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 the companion of the infamous Michael Howe, a half-Aboriginal woman known as “Black Mary”. 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. Mary was first recorded as accompanying the Whitehead gang on a raid in April 1815 and was frequently spotted with them thereafter as they raised hell in New Norfolk.
As time went on, Howe’s natural inclination towards paranoia saw him split from the rest of the gang and take Mary with him. Mary hid with Howe in a marsh in the Tasmanian Oatlands where she acted as a scout as well as engaging in “wifely duties”. Things soon took an alarming turn. It is said that at the time Howe had gotten Mary pregnant. As they were attempting to outrun a police party, Howe turned on his wife who was struggling with fatigue and shot her with a blunderbuss without warning. It is unclear whether this was accidental or an act of desperation as she was slowing him down, though Howe’s character would indicate the latter to be more likely. Beside herself at this betrayal, Mary’s physical wounds healed but the emotional ones remained raw and she went to the authorities and offered to help the military locate Howe and his bushranger colleagues. The forces of law and order, lead by Mary, torched farmhouses to flush the fugitives into the open as did all in heir power Folklore suggests it was Mary who lured Howe to his doom in 1818, however there is nothing to substantiate this assertion. Howe was clubbed to death and decapitated for the reward on his head, Mary died in July 1819 of pulmonary affection.
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.