As 1866 bled into 1867 the New South Wales government were increasingly desperate over the situation with the Clarke syndicate, that being the gang of bushrangers themselves and the network of sympathisers that worked together with them to ensure their ongoing career of banditry. The gang, led by the indefatigable Thomas Clarke, showed no signs of slowing down as they raided stores, robbed travellers and coaches and led the local police a merry dance – even with deaths and arrests of some of their number to contend with. In a bold move the New South Wales government began recruiting special constables to complement the overworked police force.

Specially selected by Sir Henry Parkes to form his own task force, John Carroll was a former warder at Darlinghurst Gaol with a military background. Eneas McDonnell, a former policeman, John Phegan, a former clerk and digger, and Patrick Kennagh, another former prison warder, were soon recruited and provided what should have been the perfect mix of skills and knowledge to nail down the Clarkes.

Arriving in Braidwood by coach, the special constables set about blending into the town while simultaneously gathering intelligence on the bushrangers and their sympathisers. Carroll found himself gobsmacked to see police officers fraternising with sympathisers, some seemingly even in romantic entanglements. This was obviously not an ideal set of circumstances for tracking down and capturing the outlaws.

In the mid-1860s attitudes towards bushrangers were very negative on the whole after the years of almost unmitigated roguery in New South Wales in particular at the hands of Gardiner, Hall, Morgan and their ilk. That the Clarke gang was being protected and supported by a syndicate of supporters was common knowledge in the region and recommendations had been made to have the leases of anyone harbouring or assisting the bushrangers revoked. This was cancelled before being implemented but highlighted the deep concerns the police and government had about the role of such a syndicate in the perpetuation of crime. Now with the belief that police officers were also in on the act, Carroll was about ready to blow the lid on the sordid state of affairs.

Word soon fed back to Thomas Clarke, the head of the gang, that there were plain-clothes officers in town and the sympathisers refused to cooperate with the special constables. Furthermore the special police had been fired upon at their camp, seemingly by the bushrangers, though the darkness had kept the true identities of the assailants secret. Frustrated, Carroll initiated a plan that would seal the fate of he and his men. In a blitz, the special constables arrested sympathisers and relatives and claimed horses and equipment that had been taken or used by the bushrangers. The aim was to starve the gang of their supporters and means of survival to bring them into the open. The plan was swift and effective despite local constabulary trying to stymie the effort out of jealousy and more than a little worry about this would impact their own interests and reputations. The local police had taken umbrage to the idea that the government would bring in outsiders to do their job as much as they had resented Carroll’s interference, and Carroll complained publicly that he and his team had endured greater obstruction in their undertaking from the police than from the Clarkes.

Information about the arrests and reclaimed property filtered through the remaining members of the syndicate back to Tommy Clarke who was incensed at this outrage. The Clarke syndicate was a wide-spread but delicate web of relatives and friends that covered Braidwood and outlying towns with Thomas Clarke at the centre like a spider receiving feedback from the sensitive strands, and such bold moves by the special constables could easily destroy the whole thing and make he and his gang very vulnerable. Something had to be done.

Details of the precise events that followed are shrouded in mystery even to this day, and while many have speculated on the players and the way it unfolded, and many more have stated categorically that they know what happened for a fact, any interpretation can only be an educated guess. What follows is a recounting of the most widely accepted version of events, though it must be stressed this is not the definitive account.

Carroll and his men were patrolling the district and responded to a summons to the outskirts of Braidwood. Word had reached Carroll that he could find Thomas Clarke a mere two miles from Jingera. The group travelled through Ballalaba towards Stony Creek where they stopped at Mick O’Connell’s for dinner. They then continued to Jinden station where they stayed the night, stopping along the way to make enquiries. The next morning they set off towards Braidwood with the intention of rendezvousing with a party at Watts’ Station. Carroll suggested they walk to gain the element of surprise should the information prove true. They had lunch and proceeded on foot to cover the five miles to Braidwood, keeping off the tracks to avoid being spotted or followed. As they left they were warned to be cautious. This would be the last time they were seen alive.

At 5.00pm shots rang out on the outskirts of Braidwood. Half an hour later more shots were heard. Nothing much was thought of it. As the evening took hold the waiting party at Smith’s station grew concerned at the continuing absence of Connell and his men. A scout was sent by Smith to investigate their whereabouts in case they were lost and found the bodies of McDonnell and Phegan on the road. He ran back and took others with him to investigate. Half a mile away from McDonnell and Phegan, Kennagh and Carroll were found. Word was sent to the nearest police station where it was received at 7.00pm. The police had evidently been lured into a trap, the place where the shooting took place conspicuous by a clearing surrounded by substantial bush, saplings and honeysuckle trees with two particularly large trees a mere twenty-three yards from where the first bodies were found, estimated to be capable of obscuring almost half a dozen men from view. The clearing ascended to a gentle slope overlooking the scene of the crime. There was no way the police could have defended themselves from the ambush.

The deaths were mysterious but the police determined that as the troopers were walking they were ambushed and shot, two on the road, two on the hilltop. Carroll’s body was discovered with a bloodied one pound note pinned to his chest, and seemingly executed. The bodies had not been robbed or otherwise interfered with indicating that this was a deliberate killing, not a case of things escalating out of control in a robbery gone wrong. The bloody pound was seemingly a threat to anyone who dared to interfere with anyone within the Clarke syndicate. Trackers found signs that horses had been tethered to trees about three hundred yards from Phegan and McDonnell. It didn’t take long for the finger to be pointed at Thomas Clarke, John Clarke and William Scott. The authorities all seemed to have a list of names of people they suspected of helping the gang to track the special constables.

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The scene was examined in more detail in hope of finding clues or answers. News quickly seeped out and there was much distress with reports of the men allegedly being attacked by a mob and Carroll’s legs being horrifically broken among other indignities. A magisterial inquiry was carried out on 11 February with medical evidence presented by Dr. Pattison:

John Carroll: I am of opinion that death was caused by a gun-shot wound ; that the wounds were inflicted by the bullet removed, which entered the body through the fourth rib anteriorly, passing through part of left lung, upper part of pericardium, right auricle and right ventricle of heart, passing through lower lobe posteriorly of right lung, fracturing the seventh rib posteriorly, close to the spinal column, the bullet lodging in the muscles of the back. I am also of opinion that deceased must have been in a kneeling position when shot and only a few yards from the weapon which I believe to have been a rifle or gun from which bullet was discharged.
Patrick Kennagh : I am of opinion that death was caused by wounds inflicted by a rifle ball of large dimensions. I am also of opinion that deceased was in a kneeling position when shot. The bullet entered through the ponum adami of thyroid cartilage in neck and passed downward through trachea and upper part of gullet, passing through upper part of left lung, and wounding vessels already described, fracturing part of first dorsal vertebra and passing through the body posteriorly, fracturing rib about an inch from spinal column.
Ennis [sic] McDonnell : Wounded in left, thigh about middle third, wounding femoral artery and vein, and fracturing femur. Removed portion of bullet from inner and upper surface of thigh bone, am of opinion that deceased must have been in an erect position, probably walking, and in the act of turning round when bullet entered thigh. Death must have taken place in a minute or two after infliction of wound. I am of opinion wound must have been produced by rifle ball at some distance (say twenty yards) from party firing. Only part of the bullet entered the thigh.
John Phegan : I am of opinion that deceased was first shot through right side, bullet passing through base of right lung, diaphghram and posterior portion of liver as already described, lodging in the tissues external to the ninth rib posteriorly close to the spinal column: The bullet was a rifle bullet. A second bullet entered body probably when deceased was lying on the ground passing between fifth and sixth ribs on left side, through both lungs, wounding large blood vessels of heart, making its exit in the right side immediately above margin of lateral surface of third rib, entering right arm while deceased was lying on that arm, passing through the inner and upper part of right arm, fracturing the bone and embedding itself, in the tissues, where I removed it as I have elsewhere described.

The bodies were recovered and hastily buried in a pauper’s grave marked by sheets of bark but public outcry saw the men exhumed and given a proper funeral and burial at Braidwood Cemetery, paid for by the New South Wales government. The procession was long and the loss of the men cemented public hatred for the Clarkes. Soon the Clarke gang were declared to be outlaws and a reward of £5000 pounds offered for their capture yet the identities of the exact men who carried out the foul deed was never uncovered. The murder of the special constables had earned Thomas Clarke and his cohort the title of the “bloodiest bushrangers”.

Selected Sources:

“MURDER OF SPECIAL CONSTABLES CARROLL, PHEGAN, McDONNELL AND KENNAGH.” Illustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 – 1872) 16 February 1867: 4.

“THE MURDER. OF THE FOUR CONSTABLES. AT JINGERA.” Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1875)15 January 1867: 4.

“THE BRAIDWOOD BUSHRANGING CASES.” The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881) 19 December 1866: 2.

Special thanks:

Joshua Little for his expertise on the Clarkes.

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