The story of John Francis Peggotty is one of the most bizarre in bushranging only made more bizarre by the fact that it seems to be nothing more than an elaborate urban myth perpetuated by an enthusiastic tourism board. South Australia can’t lay claim to many bushrangers, and certainly none of the calibre of those found in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania so why did this story capture the imagination? The short answer is novelty.
According to the stories John Francis Peggotty was born three months premature in Limerick, Ireland in 1864. As an eighteen year old he travelled to South Africa where he learned to ride ostriches (ostrich racing being a popular sport there). Peggotty’s tiny, underdeveloped frame was ideal for the pursuit of riding large flightless birds and he became wildly proficient. For reasons undetermined, Peggotty left South Africa for England where he went on a crime spree, his tiny body effortlessly sliding down chimneys to give him access to homes where he could pilfer all he desired like some sort of strange reverse-Santa Claus. Getting nabbed and doing time in gaol did nothing to deter the tiny Irishman and he set his sights on Australia and joined his uncle’s farm in New South Wales. Farming proved to be unappealing to Peggotty and he took his leave and went to South Australia where he soon took up a life of lawlessness.
Peggotty resumed his crime career with his unique modus operandi but it wasn’t long before Peggotty in a Fagin-esque manner began recruiting urchins to join him in his exploits, teaching them his tricks for stealthy break and enter. Peggotty would not trade his ill-gotten gains for cash as many would presume, but rather took much pleasure in wearing the stolen jewellery and was frequently seen bedecked in gold chains of various sizes, glimmering rings and jangling bracelets. Adorned in jewellery and little else, Peggotty was a weird figure indeed.
Tiring of the break-and-enter business Peggotty decided to take inspiration from the likes of Captain Thunderbolt and Frank Gardiner and go bush and become a highwayman. Unable to mount a horse because of his size Peggotty took advantage of the birds brought to South Australia for the lucrative ostrich feather trade, liberating a bird and riding it like it was a gallant steed. Peggotty bailed up travellers throughout the Coorong on his ostrich, liberating them of anything that crinkled or tinkled before word began to spread that this impish outlaw had become a veritable menace. Choosing to haunt the region by the shores of Lake Albert with its towering walls of sand, Peggotty atop his fowl steed was irrepressible. The police soon set out in search of the so-called “Birdman of the Coorong”.
In a short time Peggotty had numerous robberies and two murders to his name and a sizeable reward on his head. Things came to a head when the birdman attempted to rob a fisherman named Henry Carmichael on 17 September of 1899. Carmichael was not in the mood for such nonsense from who he thought was no more than a juvenile delinquent at first but soon realised from the bushranger’s quirky steed that this was the infamous Birdman. Grabbing his rifle and levelling it at Peggotty, Carmichael was determined to claim the reward. Peggotty knew not to mess around and took off, the ostrich leaving Carmichael in the dust. As bullets whizzed past him, Peggotty ducked and weaved but the fisherman was far too proficient and a bullet struck the ostrich and brought it down. Peggotty tumbled to the ground and another bullet penetrated the delicate frame of the bushranger who crawled into the undergrowth and seemingly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Some say that beneath the mountainous sand dunes is a tiny skeleton wearing a small fortune in gold and jewellery waiting to be found.
In all probability the lack of records and contemporary news articles indicates that this is in fact pure myth. That Peggotty is a name plucked straight from the works of Charles Dickens also gives it away. That hasn’t stopped the powers that be from using the tale of the Birdman to foster tourism in the Coorong in a bid to help the district recover after a particularly nasty period of drought that caused quite a lot of pain to the locals. The tale is a cracking yarn full of adventure and humour that aims to connect South Australia to the great bushranging tales of the Eastern states. It is also a fantastic way of creating a bit of legend around the wild ostriches of the Coorong, large flightless birds imported for their feathers but let loose when they were either released or escaped. it may not be the truth but it is a cracking good yarn.