media in the days following her murder. David Shanks told reporters, “little did I know such a shocking thing had happened to Betty on a street she had known ever since she was a toddler”. In a interview with the Sunday Truth newspaper on 21 September 1952, Betty’s mother spoke fondly of her daughter: “She was all every mother could wish for, in a daughter. We were a real team. Everything we did we did together…I know of no enemies of Betty’s. She was the type of girl everybody loved. My husband will be lost without her. They were particular pals.”
Concern in the community intensified after the murder due to its brutal nature, the lack of motive and the fear the killer would strike again. People were locking their doors and windows. Newspapers were dubbing the killer as a “sexual maniac” which only heighten the fear. School teachers at the nearby Wilston State School made sure children kept to the opposite side of the road to where the body was found. There was also alarm among the residents of Wilston and The Grange that the killer was a local. CIB Inspector Donovan said there was no cause for panic but advised girls not to stay out late unattended.
Over the years there has been plenty of speculation about this vicious crime, including possible suspects and a number of false confessions. However despite this, no one has ever been arrested.
In 2006 former Telegraph journalist Ken Blanch (the first journalist at the crime scene) published a book on the case entitled “Who Killed Betty Shanks? Brisbane’s Greatest Murder-Mystery“. Blanch theorizes that the murder of Betty Shanks was a case of mistaken identity and that the intended target was a doctor’s receptionist who regularly travelled home on the same tram. On the evening of the murder the receptionist had caught an earlier tram than usual.
Newspaper articles published at the time of the murder in The Courier Mail newspaper can be found on Trove Newspapers. Further articles can be found in The Telegraph and Sunday Truth newspapers which are available at the State Library of Queensland on microfilm.
If you have any information which may assist police with this case please phone Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit the Queensland Police website.
Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland