This story starts on 07 February, 1928, when a group of men and one woman who were partying in Babinda, North Queensland (Australia) went for a midnight joy ride that was to turn into a fatal event.
The story starts earlier in the afternoon, around 4pm, when Felice Groppi, an Italian immigrant living in Cairns picked up his friend Eva May Clarke, and another man he didn’t know – Jim (James) Hood – to take them back to Babinda. They met up at the Federal Hotel, where Felice was enjoying a “Portagaff”( old school word for Shandy – beer and lemonade).
Jim grabbed a handful of roadies – six bottles of lager – for the drive. In those days the trip would have taken several hours, given the conditions of the roads and the vehicles there were around at the time. These days, it’s 30-40 minutes. Along the way they pulled up at Woree for more drinks, before driving on to the Aloomba Hotel for a quick session there.
Moving along, their next stop was the Fishery Creek Hotel – where they stopped for sandwiches and a few more drinks before their last stop: Mrs Cattana’s Restaurant in Babinda.
By this time, it was eight or nine o’clock, and they stayed for about half an hour at the restaurant before Eva and Jim decided to call it a night. Felice took them home, then returned to the restaurant, and stayed for an hour or two listening to the phonograph and talking to his countrymen.
At around midnight, four of these countrymen – Luigi Scarabosio, Enrico Arecco, Cesare Poppini, and Gio Battista de Martin asked him to drive them to Miriwinni.
As they got into the car, Felice claims that Battista suggested they, “… get some girls.” However, they only drove to Eva’s house, and only she joined them. Felice had been driving Eva around for several weeks before this incident – on day trips, and a double date with another couple – and I doubt he was willing to leave her at her house with this “Jim” if you ask me. We’ll never know for sure.
Eva climbed into the back seat with Battista, and two of the other men; the other sat in front with Felice, and they headed off towards Mirriwinni. They sped down Munro Street, past the home of Acting Sergeant Peter Gaffey, who caught a glimpse of the party as they drove past. He was already awakened by their loud voices a few minutes earlier as the boys got into the car and headed towards Eva’s house.
A few seconds later he heard the horn of a motor car sounding and men talking very loudly. Gaffey thought a fight was on, so called Constables Buckley and Von Hoff and went towards the bridge. He sent Constable Von Hoff for the Ambulance and a doctor, just in case.
A shocking sight greeted Gaffey at the bridge.
He saw a car in the creek, turned upside down in 18 inches of water.
He saw Eva (aka Eva May Darada), lying on the bank of the creek at the Mirriwinni end of the bridge. She was lying on her back and appeared to be dead; dressed in a singlet and very short skirt, with shoes on and no stockings.
He saw Battista lying on his back, about three yards away. He was groaning, and appeared to be in great pain. He was dressed in trousers, shirt and boots, and Felice and two other Italians were attending him.
As he had approached the bridge, Felice was dodging the potholes – and judging from the skid marks, he wasn’t being slow or careful about it. I dare say he was in a hurry to unload his passengers to have Eva alone. Or perhaps there was a little too much flirting going on in the back seat? As he got onto the bridge he claims he saw a horse ahead. He was driving on the left hand side to avoid the horse, which was coming towards him. The front left hand wheel of the car went over the bridge, Felice tried his brakes, but it was too late. The car fell into the creek. It turned upside down and they were all under it; Battista and Eva being caught and pinned down.
They tried artificial respiration methods on Eva, but Dr Kennedy examined her, and pronounced ‘life extinct’.
Battista was taken to the Babinda Hospital. He died from his injuries.
Felice was charged with Manslaughter.
Two weeks later, he appeared in court. Given that Felice appeared to be driving recklessly, the fact of his sobriety was touched upon in during the session. Interestingly, Acting Sergeant Gaffey, stated that he saw Felice very soon after the accident, and although he seemed ‘very much excited” and witness could smell booze, he did not think Felice was ‘under the influence’ saying, “In such cases as this the Italians were particularly excitable and nervous.”
A camper by the name of James Collins said that he was camping on the bank of Babinda Creek and was awakened by the sound of a motor horn, and screams. He went to the bridge and saw four men trying to lift a motor car which was overturned in the middle of the creek. Some of his mates came down and assisted the others to lift the car. He did not notice any horse about during the whole time he was there, but did notice the fishtailing skid marks in the mud before the bridge.
All Felice’s fellow countrymen – through their interpreter, Miss Mary Della Vecchia – backed up the story about the horse, and confirmed that Felice was sober. Except for Cesare Puppini, who said he was asleep and did not remember anything until he had his head buried in the sand. What? He fell asleep in a matter of minutes in a car that was fishtailing? More likely, he was not prepared to lie in court.
So far is evidence for the crown was concerned, the only fact that could be established was that an accident had occurred.
Felice was acquitted.
And that’s where this story would have ended. Except for social media in 2013.
Babinda Kayak Hire received a request from Marta in Italy, though their Facebook page:
“Hello, you know better than me your river. I have a pic. in which is possible to see the car that fell from a bridge in 1928. In that accident died my great-grandfather. Someone of you can recognise the exact place? I know that he died and was buried in Babinda cemetery 7 Feb 1928. Is it possible that he is still in the graveyard? I thank you in advance if you can help me. Bye”.
The guys from Babinda Kayak Hire searched the Babinda cemetery, but couldn’t find any grave for her grandfather. They posted the story on their Facebook page, and that’s where I come in. As an avid researcher of north Queensland history for the novel that I’m writing, I knew where to go to find information. We sent the story back to Marta, and have since received a further letter from John De Martin:
“To the wonderful people of Babinda Kayak, to the lady by the name of Debbie, I want to thank you all for providing us with informations and court documents, about the tragic death of my grandfather Gio. Battista De Martin in 1928. We cannot thank you enough! I have always known here in the USA how wonderful Australian people are,and why so many Italian immigrants chose your country to make a better home for their families! If anyone,( if his grave still exists) could provide, Marta or me with a picture of his gravesite,it would put closure to this tragic story. His 88yrs.old daughter could see where her father is resting in peace! Thank you! God Bless your country. John D.M.”
As much as this post is about the story, I am hoping that anyone who reads it and lives in that area of North Queensland could have a look through the local graveyard. Maybe he is buried in Mirriwinni, or Innisfail … or Ingham? Do you know anything about the De Martin family? Do you know anyone who (like me J) love to troll graveyards, and perhaps could have a look?
Please help us solve this mystery!
As for Felice – The only other information I could find is that he was a Cairns Taxi driver, born in Villa, Italy. He had been in Australia for 18 years at the time of this accident, and applied for citizenship (‘nationalisation’ in those days) in August 1928. At that time, he was living in the Federal Hotel in Cairns.
On February 24, 1931 Felice was charged with being the driver of a motor car “at such a distance from the car to prevent him having full control over the vehicle” He pleaded guilty to this charge and was convicted and fined. [Don’t ask me what this charge means!!]
Sadly, it adds credence to the saying about history repeating itself. Drinking and reckless driving still claims many lives, and it appears that 100 years ago things were not much different. People were not much different. Roads were not much different. Cars were not much different. Drinking was not much different.