After months of hiding and the rapid decrease in the size of their gang, Matthew Brady and James McCabe were the only remaining members of the gang that had boldly escaped from Sarah Island on a stolen whaleboat in June 1824. Though they had numerous harbourers, there was always room for more. Enter District Constable Thomas Kenton.
Kenton was an opportunist who had absconded from a whaling ship at Norfolk Island, from which place he made his way to Van Diemens Land. He settled on 50 acres at Brown’s River and worked as a stock-keeper, but found that the agrarian lifestyle was not his métier. He was frequently in trouble with the law and his neighbours, often going to court as either defendant or prosecution. He sold the property to a man named John Lucas and relocated to the more unruly frontier at Jericho where he took up employment as a District Constable. While he was entrusted with maintaining law and order, crimes began to increase under his watch – particularly stock theft. There was never any evidence to pin on Kenton, but it was clear who the prime suspect was.
A copper on the take was just what the doctor ordered as far as Brady and McCabe were concerned and they struck up a friendship with Kenton. Arranging meetings through a bush telegraph, a young man named Hyte who was enamoured with Brady, the group would rendezvous in Kenton’s hut to talk business. It was Kenton that masterminded the pair’s depredations in the area, in return for a hefty cut of the proceeds. Whenever it was time for a meeting, Kenton would hang a white sheet outside his hut to signal to the bushrangers that the coast was clear, however, Kenton’s behaviour was being closely monitored by local busybodies who suspected he was up to something and they reported the news to Kenton’s superiors.
Kenton received a rude awakening in March of 1825 when he was told in no uncertain terms that it was his duty to apprehend the bushrangers, and failing that he could be up for a very harsh penalty as a harbourer. Kenton knew the odds and agreed to betray Brady and McCabe. He informed his superiors of the next arranged meeting, and two soldiers, Spicer and Thompson, were stationed in Kenton’s hut to strike when Brady and McCabe arrived.
On the day in question, Kenton hung up the white sheet as usual, yet Brady was hesitant to go, having had ominous dreams in which he put much stock. It was only after convincing from McCabe and Hyte that he went. The trio were watched from inside the hut, seen to be arguing. When they reached the domicile, Kenton and the soldiers burst out, knocking Brady and Hyte over. McCabe took off like a rocket as his companions were bound and taken inside, knowing the cost of allowing the troopers to get the better of you. Kenton and Brady verbally sparred as the soldiers prepared to escort young Hyte to the police station. They gave Kenton a gun then made their way into town.
In the scuffle Brady had received a nasty gash on his head and was beginning to feel woozy. He asked Kenton to take him to lie down on the bed, which he did. Brady then suggested a cup of tea might fortify him more so Kenton took a Billy can to the creek to fetch water. Meanwhile, Brady got off the bed and put his hands in the fire until his ropes burnt away. With bad burns on his hands, and his head and clothes covered in blood, he armed himself with Kenton’s gun. When Kenton returned, Brady presented a dreadful spectacle, and though he threatened to shoot him, he relented. Brady promised Kenton that one day he would exact revenge, before escaping into the bush. Kenton was subsequently arrested as a result of the escape and would later claim it was he that had removed the bonds to alleviate Brady’s suffering.
Months passed and Brady’s gang endured many misadventures and changes in line-up. McCabe left the gang after a drunken fight with gang member James McKenney, which in turn had seen Brady destroy all of the gang’s rum supply. After setting off on his own, McCabe had soon after gotten himself arrested.
By 1826, Kenton had been booted out of the police and was working at the Cocked Hat Inn. Word had got around that Kenton had been cowardly in letting Brady go, and he had begun spinning lies to all and sundry to save face. Brady learned of this and decided to pay the traitor a visit. Brady was accompanied by two gang members, Patrick Bryant and Ryan Williams, and the trio travelled to the Cocked Hat Inn searching for Kenton. Brady was moving slower than usual, having been shot in the leg in a gunfight at Elphin, near Launceston. The bushrangers utilised their bush telegraphs well by encouraging them to ply the police with false leads to throw them off the gang’s trail while they set about their business.
On Sunday, 5 March 1826, Brady, Bryant and Williams rode over Cocked Hat Hill on stolen horses. When they arrived at the inn it was still early and there was nobody awake. Brady bashed on the door until someone awoke and answered. The proprietor opened the door and received a barked interrogative.
“Have you got Tom Kenton in there?”
The proprietor confirmed at gunpoint and allowed the bushrangers inside. Lighting a candle, he guided them to a bedroom where Kenton and another man named Yates were in bed. Kenton sat bolt upright at the intrusion and Brady immediately reminded him of his promise of the previous year. A small crowd had formed behind Brady to see the commotion, but drew back when he announced his motivation.
“So you old villain, I have fallen in with you at last, and mean now to clear off old scores with you for all the mischief you have done me since we last parted, when I told you we should meet again, and what would come of it if you ever did me another bad turn. Now after letting you off as I did when you betrayed me and others to the military, you have told a hundred lies about me, and for which you shall suffer before I leave this room.”
Brady then proceeded to explain to those assembled exactly what lies Kenton had been telling and to declare the truth of what happened. Far worse Kenton’s lie that he allowed Brady to escape, was the attribution of murders to Brady’s name that he did not commit. A man with such a keen sense of his public image as Brady could not stand idly by as he was described as such a brute. Brady felt justified in administering punishment with lead and powder and levelled his pistol at Kenton’s head.
“I’ll give you five minutes to prepare yourself for your death.”
To drive home the seriousness of what he threatened, Brady began to count down the minutes on a watch. It was more than Kenton could take. He was remorseless and sneered at Brady, whose previous leniency and his reputation for avoiding bloodshed emboldened the former crooked cop to respond with mockery.
“Five minutes to prepare myself in? I don’t want one,” Kenton said, “I believe in neither God nor devil, and have no fear about dying. Fire away!”
Brady remained cool and continued the count down. This seemed to infuriate Kenton further.
“You know better than to do it. You are afraid to do it, you cursed cur dog.”
With that, Kenton got out of bed, brushed past Brady and had just reached the door when Brady shot him in the back of the head. Kenton was dead before he hit the ground. Not a single onlooker lifted a finger to intervene, they simply allowed the bushrangers to leave.
This would be the only murder carried out by Brady personally and it would be the crime that saw him at the end of a rope only two months later. Time was running out for the bushrangers, and Brady’s freedom was to be cut short when his wounded leg became infected, leaving him too weak to fight back when he was finally intersected by the notorious bounty hunter John Batman. By the time he was convicted for Kenton’s murder, Brady had already become a legend and Kenton’s story was already becoming obscured by myth.