Spotlight: THE LATE AARON SHERRITT (By SIR SOLOMON.)

[The following article appeared in the Singleton Argus on 12 April, 1924. It has all the hallmarks of the retrospectives of the time – poetic descriptions, adherence to oral history and enough accurate information sprinkled throughout to legitimise the unsubstantiated claims in the eyes of most casual readers. Articles such as this helped to entrench much of the inaccurate information that many clung to – and in some cases still do – in order to justify their opinions of the players.]

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THE LATE AARON SHERRITT
(By SIR SOLOMON.)
A name that looms large in the criminal records of Australia is that of Aaron Sherritt. Physically, he was a man in a thousand, and his beautifully proportioned limbs were the envy of his companions, whilst his facial expressions belied the deep scheming propensities of his vicious nature. As a lad he attended the State School at Woolshed, and had as two bosom companions Joe Byrne and another lad, who, for obvious reasons, we will call Wallace James. On leaving school these three youths remained, almost to the last, the same trusting friends as in their happy boyhood days. Each was possessed of a fairly good education; in fact, James became a State school teacher and served in the Victorian Education Department. Sherritt and Byrne were intimate friends of the Kelly brothers, and the quartette indulged in an orgy of horse stealing which has no parallel in Australia. Horses stolen in Victoria would be taken to N. S. Wales and there sold, and vice-versa. The Kelly’s eventually took to the bush to evade arrest for the shooting of Constable Fitzpatrick, and Sherritt and Byrne rarely saw them for some months, and it was the irony of fate that eventually thrust Byrne and Hart into their company on Saturday, October 26th, 1878. These two young men had no intention, or desire, to meet
the Kellys that day, but, after meeting them accidentally, accepted an invitation to their (Kellys) camp, and a few hours later the murder of Sergeant Kennedy and his companions was enacted. Byrne and Hart did not participate in the callous crime, though
both were present in company with the murderers. Ned Kelly then induced the two young men to throw in their lot with him and become bushrangers.
Sherritt at this time was engaged to be married to Byrne’s sister, so the gang made for his hut in anticipation of succour in the way of food, and with the hope that Aaron would join in their exploits. On reaching the hut they hung around for hours, but not seeing
Sherritt about they fired off eight shots in an endeavor to attract his attention.
The report’s of the firearms caused consternation among some of the residents, who immediately communicated with the police, and in a short time a cavalcade of 52 troopers was galloping towards the Sherritt homestead. It can well be imagined the noise 52 horsemen would make galloping along a metalled road, and had the outlaws been near could have heard the approach of their enemy for miles, and have easily made their escape. As everything was quiet at Sherritt’s, the police continued their gallop to Sebastopol, and this incident was ever after known as the “Charge of Sebastopol.”
The absurdity of the proceedings that day were so apparent that the three officers, including the Chief Commissioner, denied responsibility for them; however, they met Aaron, and endeavored to enlist his services in the capture of the gang. Sherritt said he
would do nothing, as Joe Byrne might be one of the party. The police assured him that Byrne was in no way connected with the outlaws, and that the companions of the Kellys were men named Brown and King, and so sure were they on the point that they coupled their names with those of the actual murderer in the ”Gazette” notice offering the reward for their bodies dead or alive. For weeks these two innocent men’s lives were in jeopardy of being taken by either police or civilian, and it was not till the Euroa Bank robbery occurred that the real companions of the Kellys were discovered, and then in a curious manner. Hart was busily engaged rounding up the bank manager’s family and servants, when one of the domestics – a girl from Wangaratta – who knew Hart for years, said: “Hello, Steve, is this your game?” The same girl had noticed a nice young man, for a couple of days, at De ‘Boos hotel, adjoining the bank: This young chap was Byrne, who had left his companions, camped in Beggs’ paddock, just outside the town, whilst he could look around and finalise arrangements for the robbery.
The names of Byrne and Hart were now substituted for those of Brown and King in the outlawry notices. It is interesting to note that old Mrs Kelly, the mother of the outlaws, died last year, not as Mrs. Kelly, but as Mrs. King, she having remarried. Some few years ago a son of this marriage appeared here with Wirth’s Circus in an equestrian and stockwhip turn; he was billed as a brother of the Kellys. This young man is at present doing well in America.
After persistent endeavours the police succceded in enlisting Sherritt as a spy, but only on condition that Byrne’s life would, if possible, be spared. Sherritt used all his persuasive powers to induce Byrne to surrender, but the latter said: ”No, I am in with them now, and I must remain so.” During the greater portion of the time the outlaws
were at large they fully trusted Sherritt, and had no idea he was assisting the police. One time a party of police (25) was camped in a cave behind Mrs. Byrne’s house, and the old lady, being suspicious, made a detour and found Aaron lying asleep in the midst of the
troopers; she said nothing, but movedon, and then Sherritt was awakened and rushed to the house to prove an alibi. Whether he succeeded or not was not known, as the old lady never mentioned the incident to him. About this time the young school teacher, Wallace James, began to got mixed up with both police and outlaws. He offered his services to the former, and though he was almost daily supplying information not one particle of it was
worth considering; in fact, the police accused him of assisting the outlaws. They had abundant proof that he had been with certain members of the gang, and he admitted having seen Ned Kelly and his old pal Joe Byrne. He also admitted visiting Sherritt’s house at the unearthly hour of 2 o’clock in the morning, at the time the outlaws began
to lose faith in Aaron. The police theory was that these visits were made in the interests of the gang, who thought police camped at Sherritt’s at night. Immediately after the Jerilderie bank robbery, James and Aaron Sherritt had a gay time at Beeehworth, where both spent money lavishly, & produced several £5 notes, which they boasted were part
of the proceeds of that robbery. James was always enquiring of the Sherritt family if there were any police about Woolshed, and one day, to test his bona-fides, Jack Sherritt said: “Yes, 10 and two trackers passed to-day.” Two hours later Mrs. Byrne sent word to Mrs. Sherritt to tell the outlaws if they called at her house that there were 10 constables and two black trackers searching Woolshed for them. A Royal Commission was appointed to enquire into the Kelly business, and with regard to James the report runs:
“That in consequence of the reprehensible conduct of Wallace James, the school teacher at —- , during the Kelly pursuit, and his alleged sympathy with the outlaws, together with the unsatisfactory character of his evidence before the Commission, your Commissioners
think it very undesirable that Mr. James should be retained in any department of the public service. We, therefore, recommend his instant dismissal from the Education Department.”
After a time the engagement between Aaron and Miss Byrne was broken off without the latter assigning any reason. She had a very fine horse, a present from her lover, but on the engagement terminating she got rid of it and bought another. This horse had hardly been in the paddock when Aaron stole it and gave it to Kate Kelly.
Miss Byrne now took out a warrant for Aaron’s arrest for horse stealing, but the police would not put it into execution, as they felt Aaron’s services were too valuable to them. Sherritt now made a counter move against the Byrne family; he had a lady’s side-saddle, and he planted it, one dark night, on Mrs. Byrne’s property, and then got a warrant for her arrest, as well as that of a young son, for stealing it. Both were acquitted of the theft. This action was supposed to have precipitated the murder of Sherritt, for up to this point Byrne (the outlaw) had shown much thought for his old schoolmate. Byrne knew that Ned Kelly intended shooting him (Sherritt) some time prior to this, so he rode to Mrs. Sherritt (mother) and warned her against allowing Aaron to sleep indoors, as Ned Kelly fully intended to carry out his dire threat.
At the time of the Jerilderie bank robbery, the gang offered great inducements to Aaron to accompany them on the expedition, but he was adamant in his refusal. Though this crime was committed 600 miles from here, its influence had a considerable effect in
Singleton, by reason of the fact that this town was made a breaking-in depot for remounts for the troopers engaged in the pursuit of the outlaws. A lot of the handling was done in the old Pound Yard, at the back of the Caledonian Hotel, and all the mounting in the heavy sand opposite the “Loom Hole.” Constable Willis, of this town, and Constable Coglan, of Jerry’s Plains, were both despatched to the Murray River in pursuit of the gang.
On the return of the outlaws from Jerilderie to their mountain home in Victoria, Joe Byrne had a remarkable escape from capture. Sherritt informed the police that the whole gang would arrive at Mrs. Byrne’s house on a certain night, and that they would pass through the stockyard. Superintendent Hare surrounded the house and placed
a number of men in the stockyard, and he and Sherritt were with them. After a tedious wait, footsteps were heard; then a fair-sized man jumped over the fence and nearly fell on the Superintendent, who wanted to arrest him. Sherritt said: “It’s not Byrne, but Scotty”, however, that was only a ruse, as it was discovered, too late, to be Byrne.
On Boxing Day, l879, Sherritt decided upon marriage with a young girl 15 years of age, and the ceremony was duly celebrated. In anticipation of entering the holy bonds of wedlock he “jumped” a little deserted hut at the Woolshed. It was a one-roomed little
building, but with the aid of some calico, he converted it into a two-roomed domicile. One day the rightful owner came along to eject Aaron, but as there were a number of police hiding in the place, and to turn them out would disclose their plans, they subscribed the few pounds necessary to purchase the hut, and thus Aaron became a land owner. On June 26th, 1880, it was decided that the batches of police that were ‘guarding Mrs. Kelly’s, Mrs Byrne’s, and Mrs Hart’s houses should be withdrawn that night, as the chances of capturing the gang in that way appeared hopeless. The night previous the police surrounding Mrs. Byrne’s house were startled by something, and Aaron went to investigate, but did not return, nor did he appear again till next day; he refused to say what had happened, or where he had been, but he did remark to the police: “I’m a goner.” How prophetic his words were is ancient history, for at 6 o’clock that night Byrne and Dan Kelly visited his house, and the former shot him dead. His young wife – they were only six months married – her mother, and four constables were present at the time. The outlaws called upon the police to go outside, but they got under the bed, and made the women get on the outside of them. The two outlaws peppered the building, but
none of the shots took effect on the police or women. Whilst this was going on Ned Kelly and Hart were busy at Glenrowan pulling up the railway in their endeavor to wreck the train with the police, who, it was known, would travel by it on Sherritt’s murder becoming known. Three of the police who were in Sherritt’s hut at the time of the murder were dismissed the force, whilst the fourth tendered his resignation before a charge of cowardice could be entered against him. Two days after Sherritt’s death the
Kelly gang was destroyed, and even in this tragic event there is a humourous side – the four constables who sheltered themselves between the two women under the bed received £42 each of the reward money. It was through Aaron Sherritt that the authorities ascertained the particulars of Sergeant Kennedy’s cruel death. After expending all his ammunition in an endeavor to shoot the Kellys, the gallant officer ran from tree to tree in his endeavor to escape the murderous fire. At last a bullet from
Ned Kelly’s rifle brought him down, and the Kellys endeavored to obtain information from him about certain police, but the brave man would tell them nothing. He would only speak of his family. For two hours the Kellys sat by his side trying to get him to
answer questions, but to no purpose. He asked the Kellys to convey certain messages to his wife and family, and between sobs, he could be heard appealing to the Almighty for forgiveness of his sins. He spoke of a darling little one whom he had recently buried,
and beside whom he would soon be sleeping. He said the little girl would be spared the pain and anguish his dear wife and other loving children would soon be called upon to bear, he then asked the murderers if he wrote a last farewell to his dear ones would
they deliver it to them? He said: “Kelly, I forgive you; may Almighty God also forgive you.” He then began to write, and it was quite evident his life was slowly ebbing away, when Ned Kelly raised his rifle to finish his sufferings, but the movement of the outlaw attracted his attention, and he made one last pathetic appeal, and said: “Oh, Kelly, do not kill me; let me once again look on those dear ones who are all in all to me. Surely you have done enough already.” Ned lowered his gun, and the unfortunate man continued to write, but with the greatest difficulty. At last Ned gave his brother the “office,” and in an instant the latter raised his gun and blew half the brave man’s head away.

Source:

“THE LATE AARON SHERRITT” Singleton Argus (NSW : 1880 – 1954) 12 April 1924: 5.

Image Source:

AARON SHERRITT. David Syme and Co. July 3, 1880. Illustrated Australian news. SLV Source ID: 1760484

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