Con-artist sailor turned cannibal convict murderer.
He was referred to as “the monster”, accused of a string of horrific crimes including murder, infanticide and cannibalism. His reputation was so repulsive that the gentleman bushranger Brady threatened to break him out of prison so he could have the privilege of hanging the villain himself. But was Thomas Jeffries (aka Jeffrey) as bad as he was claimed to be?
Jeffries (or “Jeffrey” as he would write it) was a native of Bristol, born in 1791. His father was a butcher, and as a young man Thomas pursued a career in the British Navy. After three years, the harsh discipline of the Navy pushed him to abscond, which was not altogether uncommon. He then did a stint in the army before absconding again, and after discovering that he no longer fit in with his old mates back in Bristol he attempted to give the Navy another shot. This ended with him robbing the ship.
After an elaborate scheme to rob his well-to-do uncle, Jeffries found himself burning through money. To combat this he joined a gang of highwaymen. After one of their victims was murdered they were captured but released due to lack of evidence.
Jeffries was eventually transported in 1817 for robbery. Sailing on the ship Marquis of Huntley, his experience as a sailor allegedly saw the captain order his irons be struck off so he could work as one of the crew.
Some sources suggest that he had a wife and children that were left behind when he was transported, though this is unlikely and doesn’t seem to tally with the records of him as a convict. It must also be pointed out that some sources claim Jeffries was a hangman from Scotland, which is certainly not the case. Misinformation about Jeffries goes back to at least the mid-1800s when James Bonwick cobbled together a very inaccurate depiction of Jeffries (among other bushrangers) in a book about the bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land.
Jeffries landed at Sydney and was quickly assigned, but his misbehaving saw him handballed back to the authorities. He was allocated to a work party at Coal River, where he absconded with a party of four others. They took to the bush, but after a time their supplies ran out and two of their number were, according to Jeffries, killed and cannibalised by the others.
Jeffries was recaptured and sent on a ship to Van Diemen’s Land. He arrived in George Town, where he was sent to the prisoners’ barracks. Soon he climbed up the food chain and become an overseer. He would later brag that in his time as constable the incidence of misbehaving steeply decreased, though there is no evidenceto back him. It was here that his troubles with alcohol began to become evident.
He was stripped of his position after drunkenly attempting to stab the chief constable who had busted him breaking through the wall of the barracks with a pickaxe. Attempts to put him in irons failed but he was subdued and locked up in the George Town Gaol. He was to be transported to Macquarie Harbour but instead was considered more useful in the work party at George Town. In February 1825 he absconded from his work gang and was at large for a time, but was soon recaptured, given 50 lashes and sentenced to hard labour.
In April that year Jeffries was transferred to Launceston, where he became the watch house keeper. In addition, Jeffries was made the flagellator. In the convict world the flagellator was the most despised man. This job was usually given to inmates whose cruel streak was considered useful to the governor for keeping others in check by inflicting as much severe pain and injury on others as they could muster. Many convicts viewed the flagellator as a traitor to the convict class, as they had essentially fallen in with the oppressors to break and brutalise their peers.
Here, even by his own admission, his alcoholism spiralled out of control, leading to reprimands. He was also fined in August for allegedly falsely imprisoning and assaulting Elizabeth Jessop. Although the witness accounts differ greatly and tend to support the idea that Jessop was heavily drunk at the time of the alleged offences and lied about what happened, she was believed over Jeffries. Later writers have tried to construe this event as evidence of Jeffries’ sexual deviancy by claiming he raped the women in his custody, which is not supported by the evidence.
Joined by John Perry, William Russell and James Hopkins, Jeffries escaped from Launceston watch house. The prison authorities had suspected this and lay in wait as the gang headed out. When they were fired upon by a guard, Jeffries dumped his kit and the gang bolted into the bush.
Jeffries was now on the run, and he and his gang were about to seal their infamy with a string of horrendous crimes ranging from robbery to murder and cannibalism.
A description of Jeffries from 1 April 1825 describes him thus:
Thomas Jeffreys, 210, 5 ft. 9¼ in. brown hair, brown eyes, 35 years of age, painter, tried at Notts, July 1817, sentence life, arrived at Sydney per Prince Regent, and to this Colony per Haweis, native place Bristol, castle, hearts, and darts, flower pots, and several other marks on left arm, absconded from the Public Works at George Town, Feb. 1, 1825.—£2 Reward.“RUNAWAY NOTICE.” Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser (Tas. : 1821 – 1825) 1 April 1825: 1
The gang first robbed a hut at Springs, taking flour, a musket and ammunition. They continued towards the South Esk River, robbing huts as they went. They are said to have expressed at this time a desire to join Matthew Brady’s gang. Brady would later express that Jeffries had offered his services to him but refused. Whether or not this occurred at the same time is impossible to say.
In mid December 1825, the gang stayed for ten days at James Sutherland’s farm, Rothbury, near Campbell Town. On Christmas Day there was a shoot out and one of Sutherland’s men was killed. The gang raided a hut then continued into the bush.
On 31 December they raided John Tibbs’ farm near Launceston. Several people were bailed up including Mrs. Tibbs and her infant, as the bushrangers robbed the house. The bushrangers then took their prisoners into the bush, carrying the plunder. The group was split up with Perry and Russell taking one group, Jeffries with the remainder.
Tensions grew as the groups were matched through the bush, resulting in Russell shooting Beechy, a bullocky, and Perry shooting Tibbs in the neck. Despite being badly wounded, Tibbs managed to escape and raise an alarm in Launceston. Beechy would later die from his wound.
The two groups rejoined and continued to head north. During the trek, Jeffries and Russell took Mrs. Tibbs’ child from her and went into the bush where he was killed by one of the bushrangers who dashed his brains out on a tree. Jeffries told the distraught mother they had sent the child to a man named Barnard. After camping for the night the prisoners were released in the morning.
Soon after, a reward of $200 or a free pardon was issued for Jeffries and company.
The gang’s next robbery was committed near George Town, followed by several days of walking in the bush with captives. On 11 January 1826, the gang encountered Constable Magnus Bakie who was robbed and ordered to guide them through the bush. When Jeffries became convicted the Constable was trying to steer them into the path of a search party he executed Bakie by shooting him.
They set their captives free and continued into the bush, where they ran out of food and became lost. Perry murdered Russell in his sleep and he and Jeffries ate their comrade’s flesh to sustain themselves. Several days had passed between Bakie’s murder and when Jeffries and Perry re-emerged near Launceston at a farm where they found provisions and slaughtered two sheep for their meat. Nor wanting to waste anything, Jeffries and Perry ate the remaining “steaks” made from Edward Russell with fried mutton.
The bushrangers camped overnight but were separated where Perry supposedly became lost while looking for water in the bush while caring their only cooking pot. Around this time the gang’s departed fourth member, Hopkins, was captured.
On 22 January, search parties went out looking for Perry and Jeffries. While one party was at breakfast at a farm near Evandale, an Aboriginal boy who had been recruited as a tracker pointed out Jeffries approaching. The party overwhelmed Jeffries and he surrendered. The creek where “The Monster” was taken was later renamed Jeffries Creek and ran under what is now known as Logan Road. The creek has long since dried up.
The successful posse took Jeffries and back to Launceston where crowds tried to attack the wagon. He was then lodged in the old Launceston Gaol. Shortly afterwards Matthew Brady would write to the Lieutenant Governor, declaring his intention to break into the gaol and murder Jeffries. Perry remained on the run until the end of the month and was captured near Launceston.
When Brady was also captured in March, he and his associates were sent by ship to Hobart to stand trial with Jeffries and Perry. Brady vociferously refused to share a cell with Jeffries, threatening to decapitate him if he was not moved to a different cell.
Jeffries was tried and found guilty of murder, then sentenced to hang. He was executed alongside Matthew Brady, having confessed to his life of crimes in a self-penned memoir, but laid the blame for his criminal behaviour on his alcoholism. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Hobart Town.
The following is an incomplete list of some of the sources and references used in the research for this biography. — AP
The Bushrangers, Illustrating the Early Days of Van Diemen’s Land by James Bonwick
Bushrangers Bold! by Bob Minchin
A Compulsion to Kill: The Surprising Story of Australia’s Earliest Serial Killers by Robert Cox
Newspapers and Gazettes:
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 – 1833), Saturday 17 December 1825, page 2
Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 – 1827), Friday 20 January 1826, page 3
Hobart Town Gazette (Tas. : 1825 – 1827; 1830), Saturday 29 April 1826, page 2
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Wednesday 17 May 1826, page 3
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Wednesday 24 May 1826, page 2
Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser (Hobart, Tas. : 1825 – 1827), Friday 5 January 1827, page 4