In October 1817, the bushranger Michael Howe was finally captured. He had been on the run with a string of raids, murders and arson attacks in his wake attributed to his former gang, said to have been 24 members strong at one point. A former accomplice and an associate had conspired to catch him and succeeded but their success was doomed to be very short-lived.
William Drew, also known as Slambow, was a shepherd in the employ of a grazier named Mr. W. Williams and had been one of Howe’s harbourers. Unlike most later bushrangers who had scores of sympathisers who were willing to assist, Howe relied on intermediaries who had no emotional attachment to the task, but rather were in it simply for what they may get in return for their involvement – this included the potential payout if they brought Howe in to the authorities. Drew had received one of Howe’s letters intended to be sent to the Governor, possibly in relation to his recent absconding from custody. Drew had no particular fondness for Howe but knew enough of his fearsome reputation not to deny him. A few weeks later George Watts inquired about if Drew had seen Howe about. Watts was a runaway from Newcastle who had arrived in Australia via the Pilot and had only a month previously been declared as a wanted man and a bushranger in his own right, known to be one of Howe’s associates and a man that Howe himself deeply mistrusted. The pair subsequently agreed to attempt to capture Howe when he returned on the following Friday. Drew sent word to Howe to meet him at a place called Long Bottom in the Tasmanian midlands.
When the time came, the pair headed towards New Norfolk to meet Howe. Watts arrived first and took a small boat belonging to a man named Triffit and rowed across the river Derwent, where he hid out of direct view along a path to wait for Drew. Drew had borrowed a musket and hunting dog from his employer but was convinced by Watts to leave the gun hidden at the camp for fear that Howe would get spooked if he saw it. Watts, however, kept his gun ready and primed. They camped out until sunrise then headed to the meeting place and called out to Howe three times. He replied from across the creek. Watts convinced Howe to knock the priming out of his gun and did the same as a goodwill gesture.
The trio travelled about 40 yards and set up camp, lighting a small fire. While Howe was off-guard Watts grabbed Howe by the collar and threw him down where Drew bound the bushranger’s hands, likely with no small amount of protest. Drew removed two knives from Howe’s pockets. The pair intended to take him in alive for the bounty on his head.
The next morning Drew and Watts prepared breakfast but Howe refused to eat. No doubt Howe was scheming while he watched the other two stuff their faces with self-satisfaction at how easily they had taken Van Diemen’s Land’s most wanted. After breakfast they began the long walk to Hobart, where Howe was certain to be hanged. Drew suggested he should take his boss’ dog and musket back before they get to town. He returned to the farm where Williams had been searching for him and explained that George Watts had stopped Michael Howe and showed Williams the knives he had taken. Williams suggested he could come along to help, but Drew refused, stating that it was under control and Howe was secured, the pair having taken possession of his gun.
When he returned the trio began walking, Drew in the rear holding Howe’s unprimed musket and Watts in front, leading with his gun loaded and primed. When the group had walked about 8 miles Hell broke loose. The whole time Howe had been working the ropes away from his hands and had drawn a dagger that had obviously been missed by his captors when they searched him. Drew screamed and roused Watts. Watts was taken by surprise and Howe stabbed him in the stomach, then seized his musket. Watts ran for the bushes and hid behind a wattle tree.
“I’ll settle your business!” Howe growled as he drew the musket and shot Drew in the back. The ball struck by the right shoulder blade and pushed straight through the thorax and out of the breast bone. As Drew lay dead, Howe moved to where Watts was attempting to conceal himself. Watts asked Howe if Drew was dead. “Yes, and I’ll serve you the same as soon as I can load my piece.”
Watts, in extreme pain from his stomach wound, ran about 200 yards before collapsing from loss of blood and exhaustion. He could not see Howe approaching and as soon as he was able he took off again, heading for a hut half a mile from where Drew lay dead. The hut was the residence of a Mr. James Burne. Watts was put to bed and he asked Mrs. Burne to fetch Constable Waddle to take him into town. When the constable arrived Watts was barely able to speak and only managed to give his name and, the following day, the detail that Drew had been shot.
A search in the surrounding area resulted in the retrieval of Drew’s body. An inquest was held and it was deemed that Michael Howe was guilty of the murder of William Drew. Watts was taken to the general hospital in Hobart along with the corpse of Drew. He died three days later.
Such was the desperation of the government to put a stop to Howe that the previous reward of 100 guineas was increased to include a pardon and free passage back to England for any convicts who helped the authorities capture Howe. Despite the reputation for bloodthirstiness that was later thrust upon Howe by authors, this act of fury and desperation was the only outright murder that could be directly attributed to him. During his life Howe typically avoided bloodshed, but over time fact became obscured by tall tales and half-remembered anecdotes until he became known as one of the most dangerous, heartless and monstrous bushrangers in history.
i: “Proclamation,” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 6 September 1817: 1.
ii: “CORONER’S INQUEST” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 18 October 1817: 2.
iii: “HOBART TOWN; SATURDAY, OCTOBER 11, 1817.” The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter (Tas. : 1816 – 1821) 11 October 1817: 1.
iv: Michael Howe : the last and worst of the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land : narrative of the chief atrocities committed by this great murderer and his associates during a period of six years in Van Diemen’s Land, from authentic sources of information. Wells, T. E. (Thomas E.). Hobart Town : Printed by Andrew Bent,