James McCabe, Murder and Rum

The bushranger, James McCabe, who had for a considerable stretch been Matthew Brady’s right-hand man, eventually left the gang after one of their most successful raids, that being on the property of George Meredith at Little Swan Port in October of 1825. Despite the popular story that Brady had shot him in the hand for “interfering” with a female then turfing him, the real reason McCabe left the gang was apparently far less poetic: Brady had destroyed all of his booze after a drunken brawl in which a man had been killed. Though it seems to have been somewhat glazed over in the contemporary press, the brawl had resulted in the death of the gang’s hostage, a staffer from Meredith’s property named Henry Hunt, which was the main reason Brady took the action he did.

No doubt this was all the culmination of a brewing resentment between Brady and McCabe, and it was hardly the first time McCabe had left Brady’s company. It seems McCabe was either to proud to ask forgiveness or too arrogant to realise he would not cope on his own. Naturally this would end in disaster for McCabe.

He didn’t last long on the run after this, but did his best to elude authorities, and made his way back to Bothwell on foot where he became increasingly desperate after he lost his supplies, and even some of his clothing, after an ambush. In the end a man he had taken prisoner escaped while McCabe was committing a robbery, and alerted the police in town as to the bushranger’s presence. McCabe was quickly subdued, arrested and taken to Hobart Town. On 6 January the following year he was finally executed for his various crimes.

What follows is a dramatic recreation of the event. Unfortunately there is little to nothing recorded about the details of the falling out between McCabe and his colleagues, so this interpretation may help paint the picture by putting what we do know into context.


The waters of Grindstone Bay lapped at the shore and receded gently as the stolen whaleboat glided down along the coastline. On board the vessel were the members of Matthew Brady’s gang, with the booty from their latest raid and a hostage named Henry Hunt. The craft was shallow and open, and allowed just enough room for the men to squeeze in and grab an oar to row. Brady sat at the stern, watching the men and keeping an eye on Hunt. Despite his diminutive stature, he was solidly built and his blue eyes were piercing in a way that could both intimidate and charm depending on his mood. He had a cloak wrapped around him to brace against the wind that was kicking up against his back. Peeking out from the cloak was his pistol, which was ready to go off at any moment if Hunt tried to do anything rash.

Hunt directed the landsmen in how to manoeuvre the whaleboat in the coastal waters as they came in close to the bay. The boat was steered towards the mouth of the 80 Acre River and allowed to lurch onto the banks. The bushrangers set about unloading their ill-gotten gains and established a camp close to the water. They knew they had to work quickly as it was growing steadily dark and the area was known to be the haunt of Aboriginals who were not at all pleased to have white men encroaching on their space. Brady knew only too well how the Aborigines of nearby Oyster Bay, led by the infamous Musquito, in particular had problems with the whites as their murderous raids had put the entire colony on edge over the previous two years.

In fact, George Meredith, whose Little Swan Port property Brady’s gang had just ransacked, was one of the men who had set out to capture Musquito and his “Tame Mob” following a deadly attack close to where the gang now assembled their camp. Meredith claimed that his posse had found the mob but they had all escaped unharmed under cover of darkness, but rumours persisted that in fact the men under Meredith’s instructions had found the mob asleep in their camp and had been ordered to put them all to death. Nobody cared enough about the lives of the Aborigines to try and find any bodies, doubly so seeing as they had ambushed and murdered men. Some saw it as just desserts if indeed the rumour was true.

As darkness blotted out the horizon, the rush of the waves was mingled with the sound of revelry. A hogshead of rum had been tapped and the men drank freely from it, but none more so than James McCabe. McCabe and Brady were the last of the Macquarie Harbour escapees still at large, and they had been through a great many misadventures together.  He was slightly built, with sharp features and pouty lips, his face was careworn and pockmarked. With a pewter tankard in one hand and conducting an invisible choir with the other, McCabe regaled the gang with a rendition of John Barleycorn before slumping down against a tree, giggling. Brady glared at his companion. The pair were polar opposites in just about every manner possible. McCabe was brash, impulsive and hot-headed while Brady was calm, measured and controlled. McCabe was a devil for the drink, while Brady avoided it as much as he could manage.

In all their time together, since escaping from Sarah Island, they had seen all of their other companions captured or killed, and in fact Brady himself had almost been nabbed himself on one occasion, no thanks to McCabe who bolted at the first sign of trouble. It was McCabe that had convinced him to go to Thomas Kenton’s hut, despite everything telling him it was a bad idea, then when Brady’s misgivings were vindicated and they were jumped by a pair of redcoats, McCabe has shot off like a rocket, leaving Brady to his fate. Fortunately, Brady was resolute enough to have affected his own escape (though not unscathed) and it took a considerable amount of begging for Brady to allow McCabe to share his company when they eventually reunited. It was a marriage of convenience, but the convenience had worn off.

McCabe staggered to his feet and made his way to the rum for a refill. He was halted by William McKenney blocking his path.

“Move, McKenney.”

“That’s enough, Jim. Go take a seat; you’re drunk,” McKenney replied firmly.

“To Hell with you, I know how I am,” McCabe replied.

He attempted to push past McKenney, but the more sober man simply shifted to deny him passage. McCabe’s face scrunched into a scowl.

“What’s your problem, McKenney?” McCabe slurred.

“Get out of it, McCabe; you’re three sheets to the wind.”

“I’ll show you a sheet…”

McCabe wobbled, then lunged at McKenney. They fell to the ground, wrestling. It didn’t take much effort for McKenney to get the upper hand, straddling McCabe and grabbing him by the throat. McCabe fished around and grabbed a pistol that had fallen from his trousers as he hit the ground. With the weight of the firearm enhancing his blow, McCabe struck McKenney in the head, causing him to roll off.

Seeing the commotion, the other gang members rushed over, with Josiah Bird and Patrick Dunne leaping in to join the fisticuffs. Bird and Dunne were, just like McCabe, drunk as newts, and swung punches at everyone and no-one in particular.

“Arrah!” Dunne shouted as he landed a blow on McCabe, hurting his hand. McCabe returned the gesture, jabbing the Irishman in the ribs.

McKenney spear-tackled McCabe to the ground and tried to disarm him but McCabe rose and swung his pistol around, levelling it at his opponent and cocking it. At that moment, Henry Hunt, who had been seated nearby patiently, ran to McKenney’s side and tried to prevent McCabe from shooting him. In so doing he made himself the target. McCabe, unable to stop himself, pulled the trigger and a ball of lead pushed through Hunt’s chest. He collapsed with a groan.

Brady stormed across and snatched the pistol out of McCabe’s hand. He cursed at his companion and struck him across the head with the pommel of the pistol’s stock, knocking him unconscious. He ordered other members of the gang to tie McCabe up as he attended to their fallen prisoner.

Brady knelt beside Hunt and put his fingers to his throat to feel for a pulse. Hunt was unresponsive and lying in a pool of his own blood. There was no pulse. Brady felt numb.

“He’s dead,” Brady stated coldly. McKenney gazed on the body in horror.

“What do we do, Matt?”

“We bury him. In the morning we’ll get moving.”

Brady stood slowly then crossed to a pile of tools and took up a hatchet. He proceeded to hack the rum cask apart, freeing the liquid, which melted the dust into mud. A rivulet of rum snaked between his feet and downhill. He did the same with the remaining ceramic bottles of porter and a bottle of wine. His gang looked on with disappointment but none intervened.

Brady took several of his men to an area close to the beach and dug a grave for McCabe’s victim with what implements they had at their disposal. The corpse was then carried down from the camp and placed in the hole, far too shallow to rightly be considered a grave, then filled it in. Throughout the process, all men wore a look of grim determination and did not speak. Once the hole had been filled, the men stood in silence for a moment of respect before returning to the camp.

William Young, or Tilly as he was better known to the gang, seemed particularly disturbed by the turn of events.

“It’s a bad business, Matthew,” Tilly said to Brady. Brady simply grunted.

***

The following morning the gang packed up their camp as James McCabe slowly came to. Realising he had been tied to a tree, he began straining at his bonds and screaming furiously with every profanity he could muster. He was soon freed and as he made his way to the cask of rum, he realised it had been destroyed.

“What did you do to the drink?”

“I did away with it, McCabe,” Brady replied.

“What in Hell for?”

“It’s no good. After your display last night, I cannot trust any of you to behave sensibly with the stuff. You put a man to death for no good reason. You’re lucky I don’t put a ball through you myself.”

McCabe, who had been so drunk his memory of the previous night was almost non-existent, immediately reeled with confusion. In his addled state of mind, he balled his hand into a fist and swung at his leader. Brady dodged the blow easily and grabbed McCabe.

“That bastard McKenney put you up to it, didn’t he?” McCabe hollered.

“I want you gone,” Brady said calmly. McCabe was red in the face and scowled as he pushed Brady away from him.

“Fine; I don’t need you lot at any rate. Good riddance.”

McCabe found his belongings and set off on foot, glaring at each man as he went. He hoped someone would stop him and beg him to stay but nobody did. As he reached the outskirts of the camp, he turned around to face his former colleagues.

“Damn the lot of you to Hell. You won’t last a month!”

With that last burst of defiance, James McCabe left Matthew Brady’s company for the last time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s