Picture Perfect: Bushrangers and Photography

Humans in the 21st century are obsessed with photography. For the vast majority of us we carry a camera in our pocket wherever we go thanks to smart phone technology. It’s incomprehensible to many of us that there was a time when photography didn’t exist or that even though it did, it was extremely rare. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that over time many photographs have vanished due to poor preservation, unforeseen disaster, or the images being discarded by relatives with no knowledge of the people in the images. Bushranging history is a perfect example of how much history has either been lost or not even recorded in the first place.

Could this be the only surviving image of Frederick Wordsworth Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt, taken while he was alive?

There are a great many mysteries in the pictorial history of bushranging. Sometimes it seems that an image merely needs to be of a man with a beard for people to start claiming that it’s Ned Kelly. We’ve had notable cases of photographs claiming to depict Ned Kelly or members of his gang that have been debunked or dismissed, but none so infamous as “Gentleman Ned”.

Brickey Williamson?
“Gentleman Ned”

When this portrait hit auction in 2001 people went nuts. A version of it was known to exist, having been published in newspapers and subsequently in Keith McMenomy’s Authentic Illustrated History of Ned Kelly, albeit in a poorer quality format with darkened hair and beard. Experts were brought in who placed the date to the mid-1870s when Ned was a free man making an honest living, Ian Jones even made the suggestion that the belt matched the converted saddle bag strap that was buckled around his body armour at Glenrowan (which is on display in the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth). Everyone was so convinced it sold for $19,000. Then further tests were done comparing a 3D digital model of Ned’s death mask with all known portraits of Ned and surprise, surprise, this was the odd one out. Many speculated about the identity of the man and no clear answers came up. To date nobody has solved the mystery of “Gentleman Ned”. 

 Then in 2016 another photo found its way to an auction house with a bizarre backstory to go with it. This image allegedly depicts three of the gang looking tough because the image was meant to be sent to the police to intimidate them. Already it’s sounding a lot like that joke about Chuck Norris sending the IRS a photo of himself crouched and ready to attack instead of his tax return. Furthermore, this photo was taken just after the Euroa bank robbery and Joe Byrne had to sign all the names because he was the only literate one. Oh, and the image is stamped with details of a photographic studio in Launceston because it was sent there for copies to be made. Nothing suss. 

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The Launceston “Kelly Gang” portrait

This photograph looks less like an intimidating gang of bushrangers and more like an album cover for a seventies Country and Western band. The detail of the faces is almost non-existent, making confirmation pretty much impossible. But, let’s imagine for a moment that the provenance checks out. Do these men look like the Kelly gang? Certainly there’s a passing resemblance to Dan, Ned and Joe Byrne (though the figure that resembles Joe is labelled as Steve Hart in different hand writing). Dan may have had a big moustache, which would explain all the etchings that portray him with one. Moreover the man in this image could very well be in his late teens, there’s no way to tell. The clothes are a sticking point. It was made a point in descriptions  that the gang were well dressed and in the other portraits we have of Joe he’s definitely well dressed, the same not being the case for the Kelly brothers. In the only verified Dan Kelly portraits he’s wearing oversized hand-me-downs with a rope for a belt. In the only verified portrait of Ned outside prison he’s dressed in his undies and boxing shorts.  

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Not Thunderbolt: This photograph was misattributed as being a portrait of Fred Ward during his lifetime.

A prime example of how a misattribution can run rampant is in a photograph purported to have been of Captain Thunderbolt’s wife Mary Ann Bugg. It is important to note that Mary Ann was frequently referred to as a “gin”, meaning Aboriginal woman, owing to her half-indigenous heritage. 

This image has been published and republished without attribution claiming to be Mary Ann Bugg. The cowboy hat was always conspicuous and the clearly Anglo-European features.

Then Google image search threw up this image. 

It’s almost identical. Evidently it was taken in the same sitting as the first image. So what’s so remarkable about this other than the higher quality of the image? This one has a very specific attribution that conclusively disproves that the former image is Mary Ann Bugg. As it turns out, this is a photograph from around 1903, taken in New York of sharp-shooter and Wild West legend Annie Oakley, sourced for Wiki Commons from Heritage Auction Gallery. It is definitely going to be a disappointment to the many people who have been picturing this beautiful, flamboyantly dressed woman as a romantic female outlaw. There have even been artworks based on this image depicting The Captain’s Lady. 

For further clarification here is another image of Annie Oakley:

And here is a photograph known to depict Mary Ann Bugg:

It doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch in a great coat to figure this one out, yet the romantic idea of Mary Ann Bugg means people will be drawn to an image incorrectly attributed to her as long as it fits the ideal, just like the alleged Kelly gang photo. 

When we look back over the history of bushranging we can see that the vast majority of bushrangers have not been recorded visually. Jack Donohoe wasn’t depicted visually until his corpse was taken to Sydney. We have photos of relatives of Teddy the Jewboy but nothing at all of him personally. Even when photography took off in the 1860s and we got multiple portraits of people like Ben Hall in addition to etchings in the newspapers most of the Gardiner-Gilbert-Hall gang’s appearances can only be guessed at with no specific images of Peisley, O’Meally or Burke among others and the one photo depicting Johnny Gilbert may not even be him. A portrait of John Vane from around that time was replicated as an etching but the actual photograph appears to be missing. Without a visual record of these people it’s no wonder that they are often thought of so romantically. Donohoe seems far more gallant if you ignore the fact that he was a short, scrawny, straw-haired Irishman with freckles and a snub nose. 

So in the end, just remember that the ability to capture images the way we do now is a privilege that previous generations could only dream of, and it might be worth looking into some old photo albums – you never know who might show up. 

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