Does the popular image of the Hall Gang marry up with eyewitness descriptions? Unlike with many earlier bushrangers, witness descriptions of bushrangers in the gold rush era were often quite detailed. Many in the modern day are familiar with the studio portraits of Ben Hall before he became an outlaw, as well as the illustrations of Gilbert and Dunn produced for newspapers, but these images only give us a controlled glimpse. No verified photographs of Gilbert and Dunn exist (the man photographed with Gardiner never having been officially named, and quite possibly a son of Gardiner’s close associate William Fogg), and the only verified photographs of Hall were taken at a very different stage in his life.
The earliest verified description of Johnny Gilbert comes from his time with Frank Gardiner. In the wake of the escort robbery at Eugowra Rocks, the following description was published.
It must be remembered, of course, that the press often made errors. A prime example is the publishing of two descriptions of Patsy Daley in one article, albeit with one listed as “Maley”. Perhaps it speaks volumes about the harshness of frontier life that Ben Hall at 25 appeared to be close to 30 years old.
While it is fascinating to look at the descriptions from different points in time to see how the men evolved, it is also intriguing to see if it is possible to recognise the men from description alone as the general population were expected to.
In mid-1864 Hall’s gang consisted of himself, Gilbert and James “Old Man” Gordon. The following descriptions only identify Hall by name, but the other two are easy enough to differentiate from one another.
The following extract is from an 1864 article describing to the gang’s exploits at the Black Springs near Jugiong:
“My informant, who is a very intelligent young man, and who was for six hours a captive, during which time he paid the greatest attention to all that the gang said and did, says that Gilbert and Dunn seemed very cool and jolly, whereas, Hall’s manner was rather serious and anxious. Gilbert and Dunn’s waistcoats were festooned with gold watch-guards, and their general appearance was that of flash well-to-do young stockmen; but, on the contrary, Hall had a quiet and respectable air — by wearing nicely-shaped high boots and a well-fitting pair of brown cord pants, with fashionably cut cloth coat and vest of the same colour, and only one gold chain, and not much of that to be seen. […] Gilbert has not the fresh, clear expression of countenance he used to have. His features are now much embrowned by the sun, and the skin in many places is peeling off. He, in the course of conversation, admitted that he had not long returned from Queensland, and that when there he was three times chased by the police; and furthermore, that on one of these three occasions, upon his horse knocking up, he jumped off and challenged his two pursuers to come on, whereupon they halted and jawed a bit, and then turned tail. Hall is the only one of the three who cultivates any moustache or whiskers, and he is getting fat. Of his two companions in crime, one wears his hair so long as to touch his shoulders, and the other has it in short crisp curls. They all once or twice stated that they were determined never to surrender, but to fight to the last. Each had six large-sized revolvers in his belt.”Empire (Sydney): 20/12/1864, p.3
The term “whiskers” in this period seems to have had a slightly vague meaning, but usually described what we would now refer to as sideburns. Based on the description given, it seems that while Gilbert and Dunn were clean-shaven, Hall had grown out his whiskers and moustache. This alone gives us quite a different view of Hall than what we’re familiar with.
Gilbert was known to remain clean-shaven with long hair so that he could disguise himself as a woman, which he supposedly did with some success on the New Zealand goldfields just after the Eugowra heist. With this knowledge in mind, it seems that John Dunn must have been the one with short, curly hair.
It is worth noting how the descriptions above informed the way the official descriptions were then given. The following description of Gilbert came three months after the incident at Jugiong. Oddly, it still describes him as about 22 years old as in the original descriptions published several years earlier.
Perhaps the most detailed physical descriptions of Hall and Gilbert are those made post mortem. After Hall’s shooting by police in May 1865, the body was displayed in Forbes. Surprisingly, at the inquest into Hall’s death the body was not described, even in relation to the medical examination to determine cause of death. Thus, the only description we have of Hall in death comes from a report describing the scenes at the viewing of his body. Some have suggested the lack of description at the inquest to be evidence that there was an effort to obscure police culpability in what was, essentially, an illegal execution.
His body was lying upon a stretcher in the south-east corner room of the building appropriated to the foot police. There was nothing forbidding in the countenance of Ben Hall, as he lay there still in death. In fact, I heard the remark made several times, during the moment I was in the room, “What a handsome face.” He appeared to be a young man about twenty-eight, finely made, excellent features, lofty forehead, and fine brown hair. His whiskers and moustache were cut quite close and of a much lighter colour than the hair on his head. I heard many make the remark, “I have often seen that face somewhere, but cannot tell where.” I have myself seen the face, but have no idea when or where. The most remarkable feature in the countenance was a peculiar curl in the right side of the upper lip, indicating ordinarily a feeling of contemptuous scorn, produced by the action of the mind upon the muscles. In this case I am told that it is a constitutional feature, and may therefore indicate nothing.“THE DEATH OF BEN HALL.” The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 13 May 1865: 7.
Not long after Hall’s death the law finally caught up with Gilbert and Dunn. Gilbert was shot while the pair attempted to flee from police, but only Dunn succeeded. Unlike Hall, Gilbert’s inquest included a detailed description of the body to verify the identity.
Of the three, Dunn was the only member of the gang to stand trial. He had been badly wounded in his capture; a bullet becoming lodged in his spine. The description of him from his trial is far more evocative than previously seen.
It is reasonable to suggest that part of the reason the gang were able to move freely for so long was due to the difficulty in recognising them from published descriptions.
These are mere snippets of the myriad descriptions published at the time, but go some way to explaining how the perception of bushrangers rarely matches the reality. Imagine how different our understanding of Hall, Gilbert and Dunn would be if there were more images to refer to apart from imagined ones used for newspaper etchings, or outdated photos of Hall from before his outlaw days.