Without doubt the world of bushrangers is dominated by men. However there are three notable female bushrangers who more than hold their own with their male counterparts. Here are the three lady bushrangers of note who stand toe to toe with the best of them.
“Black Mary” Cockerill
The first notable female bushranger is a companion of the infamous Michael Howe, an Aboriginal woman known as “Black Mary”. Previous little has actually been recorded about Mary, so much of what is available is often misreported, based entirely on unverified oral tradition or pure fiction.
Some accounts state that Mary was raised by a family of white settlers and was lured away to a life of adventure and banditry by Howe, while others state that Mary was one of several Aboriginal women kidnapped by the gang of bushrangers Howe was a leading member of during a violent raid that helped kick-start racial conflict in Van Diemens Land. Neither of these accounts are based in recorded evidence. Mary was first recorded as accompanying Howe’s gang in a raid on the property of Dennis McCarty in April 1815 and was frequently spotted with them thereafter as they raided the farms of prominent men in New Norfolk. Mary was not the only Aboriginal woman in the gang, but was the only one whose name was ever published.
As time went on and events escalated, Howe’s gang began to split up. There have been many inaccurate accounts of Mary’s relationship with Howe from this time, all of which seem to have taken a reference to her having once been his partner as an indication they were lovers. In fact, Mary’s role in the gang was more than likely to act as a scout and keep the gang away from Aboriginal tribes while they were moving through the bush. Claims that Mary became pregnant, again, are not based in fact but in fanciful, posthumous retellings.
Mary’s time with the gang came to an abrupt close when she and Michael were ambushed near the Shannon River. As they were attempting to outrun the soldiers, Howe fired back at them. Reports vary as to whether the shot actually hit Mary, let alone whether the hit was accidental or an act of desperation as she was slowing him down. Michael dumped his weapon and knapsack and took off into the bushes, leaving Mary behind. It is possible that Mary struggled to keep up because of a heart condition. Nevertheless she was captured by the soldiers and interrogated.
Though it is assumed that Mary was tortured, reports indicate that she was actually plied with new clothes and food in order to butter her up and encourage her assistance. This seemed to work and she agreed to help the military locate Howe and his bushranger colleagues. She led them to a spot where she knew the gang hid out, and the soldiers spotted Howe with two of his mates, who immediately gestured insultingly at them before vanishing into the bush. Mary continued to assist the government thereafter, working as a tracker.
Folklore suggests it was Mary who lured Howe to his doom in 1818, however this is yet another fabrication. Howe was lured into a trap, stabbed in the back then clubbed to death and decapitated for the reward on his head. Mary died in the Colonial Hospital in July 1819 of pulmonic affliction.
Mary Ann Bugg
Mary Ann Bugg was a half-Aboriginal woman who was born in the 1834 in an outstation of the Australian Agricultural Company. Well educated for her class and time, Mary Ann married an ex-convict named Baker but remarried in 1851 to a man named John Burrows to whom she had two sons. By 1855 she was with a new fella, another ex-convict named James McNally. The couple had three children: Mary Jane, Patrick William and Ellen. She would soon achieve infamy as the female accomplice of Frederick Wordsworth Ward aka Captain Thunderbolt. In love with the romance of their lifestyle as much as Ward himself, Mary Ann referred to herself as The Captain’s Lady.
Fred Ward met Mary Ann while out of prison on a ticket of leave. Mary Ann was already married at the time but that could not stop the two from having a passionate affair. As a result Mary Ann became pregnant and Fred Ward decided to take her to her family home in Dungog for the birth. That was all well and good in theory but in doing so Ward left the district prescribed in his ticket of leave and returned three days late for the muster. The direct result of this was Ward being thrown back into Gaol on Cockatoo Island. Mary Ann was independent enough not to require assistance from Ward, but her love was too strong. Some have claimed that Mary Ann assisted Ward in his escape from Cockatoo Island, however she was already accounted for at that time and could not have been there. Ward made his way back to his beloved Mary Ann and it wasn’t long before the two started living like Bonnie and Clyde, travelling together and committing crime.
Mary Ann was nothing short of astounding in her resourcefulness and determination. Whether hiking over mountains with children on her back or catching cattle to feed the family, Mary Ann was irrepressible. Frequently dressed in men’s clothes, Mary Ann was a spectacular horsewoman. Her preferred method of catching cattle was using a tool of her own design which was effectively a butcher’s knife on a broom handle. She would ride up to the beast of choice and using her tool would cut its hamstring whereupon she could slaughter it. This practice brought her unwanted attention and she was often nabbed in an attempt to get at Thunderbolt. Twice she was arrested and tried for vagrancy but she never gave in. On one occasion Mary Ann managed to give the police the slip by feigning labour and was rescued by Thunderbolt and his gang.
Eventually, the pair separated during Mary Ann’s final pregnancy to Ward. No doubt Mary Ann had grown tired of enabling her husband to lead a lawless life and wanted to concentrate on raising her children, three of whom were to Ward – Marina Emily, Eliza and Frederick Wordsworth Ward jr. While the details of the split are unknown, the fact that Mary Ann named her third child to Ward after his father is telling of where her heart still resided. Mary Ann settled down once more with John Burrows and spent the rest of her days leading a quiet life. In total she had had fifteen children and in her later life working as a nurse before dying in 1905 of senile decay.
Jessie Hickman was born Elizabeth Jessie Hunt at Burraga, New South Wales on September 9, 1890. She grew up learning bush craft, horse riding and survival skills. By the age of fifteen she had become a successful roughrider and entertainer, touring the country with Martin Breheney aka Martini. Her time with Martini was successful and she became an unofficial rough riding champion in 1906. She fell in love with a man called Benjamin Hickman and they had a son together who they gave away to another couple to raise. Jessie ended up in Long Bay Gaol in 1913 after taking to stealing stock and clothing. She was imprisoned using her mother’s maiden name, McIntyre, rather than her birth name. She married Ben Hickman in 1920 but it was a tumultuous relationship that ended when he found work in the city and Jessie refused to leave the bush.
After she was separated from her husband, Jessie headed to the Blue Mountains. Her brother lived in Rylstone and she stayed with him for a time but soon went bush. Setting up a camp in the Nullo Mountains, she furnished a cave with a bed and shelving to make it more habitable, an idea that never struck the male bushrangers in the 100+ years of bushranging prior. From here Jessie Hickman engaged in cattle duffing with her gang of men she called the “Young Bucks”, stealing the animals from local farmers that she would graze and water in the lowlands near her hideout then taking the stolen cattle to markets in Singleton and Muswellbrook. Eventually able to purchase land in Emu Creek, she was still wanted by police and on multiple occasions performed daring escapes when approached by lawmen.
In May 1928, Jessie was arrested at Emu Creek on cattle theft charges but was acquitted at Mudgee on a lack of evidence. Settling down on her Emu Creek property, she took ill with head pains. Eventually being moved from Muswellbrook to Newcastle Mental Hospital, Hickman died of a brain tumour on September 15, 1936 and buried in a pauper’s grave in Sandgate Cemetery. She was forty six years old.