After his release from prison, the man known as John Smith was compelled to head to the Ovens district in compliance with his parole conditions. He never arrived. Instead, he travelled through Victoria and New South Wales as a tramp, picking up odd jobs where he could, usually shifting or breaking in horses, for which he had a natural affinity. He assumed many names and in time his true identity was forgotten. It was years before he would re-emerge with a new trade and a new name: Dan Morgan; bushranger.
Morgan ventured into New South Wales, where he soon teamed up with a man known variously as “German Bill” and “Flash Clark”. The man who would become Morgan’s off-sider was as much a mystery as his confederate. Likely he was one of the many visitors to the colony that had headed to the goldfields in search of fortune but only found disappointment. Perhaps it was destiny that brought these two mystery men together, but the pair seemed to have a common desire to take to bushranging for excitement and easy money, rather than desperation, which was worryingly common in the 1860s. The success of the gold rush had made highway robbery surprisingly lucrative as a career and many young men saw it as a preferable alternative to backbreaking labour.
The first confirmed offence by the pair was the sticking up of two young men who were taking their horses to a race meeting. Subsequently, the pair were connected to a series of other robberies throughout the Riverina. Always on the move, the bushrangers utilised abandoned huts in the bush and natural structures such as caves, particularly around the Piney Ranges, or built themselves shelter out of bark and saplings. Armed with pistols and shotguns, and mounted on grey horses, Morgan and his mate quickly established themselves as a public menace.
On 20 August, 1863, police magistrate Henry Baylis was riding along the road from Bullenbong to Brookong Station in order to attend court in Urana when he encountered the two bushrangers. Due to his position as a magistrate, Baylis regularly ventured between Wagga Wagga, Urana and Narrandera to perform court duties. Upon seeing Baylis, Morgan and Clarke attempted to bail him up, armed with pistols and double-barrelled shotguns. They were on foot, their horses evidently hitched nearby. The bold magistrate was not one to be waylaid by bushrangers. He turned and took off back through the bush, one of the bandits, likely Clarke, firing at him, until he found a small camp a couple of miles away. A drayman, to whom the camp belonged, seemed rather surprised by the arrival and queried as to whether Baylis had been accosted by two armed and mounted men in the bush. Baylis replied in the affirmative. The traveller elaborated that the figures were none other than the notorious Morgan and his mate, who he had encountered the previous day. Morgan had procured an axe from the drayman to use in cutting down telegraph poles. As if on cue, Baylis heard the sound of hooves and spotted Morgan moving through the bush on a grey horse. Baylis dug his spurs in and took off through the scrub, the ground perilously soft after recent rains. Morgan and Clarke gave chase. Baylis was knocked out of the saddle multiple times by rogue saplings that brushed against his mount, but he managed to regain his seat, hurtling through the bush for a mile and a half. The magistrate’s reluctance to be bailed up seemed to signify to the bandits that he must be carrying a good haul of cash or valuables, and his haste in attempting to evade them only served to excite the bandits further, like hounds chasing a fox.
The superior mounts and riding abilities of the bushrangers saw them not only catching up to Baylis, but overtaking him and cutting him off with cries of “Pull up! Pull up! or I’ll fire!” They finally succeeded in bailing up the magistrate and held him at gunpoint, demanding he dismount and give up his money. Morgan appeared to have dropped his shotgun in the scrub during the chase but Clarke kept his trained on their target, one barrel had already been discharged but the other was cocked and ready. Baylis refused to comply with the demands. Morgan was impressed by Baylis’ pluck but chided him for his folly in trying to escape them and risk being shot. Baylis finally gave in and did as he was told. He handed over £4 and his watch with much chagrin. Morgan and Clarke were unconvinced when Baylis stated that he had nothing else of value. Morgan enquired as to his victim’s identity. When Baylis introduced himself as the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, Morgan was sceptical. Baylis went so far as to present a valise with official papers to prove the truth of his claim and Morgan was satisfied. He handed the money and watch back to Baylis and stated that as his goods had been returned he had not been robbed and therefore, he reasoned, one good turn deserved another. The request was that if ever the pair came before Baylis in court that he would be lenient. Baylis responded that he had to do his duty irrespective of the circumstances, which disappointed Morgan. Morgan respected the magistrate’s position, but asked that Baylis not make a report of their meeting. Baylis also refused to agree to this demand and was sent on his way without further molestation. As Baylis left, Morgan and Clarke cut down the telegraph poles with the stolen axe to stifle communications about the attempted robbery.
The parley had been in close enough quarters that Baylis was able to take in many details about the assailants. Morgan was about six feet tall with long black hair to the nape of his neck, and a long black beard. He had a sallow complexion and was incredibly lean of build. Baylis noted that Morgan was weak in the knees and looked as if he’d been gravely ill or injured from his stance. He was dressed in a drab overcoat with only the top button fastened and had on a cabbage tree hat. His mouth twitched and his hands were shaky and when he spoke he did so in a slow drawl, which Baylis took to be an attempt to hide his nervousness. Clarke he would describe as a stout man of thirty-five years dressed in a cabbage tree hat and black overcoat with a short beard of a light colour. Both men appeared to be quite nervous, but Morgan was better at hiding it, Clarke trembling violently as he kept Baylis covered. This was hardly the image of two bold outlaws, but rather a pair of nervous and timid men who seemed increasingly unsure of how to approach their situation. Certainly it shows no hint that Morgan was a maniac who would kill and torture for his own amusement as many would later claim from second and third hand accounts.
Baylis continued his ride to Brookong Station where he gained a fresh horse and rode of to find police. He made a report and formed a posse to capture the offenders. In the party were Constable Brown, Constable Charlton and Sub-Inspector Morrow. The following day they set out and searched the surrounding bushland for clues, focusing on the areas around Mittagong and Urangeline. It took several days of searching before they found the first signs of where the bushrangers had been. On 26 August, stumbling across the remains of a campfire with a billy can full of tea, the police discovered the mia-mia where the pair of bandits had been staying. Comprising two forked saplings as support beams for another sapling against which bark sheets rested, the empty lean-to allowed the police to lay in wait for the offenders to return in relative security. Here they found supplies and items belonging to the bushrangers such as Morgan’s black and red-striped poncho, a Bible, blankets and rugs, as well as items that were more than likely stolen, ranging from bottles of gin to a silver snuff box.
When Morgan and Clarke returned, they kept their distance, walking barefoot around the camp, and watched the police in case they were noticed. Constable Brown was the first to notice the sounds of movement in the scrub outside. Baylis scoffed and stated that it must have been a possum, though he would later turn the tables in his memoirs, claiming he was the first to notice the footsteps and it was the others that insisted it was a possum. Baylis went outside to investigate. Two shots were fired from the scrub without effect and Baylis called on the bushrangers to surrender. The offenders refused and a shoot-out began, Baylis opening fire on Fancy Clarke.
In the chaos Baylis was injured, a bullet from Clarke striking his right thumb and ricocheting back to hit him in the right breast, where it passed through his body obliquely to the left side, exiting by his left shoulder blade, and getting tangled in his shirt. A shot from Constable Brown struck Baylis’ sleeve and when Morgan suddenly appeared he fired close to Baylis’ face, singeing his eyebrows and blackening his face with gunpowder. Baylis succumbed to his injuries and collapsed. Morgan and his mate scampered into the darkness, chased by Brown and Morrow, but Clarke had been injured in the firing. It was unclear whether the wound was the result of police fire or friendly fire, though it would later be asserted that Morgan shot his mate as a distraction, despite him helping Clarke escape, which would have slowed him down considerably. Brown and Morrow lost them in the darkness and doubled back to assist the wounded magistrate. Baylis was evacuated and taken for medical treatment.
It wasn’t until the following morning that Constable Brown was able to reach Wagga Wagga to alert people of what had happened. That same day, the Gilbert-Hall Gang struck Hammond’s store in Junee, causing panic in the district. The era of the bushrangers was now in full swing in New South Wales, and what would follow would be nearly a decade of intense lawlessness never seen before or since in Australia, or perhaps indeed in the British Empire.
Fortunately, Baylis’ injuries were not ultimately life threatening, though severe, and could be operated on. When his coat was removed, the bullet that had put a hole through him tumbled out of the sleeve. Baylis would later have it turned into a chain fob and wore it as a lucky charm. He suffered intense pain from the wound for years after the battle, even suffering bone fragments working their way out of his body as late as June 1866. The wound would cause him trouble for the rest of his life and he was eventually paid compensation by the government for his injury. However, the initial payout in 1876 of £1500 was argued over for some time and the respective committee decided to reduce the payout by £300 in order to discourage other people that had been injured in the line of duty from seeking a payout. Beyond this, Baylis was presented with a bravery medal for his actions. Baylis continued to perform his duties as magistrate, but he would never have to worry about Morgan or his mate coming before him in court.
Things would not go so well for Morgan and Clarke. Mortally wounded, Clarke was not able to travel far. In a panic, he told Morgan that he wanted to turn himself in. Morgan slung his wounded friend onto his horse and rode to the Mahonga Run. There Morgan tried to make his friend comfortable as he died in the bush. A severely decomposed body was allegedly found on the run two years later, still wearing the same black coat as Fancy Clarke.
Morgan was beside himself and began looking for answers. He settled on a shepherd named Haley. He suspected Haley had supplied the police with the information that allowed them to find the camp. When he located Haley the day after the battle, he shot him in the back, perforating the shepherd’s lungs. Haley would never recover.
In response to the events, a reward of £200 was offered for Morgan’s capture on 31 August. Morgan’s crimes would quickly escalate over the following two years to include three murders and multiple counts of arson and robbery. Morgan’s mastery of the bush and horseriding meant that he was easily able to avoid capture. In the end his biggest vice, alcohol, would lead to his undoing at Peechelba station.