“Mad Dog” Morgan: The moniker, the myth, the man (Opinion)

About two weeks ago the Border Mail dropped a bombshell out of nowhere: someone was agitating to have the plaque on Dan Morgan’s grave changed. While the article was light on details, the general thrust was that the plaque incorrectly refers to the bushranger as “Mad Dog” and should be changed, as suggested by a single person.

Read the article here, I’ll be here when you get back: http://www.bordermail.com.au/story/4951520/mad-dog-morgan-in-life-and-maybe-no-longer-in-death/

Responses on the Border Mail’s Facebook were typically civil and well-informed:

comment1

Firstly, Morgan was a childless bachelor, secondly I’m not sure this is the same as stopping perpetuation of a negative racist stereotype.

comment2

…points for effort?

comment3

Really?

comment4

This one seems to suggest that amending Daniel Morgan’s grave marker is impinging on his rights. They’ll be burning books next, mark my words.

comment5

Now all I can think of is Dan Morgan doing voice-over for Sale of the Century.

comment6

That’s… actually a very valid comment!

So the question remains – should the plaque be changed?

To address the question first we must figure out where the incorrect title came from. During his lifetime the bushranger known as Morgan used a myriad of aliases including (but not limited to) John Smith, Bill the Native, Down the River Jack, and Daniel Moran. Because of misinformation, nailing his parentage and, therefore, his real name is near to impossible. So far there are two theories (only one of which has any real legs). The first is that his real name was John Fuller, son of ex-convicts Mary Owen and George Fuller, who was adopted out as a two year old to a bloke named Jack the Welshman. This is the origin story I used in my Dan Morgan overview article as it was the one most commonly referred to. To date nobody has uncovered definitive proof that links Morgan to these people, I know that in my research all I found were dead ends. The second, more probable, origin is that Morgan’s real name was William Moran Jr, son of ex-convicts Mary Ann Moran (née Telford, née Quinn) and William Moran (aka McNally). William Moran Jr had two older siblings christened with their father’s alias surname, William, born after the family moved to Campbelltown, was the only one christened as Moran. It is difficult to ascertain whether McNally or Moran was the real name. It is perhaps telling that on his death bed Morgan refused to confirm whether his real name was Morgan or Moran – was he being spiteful or perhaps trying to protect his widowed mother and siblings from his reputation? It was said by Jack Bradshaw, who claimed to be a friend of Morgan’s, that the bushranger would visit his mother in Wangaratta frequently so perhaps he valued family highly in spite of his antisocial tendencies. It was suggested that he adopted the moniker Morgan as a homage to Henry Morgan the rogue privateer, but if so it would have been a rare display of imagination. More likely is that he just altered his name slightly to create reasonable doubt as to his true identity.

The earliest reference to Morgan as “Mad Dog” is in newspaper articles from 1975 referring to the movie Mad Dog Morgan with most contemporary accounts of Morgan referring to him generally as “Morgan, the bushranger”, “Morgan, the Notorious Bushranger”, “Bushranger Morgan”, “The Robber, Morgan”, or “Morgan, bushranger and murderer”, although there were references in the papers to him being permitted by law, after the passing of the Felon’s Apprehension Act, to be shot like a “mad dog”. Morgan referred to himself as Mr. Morgan or just Morgan at the height of his career.
The first time we see a significant use of the term “Mad” in relation to Morgan is in the  1932 article “Mad Morgan, the Murderer” published on 16 February in the Queensland Times. The article, a retrospective of Morgan’s career, probably referring to the entry in Charles White’s 1903 tome History of Australian Bushranging Volume II, also describes him as “Morgan, the  incendiary and murderer” but I suppose that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well. Furthermore, in Truth, Sydney, 21 April 1935, Morgan was given the nickname “Bloody” Dan Morgan, still a far cry from “Mad Dog” and more than two years after the previous use of a distinctive adjective attached to his name
The Telegraph of 27 April 1940 lists a radio program about Australia’s bushrangers playing on 4QR at three in the afternoon with an episode entitled Bloodthirsty Morgan. The Telegraph advertises in its 2 December 1942 issue a radio broadcast about the bushranger called Mad Morgan. This is the first instance since 1932 when the adjective was used. A dramatic article published in Truth, 13 November 1949, referred to him as “Dan Morgan, the murdering bushranger”, perhaps to distinguish him from Dan Morgan, the singing bushranger or Dan Morgan, the pacifist bushranger.
Many people seem to not realise that many of the monikers of bushrangers were not used by the men and women themselves. Jack Donohoe was not “bold” until a song was written about his death. Ned Kelly wasn’t “game” until long after he met his end on the scaffold. Similarly, Morgan didn’t become a “mad dog” until popular culture wanted to cash in on the popularity of Westerns (It should be noted that one of these posthumous nicknames that thankfully never took off was “Black Mike” Howe).
Thus we can see that the sentimental attachment to the moniker is misplaced at best, no doubt fuelled by the way the 1975 film has entered popular culture.

The next point to address is whether a man like Morgan deserves to be commemorated with an amended plaque. Certainly during his lifetime his unstable behaviour and tally of death, destruction and grievous bodily harm garnered him a reputation of being more beast than man. This attitude is manifest in the ghoulish way the corpse was treated. However, it is important to note that the murderous Morgan had many sympathisers who were considerably upset at his death. When referring to Morgan it is vital we remember that he was, despite his actions, a human being with friends and family who mourned his demise and were not given the opportunity to grieve or give him a send off they saw befitting. Rather, his naked, mangled, mutilated, headless corpse was chucked in a box and unceremoniously buried as far away from everyone else in the cemetery as possible in an unmarked grave. Even if people had wanted to mourn they couldn’t. It was for this reason Jack Bradshaw made a makeshift marker for the grave out of an iron bed head. It should be pointed out here that Morgan’s grave was originally next to the public latrines at Wangaratta Cemetery, a further indignity upon the bushranger after death. Regardless of the evils he committed in life, his impact on Australian history is, for better or worse, noteworthy and this plaque serves to make the lesson of his life more permanent and visible.

The plaque on Morgan’s grave

It is my opinion that the biggest issue with the plaque is not that Morgan is incorrectly labelled, it is that the plaque has weathered poorly and is very difficult to read. Moreover the confusing, haphazard layout of the cemetery does not lend itself to the casual visitor looking for graves of significance. Instead of funneling funds into a slightly reworded plaque, perhaps more signage to explain the significance of some of the more notable graves rather than white poles would be a better idea? Certainly the plaque needs refurbishing if nothing else, and some kind of display would be great for history buffs, but admittedly an uncomfortable addition to a cemetery that still functions as a resting place for the dearly departed. Alas, the shabby state of some of the graves demonstrates the way that these historic cemeteries are left to rot until the memories of the people interred there have vanished. Every cracked headstone, every shattered statue or rusted iron fence indicates all that remains of people who lived, people who in all likelihood have descendants or relatives still living today. Yet, this is the truth of humanity is it not? We all return to the earth in the end. Did not Hamlet muse on this very condition while staring into the empty eye sockets of Yorrick the fool? “To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?” (Act V, Scene I for those of you playing at home). What makes a life worth remembering? Why should a murderer and thief be given hundreds to thousands of dollars for a grave marker while a frontier widow and mother of twelve’s name is barely legible on the marker of her final resting place? In the end, the value we place on these stories, these memories, is subjective. When we mark Morgan’s grave, perhaps better care should be made to acknowledge the lives of John McLean, Sergeant Maginnity and Constable Smyth who Morgan cruelly snuffed out as a matter of course? Instead of pointing out Morgan’s links to Ned Kelly, point to the families affected by his reign of terror so they may act as a reminder of the damage one man is capable of. Dan Morgan’s story shows us that men can be monsters (though sometimes the men who become monsters aren’t always the ones waving a gun around).

So, should the plaque be changed?

There is not one single argument I have found to support the change other than that he was not known in his lifetime by that moniker. However, the term is synonymous with him now so in the public consciousness “Mad Dog” is a perfectly reasonable thing to add to his epitaph. Unfortunately when the arguments against the change hinge around an individual’s views on politics and completely miss the point of the suggestion, no meaningful dialogue can be created. That, for better or worse, is the nature of things in the modern day – people are quick to mouth off on a statement, but don’t stop to think about whether what they are saying is actually relevant or true.

2 thoughts on ““Mad Dog” Morgan: The moniker, the myth, the man (Opinion)

  1. Really enjoyed this article Aidan. Well done. Interesting points raised. I remember my first visit to Morgans grave on a cold morning in May 1982 with my Dad. . The toilet block was there, stinking to high heaven and of course, the tin headstone. I was unaware it was placed there by Jack Bradshaw though. Was this saved? As I would suggest it’s historic in itself now… Cheers. Mark Perry.

    Liked by 1 person

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