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In The Badlands

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Content Warning: Some of the crimes discussed in this article are violent, cruel and graphic in nature

Australia is great for mysteries. There always seems to be something worth unearthing. Did Milat act alone? Did the Dingo really take her baby? What’s in a servo meat pie? My uncle was hitchhiking once and got picked up by Ivan Milat’s brother near Belanglo State Forest. Luckily, he had his dog with him – a Dingo cross. Meat pies did not feature in the story.

But everybody knows the high-profile cases. Australia’s dark zaniness goes back to colonial times and permeates almost every locale in the country; from the rolling Dandenong Ranges and lush Hunter Valley to the grimy streets of 1980’s Adelaide. Here are a couple of crazy, creepy and downright odd happenings from our short, chequered history.


The Family. Or the Santiniketan Park Association. Or the Great White Brotherhood. You shouldn’t really trust a group that can’t decide on a name, and these guys are no exception. Of course, there’s more to dislike about The Family than their inability to settle on a title. They were a new age cult who dabbled in Eastern mysticism, electroshock therapy, hallucinogens, and financial fraud.

Children from Hamilton-Byrne's cult
Children from Hamilton Byrne’s cult (Via the Herald Sun)

And beating the shit out of children. Locking them in dark rooms, tranquilizing them with mysterious German drugs, dying their hair peroxide blonde and giving them bowl cuts. The word ‘starved’ comes up a lot. More common words: LSD, Tegretol (an anti-epileptic with tranquilizing side effects), Psilocybin, Anatensol (tranquilizer), Valium…

The whole story is pretty Manson. The Family was formed in 1961 by Anne-Hamilton Byrne and Doctor Raynor Johnson, Master of Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne. The two of them started holding adult education courses on religion and philosophy at Santiniketan, Johnson’s house in the Dandenong Ranges.

Hamilton-Byrne led. She wasn’t entirely with it. Byrne claimed, repeatedly, that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ or a living god. Buddha and Krishna were similar beings. Through the 60’s, Hamilton-Byrne recruited members from Newhaven Psychiatric Hospital in Kew (dosing them heavily with LSD after induction), and by 1968 had adopted several children.  The children were subjected to beatings, starvation, and were also dosed with LSD and locked in a dark room upon reaching adolescence.  Apparently, the children were meant to carry on Anne’s legacy after the apocalypse.

Which was going to be caused by aliens.

Who would cleanse the world of evil.

The Victorian police raided Hamilton-Byrne’s compound in 1987, removing several children from the residence. Byrne and her husband fled the country, living in New York state’s Catskill mountains until an international police operation managed to extradite the pair to Australia to face charges of perjury and conspiracy to commit fraud.  The Family quickly fell apart – and these days, Byrne rots in a Melbourne nursing home, still wholly unapologetic for her actions.