The American-born bushranger who roamed from Warrnambool to Beechworth.
Thomas Menard, also known as “Yankee Tom”, “Yorkey Tom” or James Barrett, was a native of Louisiana who travelled to Victoria in 1855 in search of gold. Born around 1837, he was a single man with no friends or relatives in the colony, and he soon found work as a labourer.
He was not a tall man, even by the standards of the time, only standing at around 5’6″ tall. He had brown hair and grey eyes, and was of medium build. There were few identifying marks, but those on record were a mole on the corner of the right eye, a small mole on each breast, scar on finger of right hand, and a deep scar on his left shin. This basic description would be elaborated on later as police ramped up their hunt.
Next to nothing is known about Menard’s early life or the time he spent in Australia between 1855 and 1865, though later speculation would suggest he spent at least part of the time engaged in crimes such as highway robbery and murder, but the claims are unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, a life of crime would explain why he had aliases.
Menard was employed by a Henry Evans to work a quarry in Warrnambool. It was hard work, but Menard seemingly took to it without complaint. One of his colleagues was an Irishman named James Sweeney. Sweeney was a mouthy, irritable fellow who was constantly spoiling for a fight. After a series of verbal stouches instigated by Sweeney, during which he made disparaging comments about the Americans and the civil war, Menard had had enough.
On 10 June, 1865, after the men had retired for the night, Menard appeared at the doorway to the hut shared by himself, Sweeney, John Hall (alternatively reported as Howe and Haw), while brandishing a pistol. A colleague named Wales was asleep in the skillion. Hall was roused by a gunshot and a candlelight from the slush tub. He spotted Menard with the firearm and begged, “Tom, don’t!” Menard replied, “I don’t want to hurt you; lie quiet.” At that moment Menard fired another shot at Sweeney. Both had hit, one in the abdomen, the other lodging in the left breast. Menard bolted and as Hall helped his wounded colleague to his feet, Menard fired again through the door, hitting Sweeney in the wrist. Hall tried to give chase, but Menard got away.
Sweeney was taken to the hospital where he was attended by Dr. R. Henry Harrington. The abdominal wound was fatal, having destroyed the liver, and in a couple of days Sweeney died in hospital. The charge levelled against Menard was now murder.
Knowing what would befall him if he lingered, Yankee Tom went bush. For the next month police scoured the region to find him with no luck. On occasion, Yankee Tom would re-emerge to get supplies or food, before once again disappearing into the bush. On one such instance, on 24 June, he made an appearance at a halfway house kept by a Mrs. McLean. He simply entered and had refreshments, paid for by another man, then crossed the road back into the bush. The following day he emerged from the bush and entered a surveyors’ camp. He was dirty and unkempt, described as looking like a “lunatic”. He soon disappeared back into the bush once more.
On 28 June, Yankee Tom made an appearance at Maud Post Office. He purchased paper, envelopes, and stamps from Mrs. Meyers, the postmistress, before borrowing a pen and ink. He went to the back of the shop, wrote a letter, then posted it. The letter was addressed to Miss Chapman at Mrs. Taylor’s, Fyansford. He left without further interaction.
Such sightings of the dirty, raggedy bushranger were quite common in the weeks after the shooting of Sweeney. A party consisting of Detective Bailey, Constable McKay, and a civilian volunteer named Steady, began searching for Yankee Tom around Lethbridge and Stieglitz at the beginning of July, gathering as much information as they could from locals.
An amended description of Yankee Tom was published on 1 July:
Thomas Menard, aged twenty-seven or thirty, five feet six and a half inches high, about ten stone weight, thin face and build, pale and dirty complexion, large staring grey eyes, dark brown hair, light reddish beard, whiskers, and moustache of about six week’s growth, thin legs, swaggering gait, doubles his feet over when walking, and splashes his legs almost up to the knees, knock-kneed, mole on cheek near nose, wore short light-colored drab monkey jacket with large white buttons, moleskin trousers, blucher boots and small brown billycock hat. Yorkey Tom is only a recent alias, and not one by which he is generally known.Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918, 1935) 1 July 1865: 14.
Menard was able to make it all the way to Beechworth on foot, where he broke into a house in Yackandandah, allegedly accompanied by Henry Evans, and robbed it before continuing on to Barnawartha. It was believed that they were ultimately heading to Belvoir, but their journey would be cut short when the pair were stopped by Mounted-Constable Ryan of Wodonga police.
With descriptions of the offenders, and a tip-off of where they were heading, the constable was able to track them down. Evans was arrested, but Menard dumped his swag and bolted. Evans was taken back to the lock-up where he was interrogated. Constable Ryan then inspected the swags of the pair. In Evans’s swag were provisions and sundry items stolen from the house in Yackandandah. In Menard’s swag was a double-barrelled pistol, ammunition and more provisions.
Menard encountered two men on horseback at 6:00pm the following day; he was on foot. Unbeknownst to Menard, the two men were plainclothes police – Sergeant Bambrick, officer in charge at Wodonga, and Constable Ryan. The police had received a tip-off that a man matching Menard’s description was in the vicinity of Barnawartha. When they caught up with the fugitive, Bambrick asked him his name. “Barrett,” was the reply, delivered in a surly tone. Menard then drew a revolver and fired at Bambrick’s head, but missed. Bambrick tried to dismount, but his foot caught in the stirrup iron and he fell to the ground. Menard bolted, putting ten yards between himself and the police before Bambrick recovered. The shot had spooked Ryan’s horse, causing it to bolt into the bush. Bambrick pursued on foot, calling on the bushranger to surrender before firing at him. Menard returned fire and continued running. Five shots were exchanged then Bambrick almost caught up to his target. At that moment Menard turned and shouted, “You bastard, now I have you covered!” Unfortunately for him the gun misfired and Bambrick was able to crash tackle him as he sought cover behind a tree. Bambrick disarmed Menard and pistol-whipped him into submission. At this moment Constable Ryan had managed to catch up and handcuffed Menard. The American was indignant and hollered at his captors declaring, “I’m sorry I did not take your life. I would be quite willing to die alongside of you, for I don’t care for my life. If only I had two men with me as good as myself I would kick the flanges out of you —— Victorians, and I would think no more of sticking up a police-station than any other common place.”
Ironically, Menard was only arrested on the house-breaking charge and an additional charge of escaping custody as the officers were unaware that James Barrett was in fact the fugitive murderer Thomas Menard. He was committed for trial at the Beechworth Circuit Court. Henry Evans was found not guilty of house-breaking, doubt being cast upon his involvement as the only evidence appeared to be that he was in company with Barrett when Constable Ryan arrested him on the road.
However, with Barrett being positively identified as Yankee Tom, it meant a change of venue for the American’s trial. As the warrant for his arrest relating to Sweeney’s murder was from another region it was necessary to transport him there to stand trial. He was taken to Geelong Gaol on 9 August, 1865.
Menard’s committal hearing for the murder charge was held in Warrnambool Police Court. He pleaded ‘Guilty’, openly admitting that he had shot Sweeney. Only two witnesses gave evidence, John Hall and Dr. Harrington. In the press, the description of him was decidedly unflattering:
The prisoner was a rather insignificant looking fellow, appearing to be about thirty years of age. He was attired on a suit of gaol clothing, having a light drab overcoat, with large pearl buttons, over his shoulders. He is of a fair complexion, with sandy hair, beard, moustache, and whiskers to match. He has savage-looking wandering bluish-grey eyes, and though not stout in person, has a wiry appearance. When addressing the Court, he appeared to have a peculiar stutter, or hesitation in his speech.“THE LATE MURDER IN THE WESTERN DISTRICT.” The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 – 1946) 12 August 1865: 7.
The trial concluded on 10 October swiftly. The witnesses gave their accounts, Menard pleaded his guilt, and he was sentenced to death. He was then taken back to Geelong Gaol to await the inevitable. The warrant for his execution was signed by Governor Darling on 24 October. All that was left to do was prepare Menard for the next world.
As is often the case with condemned men, Menard dedicated much of his time leading up to his hanging with reading the Bible and praying. He still maintained something of a callous indifference to his crime, however.
The night before his execution, Menard decided to give a statement about his crime, penning a short letter of confession wherein he openly admitted to slaughtering James Sweeney after being bullied. A second confession was written and forwarded to authorities via his attendant, but the details were kept secret. It was speculated in the press later, that the second confession was that Menard had committed six other murders previous to Sweeney, while he was living as a bushranger. He was also alleged to have admitted to robbing a coach near Castlemaine.
On 28 October, 1865, at 10:00am, Menard was hanged at Geelong Gaol. The night before he had spent quietly reading the Bible and praying. He refused breakfast, but ate an orange.
When he went to the gallows he was clutching a paper in his right hand, upon which was supposedly written his final statement, but he did not have the nerve to read it as intended. Some accounts state that it was actually a prayer written on the paper by the gaol governor. Menard was attended spiritually by reverends Strickland and Crisp. Forty civilians were assembled on the ground floor as witnesses. As Menard stood on the drop, Strickland read the burial service then the hangman shook Menard’s hand.
When Menard was finally dropped, the hanging was botched. The fall did not break the neck at all and instead of a quick, clean death, Menard dangled, convulsing. His pulse was observable by the attending doctors, Reid and Syder, for fifteen minutes before he was finally strangled to death. Charles Travers Mackin M.D., coroner for Geelong Gaol, witnessed and oversaw the inquest. Dr. Shaw, assistant to the coroner, suggested that Menard’s strong neck muscles had simply prevented the rope from doing its job.
A death mask was made from plaster by Metcalfe and Heard of McKillop Street, and a copy was forwarded to the Melbourne museum. Menard was buried within the grounds of the gaol with a single red rose and a written prayer from Brodie, the gaol governor, interred with his remains.