“Mad Dan” Morgan: An Overview

There are multiple origin stories for the bushranger that would be known as Daniel Morgan, but for this overview we will stick with the most widely accepted one. Born in 1830 in New South Wales, John Fuller was the son of Mary “The Gypsy” Owen, a promiscuous Irish lass, and George Fuller, a greengrocer. Fuller had an unstable childhood and was eventually fostered by a man named Jack the Welshman. At seventeen he became a stock-rider in Murrumbidgee where it is likely he developed his love for thoroughbreds. His first conviction came in 1854 when he was sentenced to 12 years hard labour for highway robbery. Spending his sentence on the prison hulk Success, when granted his ticket of leave in 1860 he promptly bolted. He assumed many identities and occasionally picked up work on stations, but the lure of bushranging proved too tempting.

Morgan was described as resembling a “bird of prey” with his piercing eyes and hooked nose.

It wasn’t long before Morgan, as he now identified, was committing robberies, the first of which was when he stole racehorses and saddles from travellers on their way to the races. Morgan’s love for race horses was a repeated factor in his crimes and he stole yet another, allegedly in order to ride to Bathurst for his mother’s wedding. Morgan stayed quiet for some time, but he soon teamed up with a man called “German Bill”, also known as “Fancy Clarke”, and the pair tried to rob a magistrate named Henry Bayliss. When they realised he was a magistrate they let him go, but Baylis formed a posse and went in search of the bushrangers. After days of scouring the bush, they found the bushrangers’ camp. In the ensuing shoot-out Bayliss was injured by a bullet from the bushrangers and German Bill was mortally wounded. There has been specualtion as to whether Morgan was the one that shot German Bill as a distraction, or if he was shot by police, but what is certain is that Morgan escaped from the conflict alive.

Dan Morgan was unpredictable and frequently evaded capture.

Now with a reward of £200 on his head Morgan set out on an epic career of bushranging, robbing stations from Henty to Tumbarumba. When he stuck up Burrumbuttock station he made the manager sign £400 worth of cheques for the staff. Morgan began to gain a reputation as “the traveller’s friend” because his criminal acts seemed to target unfair employers or people that mistreated swaggies. He often used Aboriginal boys as bush telegraphs to keep track of police movements. By 1864 everything had begun to unravel.

When Morgan bailed up Round Hill Station he raided the gin supply. Later as he got onto his horse his gun went off and he assumed he was being shot at. In the resulting chaos the station manager was shot in the hand, a stockman was shot in the leg and another stockman named McLean was murdered by Morgan while riding to fetch a doctor because Morgan suspected him of going to the police instead. Morgan’s behaviour had become erratic and paranoid. In the next few months Morgan killed two more policemen, Sergeant Maginnity and Senior Sergeant Smyth, and burned down the granary of a squatter he had a grudge against for an earlier wounding during a raid gone wrong.

Dan Morgan’s violent behaviour increased over time giving rise to the nickname “Mad Dan”.

In April, 1865, Morgan crossed the border from New South Wales into Victoria and began operating near Glenrowan. His bush telegraph had gotten word to him that the Victoria police were bragging that Morgan would not last more than forty eight hours in Victoria so Morgan decided to take the flashness out of them. On April 8 he stuck up Peechelba Station and proceeded to hold the McPherson family captive while he got drunk and forced one of the girls to play the piano for him. One of the maids escaped when Morgan allowed her to tend to a sick baby, raising the alarm that Morgan was in the homestead. Soon a posse had surrounded the house and when Morgan emerged in the morning to prepare a horse so he could return to New South Wales, he was shot in the back by a stockman-cum-bounty hunter named John Wendlan.

John Wendlan poses with Morgan’s body propped up in Wangaratta with his boots stolen and a percussion revolver placed in his hand.

Morgan died slowly choking on his own blood, after which time his corpse was removed to Wangaratta and people posed with it for photographs. The body was mutilated by onlookers, the jaw skinned so that the beard could be converted into a pouch, the ears hacked at and Morgan’s scrotum allegedly removed to be used as a coin purse. Morgan’s head was hacked off and kicked around like a football and then sent to Melbourne in a wooden box where a cast was made for phrenological study. His headless corpse was put in a box and buried in Wangaratta cemetery where it remains.

This cast of Morgan’s severed head shows signs of some of the mutilation and maltreatment performed on Morgan’s body post-mortem.

Morgan was thirty-five when he was cut down. Within a few weeks his contemporary Benjamin Hall would meet a similarly gruesome end. While Morgan and Hall had completely different approaches to bushranging, they both captured the imagination of the people of the day and in 1879, as they left the town of Jerilderie, the Kelly gang would charge up and down the main street hooting and shouting “Hurrah for the good old days of Morgan and Ben Hall!”
While Morgan’s burning hatred of the authorities earned him many admirers, to many Morgan was no more than a villainous thug and a lunatic but was he a product of his broken childhood or perhaps some underlying mental health issues? Was Dan Morgan really “mad” or just misunderstood? It is unlikely we will ever know.

Further reading:

Morgan: The Bold Bushranger by Margaret Carnegie

“Mad Dan” Morgan, Bushranger illustrated by J. A. King

Morgan the Murderer: A Definitive History of the Bushranger Dan Morgan by Edgar Penzig

Further viewing:

Mad Dog Morgan (1976) directed by Phillippe Mora, starring Dennis Hopper

4 thoughts on ““Mad Dan” Morgan: An Overview

  1. The answer to your question about who Morgan really was – mad?, misunderstood? a villainous thug? a lunatic? – is that like all of us he was the product of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture” Increasingly ‘criminals’ once thought to be ‘evil’ are now thought of as individuals born with certain predispositions (nature) – upon which life events act to produce an outcome which may be good if the influences are positive, or ‘bad” when the influences are negative. If someone has a violent upbringing, and is suffering from some sort of mental illness which can be a personality disorder, a result of brain injury from violence or addictions including alcohol, has bad role models and no education…and then makes a few bad decisions… they’re on a slippery slope..

    However I don’t believe understanding where a person came from absolves them of personal responsibility for their actions – there is no excuse for robbery and violent murder, though one may understand where that impulse may have come from and how it might be difficult for some people to resist it.

    The other point worth mentioning is that people change over time, and Morgan appears to have been approaching madness by the end of his life. Ned Kelly was similar – by all accounts he was a great kid, but by the time he got to Glenrowan he was also close to madness.


    1. Certainly a very valid viewpoint. Our modern understanding of psychology is providing new and valuable insights into the behaviour of historical criminals. Criminals can never truly be absolved of any act they commit, however an understanding of the causes of such behaviour gives a much more powerful insight into not only the nature of criminality but also human nature. It also creates a unique perspective on how society has developed over time as well. This is true of all of the bushrangers from Black Caesar to Jessie Hickman to varying degrees.


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