Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Saturday 22 November 1873, page 3



Illustrated by a Sketch of the Career of Michael Howe, “The last and worst of the Bushrangers.”

Written by J. E. Calder.


They had hardly settled themselves in the woods of New Norfolk, before they took steps to settle their little misunderstanding with Mr. Dennis McCarthy, for the part he had taken in the late attack on them, which they were in no mood to let him off for, particularly as he had caused them in their own defence to commit an act which they would have much sooner avoided, and that was sure to bring them to the gallows in the end, for they did not look on death as certain for ordinary bushranging, and even though it were a capital offence, it was by no means always thus punished either in Davey’s or Sorell’s times, unless accompanied by murder or extreme violence, of which there were many examples. They therefore proceeded to this gentleman’s house as quickly as possible after their return to New Norfolk.

But the many confederates (or as Howe used to term them facetiously his “correspondents”) whom they had in this place, were now too much alarmed on their own account, by a recent Proclamation, which offered large rewards, not only for the apprehension of the bushrangers, but for their own also, to care about renewing acquaintance with them just now, and the robbers seemed to have lacked intelligence of how matters stood in the district, when they most wanted it, and they were egregiously deceived in consequence.

The night was cloudy and very dark, when they went forward from their camp, on their mission of evil, to punish Mr. McCarthy. That they had no intention of murdering him is certain, for he was absent from the district at the moment, and they knew it; but they probably meant to pay him off in the same fashion that they had just before served Mr. Humphrey.

The district of New Norfolk was then much more scantly settled over than now, and as the King’s highways were not pleasant places to be on after dark, no one was out at this hour. Whitehead and his party therefore reached McCarthy’s residence quite unobserved by any one, and more in mischief perhaps than earnest, announced their arrival by sending a shower of bullets through one of the windows, (for in McCarthy’s absence there was no one there whom they cared about hurting.) However, one of the balls that was shot a little too low, slightly grazed one of the inmates. But very little idea had Whitehead who those inmates were, who were none else than their old enemies the soldiers, a small party of whom were put up there in McCarthy’s absence, and who were just then engaged at cards. Unexpected as this challenge was, the men within did not lose their presence of mind, but seizing their muskets, rushed out and were amongst them in less time than I can tell it in, and before the others could reload. Coming out of a light room into utter darkness, they hardly knew where their opponents stood, but ventured a volly at random at them, and the leader Whitehead was shot down, mortally wounded, but whether by the military or one of his own people, who in the dark, mistook him for a soldier, as he was reconnoitring the premises, is uncertain.

Stunned and confounded by the unexpected appearance of the soldiers, and with their pieces uncharged, the bushrangers made off in a body, all except Howe, who had now a horrid task to perform, which in virtue of an old understanding that existed between these two worthies, Whitehead and himself, he remained behind to perform.

However little reverence such men as these may be thought to have had for truth, and the observance of obligations, they were sometimes found to attach importance to oaths made amongst themselves. The fear of the derision of their comrades, in case of failing through faint-heartedness, probably kept them up to the mark. These two men had sworn to each other, that whichever fell first, the survivor should perform the dreadful office of cutting off and removing the other’s head, so that the body not being recognisable, the captor might be defrauded of his reward, and there were now fifty guineas on each of this party. Whitehead lived just long enough to pass the preconcerted signal that all was up with him, (“Take my watch,” meaning his own head) and then in the language of scripture, he gave up the ghost.

Favoured by the intense darkness of the night, Howe fulfilled his pledge; and the headless body of the impenitent man, remained where it fell, for the military to dispose of as they chose; and it was conveyed to Hobart Town, where it actually underwent the ceremony, so vain in this instance, of a public execution, by being gibbetted on Hunter’s Island, where it hung for more than a twelvemonth.

Many other criminals were thus exposed on this little rock, then a conspicuous object in Sullivan’s Cove (on which Hobart Town fronts), until it was swallowed up, so to speak, in the “Old Wharf;” till public disgust was so aroused by the barbarous and never absent spectacle, that in June of 1816, they were all removed to another part of the coast, a little further south, where they were stuck up again like scare-crows, and with about the same admonitory effect.

Howe bore off Whitehead’s head, but seems to have dropped it in the dark, for I read in the Gazette of the 13th of December, 1817, that it had just been found, and circumstances were such as to leave no doubt about its identity.

Howe rejoined his companions, and henceforward acted as their leader, their number being now reduced to [seven] by the death of Whitehead.

They now found it necessary to evacuate New Norfolk again, and betook themselves to the Tea-tree Brush, a few miles off, which, as its name implies, was then a place of thickets, where they hoped to rest unobserved for a little. But those everlasting tormentors of theirs, the soldiers, soon winded them again, and pounced quite unexpectedly on the hut they occupied, but when there were only two of them at home, the rest being away on some evil business no doubt. The soldiers were in it at once; but thoughtlessly leaving no guard at the door, the others flew out, directly the last of the soldiers was within, and running into the scrub, were out of sight directly. The disappointed assailants fired after them, but ineffectually, and both escaped their pursuers, but only to fall into the hands of another party of soldiers a few days afterwards at Kangaroo Point, whither they had wandered. They proved to be Richard McGuire and Hugh Burne.

Howe and the rest soon afterwards returned homewards, but finding that soldiers were in possession of their wig-wam, of course, came not near it again.

A Court Martial, never tardy in its movements or decisions, was soon assembled to try McGuire and Burne, and made short work with them, and sentenced both to die, for aiding in the deaths of Messieurs Carlisle and O’Birne, and their bodies were added to the other horrors of Hunter’s Island.

What became of Howe and his party after the misadventures of the last few days, that cost them three lives, I am at a loss to say; and a gap occurs in their history, which neither the Gazettes at my command, or other authorities enable me to fill up. But that they remained quiet for a few months seems certain, for no trace of them can be discovered in the publications alluded to.

It cannot now be ascertained in what way Howe and his companions supported themselves at this time, nor where they lay in concealment; but Colonel Sorell says, they had secret connexions nearly everywhere, whose connivance they had abundant means of securing; so it must have gone hard with them, if they could not have lived a few months, and well too, amongst these friends, without resorting to house-breaking, or robbery on the highways.

But in whatever way they occupied themselves whilst in hiding, they tired of it at last, and took again to their old practices with such ardour, as shewed that they had not passed their seclusion in a penitential manner; and they turned up again in the beginning of the antipodal summer of 1816, largely reinforced in numbers, from five, when they went into retirement, to thirteen, when they emerged from it. This coalition took place between June and August.

The Gazette of the 3rd August, 1810, thus announces the alarming fact, with its usual disregard of the proprieties of orthography and grammar:

“We have this afternoon received information that the banditti (consisting of Michael Howe, Peter Septon, James Geary, George Jones and Richard Collyer) which have been so long in the Woods of this Island, committing Murders and Robberies, has joined with those Desperadoes that are Advertised in the front of this Paper which now consists to the number of thirteen.”

These new allies were Matthew Keegan, Peter Franks, Thomas Garland, John Chapman, William Johnson, John Parker, Emanuel Levy, and George Watts. But in three or four weeks the party dwindled down to ten, by the jibbing of Johnson, Watts, and Levy.

Howe commenced this campaign with his usual vigour, and committed several robberies, Messieurs Stanfield, Pitt, Stynes, and Troy being amongst his first victims. The establishments of several others also fared the same. These feats followed each other with such rapidity as to baffle all pursuit. Acting with customary rapacity, he cleared out their premises of everything he could carry off; often taking property which, as it could be of no use personally to any of the party, must have been seized for trafficking only with his “correspondents.”

None of these pillagings were attended with personal violence of any kind. Howe even let Mr. Pitt off lighter than one would have thought, considering that he stood well up in the police force of the colony, every member of which he hated as the devil hates holy water. But Howe disliked unnecessary violence, and though he sometimes threatened it, using hard words and black looks, he never would permit it except in self-defence, or when, according to his style of thinking, he believed his victims deserved it, as in the cases of McCarthy and Humphrey; and though he often made the ladies of the places he visited, surrender everything they had, except what they stood in, they were otherwise treated most respectfully. His followers were quite habituated to this, and I will here quote an example of it from the Gazette of the 22nd February, 1817.

Three of the party were at this time separated from the main body, and like Abraham not caring to live in the country of his kinsman Lot, went into the North, and were soon briskly at work in the districts about Launceston. A gentleman escorting two ladies, was travelling westerly from that town, and had reached a place then known as the Black Snake, twenty miles from L’ton, when “they descryed,” says the Gazette, “three men, which they supposed to be part of the guard which Major Stewart had kindly directed to accompany the carts; but on their nearer approach, they perceived them to be three bushrangers, named Septon, Jones, and Brown. These unhappy creatures, fearful of any information reaching the Settlement, or the parties which now guard it, conducted the ladies and their Guide to a farm-house, where they detained them during the night. It is gratifying for us to remark, that these outlaws behaved in the most becoming manner, having refused to take any refreshment till the ladies had done; and even led their horses the next day over the difficult part of the New River, known by the name of Macquarie’s Crossing place,” where they left them, when out of danger, having more important business on hand than to act as “Squires of Dames” any longer, namely, to make a domiciliary visit to Messieurs T. Archer and R. Dry, both of whose houses they fleeced without loss of time.

To return to Howe; after the robberies of Stanfield and others, the gang having roused the Government into activity again, found it expedient to get out of the way once more: and whilst in concealment they must have been rejoined by their polite companions from the North, from whom they probably received such accounts of the fatness of the land, as determined them to visit it, and judge for themselves.

The settlers of the north, had suffered pretty considerably from bushrangers, having several gangs of their own rearing amongst them. But these were composed of petty fellows only, who had none of the notoriety of Howe’s people; and all were on the alert directly they knew they had crossed the country, and were settled amongst them. The commandant, Major Stewart, thus forewarned, prepare to meet them. The mention of Howe was enough for him; and the Launceston portion of the 40th, though somewhat disorganised and unruly, snuffed the battle from afar, like the war horse of scripture, and were ready for the enemy whenever and wherever he appeared, so Howe could not remain long on this now scene, as the pursuit was soon too hot for him; but he remained long enough to make wreck of one establishment.

On the 7th of November, 1816, Howe and his party presented themselves at the residence of Mr. D. Rose, which they assaulted in their usual menacing manner just after dark, and were masters of the place in a moment. Mr. Rose had some friends staying with him at the time, who had just before this arrived from Ceylon, to settle in Tasmania, and they too had to submit to the hard fate of their host, and all were plundered most impartially, for Howe used to boast that in all his exactions, he had nothing to reproach himself for, on the score of making fish of one and flesh of another, so fleeced them all round of whatever they had, making no invidious distinctions. The ladies too, suffered just like the rest, and when he went away there was not the value of one shilling amongst the whole of them, except the clothes they had on them. Money, jewels, trinkets, watches, clothes, and goodness knows what else, all went into their capacious knapsacks, which they loaded till they could scarcely lift them, and then decamped to the joy of all, who were glad to see them disappear, without taking their lives as well as chattels.

The commandant of Launceston, though remiss enough at times, and seemingly pretty nearly as unruly as his men (see note at the end) behaved on this occasion like an active magistrate. Heading a strong party of the 46th he went after Howe’s party himself. But as that worthy had so good a start before a message could be delivered at Launceston and the soldiers roach Rose’s house, and managed his retreat so quietly, his men were far enough away, before the real pursuit began; and no tidings could be had of them any where. Therefore after a most fatiguing and exhausting search, that extended over several days, the commandant returned to his quarters again.

But Howe soon came to the surface again, a hundred miles from the scene of his last adventure, having after more than a week’s travel, reached the long and narrow valley of Bagdad safely, but I fancy by some unusual route, otherwise he must have fallen into the net of the fowler, which Captain Nairn, who managed military matters for Colonel Davey in the south, had set for him everywhere, that is, as far as the military force at command permitted; for Howe’s party was now hunted after high and low, like noxious animals, that are to be got rid of at any cost. Soldiers in fatigue dress, in uniform, and in disguise, were on the look-out for him where-ever it was thought there was a chance of trapping him; but he was to well informed, to fall into their snares just yet.

Having learned that there was a valuable lot of merchandise in transit between the “two settlements,” namely, Hobart Town and Launceston, and that it would pass through Bagdad on a particular day, he took post amongst the woods near to Haye’s residence, resolved to intercept it. He listened anxiously for the sound of wheels all day of the 17th of November when he expected its arrival, but that day closed without it arriving; for through some mishap, the proprietor of the goods, Mr. W. T. Stocker, was delayed on the road for twenty-four hours; for which Howe, when they met, like other offended dignitaries, demanded explanations, which not quite satisfying him, he gave him such a rating, as the mercantile man never heard in his life before: for Howe could not stop long anywhere just now, and the loss of a day might be fatal to him. But towards night of the 18th, the rumbling of carts on the unformed road was heard; when Howe, something after the manner of one of the heroes of the Beggar’s Opera, summoned his men to

” Haste to the road;

Hark! I hear the sound of coaches.”

or more properly, Mr. Stocker’s carts, which drove up with their precious freight to Mr. Hayes’ house, where they were to remain for the night. They carried not only several passengers, but what Howe’s party cared much more about, that is, just such wares as they wanted, of which in the end they took by far the best share, and valued, according to Mr. Stocker’s published declaration of his losses, at just £255 1s. 6d., “at prime cost;” the articles taken, of which there is a lengthy enumeration in the Gazette, being of the most varied description.

The bushrangers had plenty of conversation with the travellers, and surprised them by the accuracy of their information of the movements of the Government, particularly in matters relating to themselves, and generally also of what was going on in Hobart Town; and then finished this pleasant parley, by taking old Stocker’s watch from him.

They are charged on this occasion, with adding wanton destruction of property to robbery, in one of them sending a bullet into a keg of rum, which was all lost. But it is more probable that Howe thought it best to remove it out of his companions way; for though Sorell says they were very temperate men, still most who were harrassed as they were, and ever on the march, might possibly have liked to solace themselves for once in a way, with a nip or two of it, which it was on all accounts most prudent to prevent.

Oddly enough the chief constable of the territory, was that very night enjoying the hospitality of Hayes; and was in the house at the moment when the bushrangers, eleven in number, rushed into it. This praiseworthy conservator of the public peace, having a pretty good notion who the intruders were, took to his heels and ran off as hard as he could, till he was quite out of danger and wind also, leaving his host and the travellers, to make any terms they liked best with the enemy.

[To be continued.]

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