Spotlight: The Trial of the Kenniff Brothers -Tracker Johnson’s Evidence

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One of the main controversies of the Kenniff story is that Paddy and Jim were convicted solely on the evidence given by Sam Johnson, the tracker that accompanied the victims, Doyle and Dahlke. What was it that was so compelling about Johnson’s account that no corroboration was required? Certainly there were other testimonies that stated that the Kenniffs had a motive for the crime and had even made threats, but only three people in that court room could testify as to what may have occurred in Lethbridge’s Pocket. The Kenniffs maintained that they weren’t even present and their subsequent disappearance was not to escape capture for the crime, but merely a part of the transient lifestyle they had adopted since Dahlke had rendered the family homeless by having their lease terminated.

The Sydney Morning Herald stated:

[Johnson] said that Constable Doyle and Mr. Dahlke had been known to him. He described the party leaving the police station on the Upper Warrego, and how they were equipped. Saddlery, spurs, &c. , were produced and identified. Witness described how on entering Lethbridge’s pocket he saw Pat, Jim, and Tom Kenniff, who rode to the top of the gully and pulled up. They had two packhorses. The Kenniffs left the packhorses, turned round, and raced away across the gully. Witness secured his packhorse by fixing the halter to a log, and galloped after Tom and Pat, who rode together. Tom and Pat went right up the gully. Jim raced up the creek, and Constable Doyle and Mr. Dhalke followed. Jim on looking back saw they had caught him. Witness pulled up and went back when he got up too close. He (witness) pulled Jim off the saddle. Mr. Dahlke was on his horse holding the reins of Jim Kenniff’s mount. Mr. Doyle had been trying to pull Jim Kenniff off. When he got up witness was on the off side, and caught him by the foot, shoving him off on the near side. Constable Doyle ordered witness back to get the packhorse. When witness rode away Constable Doyle was holding Jim Kenniff by the right arm. He (witness) rode for the packhorse. The horse George was then feeding and the packhorse was away 200 yards. Before he reached the packhorse he heard a shot fired. Four other shots followed quickly. He went up to the packhorse, looked back, to where he left Constable Doyle and Mr. Dhalke. He could not see them but could see the place. He tried to get the handcuffs out of the pack, but could not, so trotted forward, leading the horse. On going back he saw Pat and Jim Kenniff riding at him hard. He let the packhorse go and raced away towards the pumphole and gained the scrub. The shots he heard fired were louder than those of a police revolver. The pumphole to which he went was about 12 miles away. On getting there he found James Burke. Burke went back to the pocket with him. There he saw the packhorse and Boadicæ. Witness was frightened to stay in the scrub. Burke caught the horses.There were no packbags on Dandy Pat, who carried only a saddle. He saw blood on the flap of the saddle on Boadicea.

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Sam Johnson
It all seems pretty clear cut and in keeping with the known facts, but when Johnson was cross-examined a different picture began to emerge, as reported in The Daily Telegraph:
The tracker, Sam Johnson, was cross-examined by Mr. McGrath, who quoted from the depositions taken at Rockhampton to show that the tracker’s statements varied with regard to what happened in Lethbridge’s Pocket after he went back for the pack-horse. The depositions went to show that the tracker had stated that he had caught the pack-horse before the last shot, whilst to-day he stated that he had just got up to the horse when he heard the last shot. Otherwise the evidence given to-day was practically the same as was given previously.
Not exactly a complete game changer, but it does raise a bit of a flag. Did Johnson simply make a mistake or did he deliberately change his story? It may seem a minor detail, but the location of the tracker when the last shot was fired could change the timeline and thus the reliability of the testimony. If the deposition is correct, Johnson was already heading back when the last shot was fired, yet his testimony in court suggests that it had either taken longer for him to get to the horses or he had delayed in leaving the others, or even returning to them, rather narrowing the window of opportunity for the Kenniffs to fight against the constable and the squatter. Moreover, it does seem strange that the only survivor of the search party to survive was the one that was conveniently absent when the shots were fired.

James Kenniff on trial for murder
Jim Kenniff
Of course there are always multiple sides to any story and Mr. McGrath, who represented the defence, tried valiantly to draw attention to the lack of identification of the remains. He also indicated that the possibility that Tom Kenniff may have done the deed could potentially prove the innocence of Paddy and Jim. He also raised the scorched rocks as evidence, as they were found over a mile away from the place where the Kenniffs were reported as being, thus there was no proof tying them to the site of the fires. It seems that McGrath knew the deck was stacked but would try anything that might dent the prosecution case.
The Inverell Argus reported:

Mr. McGrath continuing, said the jury would have evidence of the father and brother John to prove that Tom was in their company on Sunday at some distance from the spot, so that it would have been impossible for him to have been at Lethbridge’s Pocket without either the father or the brother knowing about it.

The article furthermore records Jim Kenniff’s account of the activities of he and his brother during that period:

[James Kenniff] deposed that he and Pat were at Carnarvon station on the night of the 28th March. They had words with a man named Ryan, and then went off and camped near the station. Their brother Tom joined them at the camp, and remained about half an hour. He then went towards Skeleton Creek and [Jim] and Pat started off for Roma on Easter Sunday morning. They camped about thirty miles from Merivale paddock on that morning. Mulholland and Thornton went to the camp and remained a couple of hours. Pat and [Jim] mustered eight head of horses, which they drove o Armadalla, passing through Mitchell. The journey including stoppages, occupied them from 20 to 40 days. On the return journey they saw a notice on a tree, and that was the first they heard of the murder of Doyle and Dahlke.

If Jim’s testimony was true, none of the Kenniff boys were guilty as they weren’t even there at the time and therefore could not have committed a crime. With both Johnson and Jim Kenniff putting forward plausible depositions, the act of determining the truth became more complicated.
In the end, the jury found the men guilty of murdering Doyle and Dahlke and incinerating the bodies in a failed attempt to hide the evidence. Fearing reprisals from the Kenniffs’ sympathisers, Johnson relocated with his wife to Longreach. Questions still linger about how Johnson could have been engaged in a chase on horseback, given the Kenniffs were on thoroughbreds and the tracker had an old nag to ride. There is also some doubts about his ability to identify the sound of gunfire.

Sources:

“TRIAL OF THE KENNIFFS.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 5 November 1902: 5.
“QUEENSLAND BUSHRANGERS” The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1923) 5 November 1902: 7.
“Trial of the Kenniffs.” Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908) 5 August 1902: 10.
“Trial of the Kenniffs.” The Inverell Argus (NSW : 1899 – 1904) 14 November 1902: 3.

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