“I have a heart, but it’s as hard as stone”: Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt by Georgina Rose Stones

[In this article Georgina Rose Stones explores the complex relationship between Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt in an attempt to understand what led to Byrne turning on his best friend in the worst way possible ~AP]

If I had not shot him, he would have shot me if he had the chance.”

“Dear Aaron I write these few stolen lines to you to let you know that I am still living…” On the 26th of June 1879, a desperate Joe Byrne pens a letter to his lifelong friend, Aaron Sherritt, asking him to join the gang, “a short life and a jolly one” Joe asserted. However, within the span of a year, on the night of June 26th 1880, Joe, accompanied by Dan Kelly, would shoot and kill Aaron at his hut in the Woolshed. “You will not blow now what you do with us anymore”, Joe declared, looking down on the blood soaked face of his once most trusted friend…. For the writing that follows, I have chosen to analyse the actions of both Joe and Aaron from the period of June 1879 to June 1880, paying particular reference to Joe’s own words, both within his letter to Aaron, and, through Joe’s dialogue to those around him. I have chosen to focus my response on this area, as I believe, it is something that has not been examined in detail previously. This, in turn, has allowed for a great deal of conjecture as to Joe’s actions, his frame of mind and reasons for his killing of Aaron.

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Firstly, I do not think it feasible to discuss the later actions of Joe and Aaron without giving detail to their friendship. Given the great differences in their appearance, personality and manner, it is interesting that the two men were able to form such a close friendship. In terms of appearance, Joe was described as being “soberly dressed”, with the photo taken of him in 1877 reflecting this. In stark contrast, Richard Warren the son of a local newspaper owner, recalled that Aaron was “as flash as Lucifer”, going on to say, “anybody seeing him coming down Ford Street would ask, ‘who the hell’s this? Some advance agent for the circus.’” James Ingram, whose Beechworth bookshop was regularly visited by both Joe and Aaron, remembered Joe as “a nice, well behaved lad.” While a school friend of Joe’s would relate to author Max Brown that she found him to be “a nice quiet boy, not flash.” Counter to this is Annie Wick’s assessment, “he was a wild boy, good looking, but wild” although spoken in reference to Joe, the ‘wild’ streak mentioned ran through the veins of both young men. This wildness is captured within their tendency to ‘borrow’ horses as stated within Ian Jones’ The Fatal Friendship, “If they liked your horse, they’d take it at night, ride to Eldorado, gallop all the way, and it’d be back in your paddock the next day all knocked up.” Living in the Woolshed Valley, it would have been easy for the two boys to pick up a degree of waywardness given the ruggedness of both the area and inhabitants. Certainly the Chinese community, both within the Woolshed and Beechworth, played a large role in Ah Joe and Ah Jim (Aaron’s) early, and later, friendship. It is also known that Joe was an opium addict; this addiction would have undoubtedly been sprung within the opium tents which dotted the many Chinese camps of Sebastopol. From these descriptions, it is easy to imagine Joe, swaggering along Camp Street, dressed smartly in his tweed ‘town clothes’, his larrikin heels echoing off cobblestones. While alongside him, is Aaron, dressed flashily, a bright sash swinging from his waist, tipping his pork pie hat to all who passed. Contrasting these two men further, is the differing way in which they interacted with their families. Aaron, it can be asserted, was closely tied to his father John, and, mother Anne, while Joe’s relationship with Margret was far more complex. It is easy to dismiss Joe’s absence from home as him openly showing how little he cared about the plight of his family. I, however, do not view it in such a harsh way. Joe was a young man who was educated, well read and given his close relationship with the Beechworth Chinese community, cultured. Further to this, it is noted that Joe was a friend of respected Chinese businessman and philanthropist, Nam Sing, who resided within the Spring Creek Chinese community. Given his intellect and nature, it is easy to imagine Joe sitting under Nam Sing’s veranda, conversing in Cantonese while sipping jasmine tea from an intricately painted China teacup. Joe’s regular visits to the Burke Museum highlight, both his cultural and, historical curiosity, which would have been quite at odds with his upbringing and life within the rugged Woolshed Valley, further contrasting the personas of Joe and Aaron. In conjunction with these elements of Joe’s character, it is an undisputable fact that Joe and Margret did not share a loving mother and son relationship. This is first highlighted, publically, within the court proceedings regarding a stolen and later slaughtered heifer from the Eldorado Common School with the charge being, ‘having in their possession the carcass of a certain cow for the lawful possession of which they cannot satisfactory account.’ At the trial, Margret’s evidence had been laced in bitterness to Joe, so bitter in fact that Police Magistrate, Robert Pitcairn was forced to ask “Is your son good to you?” After a lengthy silence, which must have seemed like an eternity for Joe, she replied “I cannot say.” In contrast, John Sherritt spoke glowingly of his son, concluding in his evidence, “we are not separated”. Joe and Aaron were found guilty and on the 21st of May, 1876, were given a six month sentence with hard labour, to be undertaken inside the cold granite walls of Beechworth Gaol. Not only does this incident highlight the family differences between the two men, but, also connects with the statement Joe made on the night of June 26th 1880, “The bastard will never put me away again.” This was a striking declaration, and I believe, gives an interesting insight into the dynamics between Joe and Aaron. While Joe’s remarks could have been in reference to his imprisonment, they could also have been in relation to an incident that occurred on the 13th of January 1877. During a hot summer’s day in the Woolshed, Joe and Aaron had decided to cool off in the, shimmering, rippling waters of the nearby dam. While they were swimming, a Chinaman, named Ah On, came down to the dam to collect water for his garden. Words were exchanged between the pair and an angry Ah On went back to his hut, while Joe and Aaron retrieved their clothes and quickly dressed. According to the Chinaman, and his two friends, the young men began ‘pelting stones’ at the Chinese hut. It was also claimed, by the Chinese, that after Joe and Aaron had barraged the hut with stones, and Aaron had severely wounded Ah Oh with a stone to the temple, did they retaliate with bamboos. This was made in challenge of Willie Sherritt’s claim that they had produced the bamboos first. Finally, as Joe himself relayed to Constable Mullane, “I’ve nothing to say. I didn’t do it and didn’t see it done…we were bathing in the dam; when we got out the Chinese hunted us with bamboos; I ran one way, and Aaron ran the other, and I saw nothing at all of it.” Both men were remanded to the police court until the 13th of February, where, during a two day trial both Joe and Aaron, although cautioned, were found not guilty. The reasoning behind my statement, that Joe’s utterance over Aaron’s dead body could have been about the above incident, is in regards to a conversation Aaron had during the final minutes of his life. “One night, I heard someone knocking on the bars of my cell window, and when I asked who it was, Joe replied, ‘It is me; I am going to help you escape.’ I told him “the Chinaman is getting better, so you had better give yourself up, and do not be a fool.’ Joe took my advice, surrendered, secured legal advice and was acquitted”. It is tempting to imagine Joe, standing outside Aarons hut, listening to the conversation between Aaron and the police, of a friendship long ago, his fingers furling and unfurling around the trigger of the double barrelled shotgun….

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Between the times of June 1879 to June 1880, Joe’s perception of Aaron changed dramatically. The reasons for his altered view of Aaron have been discussed in the past; however, they often show little regard for Joe’s own words. For a number of people it is Joe’s opium addiction that helped ‘pull the trigger’. It is believed his addled state of mind sent Joe into a paranoid frenzy, his testing of Aaron and Jack fuelled by crippling opium withdrawals. Personally, I have never been at ease with this notion, and, it is why, I have felt compelled to pen this piece. In conjunction with the ‘Sherritt Letter’, I will be analysing Joe’s ‘threatening’ letters to Aaron and Detective Ward, his association with Jack Sherritt, the words of both Belle and Anne Sherritt and Aaron’s betrayal of Maggie.

On the day of the 26th of June 1879, Joe hastily wrote a letter to his ‘lifelong’ friend. Within “these few stolen lines”, Joe pleads that Aaron confirm himself to be, “on our side”, in the wake of constant distrust amongst the “Lloyds and Quinns” who, “wants you shot”. The letter is an emotionally charged piece, written on two sheets of note paper, possibly taken from Anne Sherritt and offers a valuable insight into Joe’s frame of mind at this time. It is clear, within the letter, that Joe is burdened by the suspicion that darkens Aaron within the eyes of Tom Lloyd. It is also clear why this would have been the case. Firstly, Joe would have been in a precarious position, defending Aaron’s loyalty while so many others, including Dan Kelly, were questioning it. This, in turn, may have brought about a degree of distrust towards Joe, resulting in him not only shielding threats made against Aaron, but also, against himself. Up to, and during, this time, it is obvious that Joe was still trying to keep his bond with “dear Aaron” from becoming severed, however, several months after Joe’s request that he join the gang, his correspondence to Aaron altered significantly. It is quoted within The Fatal Friendship that “a letter from Joe Byrne reached the Beechworth Police, containing threats to Aaron, Constable Mullane and Detective Ward, ‘warning them of mischief before that day month.’” Furthermore, it was said by Ward that the letter also offered “a reward of eight thousand pounds for the apprehension and delivery in Wombat Rangers of Captain Standish, Senior Constable Mullane and myself.” It is not clear what triggered this change; obviously what was said between Joe and Aaron is not known. Perhaps Aaron’s reluctance to join the gang, when he may have been eager in the past, shed doubt on his actions in the eyes of Joe. Months of questioning from the “Lloyds and Quinns” had certainly worn away at Joe. What is known for certain, however, is that not long after this, Joe turned his attention to Jack Sherritt.

During this time, Joe sent Jack a letter which was described as being “short written, quick”, asking Jack to meet him on Thursday the 5th of November, at Thompson’s farm on Sandy Creek. It is noted that Jack had misgivings about the meeting, but instructed by Superintendent Nicolson, he kept the appointment. When, on the Thursday, Jack had ridden over to the farm, he was informed that Thompson had been “gone 12 months”. Sure that he had been watched on the way, Jack camped the night, and left the following morning. It is recalled, that as he was riding back along a scrubby stretch of track, Joe sprang out of the scrub and called him. Turning his horse around, Jack saw Joe, who he described, “had no horse, but he had a pair of long boots, and his trousers were all over blood. He had long spurs.” Joe signalled Jack to follow him deep into the scrub, and the pair chatted in what was described as, a “long and friendly conversation.” Joe had asserted that the purpose of the meeting was to see if Jack would scout the Yackandandah Bank for the gang, and, “see how many police were stationed there…and see where the police went in to have tea.” Finally, asked by Joe whether he knew Nicolson, Jack had replied, he “knew no one”. This is in an interesting incident, not only because we see for the first time the toll of an outlawed life, but that Joe had asked, specifically, whether Jack “knew Nicolson.” Of course, this may well have been an innocent enquiry; however, I feel it is far sounder that Joe had been informed of Jack’s previous dealings with the Scottish Superintendent. Further to this meeting, it is noted that, later, on the 23rd of November, Joe appeared at the Sherritt farm. Joe was described as being “well dressed” and, it was noted, “shook hands with all the family”, including Aaron, and, thanked Jack for his work in the past month. Joe asserted his purpose of the visit was to ask Jack and Aaron to aid the gang in holding up one of the Beechworth Banks. Joe stayed at the Sherritts’ for four hours and left at midnight, promising he would return the following Sunday. It is recorded, that Joe “‘looked as if fretting’, and, appeared to have lost weight. They thought he was now less than ten stone.” This assessment has often been likened to Joe’s withdrawals from opium, I however, disagree. It should be highlighted that Joe was, by nature, a “thoroughly nervous man” and it is likely that he suffered anxiety. This anxiety would no doubt have been heightened by Joe’s opium use, and the burden of outlawry. This, consequently, would account for Joe’s manner while visiting the Sherritt’s. The reason, I personally, disregard Joe’s behaviour as stemming from withdrawal, is due to two specific details. Firstly, it is noted that the gang had many Chinese sympathisers, who no doubt, would have been able to ‘appease’ Joe’s opium addiction. If Joe was “short on funds”, the promise of future payment may have been offered to the Chinese, as it may have been before the Euroa and Jerilderie robberies. In relation to this, it was noted that on the 3rd of December Joe, accompanied by Aaron, appeared at E Fang’s store in Sebastopol, where he “got a bottle of gin, some tobacco, and something else, and went away.” It is tempting to presume that the “something else” could very well have been opium. Secondly, it is believed that the ‘poison’ Joe had with him at Glenrowan was a packet of Laudanum, which, if taken in small amounts, would have offered Joe the same release as the opium pipe.

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A final detail, which it can be asserted, led to the severed trust Joe had for Aaron is in regards to the police watch party which had been set up in Aaron’s hut. While the manipulative actions of Detective Ward cannot be shadowed, it must be accepted that Aaron made little attempt to hinder him. Almost the entire existence of Aaron’s life had become funded by the police, from the clothes he wore, the crockery and cutlery he used, even the hut, both he and Belle resided in, had been purchased by Constable Alexander. Behind this façade of employment, which Aaron, as Ian Jones points out, may have seen as “a long rambling joke”, it was Joe’s life he continued to profit from. Surely, at least in Joe’s eyes, the line of friendship had been crossed, and indeed, obliterated. While, before this time, Joe had continued to hide any grievances he may have had for Aaron, it is clear he no longer felt the need to do so. This is highlighted in his dialogue with Anne Sherritt, who recalled to the police, “I saw a man with a horses bridle on his arm, and this was Joe Byrne. And as soon as he saw me he got up and came over and spoke friendly enough to me; and he said he had come to take Aaron’s life, and also Detective Ward’s. He said ‘those two had them starved to death.’…I begged him not to take Aaron’s life. I said, ‘he has no harm; he would not hurt you’. And he said, ‘you need not impress that on my mind, because I can tell you that there was Ward and him and Mr. Hare very nearly twice catching us, and that tells you whether he would hurt us or not…’” Personally, I believe Joe’s statement deserves more weight than it has previously been given, and, shines a clear light on Joe’s assessment of Aaron’s involvement with the police. Further to this, if Aaron had not been so involved, wouldn’t he have seen reason to pull back his association with the police? Wouldn’t he have, as a result of Joe’s words, seen fit to explain himself to Joe? In conjunction to this is the words of Belle herself, who, in a newspaper interview after Aaron’s death, had questioned why she had not yet received a widow’s pension from the police, as her husband had been in their employment. Interestingly, Joe claimed that Belle often went “blowing about what her husband would do.” Many have viewed this to be false, asserting that it was nothing more than malice. I, however, believe Joe, and furthermore, it does not tarnish my view of Belle, as it is almost certain that she would have felt a sense of pride in her husband’s employment with the police.

I wish to conclude with an incident that I believe clearly marked Aaron as a traitor in the eyes of Joe, which was Aaron’s brazen betrayal of ‘Maggie’. On the evening of the 24th of June, two days before Aaron’s murder, Aaron, accompanied by a policeman, made a ‘pub crawl’ through Beechworth. As the afternoon gave way to evening, the pair reached the Vine Hotel, which stood at the very edge of town, before the descent into the Woolshed. Working at the Vine, was a young woman known, to history, as ‘Maggie’, and, as it happened was also one of the girls in Joe’s life. As the two men entered the bar, it is recalled that Aaron nodded in ‘Maggie’s’ direction had asserted, “that girl often sees Joe Byrne.” This, I believe was a striking disregard for the safety of ‘Maggie’, and, in the eyes of Joe, would have been unforgivable. In response to the constable’s questions, which began after Aaron had left, ‘Maggie’ asserted that she knew who had informed him of her identity, and promised, “somebody else will soon know, too.” Further to this, it is recalled that on the “Wednesday or Thursday night” Joe visited “Maggie”, on what was to be “the last time they met on earth.” It is easy to imagine the darkening of Joe’s usually gentle countenance, as “Maggie” informed him of Aaron’s betrayal. Finally, I firmly believe that if Joe needed one more reason to doubt Aaron’s loyalty, this would have surely been it. Not only had Aaron showed Joe such disregard, but he had directed this straight into the ears of an officer of the Victoria Police.

If Aaron’s fate was not already sealed on the night of June 25th, 1880, this most certainly helped pull the trigger the following evening.


Selected Sources:

Jones, Ian. The Fatal Friendship: Ned Kelly, Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne. Revised ed. South Melbourne: Lothian, 2003. Print.

Shaw, Ian W. Glenrowan. Sydney, N. S. W. : Macmillan, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012.

FitzSimons, Peter. Ned Kelly. London Bantam Press, 2015.

Brown, Max. Ned Kelly : Australian Son. Kensington, N.S.W. : Times House, 1986.

2 thoughts on ““I have a heart, but it’s as hard as stone”: Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt by Georgina Rose Stones

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