Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Thursday 27 November 1873, page 3



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

Written by J. E. CALDER.


Mr. Bent, having sketched Howe’s career with as much fidelity as such an unscrupulous writer was capable of, supplements it with several idle stories of murders that have no foundation in fact, which he lays at the door of the bushranger. One of these outrages, whoever done by, was committed on an island in the Straits, which Howe certainly never was at; another is made ridiculous by the excessive improbability of the circumstances which he says attended it; and the other he supposes Howe must have done, because he once told some one else, that it was committed by the natives. I believe they are all inventions of his own, or else rest on unsupported rumour only.

The Governor, though glad enough when he heard of the death of the last of the bushrangers, was, I have been told by several persons, greatly displeased at the mutilation of his corpse, for he thought it a barbarous and unnecessary act, though he says nothing about it in his despatches, nor does the name of Drummond occur in them anywhere; and this fellow might have saved himself the trouble of doing this savage act, for he got nothing by it. Sorell extols Howe’s destroyers to the skies. He paid fifty pounds of the hundred guinea reward to Pugh, forty to Worrell, and fifteen to Warburton. McGill also received a small gratuity. In a despatch of his that I have seen, he pleads hard for a pardon for McGill, for former bush services, which both he and Worrell received, and also asks to be allowed to purchase private Pugh’s discharge, promising to raise the necessary funds in the colony, “as a mark of grateful acknowledgment for the service rendered by Pugh.”

He might well be grateful for it, for we may suppose the six-year chase after Howe cost the Imperial and local Governments such a sum, as one is afraid to guess at, while the colony was ridded of by far the most dreaded robber who ever took the bush.

Howe was a powerfully made man, about five feet seven or eight inches high, neither bad nor good-looking, having deeply seated eyes, and a profusion of coarse hair. Mr. Frank Pitt describes him as being “a rough sailor-looking fellow,” and Mr. Patterson, who saw him when in gaol, says he was slightly pock-marked. The accounts that I have received of his ordinary bearing are more favourable than I should have expected.

The number of men who were at different times associated with Howe, since his second escape into the woods in 1815, was twenty; of whom twelve, including himself, came to a bad end, in consequence of that connection. Six others who surrendered themselves to the Government, but who were not guilty of murder, received very severe sentences for their evil deeds, to which one would have thought that death itself were preferable. Of the remaining two, I can discover nothing; but as both were old offenders, we may be sure they fined as hardly as the others.

It is not necessary to say more of Howe’s companions than what I have already done, excepting three of them, namely, Geary, Septon, and Collier, whose fate may be worth recording.

I have said before that James Geary was a deserter from a detachment of the 73rd Regiment, of which he was one of the bandsmen, and after joining Howe, he became one of the most active participators in the many crimes of that misguided man.

The history of brigandage furnishes no end of examples of men taking to that dreadful calling from disappointed love; and this was the case with this soldier. For, in so far as I can discover, the early bush career of this great offender, began in a passion that seems to have bordered on infatuation, for a female, who I believe was the daughter of a publican, living somewhere in the delightful neighbourhood of Cat and Fiddle Alley of this city of ours – this very fashionable quarter, deriving its name from the once notorious Inn kept by the father. The faithless syren persuaded the love-smitten soldier to desert from his regiment and follow her, but where to, I am uncertain; for all that I know of this ruinous alliance is, that it was quickly dissolved by her deserting him, and taking herself off to Launceston, where she made a more suitable, if not a happier match. In this state of wreck, the unhappy fellow drifted rapidly on to the shoals of ruin, a doomed and broken man. Having now neither friends nor means, and dreading the fearful consequences of surrendering himself to his officers, he took another fatal step in his headlong descent, by uniting his already desperate fortunes with those of the outlaw Howe.

After the surrender of the latter to Captain Nairn in 1817, Geary led the gang, as the most resolute and daring of them all. There was a time, Sorell says, when he wished to give up his dangerous way of life, but despairing of pardon (being an offender both against the civil and military law,) he abandoned the idea; and such was his influence over the rest of the gang, that he prevented them from laying down their arms, and giving in, as they all wished to do, being quite broken down by a life of privation and danger, and the unceasing pursuit of a host of enemies.

Lance Serjeant McCarthy and seven soldiers assisted by three volunteers, with Black Mary for their guide, tracked the gang to their retreat at old Joe Johnson’s hut at the Tea-tree Brush, on the 7th of July of 1817. Both sides tree’d themselves directly; but such was the downfall of rain then descending, that the guns of both sides, either hung fire, or else would not go off at all. A soldier named Sullivan was opposed to Geary, but some minutes passed before either made a hit. Geary got first chance, through the other slightly exposing his head, and he fired. His aim was good but not quite true, the ball striking the tree quite close to it, and sending a shower of bark fragments into his face. “That’s not a bad shot,” said Geary cooly, when he saw that he had missed his man, “but the next shall be better,” and he proceeded to reload; but by this time the rain had so damped and fouled the touch-hole of his piece, that it was necessary to clear it out, and he raised his leg for a rest whilst he dried it, projecting it a little beyond the tree and thus giving away a chance. Sullivan then fired, the ball taking fatal effect, by passing completely through his thigh. His companion Jones was shot dead by another soldier nearly at the same moment. McCarthy’s people then ran in, and took either one or two others. The rest, seven or eight, then made off. Geary’s wound was mortal, and he died in about twenty minutes, bravadoing till all was over.

He bled very freely; still an effort, Mr. Beamont tells me, was, made to stop the hemorrhage, which he submitted to, cooly taking out his fife (he was a fifer of the band) and playing it during all the operation; but directly it was finished, he tore off the bandages himself, and bled to death almost directly.

Peter Septon, another old soldier then led, but some quarrel occurring amongst them, a separation took place, and he and Collier removed to the Launceston side of the island, where they were joined by several recruits, one of whom was named Hillier.

They were stationed at a place called in those days Gordon’s Plains, which were on the South Esk, somewhere between Evandale and the princely domain of Clarendon. Here another quarrel and split-up took place, and Septon, Collier and Hillier remained alone together.

On the 28th of July, they slept at a hut close to Gordon’s Plains. Hillier had no love for either of them, nor for any one else, and resolved to destroy both, for the substantial reward of eighty guineas, the price that was put on the head of either of them.

When his victims were sleeping, he rose up stealthily, and having first secured their pieces, he proceeded to assault them, and Septon spoke no more.

Collier waking at the instant, at the struggles of the dying man, sprang from his wretched couch, and made for the door, the murderer pursuing and wounding him as he escaped, but not badly, and he then ran for it. Hillier seeing that he was eluding him, snatched up a gun, and firing, shattered one of his hands, nearly to pieces; but he ran still, and finally got away. The fugitive then made his way to Launceston, and surrendered to the Commandant.

Collier was sent up to Sydney for trial, and was convicted on the evidence of Howe’s paramour, Black Mary, of participation in the deaths of Carlisle and O’Birne, and was sentenced to die. He was then returned to Hobart Town, according to the practice of the times for execution. It is reported that he acknowledged his sentence to be a just one, and died as best became him–a repentant man.

“Nothing in his life,

Became him like the leaving it.”

Soon after the surrender of Collier, Hillier also fell into Sorell’s hands, but who gave him a very different reward from the one he expected, namely, a passage to Sydney, a fair trial for he crimes and a well-deserved death.

With the close of the events just described, the cloud that had so long darkened the social atmosphere of Tasmania drifted away, and which nothing but the operation of laws, too rashly and often too cruelly carried out afterwards more, as I believe, to produce a salutary effect elsewhere than here–sent back upon us again. But let none refuse honour to the man by whose energy the evil was first subdued. Like the rest of us, he was not faultless, that is, if judged by the hypermetrical standard of over-exact moralists, which so few of us would care to be tested by. But we may well forget the few errors of his life in the recollection of the good he performed whilst amongst us. But in this world of ours we are never too forgiving, and as Shakespeare has it,

The evil that men do, lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones.

14th November, 1873.


BLACK MARY. – There is an incident connected with Howe’s life that requires some notice. His biographer, Bent, accuses him of having once tried to destroy his paramour, for no other reason but her inability to keep pace with him when flying from the military. He says that in April of 1817, “Howe and the native girl were pursued in the neighbourhood of Jericho, by a small party of the 40th regiment. His wantonly cruel disposition was strongly manifested on this occasion, for, being hard pressed, in order to facilitate his own escape, he fired at this poor female companion, who from fatigue was unable to keep pace with him. She, however, received little injury, and, together with his blunderbuss, knapsack, and dogs, fell into the hands of the pursuers.” She was taken by a soldier named Sullivan.

But “the father of the Tasmanian press,” as Bent was wont to style himself, was neither a scrupulous nor a very reflecting writer; and it does not seem to have occurred to him, that the shot was most probably directed at the soldier as he was laying hands on his companion; and that his intention in firing may have been to save, and not to destroy her.


I have said before, that the conduct of this officer when Commandant of Launceston, was most unruly; and he exhibited such turbulence, disobedience of nearly every order, and insubordination, is almost to deserve the name of mutiny. It was the practice of the time to give to officers in his station, but by courtesy only, almost exactly the same title, as that by which the chief local authority was addressed, namely, his Honor, the Lieutenant-Governor of Launceston. They were indeed entitled to this designation at one time, that is, when Tasmania was divided into two separate Governments, but not after this partition of territory ceased in 1812; and this seems to have been translated by Major Stewart (and I fear by at least one of his successors) as entitling him to independent command; and he yielded either a most unwilling obedience to Sorell, or more often none at all; sometimes even acting in open defiance of him, and embarrassing him to the uttermost at all times. Several of Colonel Sorell’s Despatches to his superior at Sydney, describe his demeanour as highly disorderly; and nothing but the very peculiar circumstances of the colony, prevented both Governors sending him to a Court Martial. He defied the magistracy as well as the Governor; and at one time prevented them from taking any proceedings against the lawbreaking classes of the country, by actually carrying off, says Sorell, “the Record Books of the Bench of Magistrates, declaring his resolution to retain them by force;” and he “ruined the public buildings, gardens and barracks at Launceston.” The barracks and fences, he pulled down unauthorisedly, and burnt them all.

The discipline, or rather the indiscipline, that he maintained amongst his men, was something outrageous (often punishing them without any trial whatever), till they became so disorganised as to be a public nuisance, and they committed many outrages, and more than one murder.

Of the many instances that are recorded of this officer’s refractoriness, there is one very flagrant one detailed in a Despatch dated 8th August, 1818. I have before introduced the name of Ensign Mahon, as the destroyer of two of Howe’s gang, one of whom, Elliott, he brought down himself. This young officer, seems to have been a most active and determined man, and always a ready volunteer to go after either bushrangers or natives, and generally with success. Some boats had been taken from Hobart Town by runaways, and were followed by Mr. Mahon to the Tamar, Major Stewart being forewarned by a letter from the Lieutenant Governor of Mahon’s enterprise. The latter on reaching George Town, met the Major there, to whom he exhibited his instructions, whereupon Stewart at once took steps to frustrate Mahon’s mission, by seizing and placing him in confinement, or as Sorell says, “he arrested Ensign Mahon, and prevented him by military force from proceeding.” He concludes his report of this outrage in these words: “A more glaring instance of contempt for the good of the service, for the advantage of the settlement, and the maintenance of Law and order, by the supression of enduring Banditti, perhaps was never exhibited; and when to that may be added the direct defiance of authority of his immediate superior, I cannot doubt that this charge would have been of most serious import to Major Stewart, had it been before a General Court Martial,” &c

If it be true as Addison says that every tale has its moral, then assuredly the sketches I have given of the bush careers of Howe and Brady, will not have been written in vain. The examples furnished by the lives of these men, and their many companions in crime and misfortune, may teach us the folly of attempting to coerce the criminal classes into the ways of virtue by any such severity of punishment, as was much too often inflicted here, in times happily past, that were generally quite incommensurate with the nature of the offences that first led the most of them into the more vicious courses, that conducted them progressively to the chain-gang or scaffold. Not only the examples, with which we were once too familiar here, but the experience, of all past time, assure us that men tire neither to be deterred from evil practices, or driven, so to speak, to virtue by barbarous retaliatory inflictions, whose tendency is to deprave in ten cases, where they amend or even intimidate in one; and should be a lesson to us for ever to avoid an evil, which has so small an admixture of good. Moral improvement by legal penalties, is only to be achieved by such inflictions as leave the offender no reason to believe that he has been too hardly dealt with; and whenever this limit is exceeded, the almost certain effect is the reproduction of offence. Even military critics, who are not always trained in schools where much moderation is practised, have not been wanting to declaim against the operation of military laws, as practised in our own armies, even in very recent times, the inevitable result of which was to deaden self respect by degrading the sufferer; and the soldier who had once undergone the indignity of corporal punishment, was ever after a worthless fellow. Even brigandage itself has seldom been wholly repressed by military violence, of which the history of the first Napoleon furnishes more than one instance. He with all his power, failed to eradicate it from either Spain or Calabria, even by the persistent exercise of such vigour as his merciless agents, General Manhes* and others opposed to it in the last named country, who left their despairing victims no hope of life but in resistance. The experience of the present age seems to be, that when milder systems of punishment are used than prevailed formerly, that crime keeping pace with mercy, has much diminished, or so at least I have read; though even now, as it seems to me, some offences such as horse and sheep stealing, by which few men are very often seriously injured, are still dealt with too mercilessly, that is by such long periods of imprisonment, that the criminal grows old before his sentence expires, when a recommencement of life by any other means than renewing old practices, is no longer possible. Hence he returns to liberty, neither amended, nor even intimidated by his punishment.

That there are in the category of crime, some offences for which death is none too severe, may be believed. But we are now beginning to understand, that all lesser ones, are more certain of abatement by moderation in our penal practice, than by pushing chastisement too nearly to the limit of endurance, by which latter the ends for which Justice is instituted, are more commonly defeated than reached.

*MacFarlane, in his account of the suppression of brigandage in Calabria thus describes some of the cruelties of this old soldier when serving under Murat. “In the French General Manhes, Joachim Murat found the very man to superintend or direct these massacres en masse, and the Calabrians the most ruthless enemy that had ever been let loose on them . . . . . . it remains undisputed and has even been admitted by those who served under him or with him, that Manhes, was a cruel, pitiless man to the Calabrians, the people of the Abruzzi, &c. and acted up to a system of blood, without once relenting. No mercy was ever extended to the outlaws who fell into his hands. Villages, whole towns, through which the inhabitants had allowed the brigands a passage, felt his tremendous vengeance. Any peasant, without distinction of sex or age, who was found, going out to labour in the country, with more than a small flask of wine and a morsel of bread calculated to be just sufficient to support life for one day, was taken and shot; for Manhes, having made pretty sure of the towns and villages, whence the brigands could no longer supply themselves, thought if he could prevent the peasantry from smuggling out provisions to them, that they must either surrender themselves, or die of want in the mountain fastnesses, such to which he had driven them. ….”By unusual novelity like this, Manhes boasted he had put down brigandage in Calabria. The boast was partly made out by fact,” &c.

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