Spotlight: Inquest on the Bodies of Nesbitt and Wernicke

What follows is a report on the inquest conducted into the deaths of the bushrangers James Nesbitt and Gus Wernicke along with a brief account of the condition of Constable Webb-Bowen following his wounding at McGlede’s farm. While some details, especially in the latter report, are incorrect, it must be remembered that many of the articles of the time were published as the news was still unfolding, resulting in errors due to the sluggish rate of verification compared to what is possible now.

Both bushrangers were shot during the gunfight the day after the Moonlite Gang had successfully fought off the police from Wagga Wagga at Wantabadgery Station. The particulars of the gunfights are addressed in the evidence presented by witnesses. The deaths of the pair affected Andrew Scott (Captain Moonlite) deeply, especially as Nesbitt, who he had befriended in Pentridge prison, was most likely his lover. In fact, in the 1990s Scott’s body was disinterred to be relocated to Gundagai in keeping with his last request to be buried with Nesbitt.

Constable Edwin Mostyn Webb-Bowen died from his wound shortly after this article was first published. For his conspicuous bravery in the line of duty he was posthumously promoted to Senior Constable. He is buried in Gundagai next to Sergeant Edmund Parry, who was murdered by Johnny Gilbert. ~ AP


INQUEST ON THE BODIES.

The inquest on the remains of the bushrangers shot in the late encounter was commenced this morning before C. W. Weekes and a jury of tvelve. The jury having viewed the bodies an adjournment was made until two o’clock, when the following evidence was adduced :—

Constable Rowe, stationed at Wagga, recognised the bodies as those of two men shot at McGlede’s farm on Monday last, near Wantabadgery ; he did not know who fired the shot. which killed them ; on Sunday last the Wagga police received information that the Wantabadgry station was stuck-up by seven armed men ; witness and three other constables started for the place and arrived at the station at five o’clock on Monday morning just at daybreak ; went to the back of the house, as the front was dangerous, and explored for an attack; left the horses tied to a fence about four hundred yards from the place and walked up; when about twenty yards from the house a dog barked ; at the same time a man came from the door into the garden with a double-barelled gun ; Constable Headley called on him to stand in the Queen’s name ; the man fired in the direction of Constable Williamson and witness and started to run back to the house ; Williamson, Headley, and John fired after him ; the man went inside and called to the others to fire ; witness and the other constables went back a little distance and waited some time ; they could see several armed men moving about the garden and outhouses ; there were six or seven men and they went to the stable and made a fire there ; they then crawled or walked off in different directions through the thistles ; as it was evidently their intention to surround them, the constables drew back to open ground, and the men opened fire which the police returned ; no shots however took effect on either side ; some of the men then got on horseback and tried to surround the police who retreated through water up to their middles, the bushrangers firing all the time ; the bushrangers then got the police horses which they took to the station ; witness and another constable went to a Mr. Beveridge’s, four miles from the station, to get fresh horses and wait for reinforcements which had been sent for by the man who gave the Wagga police information ; Constable Headley had gone up a hill and disappeared ; about eleven on Monday morning Sergeant Carroll and the Gundagai police arrived at Beveridge’s ; the eight police then started under the charge of Sergeant Carroll at six a.m., and at Wantabadgery were joined by Constable Headley, when they went to McGlede’s ; on the way they heard that the Wantabadgery Hotel was stuck-up ; at McGlede’s they saw a large number of men, who were bushrangers and people bailed up by them ; Sergeant Carroll and the others called on the desperadoes to surrender ; one of them said, “surrender be —, come on and fight ; the bushrangers opened fire, and the police took up positions and returned it ; there was sharp firing for twenty minutes ; the two men on whose bodies the inquest was being held were seen by witness after firing ceased ; they were dying, one in the kitchen and one inside the house ; another bushranger was shot through the arm and two were taken unhurt ; the sixth was missing, but was arrested on Tuesday morning under a bed in the house ; after the fight witness saw Constable Bowen lying in a paddock twenty-five yards from the house, shot in the neck ; the four prisoners arrested were brought to Gundagai on Tuesday morning, and two dead bodies at nine o’clock last night ; witness did not see the men fall, but whilst the firing was going on he saw the younger of the two lying on his back near Constable Bowen; I had previously seen both the men who died firing on the police, the older at Wantabadgery, the younger at McGlede’s ; one of the prisoners ran out of the house and surrendered to Constable Wiles and witness at the back of McGlede’s kitchen ; did not see the other surrender ; no shots were fired after the surrender.

Captain Moonlite

Sergeant Cassin, stationed at Adelong, deposed that on Monday morning, being off duty at the Gundagai quarter-sessions, he heard of the Wantabadgery station being stuck up by seven bushrangers ; witness, accompanied by Sergeant Carroll and the Gundagai police, left town at half-past nine and arrived at Beveridge’s about twelve and met the Wagga police and proceeded as described by the previous witness; under Sergeant Carroll’s instructions the police advanced on McGlede’s on horseback, about twenty paces apart, all in uniform; the bushrangers opened fire on the police; witness and another constable moved towards the bushrangers, firing on the house and shouting until they startled the horses; when the horses were startled, witness dismounted and joined in the general attack ; the police, at witness’s suggestion, charged on the house, jumping over the fence witness called to the police, “come on, we’ll pepper them,” when witness was within a few yards of the house he saw one bushranger running away ; witness followed him; he fell on his back, as witness thought on purpose to get a good shot at him, so he struck him with his rifle on the arm to disable him, and left him lying on the ground; witness then turned to the house and saw another bushranger, who fired three shots at him ; that was the man who afterwards gave the name of Moonlight; witness snapped his rifle, but it would not go off, having injured it when he struck the man lying on the ground ; Moonlight then ran into the kitchen, followed by witness; two shots were fired from the kitchen through the window, and Sergeant Carroll, who was near the witness, was returning fire; witness pushed the kitchen door open and fired a shot, when Moonlight cried, “I surrender,” and ran out of the back door, followed by witness, who handcuffed him, and then turning round found that the firing had ceased and Constable Bowen was wounded ; recognised the bodies of the dead bushrangers as two of those fighting at McGlede’s; one of them was he whom witness had hit; the elder died about five in the afternoon, the younger about three ; witness saw no one absolutely fire except Scott alias Moonlight ; one bushranger was missing at the close of the fight; Sergeant Carroll went after him, placing witness in charge of the prisoner and arms.

James Nesbitt

Constable Gorman, stationed at Gundagai, corroborated the previous evidence as to the bushrangers opening fire on the police while in uniform. Witness had fired at the older of the two dead bushrangers (whom he identified as Nesbitt alias Lyons) through the kitchen-window, and shot him through the right temple. The rest of the bushrangers then called out, “surrender—we surrender.”

Joseph Brown, detective in the Victorian police force, identified the body of the eldest dead bushranger as that of James Lyons alias Nesbitt; though he believed Nesbitt to be his proper name, he had served a sentence of four and a half years in Pentridge as James Lyons, for assault and robbery, and was discharged about March this year; he was a mate of Scott alias Moonlight since his discharge, and had been under close surveillance; about two months ago, at the time of the Lancefield bank robbery, witness had a conversation with Lyons, who said he and Scott were about to leave the colony; witness believed the younger of the two men to be Augustus Wrenckie, son of a hotelkeeper in Swanston street, Melbourne.

James Nesbitt (alias Lyons) [Source: State Library of Victoria]

Hannah McGlede recognized the dead bodies as those of two men who with four others called at her house on Monday morning and got some bread and milk ; they got on their horses when the police came in sight, and when the police came up the bushrangers got off their horses and went into the house ; witness wanted to run out of the kitchen, but Nesbitt prevented her, pointing his revolver at her; a bullet came through the window, passing so close to witness that she fancied she was shot, and fell into the fireplace ; the bullets then came flying into the kitchen, and Nesbitt begged of Scott to surrender; Scott said no, he would not, that he was not frightened of twenty of the b— traps ; Scott used to load in the kitchen, go out and fire, and return to load; on returning one time he said one of the traps was shot ; Nesbitt had been very frightened before this, running about and dodging at the bullets, but now he took courage and began to fire ; witness got an opportunity then and escaped from the house ; two of the bushrangers had called at her house five days before and asked for milk, and on getting it wanted to pay for it, but witness’s husband refused, and gave them good advice.

Gus Wernicke

Robert McKillop, a duly qualified medical man, deposed as to the cause of death in each case, from numerous gunshot wounds ; Nesbitt had two bullets at the back of the brain, yet lived till five in the afternoon. The jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Constable Webb-Bowen

Thursday.

LATER PARTICULARS.— Dr. Roberts, of Sydney, visited the wounded man, Constable Bowen — who, by the way, is said to be a relative of the late Governor of Victoria — to-day. His opinion was given in evidence at the magisterial inquiry. He does not think it safe to look for, or operate for the extraction of the ball for some days, when he will return to do so. The bushrangers, when committed for trial, will be removed to Darlinghurst gaol. The Gundagai people are enthusiastic over the conduct of the local police. A public meeting will be held on the subject. The police court proceedings will probably last until Saturday. Moonlight was heavily ironed last night, but the irons were taken off him before the sitting of the court to-day, and had not been replaced when I saw him ; but as efforts at escape were expected a constant watch was kept outside his cell.

The following is by the special reporter of the Cootamundra Herald :—

Having spent Tuesday and a good part of Wednesday night in gathering information concerning the whole affair from the police, the McGledes, and others, I am able to give a very full account of the great fight at Wantabadgery. Can also write from a personal meeting and conversation with the members of the gang who survived the fight. Following are the details I gathered :— When the gang made their first surprise at Wantabadgery, twenty seven miles from Gundagai, they came on foot, carrying swags; and are said to have thus previously passed through the township evidently for the purpose of taking stock ; for they have not concealed the fact that it was their intention to attract the police out, capture them, and make a raid upon the banks. They however had formed rash estimates of our brave troopers. They remained at the station; and having gathered all the hands and made sure of them, went and stuck up Shaw’s public-house, a mile and a half distant; gathered all from there (except the hostess), taking them also to the station. Whilst away on this fatal errand, a shearer who happened to be passing the public-house, where he was intending to take up his quarters for the night, saw the woman crying, and got from her his first knowledge of the state of affairs. Having £40 in his own pockets, he made tracks at anything but a trot to Gundagai. He rode furiously into town, reaching there at 10.30 o’clock p.m. At once reported. By a happy coincidence, a fleet messenger carried the news to Wagga. From Wagga the police immediately started for the scene ; but those from Gundagai didn’t leave till ten a.m. Monday. Consequently, the former reached Wantabadgery before daylight on Monday. The gang were evidently expecting them, as on their dismounting and approaching the house, which was a substantial fortress, the whole gang, six in number, rushed out and opened fire upon the police. The gang succeeded in cutting them off from their horses and in driving them into a lagoon where they were up to their waists in water.

At this juncture one of the troopers showed the white feather, a luxuriant patch of thistles (despite the pricks) affording him an ignominious hiding-place. He was subsequently discovered at the station. The gang having secured the horses left the police, who found their way to Tenaudra Park, four miles off. Returning to the station the former took two station horses, four police horses, and a pack-horse, and started for Eurongilly, intimating that they expected four more police from Gundagai whom they would tie up, and cut the man to mincemeat who dared to betray them. On the way to Eurongilly they met Mr. John A. Beveridge with two men, armed, coming to assist the police. These were bailed up, Mr. Beveridge’s horse shot under him, and he was ordered to collect and burn the arms. These orders being carried out, they all started for a settler’s named McGlede. On the way they met with Trooper Wiles of Bethugra alone on the way to join the Gundagai force at the station. The leader thus coolly accosted him, “O, we’ve been looking for you. Bail up!” They disarmed him. Wiles undoubtedly acted properly under the circum stances in surrendering against such formidable odds ; for besides the gang themselves, they were flanked by about a dozen civilians previously pressed into service. They took Wiles, Beveridge, and party to McGlede’s. Here Moonlight (the leader) and his men held a court-martial on Beveridge as to whether they would shoot him, and they decided to carry out the sentence of death, Moonlight levelling his rifle at him said, “I give you three minutes to live.” But here poor old McGlede, whose hoary head seemed to command respect, went on his knees to Moonlight and prayed for Beveridge’s life. Moonlight lowered his rifle and drawing a large bowie-knife flourished it across his face, sayling, “I’ve a b—y good mind to cut off the tip of your nose and ears and make you chew them, you b—r.” Mr. Beveridge, in describing this little bit of playfulness, says he first felt very frightened, but afterwards felt as if he could let the determined wretch do as he chose, whose glaring countenance seemed to paralyse him.

Sergeant Cassin

Moonlight’s attention was here fortunately attracted by an alarm of the approach of troopers; and true enough the house was being approached by the Gundagai police, those from Wagga (who had received fresh supplies of horses from Mr. James Beveridge), and Sergeant Cassin of Adelong—nine in all. The gang turned out to meet them, one of them covering Constable Wiles and threatning to shoot him if he dared to move away. He was on horse back. Senior-sergeant Carroll (Gundagai), who had command of the whole force by seniority of rank, ordered his men to defile so as to present as scattered a front to the enemy as possible, and form a half-circle. In this style they advanced upon the house to a distance of two hundred and fifty yards. The gang secured their horses in a small paddock, except one which they hitched to the corner of the house. The officer commanding called out “surrender” when all the force took it up; but Moonlight savagely replied, “surrender be d—d come on and fight it out!” and fired the first shot at Constable Gorman, who was on the extreme left, then one at Carroll, and a third at Cassin in quick succession. The troopers then opened fire. At the very commencement of the conflict the prisoner Constable Wiles made a daring and successful attempt to join his comrades, risking his life. The man who, as stated above, had him covered, was obliged to turn and fire at the police, when Wiles made a clean bolt of it. “One, two, three,” went the shot-guns, and the bullets whizzed past his ears. Several shots were fired at him; but he fortunately escaped. He managed afterwards to get possession of a musket and revolver, and took up his position in the ranks.

mcgledes

The police were kept at bay for about half-an-hour during a continuous shower of bullets—four of the gang leading inside the house for Moonlight and one of the youngest of them, who appeared to be a capital marksman. The troopers made the best use of fences, stumps, and trees to protect themselves. Sergeant Carroll, becoming impatient, advanced to within one hundred yards under cover of a brush fence. They were attacking the front of the house at this time; and Moonlight and his comrades retreated into a detached kitchen. The sergeant made a rush for the house and managed to put a bullet under the front window into the building.
The civilians now finding it becoming rather sultry in the house made their escape across the paddocks in the direction opposite to the police. The gang remained in the kitchen, keeping McGlede’s wife with them, flattering themselves that she would be the means of protection for them from the troopers’ bullets. They thought the police knew she was in the kitchen with them and that they would not fire in for fear of hitting her. The sergeant took up a position at the right corner of the house ; and here he had a marvellous escape.

gorman

Moonlight, observing Gorman approaching on the left in a wheat-paddock, boldly stepped outside to fire at him. Gorman was only fifty yards off. “Here’s a b—y trap,” said Moonlight, “coming through the wheat-paddock,” and, sighting him, fired. Gorman allowed him a second or two for aim and suddenly ducked, the ball passing over his head; and then replied by firing three shots, but missing his target. He made for a small stump, about a foot thick, very low, and put himself in a lying position behind it. Here he was fired at by Moonlight three times, each bullet going into the stump. Gorman fired again, ripping up the ground in front of Moonlight’s feet, which caused the latter to retreat to the back of the kitchen. It was during this interchange of courtesies that Carroll had his narrow escape. He was not observed by Moonlight, though only ten yards from him, hidden by the corner of the building ; he took aim at the daring captain, whose fall appeared certain. But the sergeant’s rifle snapped. He coolly tried the same cartridge a second time—but with the same result, when he drew his revolver. Too late however. The doomed bird had flown! Gorman made a rush for the house and fired a shot through the kitchen window.

Constable Williamson here took up the position vacated by Gorman, and the latter went inside the house. Constable Bowen, just as Williamson was leaving him, was at this time making for the kitchen when to the horror of his comrades he was shot by Moonlight. The ball entered the left side of his neck, making a decline towards the spinal cord; and exclaiming “my God, I’m shot!” the brave young hero fell. He had, in the heat of the contest, exposed himself too much to the fire of the enemy. He treated cover with contempt, but paid the penalty of his courage. The struggle now waxed so fierce that no one had time to look after the fallen man. But the fight was nearly at an end. Bowen and Constable Barry had been together at the former’s fall and Moonlight and another of the gang, a youngster, were outside the kitchen at the back, so that they were not seen by Carroll, Gorman, or Williamson. Moonlight’s mate here wanted him to cave in ; but he refused, and was about to fight again when the young man threw his arms round him to prevent him shooting. Whilst in this act Constable Barry fired and shot the young man in the side, and he dropped from his daring captain and afterwards died from the wound.

The captain was here driven back to the kitchen, where the whole party had a warm time of it from the front. Gorman, who was in the house, here got into one of the skillion rooms, and pulled the curtain off the window to enable him to see into the kitchen. One of the gang (whose name is given as Rogan) fired at him, the bullet whizzing past his elbow. Gorman placed his revolver in the broken pane, and, taking deadly aim, shot Rogan in the temple. He never spoke after being hit. Senior-sergeant Carroll then ran to the back of the kitchen on the right side ; Gorman and Williamson on the left; Cassin, Wiles, and Barry on the right. The gang, from the inside, then called out “we’ll surrender!” Carroll told them to come outside and throw up their arms. One ran out and rolled over. Cassin, thinking he was wanting to have a shot in a lying position, the better for his aim and self-protection, rushed forward and struck him with the rifle across the arms to disable him. Gorman rushed into the kitchen, revolver in hand, and secured a second man, knocking him down with his revolver. Moonlight made a rush as if to escape, when Cassin struck him on the shoulder with the butt of the rifle, knocked him down, and secured him. The fight—a most desperate one, that proved the gallantry of our brave troopers—was now virtually over, having lasted nearly an hour. It was then found that the sixth man was missing, and it was concluded that he got away with the civilians at the time they escaped from the house. After these men were secured, to the surprise of the police they found Mrs. McGlede crouched in the fireplace, her husband and children being concealed in a cellar. They also discovered that Mrs. McGlede had had a very narrow escape, a ball having passed close by her and perforated a funnel. Here also took place a most affecting scene. Moonlight was deeply moved at the sight of one of his comrades lying dead upon the floor. He tenderly raised the dead man’s head upon his knee, saying he had been the best friend he ever had. He caressed him, and bathed his own hands in his comrade’s blood. It was also found that one of the young members of the gang had received a ball through the muscle of his left arm; but it was only a flesh wound.

Directly the struggle was over attention was directed to Constable Bowen, the wounded police man. Dr. McKillop, who was in the vicinity, having been requested to be near by senior-sergeant Carroll, was sent for. When he came he found Bowen in a very critical state. After consultation over his state, a messenger was dispatched to Wagga for a second medical man, and he arrived during the night. At the request of poor Bowen himself, the Rev. Mr. Holt was brought from Gundagai. But though the ball was not extracted he seemed to keep himself up in good spirits and was able to go to sleep, everything possible being done to give him relief.

The prisoners were guarded in McGlede’s all that night, and brought to Gundagai on Tuesday afternoon. But before starting into town with their precious dead and living charges, the police made a happy discovery—one which had led to some comical surmises. From a hint dropped casually by Mrs. McGlede to the police that they should make a further search of the house and kitchen, “for fear that any of the marauders might be left behind,” they did make the search. They were handsomely rewarded. In one of the skillion rooms of the house they found the man who had escaped, whose flight had caused the senior-sergeant, with several other troopers and two volunteers (the latter having rendered assistance to the police during the battle) to set out on a wild-goose chase towards Junee. The escaper was found snugly sandwiched, to coin an appropriate word, between two mattresses on the bed, having two loaded revolvers with him. Some egg shells found also in this ludicrous nest have led to the jocular suspicions before referred to. Old people, you know, are very often superstitious ; and the only way in which the heads of the McGlede house hold could account for the remarkable circumstance about the shells was that Providence had directed the hen to go and lay there especially for the poor hungry and affrighted man—a repetition of the scriptural incident of Elijah and the ravens. But most people don’t believe in miracles in these modern times, and try to account for it differently. Your reporter doesn’t profess to be able to unravel the mystery.

The wife of Constable Bowen was away on a holiday trip to Sydney; and on receipt of the sad news of the fall of her husband received a fearful shock. She came up by the mail train on Wednesday morning, reaching Gundagai by coach from Cootamundra at noon. I met her on the way and was the bearer of a kindly message to her from her husband, whom I had seen that morning at daybreak. She was in a frightful state of anxiety. “He’s dead!” she screamed; but I hastened to assure her that he was alive and showing signs of recovering, and she burst into tears of joy. It was a most affecting scene and tried the nerves of your poor scribe. It was with difficulty she was held in the coach by Sergeant Parker, who did all he could with others to soothe her. Seeing she had a suspicion that I was not telling the sacred truth I briefly related my interview with him. He had requested me to tell her that he was anxious to see her ; that he felt he was safe, and was being kindly nursed. She warmly shook me by the hand on parting, and seemed relieved. Her husband is a tall and very handsome young man, of whom she might well feel proud. He appears to be about twenty-seven, is well educated, and of very gentlemanly address. When I saw him on Wednesday morning he had just awoke from a serene sleep—somewhat refreshed, but sobbing with pain. His arms were paralysed, and he said his pains were of a sharp shooting nature.

Towards morning a messenger had brought him the news that the gang were the Kellies, and he almost rose from his bed with delight. He said he had been longing for an encounter with this notorious band. He will, however, by this time have learned that this joy is yet to come if ever. If it ever does happen that the police have a conflict with the Kellies, if the brave young Bowen should be against them he will either fight a manly and glorious victory or die in the struggle.

Mr. Edward Horder writes in very complimentary terms of the courage and determination of the New South Wales police, as lately displayed in the speedy capture of the Wantabadgery bushrangers. His object in writing to us (Echo) is to suggest that some thing should be done to assist the family of Constable Bowen, and he concludes his letter, as follows:— “We all know that in times of ordinary sickness it is expensive to provide the necessary comforts, ,&c. I therefore enclose herewith my cheque for £5 towards that object. I trust a good sum will be collected and forwarded to Mrs. Bowen without delay. I do not for one moment doubt that all our men engaged in this encounter deserve the fullest and most liberal recognition it is in the power of the government to bestow.”


[Source: “INQUEST ON THE BODIES.” The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle (NSW : 1864 – 1881) 22 November 1879: 4.]

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