Many figures in the pantheon of bushranging have been the subject of speculation and agenda pushing, but one of the most significant that has emerged in recent years is the conspiracy theories around Captain Thunderbolt. The theory is that the man shot by Constable Walker on that fateful day in 1870 was not Frederick Wordsworth Ward, but his uncle Harry Ward and the government has been trying to cover up the mis-identification ever since. Belief in the theory is so strong that applications were filed for the release of documents by back-benchers to try and prove once and for all that the wrong Ward was killed and documentarians have even gone on trips to North America to investigate claims that the real Thunderbolt was buried there.
This theory provided the basis for the book Scourge of the Ranges; a novel by G. James Hamilton, that claims to be based entirely on fact though it is published as a fiction book. Of course there’s got to be a certain deviousness in publishing a fiction book and promoting it as an exposé of the truth. Such a tactic implies a knowledge on the part of the authors that the proposition is shonky at best and relies almost entirely on readers not fact checking. This is precisely the practice that has made the task of researching history so frustrating for historians both amateur and academic. By creating a false equivalency by conflating rumours and hearsay with unequivocal fact in this book it mocks the intelligence of its audience and obscures the work of historians who spent years collecting the information the multitude takes for granted. But what did Hamilton and Sinclair stand to gain by lying? Well, the obvious answer is money. Only a fool would put months to years worth of hard work into crafting a tome or published work not to turn a profit from it [*ahem*] so that’s low-hanging fruit. The deeper reason may, surprisingly, actually lie in far more altruistic notions.
It is possible that Hamilton and Sinclair had heard of the conspiracy theory and when they started looking into it and finding possible leads wanted to share the information in the hope it could expose an actual cover up. We live in a time when easy access to information has bred deeper distrust of authority than seemingly at any other point in Western history. Gone are the days when the worst that people presumed politicians would get up to was a bit of hanky panky with people they shouldn’t be. That notions like a faked moon landing or that the terrorist bombings in 2001 were staged by the US government to manufacture public consent for an invasion of Afghanistan are fairly common is testament to a new kind of distrust that makes those in power appear almost cartoonishly evil. Here in Australia disliking authority is just par for the course but this new, decidedly American, take on our history has taken it to a whole new level. Many people want to believe that government has always been evil and manipulative. It makes the average person more comfortable in their position in society because they know who to blame for any disadvantage or discomfort they may be subject to. That’s just human nature. It’s the same reason why, in the wake of the Black Saturday fires, people called for Christine Nixon’s head on a plate – it was inconceivable for such a devastating tragedy to have occurred without someone being at fault. It’s also the reason that the town of Salem was almost wiped out as a result of witch hunts (actual witch hunts, not muck-raking) as people blamed anything unpleasant that they couldn’t explain on individuals that they accused of having supernatural abilities. To cater to the lack of trust people have in pursuit of uncovering the truth certainly seems noble, but in this case it doesn’t appear that it’s likely to have been the motivation to create this book. Rather, the controversy the book has created has done more to cement Hamilton’s and Sinclair’s names in the annals of bushranger history than it has to uncovering any dirty secrets.
In the end, if you do your research you will uncover the fact that Ward’s body was positively identified and there was no motivation for a cover up. Ward’s reputation as the great highwayman hero is mostly due to oral history and poorly researched biographies from the early 20th century that peddled hearsay as fact. Papers of the day openly mocked Ward’s nom de plume as its grandiosity was greatly inverse to the frequently farcical and petty robberies he undertook. The desire to make Ward into an epic Robin Hood figure is the result of a desire for romantic heroes from a community that was faced with considerable drudgery as a matter of course. Were Ward alive today and living an equivalent life of crime he may be considered the most prolific robber of 7-11s in Australia. The frequency with which Ward’s accomplices would take their leave of him says a lot about the danger of the occupation of being Thunderbolt’s accomplice compared to the benefits. Ward’s longevity came from a knack for keeping a low-profile for long stretches and often having faster horses than his confederates, including his common-law wife Mary Ann Bugg who was often nabbed while attempting to flee with Ward. To put it bluntly, Captain Thunderbolt did not escape his death and flee to America. He was fatally wounded in Kentucky Creek and died alone in the dark, crawling into the bush and his remains were identified by people that knew him and was not enough of a menace to society to require the New South Wales government to spend over a century covering up a mistaken identity. He left behind young children and an estranged wife as well as a colourful legacy that is, frankly, inverse to the reputation he deserves thanks to the dramatic moniker he gave himself. What it all boils down to is that people will choose to believe the lies because they create a bit of excitement and intrigue around the people, time, and place that is otherwise lacking. The romantic image of Thunderbolt on horseback creates a spark of inspiration that has, in a way, helped to unify a community. It is for this reason that the myths of Thunderbolt are valuable to our folklore and culture but when the myths are not separated from fact the flow on effects can be damaging for posterity and our understanding of not only ourselves but also our society. Distrust in authority can be healthy but when people are encouraged to disregard inconvenient truths that don’t sit well with their chosen narrative, justice is usually the next thing to be tossed aside.