Few incidents in bushranging history are as infamous as the gunning down of Ben Hall. There are many myths about the death of the legendary highwayman, but the truth is just as grim.
As 1865 kicked off, the Hall gang were reaching new heights of notoriety. Beyond the standard fare of bailing up travellers, establishments and coaches, there was the attempted gold escort robbery and the killings of Sergeant Parry and Constable Nelson. The police pursuit of the gang was intensifying and the felons apprehension act had given Hall, Gilbert and Dunn a small window of time to turn themselves in or be declared outlaws, denied the comfort and protection of the law. So it was that at a time when they could be shot dead without challenge or provocation for a reward of £1000, the gang sought refuge with Mick Coneley, a sympathiser of Hall’s who had been holding a sum of £500 for him. It was the worst decision they could have made.
The gang had split briefly, Hall separating from Gilbert and Dunn to attend to business elsewhere. It seems that the gang were trying to tie up loose ends before moving away from the colony, possibly to slink into America under cover of the civil war. When Hall returned to Coneley’s run on Billabong Creek he had just missed his colleagues. He calmly set up camp in the scrub, hobbling his horses nearby and shifting leaves to make the ground a little more inviting as a bed. As he lay down and stared up into the foliage he was blissfully unaware that he was being monitored.
Unbeknownst to Hall, Coneley had been informing the police of the gang’s movements and had let them know that Hall was camped by the creek. The police party led by Sub-Inspector Davidson knew this was their chance to take Hall and ventured into the scrub. Davidson instructed the four constables and black tracker Charley in his charge to remove their jackets and boots before moving through the scrub so as to make as little sound as possible. They had seen Hall feeding and hobbling his horses but couldn’t get close enough to the camp to capture him without alerting the horses. It was Billy Dargin that informed Davidson and his second in command Sergeant Condell that Hall had made himself a bed of leaves, but the policemen decided to wait until daybreak to get a better chance at capture.
On 5 May, 1865 Ben Hall awoke in the crisp morning and began to collect his things and tend his horses. All was calm and Hall took his time preparing to leave. He was suddenly interrupted by movement in the scrub. He turned to see Davidson, Condell and Dargin bursting forth from the undergrowth calling on him to surrender. They had made it a full fifty yards before their target saw them coming. Davidson screamed “Stand!” but Hall promptly turned and ran across the clearing, not an easy feat for someone with a lame leg. Did he forget in that moment that he was carrying loaded and capped revolvers or was it a deliberate choice not to engage? As he ran Davidson leveled his shotgun at the fleeing bushranger and fired. The blast hit him in the back and sent him flying forward. That could not stop him though and he got up, adrenaline coursing through every extremity, and staggered on as quickly as his legs could carry him. Condell was not willing to let Hall escape and fired on him with a revolving carbine, the shot ploughing through flesh and bone. Again, Hall tumbled, but kept moving. Then Dargin fired from his double-barreled shotgun. Hall was determined not to be taken while he yet drew breath and stumbled back towards his camp where, presumably, he considered himself safe, his back mangled with shot, his lungs perforated.
As Hall reached the edge of the scrub he leaned on a sapling to catch his breath without success, no doubt the pain from his injuries excruciating and debilitating. Suddenly, roused by the gunfire, the four constables and Charley emerged from the bush on the other side and began to open fire. Hall changed course and headed towards another small cluster of saplings. Hall’s body was ripped and pierced by hot lead as he staggered towards a lone sapling. A shot from trooper Hipkiss sliced through Hall’s side, pulverising organs and cutting apart his pistol belt which fell to the ground. He clutched the trunk of the sapling as his body gave out and whimpered “I’m wounded. I’m dying.” The din of police carbines rendered his words almost inaudible as the troopers unloaded into him, three long years of ridicule, fear and innuendo bubbling up and exploding in a shower of bullets and shot. Hall collapsed to the ground still clinging to the sapling and drew his last, laboured breath without having fired a single shot. Finally the police stopped firing. As the smoke cleared the police were finally able to see the fruits of their labour slumped in a pool of gore. Davidson raided the body and found two leather pouches, three gold chains and a gold watch, three revolvers including his trademark double-trigger Tranter, ammunition, a gold keeper on his finger, £74 in notes and a woman’s portrait. The mangled corpse was wrapped up in Hall’s poncho and slung over his own horse and taken back to Forbes.
The body was laid out in the police station and viewed by the townsfolk. The coat and hat worn in the affair, threadbare and full of bullet holes and drenched in blood, were hung up for display. The coat was barely held together such was the extent of the damage. Hundreds of people lined up to see the body of the man who had run rampant through the district and lead the police a merry dance for so long. Several times people were heard to make note of how handsome Hall was, and even to exclaim that they had seen his face before but couldn’t remember where from. The scruffy beard barely concealed the ever present curl in Hall’s mouth that gave the impression that the whole situation was faintly amusing. An inquest was held in a hotel wherein Davidson and Condell gave their accounts of the death and several people attested to the remains being that of Ben Hall. The medical examiner Charles Ashenheim concluded thus:
I am a qualified medical man; I have examined the body of the deceased, and find it perforated by several bullets; the shot between the shoulders the two shots through the brain, and the one through the body were severally sufficient to cause death.
It was determined that more than thirty bullets had been fired into the bushranger and ended Hall’s life that day. It was deemed a justifiable homicide. After years of ridicule and reprimand for their inability to apprehend this master criminal, the New South Wales police had exacted their revenge.
Hall was still days away from being officially declared an outlaw.
Ben Hall was buried in the Forbes general cemetery with a considerable number of people in attendance. Mick Coneley, the man who betrayed Ben Hall, walked away with £500 of the reward money – a fact well known in certain circles but not revealed until decades later. The rest of the reward was distributed among the police who brought down Hall and would subsequently bring an end to the life of Johnny Gilbert and John Dunn. Thus was the wild career of one of the most renowned desperadoes ended, not in a valiant battle or at the end of a rope but in a hate-fuelled torrent of lead.
“THE DEATH OF BEN HALL.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 13 May 1865: 7. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13112883>
“Last of the Rangers.” The Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser (NSW : 1856 – 1861; 1863 – 1889; 1891 – 1954) 9 March 1897: 2. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article193365083>
“BUSHRANGING DAYS RECALLED” Narandera Argus and Riverina Advertiser (NSW : 1893 – 1953) 30 May 1944: 2. Web. 26 Sep 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article101528826>
“THE WEDDIN MOUNTAIN BANDITTI—BEN HALL’S DEATH.” Warwick Argus and Tenterfield Chronicle (Qld. : 1866 – 1879) 30 March 1876: 2. Web. 26 Sep 2017 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75830145>