There are multiple origin stories for the bushranger that would be known as Daniel Morgan. The most widely accepted one is that he was born in 1830 in New South Wales as John Fuller, the son of Mary “The Gypsy” Owen, a promiscuous Irish lass, and George Fuller, a greengrocer. Fuller, so the story goes, 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.
However, one alternative is the origin uncovered by author Margaret Carnegie. In her research she came to believe that Morgan was really William Moran junior, the son of two convicts who was born in New South Wales in 1833 and raised around Campbelltown. This ties in with Morgan’s own recollections of having grown up there and may also account for one of his many aliases: Sam Moran. Unfortunately, there is no way currently to prove either of these stories correct, and there remains the possibility neither of them is.

His first conviction came in 1854 when he was sentenced, as John Smith, to 12 years hard labour for highway robbery by Sir Redmond Barry at Castlemaine. He spent his sentence on the prison hulks President and Success, where he would have likely witnessed the murder of the notorious inspector of prisons, John Giles Price, by convicts on the beach at Point Gellibrand, and by some accounts he also did a portion of his sentence at Pentridge stockade.
When granted his Ticket-of-Leave in 1860, which allowed him to work in the Ovens district, he promptly bolted. He assumed many different identities including “Sydney Native”, “Down-the-River Jack”, and Sam Moran and occasionally picked up work on stations when he wasn’t “on the hump”— an old expression for travelling on foot with a swag — but in the end the lure of bushranging proved too tempting.

During an early exploit, Morgan stole a valuable horse from Evan Evans named Grey Bobby. Evans and a neighbour tracked Morgan to his camp and confronted him. Morgan demanded to know who they were and was answered with a blast from a shotgun. The blast hit Morgan’s arm and he escaped into the bush. He swore he would get revenge.

It wasn’t long before Daniel Morgan, as he now identified himself, was committing robberies, the first of which was when he stole two racehorses and saddles from a pair of young men who were on their way to the races. Morgan was not alone, however, having a mate who was known either as Fancy Clarke or German Bill at his side. 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, though this is very doubtful.

A short time later, the pair tried to rob a magistrate named Henry Bayliss. When they realised he was a magistrate they let him go, hoping he would be lenient on them if they ever came before him in court, but Baylis quickly 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. It was suggested that Morgan was the one that shot German Bill as a distraction, however Morgan escaped from the conflict taking his mate with him alive, making the distraction story unlikely. German Bill was found a considerable time later in the bush in a state of advanced decomposition where he had been slumped against a tree near a farm where Morgan had assaulted a farm hand who he believed had told the police where to find them.

Morgan was described as resembling a “bird of prey” with his piercing eyes and hooked nose. [Image: “Daniel Morgan, The Bushranger” by Samuel Calvert (25 July 1864); Courtesy: State Library Victoria]

Now with a reward of £200 on his head, Morgan continued to escalate his depredations, robbing stations from Henty to Tumbarumba. When he stuck up Burrumbuttock station he made the manager sign £400 worth of cheques for the staff, who he had been told were being underpaid.
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, leading many such people to rethink their hostility lest the traveller send word to Morgan or turn out to be the bushranger himself. He often used Aboriginal boys as bush telegraphs to keep track of police movements, but had sympathisers throughout the New South Wales Riverina and north east Victoria that provided shelter and supplies. Unfortunately it was only a matter of time until things turned deadly.

When Morgan bailed up Round Hill Station, he raided the gin supply then later as he got onto his horse his gun went off. He assumed he was being shot at, and in the resulting chaos the station manager, Sam Watson, was shot in the hand, a neighbour named James Heriot was shot in the leg and this led to a stockman named John McLean being fatally shot through the midsection by Morgan while riding to fetch a doctor, as Morgan suspected him of going to the police instead. Accounts written posthumously have frequently spun fabrications and inaccuracies about this specific incident, including one version that has Watson’s wife stepping between her husband and Morgan to beg for his life, after which Morgan opts to shoot him in the hand instead of killing him. Some reports are conflicted as to whether Morgan’s shot had left a hole in Watson’s hand or blown off one of his fingers. Most retellings leave Morgan’s mates out completely to reinforce the lone wolf persona that makes him seem more dangerous.

A short time later, Morgan killed mounted trooper Sergeant David Maginnity. Maginnity and Constable Churchley were en route from Tumbarumba to Coppabella when they spotted Morgan, who they recognised from descriptions they were furnished with. Maginnity rode up to Morgan while Churchley stayed back about twenty yards (eighteen metres). There was a short exchange between Morgan and Maginnity before Morgan pulled his pistol and shot the trooper, having recognised him as a policeman. Churchley rode away, leaving Maginnity to his fate. Maginnity was believed to have been dragged into the bush a short distance by his spooked horse. Morgan laid the man out and took his weapons before leaving Maginnity’s hat on the road as a marker for whoever came to find the body. Morgan would ever after carry Maginnity’s revolver in his belt and show it off to people he encountered or bailed up.

The Bushranging Affray at Copabella – Morgan Shooting M’Ginnerty [Illustrated Sydney News, 17 August 1864, page 8.]

Senior Sergeant Thomas Smyth was mortally wounded in September 1864 when shots were fired into his party’s camp while they were on an expedition looking for Morgan. The troopers were turning in for the night when shots were fired from the bush, one of which hit Smyth in the chest. The assailants, of which there were likely two, were not identified at the time as the area around the camp was in pitch darkness, although James and Michael Corcoran were later arrested on suspicion of aiding Morgan in the shooting after tracks of unshod horses were found leading from the camp to the Corcoran farm a short distance away. The brothers had long been suspected of being sympathisers of Morgan. When Smyth died from his wounds Morgan was, naturally, blamed for his murder.

During a robbery at a road contractor’s camp, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the arm for non-compliance. [Image: “Morgan sticking up the navvies, burning their tents, and shooting the chinaman.”; The Illustrated Melbourne Post, January 25, 1865; Courtesy: State Library Victoria]

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 Victorian 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. He decided it was also an opportunity to exact revenge on Evan Evans.

In the middle of the night Morgan set fire to the haystacks at the Evans’ farm, Whitfield, in order to get their attention. All at the station came out to see what was happening and Morgan bailed them all up and demanded Evan Evans. Evans, as it transpired was out for the evening and Morgan proceeded to lecture the captives about his grudge with him, even showing the scars on his arm from where he had been shot. Eventually he had Evans’ brother John escort him a short distance into the bush where a horse he had stolen was tethered to a tree. He asked Evans to see the animal got back to its owner before he left.

On 8 April he stuck up Peechelba Station and held the McPherson family and their staff captive while he got drunk. He forced one of the girls to play the piano for him as he had heard her playing when he arrived and liked the sound. One of the maids, Alice Keenan, 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 one of McPherson’s stockmen named John Windlaw (although there remains some level of confusion as to whether that was his actual name as it was also written as Wendlan and Quinlan in the press).

John Windlaw 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, finally passing away that afternoon. His corpse was removed to Wangaratta where a post-mortem was conducted, after which people posed with it for photographs. The body was mutilated, with the attending doctor, Dr. Dobbyn, being instructed by a police Superintendent to skin the jaw so that the beard could be dried like a possum skin as a trophy. The onlookers took locks of hair either by cutting it with knives or pulling it out from the root, and it was alleged privately that Morgan’s scrotum was removed to be used as a tobacco pouch. Morgan’s head was hacked off then wrapped in brine-soaked rags and sent to Melbourne in a wooden box where a cast was made for study. His headless remains were put in a wooden box and buried in Wangaratta cemetery where it remains to this day.

In the wake of Morgan’s death there was some level of unrest as his sympathisers threatened an uprising, and one was arrested for attempting to hunt down and murder John Windlaw. Two anonymous women were also seen leaving flowers on Morgan’s grave.

This cast of Morgan’s severed head shows signs of some of the mutilation and maltreatment performed on Morgan’s body post-mortem. [Photography by Aidan Phelan]

Morgan was around thirty-five when he was gunned down, though without knowing his true birth date it is impossible to know for a fact. Within a few weeks his contemporary Benjamin Hall would meet a similarly gruesome end. While Morgan’s burning hatred of the authorities earned him many admirers, to many more Morgan was no more than a villainous thug and a lunatic. However, it would seem, upon a deeper examination, that many preconceived ideas about Morgan are derived from false and inaccurate accounts of his life and deeds.

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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