Since 1861 Johnny Gilbert had made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most notorious and prolific bushrangers. Beginning his career as one of Frank Gardiner’s lackeys, Gilbert inherited the position of public enemy number one when the self-proclaimed “prince of tobeymen” fled New South Wales. In his time working with John O’Meally and Ben Hall he had built a reputation of being formidable and unpredictable. His predilection for fancy clothes earned him the moniker “Flash Johnny”, while others knew him as “Happy Jack” due to his well reported jubilant and outgoing nature. By May 1865, however, things had taken a nosedive.
Gilbert was wanted for the murder of Sergeant Edmund Parry, whereas his mate John Dunn was wanted for the murder of Constable Samuel Nelson. Ben Hall, the only other remaining gang member, had so far kept his hands clean of blood, but there were other charges to be laid against him on top of the robberies they had committed. A failed gold escort robbery had left the gang demoralised and for a period they split up. On 5 May, Ben Hall was ambushed and summarily executed by a party of police. Around thirty shots were pumped into him and his body was taken to Forbes and exhibited. He had not drawn a weapon or fired a shot.
In the meantime Gilbert and Dunn had been on the run, attempting to find shelter with sympathisers. They had remained active in their depredations, bailing up a grazier named Furlonge as he was herding sheep on Friday 12 May. The pair stole his horse in exchange for one they had stolen from a paddock in Murrumburrah the previous night. Word soon raced through the grapevine that the pair were in the area, camped at Rieley’s Hill, two miles out from Binalong.
That evening, news reached Senior Constable Hales in Binalong that Gilbert and Dunn had been seen in the area. A search party was formed and began scouting. Hales knew that a nearby farmer, John Kelly, was Dunn’s grandfather and his hut was the likely destination of the bushrangers. The police rode there at once, got into position and watched the hut through the night. By 1am there had been no sign of an arrival so the police headed back to town to get some rest.
Gilbert and Dunn arrived at Kelly’s on the morning of 13 May. Kelly had been a sympathiser of Gilbert for some years prior to Dunn joining he and Hall, and was considered trustworthy. It was likely that it was Kelly that had introduced Gilbert to John Dunn originally to act as a bush telegraph. Gilbert and Dunn’s trust in the patriarch, it would seem, would prove to be misplaced.
Information got out that the bushrangers were at Kelly’s, the news reaching Hales at 8am in the police station. It would never be publicly disclosed how the information reached the police or by whom. Hales immediately formed a party with Constables Bright, King and Hall. Not wishing to spook the fugitives, Hales directed the party to approach Kelly’s hut on foot. As the troopers fanned out to surround the dwelling the heavens opened and rain fell heavily. For an hour they sat in waiting.
While the bushrangers were in Kelly’s hut, the old man wandered outside where he paced for a time and then went back inside. His wife immediately did the same. It seemed as if they knew there were police coming and were anxiously awaiting their arrival. Kelly’s seven year old son Thomas ventured out to tend the stock where Hales accosted the child and interrogated him about Gilbert and Dunn. Thomas refused to answer in the affirmative to Hales’ questions and ran back to the house. The troopers got closer to the house and alarmed the dogs. Kelly emerged and made a point of yelling “Look out, the house is surrounded with bloody troopers!”
Immediately Gilbert and Dunn grabbed their weapons and ran for a bedroom, slamming the door just as Hales breached the building with King covering the door. Shots were exchanged and the building promptly surrounded. Hales rejoined the constables outside and bellowed at the bushrangers that if they did not surrender he would burn the house down. As this was happening the pair climbed out through a small window and ran towards their horses, which were hobbled on the other side of a creek. The movement was noticed by Constable Bright who began to chase them. Shots were fired in their direction as the other police joined the pursuit.
They bolted through the bush, Gilbert reeling off several shots as he ducked from tree to tree, dodging bullets. Dunn fired wildly as he bolted across the paddock at the edge of the property. The bushrangers breached a fence and ran down an embankment towards the creek. Without hesitation, the lithe Dunn crossed but Gilbert paused to take aim at the police from behind a tree. He pulled the trigger three times but, much to his frustration and dread, the Tranter revolving rifle misfired every time. Seeing no other option, Gilbert broke cover and headed after Dunn, but as he did so a bullet from Constable Bright’s carbine tore through him, smashing through the ribs at the back of his left side, perforating his lung and heart as it passed through the body and out through his chest. Gilbert died instantaneously, landing awkwardly on the prized Tranter revolving rifle that had failed him when he needed it most, cracking the stock. The police continued after Dunn, preventing him from reaching his horse and shooting him in the arm for good measure. One of Dunn’s shots struck Constable King in the ankle. Despite his own injury, the fleet-of-foot Dunn escaped capture.
Desperate to put distance between himself and the police, knowing his mate had bought the farm, Dunn continued to Julien’s station at Bogolong where he stole a horse and gear. Dunn went into hiding and was arrested nine months later.
The body of the slain bushranger was taken to Binalong where an initial inquest was held in the courthouse. Apart from his revolving rifle, Gilbert was carrying two Colt Navy revolvers, both purloined from New South Wales police, as well as a myriad of bullets and other ammunition; twenty pounds in bank notes; two gold rings and a gold charm. True to character, despite being on the run in the bush, Gilbert was well-dressed in a pilot coat, bright Crimean shirt, cord trousers and tall boots.
The body remained in Binalong while it was autopsied by Dr. Campbell and the inquest was concluded on 14 May, determining the death as a justifiable homicide. For two more days the body remained on display, several gawkers reportedly taking locks of hair. A cast was allegedly made of his face, according to reports, but as nothing has been seen publicly, this seems unlikely.
In the following days John Kelly was arrested for harbouring Gilbert and Dunn but was quickly released without any follow up. Rumours began to circulate through the community and newspapers. When the reward for Gilbert’s capture was doled out, not only did Hales, Bright, King and Hall receive portions, but so did John Kelly.
Quietly and unceremoniously the body was stripped and buried in an unmarked grave in the Binalong police paddock on 16 May. What equated to a funeral was not attended by mourners but rather representatives of the police force including Constable Bright. Thus ended the story of the Canuck highwayman who had thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
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