At the Police court, Young, on the 11th and 14th instant, the following examinations took place :—
Robert Cotterell, alias Blue Cap, was charged with robbery with firearms. William Marshall said. — I am an inn keeper, and reside at the Rock Station, on the Levels. I know the prisoner. I have seen him several times. My place was robbed in the middle of July last by three men. The prisoner is one of them. They took about £11 in money, a saddle and bridle, a gun, a revolver, Crimean shirts, a coat, grog, and several other articles. They were all armed. On the evening of the robbery, about half past six o’clock, and while sitting at tea, a knock came to the door. I sent the girl to see who it was. As soon as the door was opened the prisoner and another named Scott rushed in and told us all to bail up. Scott went through the passage, while the prisoner kept sentry over us with a gun. It being a cold night I told him to come to the fire. He said he did not want fire, but “tin.” I told him he had come to a wrong place for it. He searched my coat pockets, and when attempting to rifle my trousers pockets, I took out what money I had in the pockets and laid it on the table; there was about £2. There was a third person with the bushrangers, whose name, I believe, is Duce. Scott and Duce went to the store and helped themselves, while the prisoner kept sentry over us in the house. They had tea. The prisoner kept guard while his mates had their repast, and they relieved him until he had his. They stayed about an hour.
The same prisoner was further charged with a like offence. Jeremiah Lehane said. — I am a grazier, and reside at Reedy Creek. On the 24th July last my place was robbed. I was close by the house, at a well which some men I had employed were cleaning out. The prisoner came up to us and asked for Mr. Lehane. I told him I was Mr. Lehane. The prisoner then ordered all of us to go up to the house. I asked him if he belonged to the police force. He said, “No, I am a bushranger.” The prisoner was armed. He marched us up to the verandah of the house, where we saw an accomplice of the prisoner’s. He was also armed, and called himself the “White Chief,” I believe his name is Jerry Duce. The prisoner gave the men in charge of Duce, and then ordered me to accompany him to my private office. Prisoner then said he wanted a revolver I had. I gave it to him. He then ordered me to open a certain drawer in my desk, in which were several papers and a pocketbook, the latter containing six one-pound notes. He opened the book and abstracted the money. He searched about for more money, but found none. He took a double-barrelled gun, which he returned as he was leaving. He ordered me to proceed with him to the stable; he took a saddle, but, being told it belonged to one of the labourers, he put it back, and took another belonging to my stockman. The whole of the articles stolen, including the money, I value at about £20 10s. I identify the saddle (produced) as the one prisoner stole from out of my stable.
The same prisoner was charged with robbing Philip Saunders’s Sydney Hotel, in June last. Philip Saunders said. — I am a publican, and reside at the Halfway-house, Lachlan-road. Some time in June last my place was robbed. I was then residing at Spring Creek, Young. I cannot swear that prisoner was one of the two men who robbed me. Two men came to my place on the evening of the day, referred to about four o’clock- They asked for some drinks and departed. One was riding a chestnut mare, and the other a bay mare. They returned after dark about seven o’clock. Mrs. Saunders went to the bar and asked them what they wished to drink. They said, they did not want drink, but money. Mrs. Saunders said they would not get much money from her. She produced a box containing some silver. One of the men said, ” You’ve got more money than that.” Mrs. Saunders said, “Not much.” She brought another box, in which there were some half-sovereigns and other money. I don’t know how much it amounted to. There was also a revolver taken and a bottle of grog. I can swear that the man who demanded the money is not the prisoner. If the second man is the prisoner he is much altered. I cannot swear he is one of the men who robbed me. — The same prisoner was charged with having robbed Mr. Lehmann at Stony Creek, on the 28th June last.
H. Lehmann deposed. — I am a publican, and reside at Stony Creek. On the 28th June last, about ten o’clock at night, I was in my store. Two men came into the store ; one was a stout man, with a revolver, the other a sparer man with a gun. The first man said, “Hand me over the ‘tin.'” I thought he was joking. He said, “Be quick.” I gave him the cashbox saying, “Here, take it.” There were notes, half-sovereigns, and silver in the cashbox, amounting to about £8 or £9. He then asked for a revolver, which I gave him.He then wanted some clothing and took some Crimean shirts, socks, two ponchos, three silk handkerchiefs, and other articles. He then asked me to go into the bar to have a drink. On going to the bar his companion was there. The prisoner is the second man. They then locked the doors and remained inside until the police arrived. I heard a knock at the door, and called out, “Who’s there?” The reply was, “Police.” The prisoner, or his companion, then said “We’re too long here, it’s time to be off.” They went out, at the back, secured their horses, and escaped. It was very dark.
[Warning: The content in this article may be distressing for some readers. Discretion is advised.]
Justin Kurzel’s hyper-stylised and ultraviolent interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang received positive reviews when it debuted in Toronto in September 2019 and seems to be landing blows in the UK where it opened this weekend. Many critics praised the gritty aesthetic and the subversion of history employed throughout. Fans of the historical Kelly story were not so embracing and questioned why the creative team felt the need to stray from history so radically to play up the violence and sex (and dresses). While Kurzel’s approach may be artistically valid, it certainly falls into his wheelhouse of telling grimy tales of psychopaths and nihilism. But is the Kelly story truly the one to use as a basis for this kind of story? Here is a list of five bushrangers stories more ripe for the Kurzel treatment than that of the Kelly Gang.
1. Michael Howe: One of the earliest bushrangers to be labelled as such was Van Diemens Land’s most notorious outlaw. Already the subject of a film that took vast liberties with the history to create a twisted and gory tale of a madman (The Outlaw Michael Howe), the historical Howe has more than enough violence and weirdness in his story to sustain even the most subversion-inclined filmmaker. According to the generally accepted story, Howe was a former Navy man, and a violent ruffian who joined John Whitehead’s bushranging gang in 1815. This version of events also describes the banditti roaming through the Van Diemonian frontier raiding farms and torching them for good measure, and attacking Aboriginal camps where they would kill the men and take the women as sex slaves, which is how Howe supposedly paired up with “Black” Mary Cockerill, who was portrayed as his love interest in the 2010 film. During a violent gunfight, Whitehead was wounded and Howe hacked off his head to stop the attackers claiming the reward that was on it (in those days presenting an outlaw’s head was used as proof to receive the bounty).
Howe frequently escaped the law, once being granted minimum security incarceration in exchange for giving evidence about his colleagues, from which he simply walked away. This has fuelled conspiracy theories that he was working for the government to dob in bushrangers in exchange for leniency, though the historical record shows it is not so clear cut. Howe was said to have murdered his confederates when his paranoia got the best of him and even escaped from capture on one occasion by murdering his captors with a hidden dagger. He shot Mary Cockerill with a blunderbuss to create a distraction during a chase allowing him to escape from soldiers, resulting in her helping the military track him down in spite when she had recuperated. He kept a diary bound in kangaroo skin, supposed to have been written in blood and detailing his lust for power. Eventually Howe became a hermit, his clothes disintegrated and he wore a cloak made of kangaroo skins he had stitched together. When a former associate tried to lure him into a trap, Howe fled to the Shannon River where he was cornered and bludgeoned to death. His mangled head was then hacked off and taken to Hobart for the reward. It was displayed proudly on a spike near where the Drunken Admiral restaurant now stands. Of course, as with a great many bushranging stories, even though this is the most widely accepted version of events it is also very wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, and the real Michael Howe was nowhere bear as bloodthirsty or savage as he has been made out to be.
2. Alexander Pearce: The historical Pearce has been the subject of two feature films that were released close to each other (Van Diemens Land, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce) due to the harrowing narrative of his last years. Pearce was transported to Van Diemens Land and suffered the fate of all convict transportees. Malnourishment, hard labour and floggings were the daily grind. Pearce soon joined a gang that managed to escape from prison and went bush in an attempt to gain liberty.
The bushrangers soon realised the fatal flaw in their plan was their complete inability to navigate the wilderness and find food. When the rations ran out they turned to cannibalism, the victims being hacked to death in their sleep and turned into food for the survivors. Eventually the few that were left went seperate ways and Pearce was apprehended while raiding a sheep farm. He was returned to prison but escaped again with another convict who he immediately took into the bush and slaughtered. When he was recaptured Pearce declared that human flesh tasted “better than fish or pork” and had some of his companion’s flesh in a pouch that he was saving for later. Naturally, he was hanged for his crimes.
3. Thomas Jefferies: Called “The Monster” by those who heard of his despicable crimes, Jefferies was another Van Diemonian bushranger of the 1820s. He was a transportee who quickly climbed the ranks to become flagellator (the man who performed the floggings), which was a job he relished. Jefferies was known for abducting female convicts and taking them into the bush to have his way with them. When this behaviour lost him his privileges he went bush with three other convicts. Jefferies travelled through Van Diemens Land raiding farms and committing arson, rape and murder.
In his most infamous crime, he and his gang raided a farm, murdered a neighbour and wounded the owner, abducted the owner’s wife and child, and when the woman slowed down to tend to her infant Jefferies plucked it out of her hands and smashed the baby’s head against a tree until it was dead, before dumping the body in the scrub to be eaten by wild animals. Jefferies went deeper into the bush with the traumatised woman and raped her before releasing her to walk home two days later. It was this crime that earned him his nickname. Jefferies also killed and ate one of his gang members when they got lost in the bush, later admitting that he had cut the remains into steaks that he would fry up with bits of mutton, adding to his horrendous reputation. Later he also murdered a constable by shooting him through the head. When he was finally captured by John Batman, he was sentenced to death. Lynch mobs formed to try and break him out of prison so they would have the joy of administering the punishment themselves. There was supposedly an elderly woman that was so enraged she tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife through the cage of the wagon he was being transported in. Even bushranger Matthew Brady, who had been a former associate of “The Monster” and was captured after Jefferies had given the authorities information about his whereabouts, refused to be kept in a cell with him, telling the guards that he would decapitate the villain if he was not relocated. When Jefferies was hanged many sighed with relief that justice had been served.
4. Dan Morgan: The story of Dan Morgan’s life is a complex one to retell due to so many decades of misreporting and folklore obscuring the truth. The film Mad Dog Morgan is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to tell the story with adherence to the facts. Yet, if one was to create a narrative based on the folkloric Morgan, it would have be one of the most violent and perverse stories put to film. Morgan has no definitive backstory, the only reliable account of his life starts when he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success for highway robbery in the 1850s. Success and its sister ship President were reserved for the worst criminals in Victoria. On these ships prisoners were isolated, kept in undersized cells with poor ventilation, and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. During the day Morgan was ferried to the mainland to break rocks, which is where he lost the tip of a finger when his hand was crushed. Morgan was also a witness to the murder of prison inspector John Price by convicts, who bludgeoned him to death with their tools over the harsh conditions he enforced. When Morgan was released he became a swaggie and never used his real name. He worked for a time breaking horses on stations around Victoria and New South Wales but eventually went rogue. He was joined by a man called German Bill or Fancy Clarke and began a career of robbery. One of their victims was Henry Baylis, the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, who they bailed up but quickly released. Baylis, accompanied by a party of police, located the bushrangers and engaged them in a shootout. During the battle, Baylis was shot but survived, but depending on which version you believe German Bill was either mortally wounded by police or by Morgan attempting to create a diversion to facilitate his escape. The more damning accounts of Morgan’s exploits tend to be based on hearsay and exaggerate his bloodthirstiness. He was accused of tying people naked to trees and leaving them to die from exposure; threatening a woman by backing her so close to a fireplace that her dress caught alight and badly burned her legs and back; branding people; making an old man dance on a table for him under threat of death; shooting a shepherd in the groin over a perceived slight; and tying people to fences and flogging them. While some of these may be grounded in actual incidents, albeit loosely, most are not. Even popular understanding of his known crimes portrays him as an unhinged monster. Most accounts of his visit to Round Hill Station suggest he got drunk on rum, then started shooting at people. He was supposed to have threatened the station manager whose wife begged for mercy so he shot the man in the hand instead, either putting a hole through it or blowing off one of the fingers. He then shot one of the staff who had gone for help, believing he was fetching the police. During another robbery, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the leg and in another he forced a station manager to write cheques at gunpoint.
Eventually Morgan’s reign of terror ended when he was shot in the back at Peechelba station. His body was displayed and photographed then mutilated. A police superintendent had the jaw skinned so he could souvenir the beard; locks of hair were cut off and so was the head. There were also descriptions of the ears being hacked at and the scrotum being sliced off to be turned into a tobacco pouch. A film depicting Morgan as folklore describes him could indeed be a very grisly and twisted experience for the kind of director who wants to make a film that will shock and mesmerise.
5. Jimmy Governor: Governor’s life was the basis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was first written as a novel by Thomas Kenneally then adapted by Fred Schepisi as a feature film. Both stick remarkably close to Governor’s real life. Governor was an Aboriginal man who worked briefly as a black tracker for the police. Undoubtedly he was used in acts of state sanctioned aggression against fellow Aboriginal people. Governor was part white on his grandmother’s side, which no doubt created some identity confusion. He then became a labourer for the Mawbey family, living in a hut on the edge of their property with his wife, a white woman, and their son, who was probably not Jimmy’s. Jimmy worked hard but was paid poorly and at the same time his wife complained about living in squalor away from her family, begging scraps from Mrs. Mawbey. She was also subjected to bullying from the Mawbeys and their associates for having married a black man. This reached breaking point when she threatened to leave Jimmy. He snapped and took his uncle with him to the Mawbey house where they slaughtered the women and most of the children with a nulla nulla (club) and a hatchet. Immediately afterwards they went on the run, but Jimmy decided to strike back at the white society that had bullied and demeaned him.
A murder spree began, where Jimmy targeted farms where he knew the families and murdered any women or children that were there, usually with his club. Jimmy had a list of around thirty names that he was systematically working through on his murderous vendetta. Jimmy and his brother Joe were made outlaws by act of parliament and stayed on the run for almost two years. Huge posses were formed to track them down as the murder count came to double digits. Governor was ambushed and shot in the jaw, but escaped. He survived by eating honey he took from a farmer’s beehive. He was soon caught and nursed to health so he could stand trial. He was found guilty of murdering the Mawbeys and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.
As can be seen, there are far more gory and gruesome stories in bushranging history than that of the Kelly Gang, though none are as easy a sell as a movie. Still, we have already seen some of these stories adapted to screen in some form: The Outlaw Michael Howe, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Mad Dog Morgan and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Whether any of these horror stories would get the exposure of Kurzel’s punk-gothic homage to A Clockwork Orange with Ned Kelly helmets is unlikely, however.
While Victoria was home to plenty of bushrangers of various ilks, there was one highwayman that stood head and shoulders above the rest – Harry Power. The curmudgeonly crim was responsible for a huge number of robberies on the roads, though he never had much luck in bailing up wealthy people. Perhaps his most productive day of robbery was one he undertook in Buckland Gap towards the end of Winter in 1869.
The area Power camped out in at the Buckland Gap was right in the middle of the road that coaches and travellers would take when travelling between Bright, Beechworth, Bowman’s Forest, Buckland and Whorouly among other surrounding towns – perfect positioning for an enterprising highwayman. On Saturdays the farmers would frequently pass through the intersection enroute to market, and the nearest homestead was a quarter of a mile away from Power’s camp, allowing him the freedom of relative isolation.
Harry Power [Source: SLV]
Edward Coady was an experienced coach driver, but even the most seasoned veteran might have gone their entire career without ever encountering a bushranger. In May he had been bailed up by Harry Power when he was taking a coach from Bright to Beechworth. Power had interrupted the journey near Porepunkah and demanded gold, but there was none to be had. The passengers were subjected to demands for payment, a Chinese man receiving particular scrutiny from Power who had an aversion to his people. In the end, Power stole a horse from a passing squatter and took his leave, allowing the coach to continue on.
On Saturday, 28 August, 1869, Edward Coady was given a new assignment. He was to drive the Buckland Mail to Myrtleford via Bowman’s Forest. The journey began routinely enough at around 6:00am. The coach trundled along its usual route with its cargo of passengers – a servant girl, Ellen Hart, employed by Mrs. Hay of Myrtleford; Mrs. Le Goo the wife of a Chinese storekeeper in Buckland; and William Hazelton, the Bright storekeeper who took position on the box seat. Part way through the journey the coach stopped at the Gap Hotel. Here the passengers were joined by the young son of Mr. Holloway, the proprietor of the Gap Hotel. The coach soon took off again, mailbags jostling and jumping with every curve and bump along the way. Riding close behind the coach was Mr. Holloway’s daughter, Mrs. Boyd, who had joined the group at her father’s pub. As the horses pulled the coach down the Buckland Gap towards the forest, about 4 miles from Beechworth, suddenly the path was impassable. The horses pulled up and Coady peered down where he saw three large logs laying across the road. He had scarcely any time to think before a voice boomed from the scrub with a slight Lancashire accent, heavily inflected with an Irish brogue.
Harry Power emerged, brandishing a double-barrelled shotgun, with two pistols tucked into his belt. He stood slightly less than average height at 5’6 1/4″ tall, and was covered in scars. Beneath his crumpled felt hat his hair flicked out in greasy silver shocks. His face was mostly beard, but when he spoke one could glimpse his mangled and missing teeth, stained yellow, and blackened gums from excessive pipe smoking. His bright blue eyes peered out from behind crow’s feet and a heavy brow as he levelled the shotgun at Coady. The occupants of the coach were ordered to disembark and stand by a fire the bushranger had set up. As they complied, Power demanded the captives take out their valuables and place them on the ground. He scored a gold watch and 4s 6d from Hazelton, £2 16s from Coady, and 13s from the storekeeper’s wife, though he did give her a shilling back so she could buy a coffee down the road. Power was not convinced that the woman had surrendered all her valuables and suggested that if she was not forthcoming he would strip her naked to find her hidden treasures. The terrified woman stood fast by her assertion and it was only the intervention of the other victims that caused Power to relent. Perhaps noticing that Miss Hart was a servant, Power did not bother to get her to turn out her pockets. Finally, he took a penknife and comforter from Holloway’s son but gave him 1s 6d in payment for them. As for Mrs. Boyd, she could not comply with Power’s demand for cash as she had none. Power was unconvinced, stating that a woman riding a horse with a sidesaddle and saddlebags worth upwards of £14 is unlikely to be strapped for cash, then elected to take her mount instead. Mrs. Boyd begged to be allowed to keep her horse and gear, even suggesting she could ride back to her father’s hotel and get him anything he liked if she could keep them. Power refused to bargain with the distressed woman and stated that she could borrow two pounds from one of the other women, whereupon it was brought to his attention that he had just robbed them. Mrs. Boyd’s brother, young Holloway, offered to give the money Power had given him back if the bushranger would allow his sister to keep the horse. Power was amused by the display of solidarity but refused the gesture. Hazelton had, by this point, had a gutful and informed Power that Mrs. Boyd was indeed a poor woman and the gear on the horse was won at a raffle, not purchased outright. The heated exchange was suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a rider, to which Hazelton snidely remarked, “Here’s a haul for you.”
Re-enactment of the Buckland coach robbery. [Source: The Bushranger Harry Power Tutor of Ned Kelly by Kevin Passey and Gary Dean]
The rider was promptly bailed up and made to turn out his pockets. When the man reached for his coat pocket Power cocked his gun, stating “It is not there where people are in the habit of keeping their money.”
At this juncture Coady asked Power if he could move the coach as the incline it was stopped on was putting undue strain on the brakes. Power consented to this and ordered Coady to deliver up the mail bags for him to take away and rifle through at his leisure. On second thoughts, Power decided he wasn’t inclined towards potentially stealing letters from the poor and told Coady not to worry about the mail, to which Coady responded that it would have done him no good anyway as letters carrying money were transported by escorts.
Soon more travellers came along the road and were halted by Power. As before, the victims were made to stand by the fire and place their valuables on the ground. With the cooperation of his victims, he was able to take £1 16s from a Whorouly dairyman named Hughes; 17s 6d from a Bowman’s Forest local named Rath; and a saddle and bridle from a man named McGoffin (or McGuffie), who was in a spring cart on their way to O’Brien’s Station from Buffalo. A local miner was bailed up but managed to retain the two ounces of gold he had concealed in a pocket in his coat.
For the next three hours, Power kept eleven prisoners under his command by the fire, occupying their attention by spinning yarns. He gave Coady an earful, claiming he had half a mind to shoot him as he had heard that Coady had been “blowing” in the bar of Fisher’s Commercial Hotel, Beechworth, about what he would like to do to Power. He also mentioned that he had been intending on bailing up James Emptage, a colleague of Coady’s, but as Emptage had been driving much too fast, he had not had a chance to stop him. Despite the number of people at his mercy, none attempted to overpower him. Power eventually grew tired of the work and had returned Mrs. Boyd’s horse, but needed a good mount. Power attempted to take the snip horse from the Buckland coach (the horse on the offhand side closest to the wheel). The horse bucked and refused to allow the bushranger to prepare him to ride, to which Power replied by striking the animal repeatedly with the butt of his shotgun. Power then took the lead horse (named “Little Johnny”) from the coach, equipped it with the stolen saddle and bridle, and disappeared into the bush. He would be spotted near Stanley at 4:00pm. Dazed and confused by the bizarre turn of events they had just experienced, the victims slowly began to return to their conveyances, counting their blessings that things had not escalated.
Views of Beechworth (Detail). [Source: The Leader, 05/05/1894: 31]
When news of the bail ups reached Beechworth, Sgt. Baber launched a search party to head to Bowman’s Forest to find Power’s trail. Alas, as was a common problem, there were not enough men to get a reasonable sweep of the area and thus Power got away without a care.
[Source: Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 19/10/1869: 2]It was not long before the government, frustrated by Power’s ability to avoid capture, offered a £200 reward for his capture. Power was now officially in the big league but his reign would not be long for this world.
On a stormy November night, six rumpled figures try to shelter inside swags. The grey woollen blankets that trap the rapidly depleting warmth from the quivering bodies are hardly protected by the oilskin sheets that form a waterproof crust and are heavy with rain water. One figure alone remains upright as rain pelts down in sheets. The darkness obscures his features beneath the curled brim of a drab coloured felt hat. As clouds shift and briefly allow light in from the moon, the man’s pale blue eyes seem to blaze. There’s a wild look about them, as if something animalistic were emerging. His normally sensual lips are tightened into a lupine snarl. He feels an ache in his limbs, old war wounds excited by the cold night air. Through the darkness, he stares with simmering rage at a handsome whitewashed homestead below him. The last plumes of smoke drift from the chimneys as the lamps are extinguished and the occupants retire to their beds to sleep in warmth and comfort. The amber glow fading in the windows mocks the men on the hill. It taunts them by leaving domestic comforts in plain view but frustratingly out of reach. The man with the lupine snarl fingers something in the folds of his threadbare coat, something hard and cold. His spidery fingers curl around the grip of a revolver. The walnut grip is unusually warm and inviting. It wants him to hold it, to feel its heft in his palm. He turns his gaze to the heavens. There is no moonlight visible in the night sky but on the ground is a different matter…
The story of the Wantabadgery siege is one of the most remarkable in bushranging history. There are equal measures of farce and horror, pathos and bathos. We see the figure of Andrew Scott/Captain Moonlite flip-flop between violent desperado and whimsical larrikin. There is a vibe that is reminiscent of the capers of bushrangers like Ben Hall and Bluecap and it reaches a peak with a gun battle wherein, miraculously, there was no bloodshed. Sadly, the same could not be said for what happened at McGlede’s farm afterwards, but here we will examine what happened at Wantabadgery Station on 15 November through to 17 November, 1879.
It is easy to dismiss the story of Andrew George Scott as not really being that of a “bushranger” at all. After all, he and his band of followers robbed no mail coaches, they didn’t gallop through the mountains on thoroughbred stallions waving pistols, and there were certainly no killings attributed to them prior to the clash at McGlede’s. The popular perception of what constitutes a “bushranger” is only really applicable to a small portion of people who fall under the banner. As one looks back through the stories of bushranging, even going back to the very beginning with Black Caesar in 1788, the common themes through them all are the rejection of society and a retreat to the wilderness. The romance of the bushranger comes from the idea that rejecting the confines of civilisation brings freedom, but the reality is naturally a far cry from that ideal. In the case of the Moonliters, as they will be referred to for the sake of brevity, they rejected society because they had all become outcasts in some aspect. In essence, they rejected the society that had rejected them. They were not bushmen seeking to return to their roots in the wilderness, they were the disenfranchised and discarded who has been beaten down by what referred to itself as civilised. In essence, what happened at Wantabadgery is a lesson about what happens when you push people too far and they go over the edge.
That night as exhaustion trumped his rage, Andrew Scott fell into a fitful slumber. His mind became a swirling Hibernian fog, with the spectres of his past lurching out at him. The echoes of his father’s sermons that he sat through as a boy in Rathfriland rolled around him as he recognised the smell of gunsmoke and a shadowy mound before him coagulated and morphed into the brassy-skinned body of a Maori warrior, a pool of crimson seeping out from under his outstretched arm. He saw the monolithic form of a poppet head looming from a mine at Mount Egerton and felt the chill of a winter in his former cell in Pentridge. All the while there was presence behind him pushing him deeper and deeper into the mist. He turned and came face to face with himself!
Andrew Scott had the most incredible fall from grace, going from a well educated high society man to a penniless tramp hawking the clothes off his back for enough money to buy bread. It all fell apart after he provided a suspicious alibi for the son of a Bacchus Marsh squatter who was up on stock theft charges. The following scandal resulted in the church sending him to fulfil his duties as lay reader in Mount Egerton. It was then that he became embroiled in the robbery of a bank. The evidence that supposedly linked him to the crime was flimsy and Scott would always protest his innocence. However, it was after moving to Sydney when an unpredictable chain of events saw him going to Fiji and agreeing to establish an agricultural company on an island there, before returning to Sydney and living the life of a debauched libertine off the money he was meant to be using on tools and supplies. His penchant for alcohol and pleasures of the flesh was out of control and he soon found himself in gaol over valueless cheques. He would spend the next decade of his life bouncing around prisons where he met James Nesbitt, which would be the trigger for him to sort his life out. When he was released in 1879 he decided to use his oratory prowess and his experience being at the mercy of the police and prisons to benefit others in the same predicament. His lecture tour on prison reform ground to a halt as police interfered and caused multiple performances to be shut down, which caused quite a stir among the press and public alike. Police would haul Scott and Nesbitt in on any crimes they could and this harassment saw Scott elect to leave the colony in the hope that he could find honest work north of the border, seeing as all he found in Victoria were closed doors. It seems to be indicative of the commonality of the disenfranchisement that he managed to gather a group of four to accompany him over the border.
James Nesbitt had met Scott in Pentridge while doing time for his involvement in a mugging and would soon become his partner in all things. It was left ambiguous as to whether their relationship had a romantic element, but there were enough hints in witness accounts and Scott’s own words and actions to indicate that there was indeed more to the pair than simply a platonic connection. Nesbitt was vital to keeping Scott going. Whether it was emotional support or taking care of Scott’s medical needs, Nesbitt was an attentive and devoted partner and Scott reciprocated in his own fashion.
Accompanying Scott and Nesbitt were Frank Johns alias Thomas Williams, a former confectioner with a crippled left hand who had joined Scott on his lecture tour as an assistant; and Gus Wernicke, a fifteen year old grocer’s assistant whose father had recently remarried to his aunt, with whom he had such an awful relationship that he ran away from home. As they travelled, they added Geelong native Thomas Rogan (alias Baker, alias Brown) to the mix. Rogan was a cobbler who had done two sentences for horse stealing and larceny served in Beechworth, Pentridge, Williamstown and Sandridge, but seemed keen to chuck his lot in with the gang and joined them near Sandhurst. It wasn’t until nearing the end of the journey that they adopted the impish Graham Bennett, who had been tramping the Riverina looking for work. The quintet had crossed paths with Bennett while he was residing in an abandoned hut on the edge of a farm. It didn’t take much pressuring to convince him to join them. However, by that time the group were starving, unkempt, broke and horrendously low on provisions. Their smart city clothes had been sold to get money for supplies and the men resembled animated scarecrows. Bennett began to grow edgy when he saw a pistol tucked under Scott’s coat in a pouch. Scott tried to convince him it was a telescope. The journey was gruelling and morale was at a low ebb when they reached the fabled Wantabadgery Station, desperate for a helping hand. Scott had been informed that here they could get work or at least food and shelter for the night.
Sunshine tickled the leaves around the boys as they arose from what slumber they had managed to snatch out of sheer exhaustion. Scott was already awake and standing to attention, the rage of the previous night still charging through his veins. Bennettapproached Scott with a miserable expression.
“I hope you won’t be offended, sir, but after last night I think I’ll be better off on the tramp alone as before.” Scott responded by brushing open his coat and showing the boy his revolver.
“I’m Captain Moonlite,” Bennett’s eyes widened and he stumbled slightly as Scott brandished the weapon. “You must do one of two things, either join us of your own accord and we will all share alike, or you must join us by compulsion.“
In the early 1860s, Dan Morgan had gained the nickname “the traveller’s friend”. His notoriety had struck fear into the hearts of the owners and superintendents of farms throughout the Riverina, which meant that they were all too afraid to refuse to help any scruffy looking swaggie that asked for assistance or work. If they refused, they risked raising the ire of Morgan, who was known to burn buildings on the farms of those he felt needed a comeuppance. However, Morgan had been killed in 1865 so his reputation no longer held any sway. Swaggies were frequently turned away or employed for little more reward than table scraps for dinner and the least mouldy hay in the barn as a bed. Sadly, desperation led many men, forced into itinerary habits by economic depression, to settle for whatever they could get. Unfortunately for the Moonliters, they had the additional headache of police dogging their movements and riding ahead of them into towns and farms to tell people not to employ them. In 1879, it didn’t matter if you had done your time in prison and paid your debt to society; the convict stain would determine the rest of your life and follow you everywhere, and it spread to all those who associated with you. For Scott, not only was he struggling, but he was responsible for the five young men who had followed him on foot from Fitzroy to Wantabadgery. It was his silver tongue, after all, that had lured them there. Hopes were high on Saturday, 15 November, but when they had been made to wait outside the homestead at Wantabadgery Station for two hours only to have the door slammed in their faces by Baynes, the superintendent, something inside Scott snapped. No work, no food, not even permission to sleep in the cowshed to stay out of the rain had been offered – the things he was promised were no more than words. For a former preacher, it must have been soul destroying to experience the milk of human kindness as little more than a fairytale. This made Scott a very dangerous man indeed. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s never make an enemy of a man with a gun and nothing to lose. That night as the boys slept on the hill overlooking the station, drenched by the rains, Scott plotted his revenge.
And therefore,–since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,–
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
– Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1
The young men spread out, each one armed with whatever firearm they could muster from the collection they had brought with them. Scott, now embracing the persona of Captain Moonlite, was armed with his Colt revolver and a Bowie knife. He tugged his beaten felt hat so that the brim shrouded his face in shadow. He stood up onto the verandah of Wantabadgery station, his crippled left foot making a scuffing, bumping sound as it dragged behind him along the boards. He balled his fist and thumped on the door. There was the sound of movement inside and the door opened slowly to reveal the station owner’s wife peering back from behind the door. The presentation of an octagonal bluesteel muzzle to her face immediately telegraphed CaptainMoonlite’sintentions.
When the gang descended upon Wantabadgery Station at 9:30am on 16 November, all had code names and weapons. Scott, obviously, used Captain Moonlite to distinguish himself but Nesbitt, Williams, Wernicke, Rogan and Bennett were identified through the numbers 2-6 respectively. It is interesting to see how Scott embraced the persona of Captain Moonlite when he bailed up Wantabadgery Station. He was cooly methodical in how he directed his boys, and gave them numbers instead of referring to them by name in an effort to shield them from recognition. Accepting that he was now officially the villain, he stopped inhibiting himself and allowed his rage and whims to dictate his actions. The others seemed to feed off the energy and became quite animated and almost unruly from time to time; Wernicke in particular, which was marked difference from only a few days earlier when he had attempted to leave the gang to find his own way back to Melbourne out of frustration. The exception was Nesbitt who was almost timid and appeared to be the only person that could keep Moonlite grounded. This would be vital to ensuring that things did not escalate too wildly during the gang’s occupation of the homestead.
Over the course of the day more captives were added to the collection. An infamous and unpleasant incident was when Moonlite took a shine to a mare belonging to the McDonalds. As he attempted to mount the skittish horse it became wild with fright and Moonlite shot it dead, claiming it was too dangerous. It was a massive overreaction and an indication of how far Scott would allow the Moonlite persona to take over if unchecked. Among the workers captured by the gang was a Chinese man named Ah Goon, whose watch Scott stole. Scott was vehemently opposed to the Chinese workers being brought in on farms and taking jobs away from white men simply because they were willing to work for obscenely low wages. The practice was not only exploitative on the part of the farm managers, but in Scott’s opinion it was calculated by the Chinese to disempower the white labour market.
When Percy Baynes finally made an appearance it triggered Moonlite’s rage and almost made him lose control. The way Baynes had mistreated the group the day before was singularly responsible for the wrath being brought down upon the station and Moonlite threatened to murder and disembowel Baynes, but relented when Mrs. McDonald intervened. Baynes was unrepentant and continued to antagonise Moonlite throughout the day and even attempted to turn the gang against him. Such behaviour was ill-advised in the least and horrendously culpable at worst when dealing with armed bushrangers, and had it not been for the gang keeping Moonlite from carrying out his threats it is likely there would have been bloodshed and more than likely a grisly end for the curmudgeonly Baynes.
The gang took advantage of their unique position of power and helped themselves to new clothes to replace the rags they were in, as well as taking any weapons and ammunition they could find. They ate heartily, with Moonlite killing two fowl to cook and feed both his gang and their captives, except for Baynes. The relative success of their operation left them in good spirits. Throughout the day they took it in turns to sleep and guard. It seems remarkable that apart from Baynes there was no real attempts to attack the gang or escape to raise help.
The prisoners sat around the parlour, weary and subdued. The children fidgeted and grumbled as Bennett thumped tunes out on the piano and Moonlite sang with gusto. For the bushrangers it was a celebration of conquest, but for the captives it was demeaning. When all had settled, Moonlite finally acknowledged the strain the young ones were under and permitted them to be put to bed. He may be a vicious cutthroat but there was no need to make things uncomfortable for the children, he reasoned.
The way that the stick up of Wantabadgery station played out was a farce in the tradition of Johnny Gilbert and Ben Hall. Scott always had a flair for drama yet had been able to wrangle his compulsions effectively, but Captain Moonlite was his id let loose. At no point was this more apparent than his spur of the moment decision to go to The Australian Arms hotel. It was here that his thought process seems to have been quite difficult to follow. When confronted with the unattended pub, he helped himself to booze and the rifle behind the counter, but then went looking around the building where he found the children of the proprietors asleep and decided to take them with him. A modern mentality immediately assumes that he had very nefarious intentions in taking the children, yet Moonlite left a note for the parents and seemed simply to want to take the children to where there would be adults to look after them. It was a bizarre thing for him to do. Moonlite lacked the conscience of superego to define his choices, and somehow also appeared to be lacking in the judgement and mitigation of his ego. He was operating based on pure impulse and it seemed like he was enjoying it far too much.
At 8pm word finally reached the police in Wagga Wagga that something was amiss in Wantabadgery. Despite the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t until 4am that a party consisting of Constables Rowe, Hedley, Johns and Williamson went to investigate. According to Rowe, they had been informed that 20-30 people were being held hostage by a gang of seven armed criminals. Given that the police murders in the Wombat Ranges was a fresh memory – only 13 months previous – it is little wonder that such a small police party should delay in getting involved.
The rumble of hooves tumbles through the darkness – tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut, tuttle-tut. As the riders come closer, the outlines of their uniforms become apparent; white belts and breeches catch the glow of the waning moon. The arrivals outside alert the dog, who bolts to the garden and begins to bark furiously. Now is the time for action and the bushrangers all gear up like mechanical toys, ready for battle. Nesbitt takes up a shotgun, the others arm themselves with pistols. Moonlite’s heart races as he prepares his Snider Enfield rifle. He flips open the receiver and feeds a cartridge inside. He takes a deep breath as he shoulders the rifle, memories come flooding back of preparing for battle against the Maori; the ache of the wait, the infernal calmness of the world around. The police arrive and hitch their horses to a fence. Constable Hedley sees a figure lurking in the shadows and calls on him to stand in the name of the queen, but he may as well be shouting at the wind. Scott’s finger tightens on the trigger. There’s a crack and a kick as he reelsoff a warning shot. The tangy smell of gun smoke fills his nostrils. The ball skims between Constables Rowe and Williamson. Moonlite watches the policescurry for cover. A smirk tickles the corner of his mouth. He tugs his pocket Colt out of its holster and steps into the light. The police return fire, hands trembling with anxiety and adrenaline. The barking of the dog is drowned by the barking of rifles as the rest of Moonlite’s men join the conflict. Moonlite strides out into the crossfire, caring naught for his own safety.
The account of what unfolds after the arrival of the police varies in many aspects depending on who tells the story. However, it is reasonable to suggest the following as an accurate summary. After Scott’s initial shot, the police sought cover and returned fire. A volley from the rest of the bushrangers served to let them know they were outnumbered. There was further exchange of gunfire and the police became overwhelmed. During the chaos a fire was lit in the barn then quickly snuffed out. The police hid in a forest of thistles then their horses were stolen by the gang. Very likely, at least one gang member rode a horse towards the police from a flanking position, prompting the constables to evacuate through swampland nearby on foot, pushing through water four feet deep. The bushrangers continued to fire after them, the shots hitting the trees. There were no deaths and no injuries, excepting the constables’ pride.
The police were demoralised but determined to regroup and make another attempt on the bushrangers once they had back-up. They headed to James Beveridge’s farm at Tenandra Park where they would acquire horses and before teaming up with police from Gundagai at 11am.
Though the battle that unfolded at Wantabadgery station is a deadly serious event, the lack of bloodshed allows us to appreciate the absurdity of the situation. Four police rode from Wagga Wagga expecting to be met with a few of rowdy swagmen or shearers, and ended up in a heated exchange of gunfire with half a dozen desperadoes and were hopelessly outclassed. Despite all their training, the police were no match for the untrained bandits.
While the police licked their wounds at Beveridge’s farm, the bushrangers were elated at their first victory. It was a victory that would be very short lived. As the sun rose over the Riverina, the Moonliters only had several hours of liberty left. By the end of the day two would be dead, the rest captured alive.
“I tried to leave the colonies but could not, and was persecuted with the surveillance of the police. The bread being taken from my mouth, and every prospect of honest livelihood gone, I came up the country and tried again to seek for work. As long as our money lasted we bought bread, and when our money was gone we sold our clothes and bought bread with what we obtained for them. We tried to get work but could not, and we fasted day after day. We have been without food for forty-eight hours. We went to Wantabadgery and walked up to the station. We were told the overseers and owners were out, but a servant came, and said that if we came in the morning we could see about work. The night was dark and rain was commencing, and we were told we could not see the superintendent then, but he afterwards came out and told us to go about our business, and we were insulted. We were refused admittance into a hut, and that night we slept on the hills, with nothing to eat and nothing to drink but the water that was falling around us. All our clothes were wet, and we hungry. Next day there was no work to be had, and we had nothing to do. Afterwards — and I admit it was foolish — we went and stuck up Wantabadgery. The police came down, and they fired on us and we fired on them. I will not say who fired first, but during the time I saw that the act that had been done would produce bloodshed and I courted death, hoping that a stray shot might end my life and that the prisoners, my friends, might give themselves up to the Crown. After the fight we left Wantabadgery station and took the police horses with us. Some of the police of this colony have behaved as brave men, but one or two have not.“
In 2011 a film about Captain Moonlite and James Nesbitt was slated for release. It took inspiration from the film Sin City – a gritty noir anthology filmed entirely on green screens to emulate the look and feel of the graphic novels that it was based on – and featured Barry Crocker and Tasma Walton. But somewhere along the line the film just disappeared like a summer cloud. So why has Moonlite never seen the light of day?
Moonlite was surprisingly not the first film depiction of Captain Moonlite. In 1910 John Gavin directed and starred in a silent film also called Moonlite. The film was produced by Herbert Forsyth and based on a play by William Joseph Lincoln, who himself was a prolific writer and director of films. As with most early films it no longer exists, the typical practice of the time being to exhibit the film for a limited time the same way a play would be, then to destroy the film. Celluloid burns tremendously well and it was not uncommon to see furnaces on steam ships blazing away full of reels of cinematographic entertainment. What little we can piece together about the film indicated that it would have been essentially a series of tableaux portraying a fictionalised interpretation of the historical Captain Moonlite with added Aboriginal companion and a female love interest, whose brother’s money troubles set this version of Moonlite on his path of criminality. The film was well received and did very well indeed at the box office. Only one image from the production is known to exist.
It perhaps speaks volumes that it took a century for another Captain Moonlite film to raise steam. Of all the most well-known bushrangers, Moonlite has always been an outlier. Mainly known for his dramatic nom de plume, very few people know the story of Andrew George Scott. In recent years, however, with the increasing prominence of the pro-LGBTI+ movement, Moonlite’s story has gained new interest. The notion of a gay bushranger is one that certainly resonates with parts of the community and creates a bold new perspective for examining the story. This is where the twenty-first century Moonlite enters the scene.
As with nearly all Australian films, a good place to start is with Screen Australia. This government body who is tasked with getting Australian films, television series and web series off the ground tends to have useful information on their site pertaining to productions that they have had a hand in. On Screen Australia’s website it claims the film is completed and describes it thus:
The rollicking adventure tale of charismatic bushranger Andrew George Scott, alias, Captain Moonlite, and his close companion, James Nesbitt. Fated to meet in prison, the pair become lifelong friends and embark on an adventure through the Australian bush. A police constable pursues them, a young newspaper journalist commentates on their journey in print and a mysterious lady in black watches from afar as the story reaches a shocking conclusion.
It seems very odd indeed that a film could be listed as officially completed, yet never released. In searching for any clue as to a speculative release date via that vast directory of internet domains, Google, one comes across the film on the credits of many of those involved in the project. Martin Kay, sound recordist on the film, lists it as “yet to be released” with 2010 listed beside it. In fact it is the only film in the list that hasn’t been released. One could suppose that it merely hadn’t been updated, however there are films and awards on the same page as recent as 2018. Continuing on, actor Richard Stables lists the film on his website. Stables was cast in the lead role as Captain Moonlite and his website simply states:
‘Moonlite’ – Captain Moonlite (lead role) Rohan Spong and JGD Productions Hits cinemas nationwide in 2012
2012, it would seem, was the most recent estimated year of release, indicating it had been pushed back from it’s initial slated release dates in 2010, then 2011. This is not unusual in the film world where attempting to get projects off the ground is more akin to the birdman rally than an airstrip.
The Stale Popcorn blog mentioned Moonlite in its list of Australian films for 2011, even going so far as to include links to the official website, IMDb, Facebook and Twitter, which no longer exist. So with all of these scraps of information dotted around the internet, the story becomes even more muddled and mysterious, but there was one avenue yet that could yield the answers.
In September 2019 I reached out to Rohan Spong himself via Facebook. It was a long shot as there was no guarantee he would see the message, let alone reply. I asked him if he was able to supply any information about the project. To my surprise and delight he responded the following day with exactly the information I was looking for. He explained:
The script was adapted from a play by Simon Matthews. Some scenes were shot, but the film was never completed. It was an ambitious project that would have required a lot of budget for post – we were angling for a “Graphic Novel” kind of look which was in vogue at the time. Proof of concept videos never generated the right level of market interest. The actors were all marvellous. I’ve since moved on to a strictly documentary practice.
So there you have it, right from the horse’s mouth. Moonlite suffered the fate of so many bushranger film projects of recent years despite promising to be something very fresh and unique. As we approach the 140th anniversary of the Wantabadgery siege, it is worth taking some time to consider what could have been.
A very special thank you to Rohan Spong for kindly responding to the query about this film.
“Gentleman bushranger” Matthew Brady had escaped from the notorious Sarah Island penal settlement in 1824, and a reward of fifty guineas had been offered for his capture. In November 1825, he and his gang decided to make an example of the forces of law and order in Van Diemen’s Land and set their sights on the small town of Sorell.
At this time Brady was camped out in the mountains with fellow Josiah Bird, Patrick Dunne, James Murphy and at least four others, (likely Patrick Bryant, James McKenney, William Tilly and James Goodwin). It was believed they had even established a small farm there where they tended crops and reared horses, cattle and sheep. To what extent this claim was true remains unknown, as much of the facts of Brady’s story have been lost to time.
Such was Brady’s notoriety that he had copycats. Another bushranger had recently committed a robbery while claiming to be Brady and even expressed a desire to turn himself in – something that Brady took particular umbrage to as he had no intention of surrendering. Brady seemed to think that his next undertaking would shake up people’s perceptions of him and position him as more than just a thieving bushranger. Brady intended to make a laughing stock of the forces of law and order.
On Friday 26 November, the bushrangers emerged from hiding. The inclement weather saw Coal River become a raging torrent. Fortunately, the bushrangers were well organised and had a small boat at their disposal with six oars, allowing them to row across with relative ease. This enabled them to traverse the river without resorting to crossing the bridge at Richmond, which was the only other way across at that time. The gang descended upon the house of Robert Bathune in Pitt Water at dusk and demanded entry, masquerading as constables. Bathune sent his overseer Crittenden, to see what the men wanted. Armed as a precaution, Crittenden opened the door and the eight bushrangers burst in and overpowered him. Bathune, Crittenden, and the eight servants were made prisoners and guarded in the kitchen while the bushrangers settled in. The bushrangers had brought prisoners with them that included two men named Denne and Kidner as well as a young boy. The gang made themselves at home and Brady made sure each bandit was fed and provided shelter from the rain overnight, while also making sure that his prisoners were looked after as well. Once fed, the gang ransacked the house, liberating a brace of pistols and a fowling piece before locating a set of keys to grant access to the various valuables. Brady kept watch over Bethune and Crittenden in a back room where he spoke at length about individuals he had a set against. Brady was not alone in conversing freely with the captives. Dunne stated he had a grudge against Boyd, the chief clerk at the police office, who he had been stalking in an effort to find an ideal moment to murder him. Bird admitted to killing Mr. Bromley’s cattle in Newtown and Murphy confessed to robbing Dr. Hudspeth. They remained through the night and all the following day. The rain was extremely heavy and everyone who ventured out got a good drenching.
On Saturday morning Robert Bethune and Crittenden were sent to bed, having been kept awake all night. The gang decided to prepare breakfast, but could find no tea or sugar. They resolved to procure some from one of Bethune’s neighbours. It was decided to avoid Walker’s farm as the lady of the house had taken ill, so Glover’s place was targeted. Glover was not willing to become yet another victim to bushranging and armed himself and headed out to confront the gang. Despite his courage he was overpowered, his double-barrelled shotgun taken away from him and broken before he was added to the gang’s prisoners.
At 2pm that afternoon, Walter Bethune and a Captain Bunster arrived on horseback, drenched from the rain. Brady ordered the servants to take the horses upon their arrival. Both men were brought in, given dry clothes, warmed up and fed. Brady could not have been a more gracious host if the property had been his own. He was not a big man, standing at a little under 5’6″ tall (roughly 170cm), but he had incredible charisma and it seemed people couldn’t help liking him to some degree. At dusk Brady announced to his captives his intention to liberate the inmates of Sorell Gaol and imprison the soldiers based there.
The two Bethunes were tied together by the wrist and the 18 other prisoners bound together identically in pairs, then marched to Sorell with the bushrangers. Much of the journey undertaken was in water that was waist-deep and the rain continued to fall in torrents. They arrived in Sorell Town and proceeded to the gaol.
Unbeknownst to the arriving group, the party of soldiers of the Bourbon Regiment that had been out searching for the bushrangers in the rain had only just returned to the gaol, their leader Lieutenant William Gunn having departed for the residence of a Dr. Garrett. Due to the weather, the muskets the nine men had carried were waterlogged. As they dried off and warmed up, they were interrupted by the very men they had been looking for. Four bushrangers rushed in and the soldiers were disarmed and locked up in a gaol cell. The prisoners from Bathune’s property were also locked up, the eventual figure being roughly forty prisoners by contemporary accounts.
Brady and most of the gang remained at the gaol, while Bird and Murphy went to the home of the chief constable and gaoler Alfred Laing with the apparent intent of murder. Upon arriving, the occupants of the house went to the window. Inside were Laing, McArra the blacksmith and Charles Scott the messenger. The pair of outlaws recognised Laing through the window and called out “That is him, shoot!” They promptly opened fire but failed to hit their intended target. Rather, McArra was shot through the wrist during the assault. A woman at the property managed to escape to raise the alarm and bolted to Dr. Garrett’s house where Lieutenant Gunn was relaxing after a hard day’s slog looking for bushrangers.
Upon hearing the news that the gaol had been captured, Lieutenant Gunn took up a double-barrelled shotgun and went into action. When he arrived on the scene he attempted to shoot the banditti but he was out of luck. A volley of lead struck him from two of the bushrangers, striking his right arm above the elbow, shredding the flesh to pulp and shattering the bones. More shots were fired, a ball hitting Gunn in the chest and another grazing Dr. Garrett.
Gunn was evacuated immediately and survived his wounds thanks to expertly executed surgery by Dr. Garrett and his associate Dr. Scott, but the mangled arm was inoperable and subsequently amputated near the shoulder. An examination of the severed portion of the arm saw the extraction of two balls and four slugs, though it was estimated that twelve projectiles in total must have struck the arm to cause such awful damage.
When the bushrangers decided to quit the gaol, their message having been sent, they built a dummy to stand in the doorway. By making a frame out of sticks and dressing it in a greatcoat and hat, the idea was to give the impression that the gaol was still guarded as the bushrangers escaped to give them more time. Four captives were taken to carry the bushrangers’ loot. One of the captives, James Archibald, who had been carrying the firearms, was force fed alcohol to make him drowsy and he woke up much later, alone on the ground outside Orielton. The bushrangers had made a clean escape and would later set the other captives free at Grindstone Bay. The prisoners in the gaol were kept locked up for two hours until George Culliford was passing by and became suspicious. Upon entering the gaol he discovered what had happened and freed the gang’s victims.
There was much outcry after the incident as Lieutenant Gunn was considered a model citizen and had been dogged in his pursuit of the bushrangers, even working on half pay in the hope of bringing them to justice. A subscription was gathered for him immediately after his surgery and over £250 was raised to cover his expenses as he had been rendered unemployed by the maiming. Gunn was not one to let the loss of a limb hold him back in life and he became a highly lauded police magistrate in Launceston, dying in 1868.
Remarkably, had the gang arrived half an hour earlier or left half an hour later they would have been captured. Gunn’s party had left the gaol precinct a half hour before the bushrangers arrived. It would have also taken the captured soldiers half an hour to dry their weapons.
Forever consigned to popular culture as Ned Kelly’s little brother, Dan Kelly was a young man of only nineteen when he lost his life fighting the police. Like so many “boy bushrangers” his young life was snuffed out without him having ever fulfilled his potential, wasting his youth on a life of crime. But there was more to Dan Kelly than just having Ned Kelly as his big brother.
Daniel Kelly was born on 1 June, 1861 to John “Red” Kelly and Ellen Quinn. He was named after one of his father’s brothers and christened in the church in Beveridge, Victoria, where the family were living in a house John had built. Before Dan was born, there had been Mary Jane (died in infancy), Annie, Ned, Maggie and Jim. Dan would be followed by Kate and Grace. Dan’s infancy years were quiet for the family. John turned his hand to a number of occupations but was primarily employed doing odd jobs around the district and splitting timber. Financial strain, however, soon saw John attempting to distill his own whiskey. Unfortunately he took to drinking most of the produce himself. The difficulty saw the family relocate to Avenel, but here their problems would not only continue, they would worsen.
John spent six months in gaol in 1866 for stealing and butchering a calf. This meant that for half a year Ellen was reliant on her brothers for help around the place. The Quinn brothers were not model citizens by the furthest stretch, Jimmy Quinn being the worst of the lot. Jimmy was too fond of liquor, quick to violence and did not discriminate when choosing a target. No doubt Dan’s exposure to this would have negatively shaped his young mind. When John was released from gaol he was a broken man. Dan was barely five years old when his father died of dropsy, an old term for oedema (build-up of fluid in the soft tissues), likely linked to his alcoholism. He was buried in Avenel. The family soon found themselves frequently homeless, moving from Avenel to an abandoned pub in Greta. Here the Kellys co-habited with Ellen’s sisters, both of whose husbands were in prison at the time, and their children while they attempted to make ends meet.
The new home in Greta was short-lived. One night John Kelly’s brother James had arrived at the house drunk and his sexual advances were rebuffed by Ellen. He returned later that same night and burned the place to the ground. The children inside were asleep but the sisters remained awake, fearful of retribution. After another binge at the local pub, James threw incendiary devices at the house until a fire took hold, but thankfully there were no fatalities. The families were now homeless again and devoid of earthly possessions such as clothes and furniture. When James was tried he was sentenced to death by Sir Redmond Barry. This was later commuted to a long prison sentence by the executive council. The Greta community got together and helped the victims get back on their feet. Ellen soon gained a lease on a selection on the 11 Mile Creek. Things were starting to look up.
With his big brother Ned, only twelve himself when Red died, acting as man of the house, Dan and his brother Jim often ran wild. By 1870 things had changed dramatically for the family. Ellen had her selection but the land was not fit for crops. The family had to rely on the money they made from lodgers and travellers looking for a drink. Fifteen year-old Ned worked for a time as Harry Power‘s offsider, and then found himself in and out of gaol, eventually copping three years for receiving a stolen horse. Jim was now the man of the house in Ned’s absence. Jim was not a good candidate, however, and would coax Dan into mischief; their first arrest occurring when Dan was only ten years old.
In September 1871, Jim and Dan had borrowed horses without permission from a hawker named Mark Krafft. Krafft had been grazing his horses at the Kelly selection, as he had frequently done, and the boys had taken them for a joyride. Jim had previously been working as Krafft’s servant to get some extra money, the pudgy child being less physical than his big brother and thus less suited to splitting work. Constable Ernest Flood, newly stationed in Greta, nabbed them on a charge of illegally using a horse and took the children to Wangaratta to be kept in the logs until trial. When they went to court two days later the case was quickly dismissed on account of Jim’s and Dan’s ages (12 and 10 respectively) and the fact that Jim had been a servant of Krafft for a time. One can only imagine the impact that the experience of being taken away from their family and locked up in a cell with a bunch of strange, grown men waiting for trial for two days would have been on the children. It would eventuate that Flood was nothing but bad news for the family, allegedly stealing their horses and selling them to railway workers and sexually assaulting Dan’s big sister Annie and making her pregnant, though the truth of this is debatable owing to there being no solid evidence to back the claims.
Jim, only fourteen, ended up in gaol in 1873 with two sentences of 2 1/2 years to be served consecutively for helping shift stolen cattle. With Red gone and Ned and Jim in gaol, Ellen was on the lookout for a new man to help around the house and to protect her from her brothers or anyone else that might come sniffing around with bad intentions. She took the bold move of selling grog on the sly to travellers and seemed to think she had found her man in Bill Frost, an itinerant worker who had lodged with the family. Frost engaged in a sexual relationship with Ellen, from which she became pregnant with a daughter. Frost was apparently not keen to be a father and skipped town. Ellen, not one to be passive, tracked him down and took him to court for maintenance. After a long and bitter dispute she won but the infant died before the first maintenance payment came through. One can only imagine how this would have impacted young Dan, who had to assume the role of man of the house.
It wasn’t all gloomy for Dan though. According to some accounts, while his big brothers were doing time, Dan was lavished with affection from his sisters. Some considered this made him spoiled, but at any rate he managed to keep his nose clean during this period. It was at this time that Ellen took in George King, a 25 year-old American-born traveller, miner and stock thief. It was a remarkably short courtship as they were married in 1874, just after Ned came home from Pentridge. Within a month Ellen gave birth again. No doubt Dan, now thirteen, was relieved not to have the responsibility of being the male head of the household anymore. Between Ned and George the role was well taken care of.
Dan’s main hobbies at this time were much the same as the majority of young men in the country – riding and hunting. Dan would latch onto groups of boys who were out kangaroo hunting and took much pride in his marksmanship. He also took much joy in racing his peers on horseback. A brilliant description of Dan came from Joseph Ashmead, a friend of the Kelly family, in an unpublished memoir:
He was riding a smart black pony, and proudly told us it was a galloper and could clear any fence in the north east. The boy was alert and active with piercing black eyes that took in everything at a glance. He wore strapped trousers, a red shirt and straw hat tilted forward, secured by a strap under his nose. The back of his head was broad and covered with close cropped hair as black and shiny as a crow; his jaw was heavy, his lips thin, and when closed tightly, there seemed to be something cruel in them, but when they relaxed into a smile, he appeared to be a jovial, good-natured fellow. His name was Dan Kelly and he was a great lover of horses. I was the only one of the boys who had a horse. A bay pony. She had belonged to a clergyman and was an honest goer. Dan ran his eye over my over my horse and proposed that we should have a race, a challenge that I gladly accepted. When Dan found that he could not shake me off, he developed a great respect for me, and declared there was not a kangaroo in all the country who could get away from us, so we went kangaroo hunting, not once but many times. I left my cows to look after themselves, or bribed some of the boys to look after them for me, with the promises of some sinews out of the kangaroo’s tail to make whip crackers with.
No doubt Dan’s hunting provided much needed meat for the family, or at least was able to be sold to raise money for other goods. Seemingly Dan left home at the first opportunity to seek work. By some reports he travelled into New South Wales to work on sheep stations around the Monaro region as a shearer. He was also reported to have worked in Chesney Vale with Ned as a brick layer, but was not very good at it. It is likely that this is when Dan took up possession of an abandoned miner’s hut by Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges and began prospecting for gold. Sluices were later constructed along the creek and this would have provided a bit of pocket money. No doubt the seasonal nature of most of these jobs left Dan with a considerable amount of free time in between and he soon found himself adopting the larrikin culture of the day.
The fast riding, clownishly attired, skirt chasing lifestyle of the larrikin had become a widespread issue throughout the colonies. Gangs of youths in porkpie or billycock hats worn on jaunty angles, short Paget coats and jackets, bell-bottom trousers, colourful sashes and pointy high-heeled boots would loiter in public areas making a nuisance of themselves. Dan became a founding member of the “Greta Mob”, who populated the streets around Greta and Wangaratta. Apart from Dan, the mob consisted mostly of his cousins Tom and Jack Lloyd and a young Wangaratta jockey named Steve Hart, with the rotating roster of associates typical of these forms of social group. Their primary interests were fast horses, smoking, booze and chatting up girls. The boys were known to ride full gallop through the streets and challenge each other to various horse tricks. Steve Hart, for instance, could get his horse to vault over the railway gates, much to the chagrin of the gatekeeper. The Greta Mob adopted as their signature the larrikin badges of high-heeled boots, cocked billycock hats with the hatstring worn under the nose (to stop the hat flying off when riding at full gallop) and brightly coloured sashes worn around the waist. The style was clownish but that’s not unusual for teenage boys of any era. Unfortunately, Dan was still living in hand-me-downs and cut an odd figure in his threadbare, oversized, outdated outfits. The only verified photographic images we have of Dan illustrate this clearly. He wears a rumpled hat, a baggy sack coat with missing buttons and fraying cuffs as well as baggy trousers held up with a piece of rope. He was known to grow his hair long and seems to have cultivated a moustache at some point. But what Dan lacked in creole couture he made up for in his riding and his drinking. It has been written that Dan had many sweethearts but whenever they were unavailable for a night of frivolity he would employ the services of working girls, though it is incredibly unlikely that a fifteen year-old boy would have the presence of mind or the funds to engage in that lifestyle, regardless of the usual rampant libido they enjoyed.
One of the few times Dan graced the courts was in relation to a supposedly stolen saddle. In March 1877 he was charged with stealing the saddle in question in Benalla and was tried during the Beechworth general sessions before Judge Hackett. It had taken five months to lay charges against the teenager. The saddle in question was one that Dan had purchased from a man named Roberts in exchange for a different saddle and £1, and he produced a receipt to prove it, which was verified in court. Along with Jack Lloyd and his brother-in-law Bill Skillion, Ned Kelly was present during the hearing as a witness to back up his little brother. In the end the case was dismissed and Dan walked away with a sense of vindication. Judge Hackett stated that he “did not see why the prisoner was there at all” as his case was clear-cut. During this case Dan displayed a trait that distinguished him from his older brothers – he provided no resistance to arrest and complied happily with the police. This could be interpreted by some as overconfidence in his ability to dodge a conviction, but more likely Dan understood that resisting arrest was a fool’s game and further that he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused (which a trial would – and did – prove). This would not be the last time he displayed a conspicuous willingness to comply.
While he had been waiting to appear in court over the saddle charge, Dan met two boys from the Woolshed Valley named Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. They were also waiting to appear in court that day over a charge of assault against a Chinaman named Ah On. It would eventuate that the pair would not get their day in court that same day, remanded to be tried in the next session. What exactly transpired between the young men in that cell can only be guessed at, but this would prove to be a fateful friendship.
Dan’s first and only conviction came from an incident at Goodman’s store, Winton, on September 28, 1877. Dan had travelled into town to exchange meat for goods. When he arrived the establishment wasn’t open and therefore no trade took place. Annoyed, Dan went drinking with his cousins Tom and Jack then returned with them to Goodman’s store, drunk. Dan smashed in the door and took the goods he sought. A man going by the name Moses Solomon was also there and claimed he was assaulted by the rowdy larrikins. Tom Lloyd lingered and flashed Mrs. Goodman, the other two pushing Tom into her with the lights out. Dan was found guilty of wilfully damaging the property and sentenced to three months in Beechworth Gaol. Tom Lloyd was additionally charged with intent to rape but was found not guilty, yet still got six months for his part. Dan did his time in Beechworth Gaol without incident. Almost miraculously for a Kelly boy he managed to get through his sentence without incurring any additional penalties. Three months crushing granite would have given Dan bigger muscles, but also greater resolve to walk the straight and narrow once he was out. Unfortunately fate had a different plan for him.
While Dan was still in prison a warrant was issued for his arrest. A witness saw two young men they believed to be Dan Kelly and Jack Lloyd leading a mob of stolen horses near Chiltern. They reported it to the police and the paperwork was duly issued. This was noted by Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick after reading the announcement in the Police Gazette. On April 15, 1878, Fitzpatrick was sent from Benalla to take over at Greta police station. Fitzpatrick informed his superior, Sergeant Whelan, that he knew of a warrant for Dan Kelly and intended on arresting him on his way to the station. Fitzpatrick went alone to the Kelly property and what occurred has been subject to much scrutiny and debate. The general thrust is that Fitzpatrick enquired after Dan but found he was away. The constable then asked a neighbour, Brickey Williamson, about Dan’s whereabouts before electing to return to the Kelly house and wait. He was greeted by Dan who offered to go quietly on the provision that he could finish his dinner first. After this, a scuffle broke out and Fitzpatrick was wounded in the wrist. The policeman claimed Ned Kelly had shot him, Ned Kelly claimed he wasn’t even there. Each witness account conflicted with the others in some way. Regardless, Dan and Ned immediately fled to the Wombat Ranges. Ellen Kelly, Brickey Williamson and Dan’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion were arrested and charged with aiding attempted murder.
For six months Dan and Ned hid in the ranges. A second, fortified, hut was built further up the creek from Dan’s place using thick logs, and both huts were equipped with whiskey stills. The intention was to raise money for Ellen Kelly’s defence by selling gold and bootleg whiskey. Unfortunately it was not enough and Ellen got three years, the men each received six years.
After the trial police parties were organised to bring the Kelly brothers to justice. Warrants had been issued for their arrest. There was £100 on each of their heads; Ned for attempted murder, Dan for aiding and abetting. A party was sent from Mansfield to find the Kellys in the Wombat Ranges. The party consisted of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Michael Scanlan, Thomas McIntyre and Thomas Lonigan. When Ned found the police party’s tracks he sent Dan to find their camp, which he duly did. The next day the brothers, roused by McIntyre firing a shotgun while hunting parrots, went to the police camp with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. They hid in the spear-grass and intended on ambushing the camp to take the police guns and horses. When the bushrangers emerged they held McIntyre at gunpoint. When Lonigan ran to cover and moved to fire at the arrivals, Ned shot him. There was a moment of disbelief as Lonigan struggled on the ground. Dan remarked “He was a plucky fellow. Did you see how he went for his gun?” He then seized the police shotgun and searched the tent. When Lonigan’s identity was revealed, Dan exclaimed that “He won’t be putting any of us poor buggers away again.”
McIntyre took a particular dislike to Dan, describing his nervous laughter and his “grotesque” appearance in his oversized hand-me-down clothes. McIntyre fully believed that Dan would be the one to put a bullet in him.
Dan insisted McIntyre be handcuffed but Ned refused, believing a fear of being shot was incentive enough for the trooper to obey his orders. This did not sit well with Dan who grumbled that the police would just as soon clap cuffs on them.
When Kennedy and Scanlan returned from scouting McIntyre tried to persuade them to surrender but a gunfight broke out. Scanlan was shot, McIntyre escaped on Kennedy’s horse and Kennedy fired at the Kellys with his pistol. A bullet from Kennedy hit Dan’s shoulder as the sergeant retreated into the bush after McIntyre. Kennedy was soon killed by Ned a considerable distance from the camp. The gang looted the bodies and Dan took Scanlan’s pocket watch. The salvageable items were collected and the tent burnt as the gang escaped.
As a result of the incident at Stringybark Creek, Ned and Dan were outlawed with a reward of £500 each. At this stage Joe and Steve were unidentified.
In December 1878 the gang re-emerged near Violet Town. They stuck up Younghusband’s Station on Faithfuls Creek in the afternoon and began herding the staff into a shed. They kept the staff as prisoners in the tool shed overnight and stole new outfits from a hawker’s wagon. That night the gang chatted with their captives, answering questions but with Ned doing most of the talking. Dan and Steve were overheard talking about how they’d like a lark with the female prisoners. In the morning the nearby telegraph poles were damaged by Ned, Joe and Steve. In the afternoon Ned, Dan and Steve headed into Euroa to rob the bank, leaving Joe on sentry at the station. The timing was meticulously arranged to coincide with a funeral that would keep the townsfolk occupied during the gang’s activities. Dan acted as a guard, standing at the rear of the bank, making sure that nobody escaped or interrupted while Ned and Steve robbed the place. Once the loot had been acquired the bushrangers headed back to the station with the bank staff and the manager’s family and servants. On the way Dan rode in the stolen hawker’s wagon and kept his gun trained on Mrs. Scott, the bank manager’s wife, who was driving a buggy alongside, in case she tried to escape or raise an alarm. The raid went off without a hitch and the gang escaped with thousands of pounds to distribute among their families and sympathisers. Before they left, Dan gave Constable Scanlan’s watch to Becroft, the hawker’s assistant, and money with which to repair it. It is unclear what the nature of the damage was.
In February 1879 the gang struck again at Jerilderie. They travelled over the border to answer a challenge that they wouldn’t last 24 hours in New South Wales. The gang roused the police in the middle of the night and locked them in their own cells. Mrs. Devine, the wife of the senior constable, recalled how as the gang occupied their home during their stay Dan would bounce her son on his knee but later spoke in quite a violent manner in order to make her work faster as she decorated the courthouse for mass. The gang then went through town disguised in police uniforms pretending to be reinforcements against the Kelly Gang. On the Monday Dan and Joe had their horses shod at the blacksmith and investigated the telegraph lines before the gang put their plan into full effect. Ned, Steve and Joe robbed the bank while Dan kept prisoners under control next door in the hotel. The gang had successfully managed to occupy the town for a whole weekend unmolested and rode away with thousands of pounds in unmarked notes that could not be traced. In response, the New South Wales government doubled the reward for the gang to £8000.
Upon leaving New South Wales, the gang split up to reconvene at the Byrne selection at a set date and time. Only Dan arrived on time. He stayed for dinner and questioned the Byrnes about whether the other gang members had been past. Dan seems to have had a good relationship with the Byrnes, frequently stopping by in much the same manner for a meal and a chat. Dan also seemed to be the most active gang member, being reported as having been spotted more than any other member of the Kelly Gang. It is also probable that he partook in Joe’s favourite past-time of visiting the Sebastopol opium dens for a smoke and card games.
Over the course of 1879 and early 1880, Dan and Joe Byrne tested the loyalty of the Sherritts and various other sympathisers that were suspected of turning on the gang. On 14 May, 1880, Dan paid a visit to his uncle Tom Lloyd. Lloyd’s neighbour, a police informant named Jacob Wilson, saw horses in Lloyd’s garden and began snooping. He was found behind the cow shed by the dogs and the barking roused everyone in the house. Uncle Tom sent the dog to chase the man down and he climbed up a cherry tree. Dan Kelly and cousin Tom Lloyd, who were unarmed, fetched the dog and yelled taunts to the police they assumed were nearby, before going back inside. Wilson was so terrified he stayed in the tree until morning. Incidents like this were increasingly common and the gang began to stop visiting certain people in case they were spotted.
More concerning to the gang however was the rumour that had been circulating that the Sherritts were in cahoots with the police, fuelled by the vicious game of “Chinese Whispers” that accounted for the gang’s bush telegraph. On one occasion Dan arrived at the Sherritt selection on Sheepstation Creek looking for Jack Sherritt, Aaron’s younger brother. When he was told Jack wasn’t home he pushed his way inside with a revolver drawn and searched for him. Dan said they wanted to speak with him. Unbeknownst to Dan, Jack was at that moment speeding away to speak to Assistant Commissioner Nicolson in a desperate attempt to seek protection. Nicolson told him to go to a local pub and use that as his alibi. It was clear to everyone that the gang was getting desperate and had cottoned on that something was up and Ned was determined to address it in his next big scheme.
In early 1880 a plan had been devised by Ned Kelly to escalate the gang’s activities. The banks were too heavily guarded to rob as they had done previously, so now they were struggling to find ways to keep their network of sympathisers on-side. The gang’s health was also deteriorating as the rigours of life on the run was wearing them down. Ned suffered sciatica and sandy blight, Joe struggled with withdrawals as his opium supply was cut off due to lack of funds, and Dan was described by one witness as looking gaunt and hollow-cheeked. Police parties were coming closer than before to catching the gang and even had the assistance of an elite team of black trackers from Queensland on top of a network of police spies and informants. Ned wanted to end the pursuit in dramatic fashion by luring a trainload of police and trackers to be derailed at Glenrowan. He sent Dan and Joe to create a commotion at Aaron Sherritt’s hut, where a team of constables had been allocated to protect him, as the bait. On Saturday 26 June, Dan and Joe kidnapped Aaron’s neighbour Anton Wick and used him to lure Aaron to his back door whereupon he was murdered by Joe with a shotgun. Dan guarded the front door in case the police that were hiding inside tried to escape. The two bushrangers then terrorised the party of constables as they cowered in the bedroom, Aaron’s mother-in-law and pregnant wife stuck between the two sides. Attempts to burn the place failed and the outlaws rode away two hours later. It would be midday the next day before any of the police were brave enough to see if they had gone. Initially Ellen Barry, the mother-in-law, stated that Dan had been quiet when entering the hut with a pistol. It was only later when attempts were being made to gain a payout from the police that she would describe him resting on the table as he looked at the murdered Sherritt with a grin.
Dan and Joe arrived at Glenrowan at around 5am on 27 June, 1880. Dan was immediately employed with tending the horses and carrying the gang’s armour into the Glenrowan Inn. Over the course of the day Dan guarded the prisoners in the inn and even initiated dancing to keep them entertained. He was seen to get intimate with Jane Jones, the publican’s daughter, she having been spotted sitting on his knee and kissing him, even being given one of his revolvers to use while she kept the prisoners at bay when Dan had to leave the room. As the weekend rolled on and the special train did not appear as expected, tensions began to rise. Multiple times during the gang’s stay at Glenrowan, Dan told Ned they should leave and argued the point only to be shouted down by his brother who was determined that they would stay and fight. The longer they waited the more difficult it became to keep the prisoners under control and the more they risked accidentally derailing a civilian train. Ned refused to heed his brother’s pleas. When Ned decided to release Thomas Curnow, the school teacher, Dan argued publicly with him as he knew Curnow could not be trusted. Curnow had spent the day trying to butter Ned up, a suspicious Dan watching like a hawk. Sure enough, when the train did appear in the early hours of 28 June, Curnow warned the police that the tracks were damaged and the gang was in Glenrowan. Just before the train arrived, Dan had told the prisoners to head home, however they were detained by Ann Jones who told them to wait for Ned to make a speech. If Dan’s instructions had not been countermanded a considerable amount of the tragedy that was to unfold could have been avoided.
When the train arrived the gang dressed in their homemade armour and engaged in a gun battle. Ned and Joe were wounded early on and they retreated inside. Ned soon disappeared into the bush behind the inn and Dan took control of the situation, doing his best to evacuate the women and children despite the relentless firing from police. Joe was shot dead by a police bullet early in the morning and Dan and Steve became very disheartened, believing Ned had also been killed or had abandoned them. When Ned re-emerged just before 7am the remaining gang provided covering fire from the inn, but within a half hour Ned was captured and the two bushrangers were stuck in the inn surrounded by police in broad daylight. Dan had received a bullet in the leg that shattered his knee and necessitated a retreat into the inn. At 10am the rest of the prisoners were released and Dan and Steve remained inside. As the prisoners left they shook Dan’s hand.
What happened in the inn next is unknown but it is possible that Dan was struck in the neck by a bullet while his helmet was off and killed or that he took his own life by taking poison. All that is known for certain is that at 3pm the inn was burned and while it was on fire his corpse was witnessed by multiple people, in the back room still in body armour and resting on a pillow made of sacks. The body was effectively cremated in the fire and the burnt remains released to his family. Later, Dr. Hutchison, a medic who had been called up to assist during the siege, retrieved what was believed to be Dan’s foot from the ruins and the scorched bones were handed down through the family.
Around 200 people attended the wake at Maggie Skillion‘s home, many of whom were drunk and armed. Police efforts to reclaim the bodies were scrapped in response, the risks being too high. Though there are a number of (probably deliberately) conflicting oral histories with respect to the location of the last resting place of the two outlaws, most accounts indicate Dan Kelly was buried in an unmarked double grave in Greta cemetery with Steve Hart. The location within the cemetery of the exact double grave they were interred in is a closely guarded secret in family traditions in an effort to avoid the graves being disturbed. Unfortunately, this has added fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories and in one infamous case a particularly motivated “truther” went through the cemetery plunging steel probes into grave sites hoping to prove that there were no coffins in them. When Ellen Kelly died the 1923, she was buried in an unmarked plot next to the official spot where Red Kelly’s youngest son is buried.
In the years after Glenrowan there were rumours that Dan and Steve had escaped to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. In 1911, novellist Ambrose Pratt, author behind the memoirs of Captain Thunderbolt’s apprentice William Monckton, published a book claiming to be the memoirs of Dan Kelly. In fact, many people claimed to be Dan Kelly over the years, most notably a tramp called James Ryan whose ridiculous attempt to cash in on the survival rumours were published in the press and convinced scores of people who lacked knowledge of basic facts of the story. Ryan’s story even inspired the utterly woeful film The Glenrowan Affair. Ryan was killed by a coal train in the 1933 and is buried in Ipswich, Queensland. In order to lure tourists, the cemetery even erected a memorial telling the story of the claimant. None of the alleged Dans ever had any solid case to back their claims up but the myths of a miraculous escape from the burning inn persist to this day.
Dan Kelly was, in most ways, at least as competent as his big brother. As a horseman, tracker and marksman, his abilities were perhaps even better. Certainly he was more ruthless than Ned, a pragmatism that some interpreted as callousness or even psychopathy. It must be remembered that the gang were wanted dead or alive (preferably dead) and mistakes could not be afforded. Dan was a much better judge of character than Ned and certainly better at performing under pressure. Even the Kelly matriarch was known to have held Dan in more regard than Ned in these measures.
Unlike his brothers, Dan was fairly successful at avoiding trouble. In fact, it is probably telling that the worst trouble in Dan’s life seemed to come from following Ned’s and Jim’s lead. Imagine how different the story would have turned out if Dan had been able to accompany Fitzpatrick as intended, before Ned and Ellen had attacked the policeman. A stint in the logs, a quick trial during which the mistaken identity could be proven and Dan could have gone home as a free man. Sadly, as in all things, life never pans out the way we think it should.
The Legend of Ben Hall is an interesting entry in the history of bushranger films for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is the only standalone theatrical bushranger feature that has put particular emphasis on historical accuracy in every level of production. Yet, it manages to tell the story accurately as well as artfully. While on a surface level the film can be taken as merely a portrayal of an exciting and intriguing part of history, on closer inspection what we see is a dissection of the character of Ben Hall. What emerges upon deeper examination is that the film’s title is the key to understanding what it is truly about: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
Despite what the papers encourage you to imagine, this life you want is not easy. We do this because we have no recourse left.
A key part of the artifice of the film is in the effort to replicate the costumes, weaponry, buildings and so forth of the period. Director Matthew Holmes spent months looking for available locations that were a close match for the arborial, geological and topographical features of Ben Hall Country in 1865. By portraying these things as close to history as possible, the film immediately positions itself in such a way that we understand that we are not being told what to feel and think through interpretation. Rather, we are being asked to immerse ourselves in this world in order to understand it and find the answers to the questions ourselves, without being skewed in a certain way by the director.
Compare this to other bushranger films such as Mad Dog Morgan, Ned Kelly (1970) and its 2003 namesake. These films take liberties with the art design to account for budget and artistic vision. Ned Kelly (2003) is the most notable in this regard. Whereas Mad Dog Morgan tries to be authentic, if somewhat inaccurate in execution, Ned Kelly approaches the same things through the lens of portraying what is artistically relevant, what is symbolic, in order to convey to the audience how to feel. For example, at Glenrowan Ned is dressed in mostly black to symbolise the more serious tone of the events unfolding. His clothes reflect the mood the director is conveying, rather than anything historic – especially given that Ned Kelly wore a very colourful outfit at Glenrowan in actual fact. The Legend of Ben Hall portrays character through costume too, but rather than molding the character through the costume design, the costumes are reflective of how the characters fit into the world they inhabit. Johnny Gilbert’s flashness is shown through his wearing rings and luxurious fabrics like silk and brocade. In comparison, Ben Hall is dressed pragmatically for the rough lifestyle, only allowing a little hint of the larrikin through by wearing sashes and portraying his strong self-interest with a preference for handsomely cut clothing. Jim “Old Man” Gordon is shown wearing clothes that are frayed to the point of barely holding together, reflecting a careless personality that results in the ambush that opens the film. Yet all of what we see these characters decked out in is historically accurate to the styles of the time and place. The historical accuracy enhances the portrayal of character and story rather than artificially conveying an idea.
A unique artistic flourish is how each major act of the film is punctuated with dream sequences that give an insight into Hall’s mindset as well as reminding us of the end that is approaching him. Ben Hall was notoriously aloof in life and while this quiet, contemplative aspect to his character created an air of mystery, it makes it difficult to understand how he thought for a screen narrative. As the dreams evolve through the film, we see an emphasis placed on Jim Taylor, the homewrecker who tore Hall’s family apart (at least in his eyes). Having failed to remove his son Henry from Biddy and Taylor, then failing to follow through on his threat to “put a bullet in [Taylor’s] wicked hide”, Hall becomes tormented by the man who stole his family.
In each successive dream we also see the murky, wraith like figures of troopers getting closer and closer until gun muzzles are thrust in our face, indicating not only Hall’s increasing fear of capture, but also a metatextual foreshadowing of things to come. With the severity of the crimes escalating as events roll on, Hall becomes ever more conscious of the likelihood of fierce reprisal from the police. Each dream acts as the Greek chorus, cementing the themes and preparing the audience for the grim conclusion.
You think you’re innocent in all this? You think you ain’t got no blood on your hands?
The character of John Dunn provides a cipher for the audience as he cuts his teeth as a bushranger. More importantly, Dunn provides an important role in challenging Hall throughout and mirroring, to some extent, Hall’s own rise to infamy. Initially Hall tries to discourage Dunn from signing up as a bushranger, having lost many friends to imprisonment and death in the lead up to where we pick up the story. However, it doesn’t take much to convince Hall to accept Dunn. Later, Hall will actually rely on Dunn’s advice to recruit a new gang member in the form of Daniel Ryan, showing the development of the two characters. As Dunn settles in as the “beau ideal of the modern bushranger” he serves to remind Hall of how culpable his actions are. Were it not for Hall’s recklessness in engaging police at Jugiong after they were already retreating, Sergeant Parry would not have been killed; had he listened to Dunn’s fears about police arriving at Collector rather than ignoring them, Constable Nelson would not have been shot; had Hall not allowed his temper to get the better of him at Binda, Christina and Ellen would not have been arrested for assisting them in the burning of Morriss’ store. In the end, Dunn outlives his colleagues but it’s only a matter of time before his own crimes catch up with him.
Dunn also shows the most growth as a character. Whereas Hall and Gilbert have already undergone the growth from becoming bushrangers, we see Dunn go from being naive and unsure of himself to “tipping the velvet” with Peggy Monks, being able to keep a crowd under control on his own and being able to stand up and question Hall’s plans. Perhaps the best indicator of his development is in how he goes from referring to his leader as “Mr. Hall” to “Ben”, showing he gradually reaches equal footing with Hall in the gang.
I am not underestimating this man Sergeant. Out here, this is his world.
The subplot of the film is the police efforts to finally capture the bushrangers. The police pursuit is something akin to a metaphorical hydra; many-headed and nigh on unstoppable, where you can take out one head and two more will take its place. When we begin, Hall narrowly escapes an ambush by a party led by Sergeant Condell. At the end, this same party is doubled with two heads in the form of Condell and Davidson. The relentless Detective Pye acts as something of a free-floating menace, forever nipping at the gang’s heels. Pye is driven by an unquenchable desire to bring Hall and his gang to justice at any cost, demonstrating the desperation that the forces of law and order are experiencing. He will do whatever it takes to get his man, even arresting an entire pub full of people.
Sub-Inspector Davidson is perhaps the most intriguing personality of the pursuers. During a campfire scene it is revealed that he seems to be the only one without some form of acquaintance with Hall – something he is deeply embarrassed by. Davidson soon finds his leadership challenged by the irascible Sergeant Condell and has his orders ignored when police open fire on Hall. His respect for his opponent seems to result in a lack of respect for him from his peers. Davidson has a healthy respect for Hall and this is what motivates him to speak truthfully about what happened to Hall at Billabong Creek. It is also why he doesn’t keep the locket belonging to Hall, recognising it as something of sentimental value and returning it to his fallen foe. Again, this has a Greek tragedy vibe, where the moral lesson appears to be about the importance of respect.
I was right to leave you. Look what you’ve become.
One of the most important motifs is Hall’s locket containing a photograph of Biddy. Photographs in The Legend of Ben Hall provide a window into the past, reminding us of who Ben Hall was before everything fell apart. The carte de visite that opens the film is the very image Hall gives to Henry at the end to remind him who his real father is – not Jim Taylor and not a violent outlaw, but a young squatter filled with optimism, a respectable man worthy of remembering. Similarly, Ben’s locket reminds him of the life he lost. Biddy’s desertion cut deeply and was a key factor in Ben throwing away his respectable life. The locket reminds him of who he was and the life he wishes he had, which gives him motivation to escape Australia and start again. His pursuit of Biddy, it eventuates, is not really for revenge for her leaving with his son as he initially believes. Deep down, Hall realises that there is something in him that drove her away and he needs to figure out what it is and atone for it. He needs to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in the past and he can only do that by making his peace with Biddy.
We ride again, we do so for one purpose: to get enough to skip the country for good.
The reappearance of Johnny Gilbert represents a turning point for Ben Hall. These two go back many years and have endured despite the best efforts of the police to take them. Hall needs to find a way out of the country and out of nowhere Gilbert returns to provide him that chance. It is through the actions of Gilbert that Hall begins to truly understand what he has become. As much as he tries to deny it, Hall enjoys the thrill of being a highwayman just as much as Gilbert and Gilbert has no issue reminding him of that. When Sergeant Parry is murdered during the botched highway robbery at Black Springs, Gilbert makes a point of telling Hall “This is who we are. This is what we do.” After the failed escort robbery Hall reveals that the money he has had stashed at Mick Coneley’s could be enough to get them out of New South Wales, much to Gilbert’s and Dunn’s disgust, the pair having by now evolved into desperate men longing for escape. In this moment we can see that Hall’s true desire was never to leave the colony, but that he wanted the glory days of when he and Gilbert were kings of the road back. Hall’s selfish need to be in control, to maintain his dubious distinction of being the most notorious highwayman in Australia, to chase the thrill of bigger and bigger scores, led the three of them down an irreversible path to desperation and destruction, leaving blood and ash in their wake.
I would never have broken your heart the way she did.
The impact of Hall’s selfishness is further driven home when they return to Coneley’s hut. Coneley has become afraid of what will happen to him if people find out that he has been helping the gang, pushing him to secretly provide information to the police to help them capture Hall and company. We also further see how oblivious Hall has been to the feelings of those around him when Mary Ann reveals how upset she was when he married Biddy, highlighting comments made by Gilbert earlier in the film. Ben Hall is his own worst enemy, a man who will throw away happiness and security in pursuit of a thrill, no matter who suffers as a result and will ignore the insight of those with clearer vision if he doesn’t want to believe the truth. Mary Ann’s tender kiss seems to finally make Hall realise the man he has allowed himself to become – a realisation that leaves him shaken.
When we finally reach the conclusion of the story we realise that the journey has been one of self-discovery and redemption. When Hall gifts his son a portrait of himself as a younger man and leaves £500 for him, we see that he has finally shed the selfishness that had led him to abduct Henry then threaten Taylor. He has realised that by making the issue about his own hurt feelings he has ignored the needs of his son. Being a father is more than blood, it’s about putting your child’s needs before yourself. Hall’s reward is an apology from Biddy and a reconciliation but he discovers that even though he has wanted that the whole time, he doesn’t really deserve it and he is ashamed of himself for wanting it. As he rides away from Biddy and Henry, Hall has finally learned his lesson.
Unfortunately for Hall his apotheosis has come too late and the wheel of fate has spun before he even makes it back to Billabong Creek. The ambush on May 5 is the final step on his journey from being Ben Hall the bushranger to being Ben Hall the legend. Thus we return to that original question: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
The legend of Ben Hall is that a man who has fallen from grace into a life of sin can discover the path to redemption. As Sub-Inspector Davidson places Hall’s locket upon his chest the journey to redemption is completed. Hall has atoned for his misdeeds and though his life has ended, his soul has been saved. In contrast, Johnny Gilbert is not afforded the same closure. He is snuffed out suddenly and without mercy, paying the ultimate price for his crimes. Dunn however has his own small journey of atonement that ends on the gallows. This is story about how in the end, our crimes always catch up with us, but we all have the ability to make peace with our past.
Every interpretation of the Kelly story brings with it a host of conflicting perspectives on various points, and each is unique. More recent film depictions have been executed more artfully than the early silent films or even early “talkies”. Whereas the formative depictions of the story were usually morality plays, emphasising the social ramifications of lawlessness, the rise of the understanding of film as an artform changed the approach many directors and writers took. Gregor Jordan’s contribution is no exception. It is not a depiction of a historical figure, rather it’s an interpretation of the cultural figure of Ned Kelly that seeks to explore the idea of a man being shaped and guided by external forces to his doom.
Jordan’s film is crafted from a John Michael McDonagh screenplay based on the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine. Just as the book moves away from history for the sake of artistic expression, the film steps away from the history as well as the book both for artistic purposes and marketability (the latter being driven by executives rather than the creative team). This has riled many history buffs who had hoped to see the history brought to life on screen, but this is most definitely not that. It must be highlighted that the film differs drastically from the book in many areas also, thus any interpretation of the film text is not reflective of the source novel, just as much as it is not reflective of history, and must be viewed on its own terms.
He wasn’t such a bad fella. He… he was just a dumb paddy who got picked on his whole life. And that does something to your pride, you know?
Jordan’s Ned is a man with a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and is a passive protagonist. The events in the story that shape his life have nothing to do with the decisions he makes, he merely enacts a pre-conceived narrative. While Ned is brash and prone to explosions of temper his actions have no real effect on the outcome of events. This is most conspicuous in the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident when Ned is accused of injuring the constable despite not being present. He seeks an alibi but is denied, locking in his fate. It is then that he goes into hiding and his mother is jailed. Neither Ned’s participation, nor indeed his presence, was required to affect him becoming a bushranger. Even the act of taking Kennedy’s watch at Stringybark Creek plays out without any explanation of the protagonist’s motivation, it is simply part of the pre-conceived narrative.
None of his actions prevent the bad things from happening and nothing he does results in the undoing of the undesirable outcomes. By the end Ned has become resigned to this and when Hare unexpectedly appears and asks for Ned’s sash, he is met merely with a look of weary indifference – nothing Ned could say or do would matter because it would happen anyway.
Of course, there is an easy explanation for this fixation on destiny. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his life being acted out before the audience. This is demonstrated by the voice-over narrating the story throughout. Ned is unable to see how his actions could have resulted in the outcomes that he found himself subject to and thus we are not shown anything that could condemn him. The effect is that Ned is merely following a script and is little more than a puppet of fate. This sense of determinism is the desperate rationalising of events to make sense of a life gone astray.
Ned is thrown in gaol over a suspected stolen horse but we’re never shown anything to contextualise the event other than Ned finding a horse then being assaulted by police. The police are bullies who pick on the Kellys, but again there’s no context given beyond them being Kellys and Irish and the police not liking them for that. This trend for oversimplified cause and effect creates a sense of there being no control over things – they just are. We don’t know why the police at Stringybark Creek are carrying stretchers in the middle of the bush, but this is all it takes to confirm Ned’s belief that he would be gunned down. There’s no suggestion that the police may simply arrest him. All of this indicates Ned twisting the events in his mind to justify the way they turned out in such a manner that he is not at fault.
Further to this is the way that the supporting players are portrayed. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his gang, his family, the police and public, but of course it is all determined by its relationship to himself. Joe Byrne is Ned’s closest friend, but depicted as a womaniser and keenly intelligent, always at Ned’s beck and call. This is in contrast to Ned’s comparative sexual repression, lack of education and his natural leadership. Joe is the yin to Ned’s yang; the Horatio to Ned’s Hamlet, always on hand to confirm Ned’s suspicions or bounce ideas off. Dan Kelly is depicted as an impulsive runt. He is brash and somewhat arrogant but just as devoted to his family as his big brother, despite harbouring ill-feelings towards their deceased father. Ned takes on that paternal role and we see their relationship develop in such a way that Ned becomes something of a sage for Dan, offering wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Steve Hart however is shown as petulant, flaky and mischievous with a cowardly streak. Ned seems to look at him as little more than an inconvenience and is not afraid to belittle him. For all their differences, one thing unites this gang, which is a complete subservience to and admiration of Ned.
Then we see how the various other characters relate to Ned: Julia falls in love with him to the extent of cheating on her husband because he is so much more manly; Kate adores him and sees him as the family’s protector; the police fear Ned while also having a begrudging respect for him; Aaron views Ned with admiration but this soon gives way to fear once he starts helping the police. In essence, the characterisation of the cast is almost entirely derived from how they view Ned, or rather how Ned imagines they view him.
I am a widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed!
This leads us to Ned’s perception of himself. By the way many events play out we see Ned as charming, attractive, playful, witty, tough, commanding and, moreover, popular. Everyone knows who he is wherever he goes, even if they occasionally need their memory jogged at gunpoint. When we see the Jerilderie robbery, Ned’s passion and charisma as he dictates his letter in front of a crowd whips them into a frenzy, chiming in to help him create memorable insults directed towards the police. Whenever Ned speaks people listen and even the police can’t help crack a smile when they think of how devilishly clever and witty he is.
I’ve watched gravel fade. Dust settle into crust. I’ve seen drips of water turn to stone that defied gravity. I’ve turned blood red with cave mud. I’ve been a bloody rock!
The film’s extremely gloomy, desaturated palette echoes the increasingly burdened state of mind of Ned. As the film is framed as Ned telling his own story, naturally the atmosphere is reflective of Ned’s own feelings, embodying his essence. The flatness and sparseness of the locations is also indicative of Ned’s emotional connections to the places we visit in the story. While in reality the Kellys lived near the foot of a large, smooth hill dotted with trees and covered in grass, albeit prone to drought, when we see the homestead in the film it juts out of the grey, flat and boggy landscape as if plonked in the middle of nowhere and looks more like his ancestral home, Ireland, than Australia. Ned does not really imagine the surroundings, his only focus is what the house represents – his family. To Ned, it’s his mother and siblings that matter, not the place they live in. Ned is very focused on family and the pain and loss he feels relating to his mother’s imprisonment is signified by a shot of Ellen in her cell, alone and surrounded by darkness except for a patch of light coming from the cell window. His memories of his family are generally bleak bar one: the memory of the day he received his green sash.
Ah, what did Da call me? That’s right. He called me Sunshine.
Here we see his parents beaming with pride, the sun shining brightly upon young Ned as he receives his reward for saving a life, surrounded by people that cheer for him. This is Ned’s “happy place”, the memory he clings to that proves he really is a good person. This is why the reveal of the sash after his capture is so important. It shows how beneath the armour, his outlaw facade, he still clings to this sash as a symbol of something pure and virtuous inside him. The only other time we really see the sunshine and the beauty of the landscape is between Ned’s return home and the Fitzpatrick incident then the gang’s emergence from the fire-decimated landscape. Colour and sunshine and the beauty of nature symbolise hope and optimism. His time working on the Cooks’ station is a happy time as it seems things could be improving for the Kellys, and it serves to drive home how bleak things become afterwards.
They said I’d lost what it meant to be human, maybe never had it in the first place, but wasn’t this about protecting the ones I loved? The ones who gave me food, and shelter, even the clothes on me back? And therefore wasn’t it now a war?
Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film involves the gang, starving and dying of thirst, slaughtering their horses to drink the blood. This is immediately following a huge bushfire that the police cause leaving the gang stranded and struggling to survive. The horses are slaughtered in the dark of night and the gang look like wild men, deranged and filthy. The desperation of their situation is written on their faces in mud, soot and blood. This nightmare is a representation of Ned’s feelings during the height of his outlawry. He is ashamed of what he has become and is desperate to reform his image and so ventures to the only person he can think of that could help him – the only woman who has ever shown him romantic love – Julia Cook. Julia reminds Ned of who he really is and this motivates his crazy scheme at Glenrowan.
They say the trouble with the Irish is that they rely too much on dreams and not enough on gunpowder. Whereas the English were shy on dreams, as usual, but had plenty of the other. Now we had both.
Ned never states definitively what the plan is for Glenrowan. We are given allusions that it’s something big and important as the gang create armour, gather weapons and then re-emerge with clean clothes and haircuts. The town of Glenrowan becomes the base of operations, though what Ned hopes to achieve here is never made clear. Ned gives a speech about how he and his gang are at war with the British Empire and even the London Times. Ned has emerged from the chrysalis of desperation as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. The bizarre mix of people in the inn represents what Ned sees as the common people, the ones who are victimised by the corruption in the power structure. Yet, they are also reflective of the nature of the social and political dimension Ned’s situation has taken on: little more than a bizarre circus. The caged lion that paces and hollers outside is a symbol of Ned’s warrior spirit; ironic and subversive in that the lion is usually the symbol of England, the culture Ned is so opposed to. When the gang emerge in their armour they are chivalrous knights, protecting the downtrodden from the oppression of police and the political construction they represent. We see the ruthlessness of the police as they gun down innocent civilians as they try to escape from the inn. The gang respond by emerging from the shadows like steel automatons and casually decimate the front line of the police despite the fact that it is pitch black, raining and they are wearing helmets that restrict their vision. The gang avenge those who have been struck down by the cruelty of the police before being forced to head back inside. This is where Ned decides to make his last stand.
Whereas in history Ned’s last stand occurred as he returned to the inn from behind police lines, in this interpretation it is portrayed as Ned venturing out to fight the police single-handedly to create enough of a distraction for the captives to escape. The last stand now becomes a noble and selfless act whereby Ned saves the surviving captives at the cost of his own freedom and, in effect, his life. Naturally without Ned to lead them, the rest of the gang end up dead and the scene of what should have been Ned’s greatest victory goes up in flames. Ned wanders through the bizarre, alien landscape with its camels and pelting rain, only to collapse metres behind the police. The dead lion signifies the death of Ned’s spirit. He realises that he was never destined to succeed and when he regains consciousness again he fires on the police and is quickly taken down. His survival beyond this maiming seems to add insult to injury as he lies gasping under the weight of his armour, the very thing that saved his life from gunfire now little more than an embodiment of his crushing defeat resulting in a demeaning death at the end of a rope.
Such is life.
This is perhaps one of the most unusual interpretations yet of the Kelly story, as it is in essence a warped portrayal played out in the memories of a doomed man. The inaccuracies become the artifice that demonstrates the unreliable nature of a narrator assured of the notion that his life was predetermined and all of his actions, no matter how nefarious or altruistic, were incapable of altering the course of his destiny. Everyone is in awe of the protagonist either through fear or respect as he does a marionette dance from one happenstance to another. This is the story of a man shaped by external forces to become the most hunted man in the British Empire and destined to die an ignominious death as a young man fighting a war he cannot possibly win. There is no real moral lesson to this story, merely the depressing realisation that life rarely turns out the way we want it to.
Ordinary criminals come and go every day. The bushranger comes once in an age. Nature requires time to produce her titans and these monsters reappear after the lapse of years.
On the face of things, Philippe Mora’s magnum opusMad Dog Morgan is little more than an “ozploitation” film loosely based on the life of bushranger Daniel Morgan. The film is clearly low budget with violence and nudity plonked in to appeal to an audience craving titillation in the then-new era of relaxed censorship that defined Australian film in the 1970s. Yet, beyond the surface elements is a script that uses the character of Morgan to meditate on the nature of humanity and society.
I’m a mad dog, sir.
The film takes its title, not from history, but from the influences of American Westerns. Yet, it is the perfect moniker for this incarnation of Morgan: a wild man driven insane by desperation and cruelty in a frontier world defined by struggle and oppression. This is not the historical Morgan that appears in the Margaret Carnegie book that inspired the film. This is a folk hero who represents the rebel; the outlaw who lives by his own rules. This is why Mora chose Dennis Hopper for the lead. Hopper had become something of an underground cult figure, an icon of the counter culture, ever since crafting his film Easy Rider. Something about the lawless characters in the film, which concentrates on two bikers on their travels through America at the height of the “free love” era, seemed to be very much in the spirit of outlaws like Morgan. The notion of Morgan as a “mad dog” refers to how he is viewed and treated after his rejection of civilisation and what he feels are unjust laws that protect those who harm others. His robberies are not merely acts of criminality; to his supporters they are rebellion, while to his detractors it is a sign of his mental incompetence and dangerousness.
One example of this is in an incident that plays out in the film almost exactly as it did in reality. Morgan bailed up Thomas Gibson, the superintendent of a station at Burrumbuttock, and forced him at gunpoint to write £500 worth of cheques to be handed out to the staff. This action was intended to humiliate the employer for his miserly treatment of his staff as well as compensate the workers. This was an act of militant socialism, forcing the wealth to be distributed more evenly. Of course, this was an affront to Victorian society, which had no qualms about the exploitation of workers for the financial gain of an employer. Acts like this were proof of Morgan’s dangerousness. He was unpredictable, but more importantly he seemed to have an agenda and authority figures were his targets.
The more I see of man, the more I admire dogs.
“Mad dog” as a label is intended to dehumanise Morgan. It highlights the attitude that his lawlessness made him no more than a feral animal deserving of extermination. The theme of criminals being dehumanised repeats throughout the film, reflected in various characters. There are discussions of the similarities between men and apes and how this could relate to criminality. There is an assertion that Morgan may be some form of gorilla rather than a man. Yet there’s also a sense in all this that the upper classes have a disdain for humanity in all forms, demonstrated particularly in the character of the odious and lugubrious Superintendent Cobham.
All of Morgan’s actions are reactionary in some way, a retaliation for injustices actual and perceived. Yet despite the apparently justified motivation for his depredations he is labelled as sub-human. In comparison we see supposedly respectable, law-abiding people – police, stockmen, miners – attacking and killing others for their race, torturing and strangling prisoners, being uncharitable to the needy and unfair to their employees, even ordering the mutilation of the dead with the infamous directive to remove Morgan’s scrotum for use as a tobacco pouch.
“By all means – off with his head. And don’t forget the scrotum.”
Further to this point, is the fact that the only people who seem to display kindness during the film are the outcasts: bushrangers, tramps and barflies. The dregs of society, it would appear, have more humanity than those who would consider them to be no more than mangy dogs. The only time we see an expression of love in the film is between Morgan and his Aboriginal companion Billy. While there appears to be a homosexual undertone to the relationship between Morgan and Billy, it is representative of the genuine and binding affection that people can share, especially when they are kindred spirits. Billy saved Morgan’s life without any expectations of reward and Morgan in response makes a point of listening to Billy’s story and learning his ways in hunting and survival. Billy gives Morgan the strength and motivation to keep going, reminding him that there is good in the world.
I think my father was white. I think. Because they came to kill my tribe because they took the sheep.
There is also a deep spirituality throughout this tale. We see Billy as something akin to an embodiment of nature at times, living off the land and endowed with knowledge of skills ranging from hunting to medicine. He is a young man whose past is a mystery even to himself. He can’t remember if his father was white but he has memories of being rejected by his tribe. His arrival just in time to bring Morgan back from the brink of death as if in answer to Morgan’s prayers sets him up as something of a guardian angel, appropriately introduced to what sounds like an angelic chorus. There are also curious moments in the film that seem to imply a deep connection to nature such as the slow-motion shot of Billy bathing in the waterfall or the closing moment of Billy making a kookaburra call into the wilderness as if to signal Morgan’s becoming one with the natural world – despite it being implied that Billy had been strangled to death earlier in the film. Combined with the quote from Mainwaring describing the bushranger as nature’s titan, we are given the notion of Morgan being guided by the embodiment of Australia itself to rebel against the colonial establishment. That a “mad dog” could become the champion for a conquered land and its dispossessed people is a very subversive idea.
That’s an extinct animal, Morgan, like you.
There is also particular emphasis placed on the gift of a skin. Upon Morgan revealing the reward on his head, dead or alive, Billy hands Morgan the pelt of a thylacine, an animal still alive in the 1860s but for the purposes of artistic expression herein referred to as an “extinct animal”. This skin is a sacred object and an item Morgan keeps close at hand throughout the remainder of the film. No attention is drawn to how Billy came into possession of a thylacine skin despite it being an animal exclusive to Tasmania, but there is a sense that this was some kind of totem object. Indeed, the thylacine becomes Morgan’s totem, representing his doomed existence and the prejudice thrust upon misunderstood creatures. The act of giving the skin to Morgan seems to represent the Aboriginal transferring his dispossession at the hands of the colonists to the renegade colonial who is destined to suffer the same fate. It is symbolic of a shared suffering and indeed Morgan’s connection to Billy reflects this kinship as well.
Do you know how lucky I am to be Dan Morgan?
Beyond this, it is the tale of a man doomed to die a monster’s death but straining to cheat the reaper as long as possible. As the film rolls on Morgan becomes only too aware of the fact that his race is almost run. His return to Victoria is an act of defiance laced with a fatalistic gloom. He knows his chance of surviving is not great and we see the cracks show when he takes supper at a shanty and expresses his regret that he’d never been with a woman and had no idea what to do with one if given the opportunity. This highlights the way his life had been wrenched away from him by the severity of the penal system and the difficulty of frontier life, both on the goldfields and as an outlaw. The outlaw lifestyle, while shown as romantic at times, is hardly a glamourous one here. It is a cursed existence devoid of comfort and necessitating a paranoid temperament as anybody could turn at any moment. Morgan is forced to sleep in caves and eat snakes despite the booty he accumulates from his robberies. He amuses himself by shaving off his moustache to look like Abraham Lincoln and practising what he’ll say and do when bailing people up. He preens himself into the image of a pirate but when the chips are down and he senses that the net is closing around him he grows more wild and bedraggled in his appearance.
I’ve always gotta keep smilin’ – keep smilin’! Always smile because it’s a beautiful day! A beautiful day…
We see Morgan begin to have nightmares where a monstrous incarnation of Smith, the police antagonist Morgan murders in an ambush, leaps out of the water wreathed in flames to seek his revenge. Morgan senses that his sins are catching up with him but is determined to go down swinging. He becomes driven by a vendetta against those that personally wronged him, revenge being his only fuel to keep going. His behaviour becomes more erratic and he tries to drown out the pain of his existence with booze. Eventually he accepts his fate with a mirthless chuckle as he twigs that Peechelba Station is surrounded by police and bounty hunters. He drapes himself in the “sacred skin of an extinct animal” and boldly steps into the open and ignores his imminent doom, instead marvelling at the sunshine and clear skies.
Well, you only go around once they say. I tell you what, that Irish whiskey’s pretty good.
As with many of the schlocky Australian films of the 70s there’s a message under the surface that can be missed by the casual viewer. The world of Mad Dog Morgan is not so separated from our own where those with power and authority look down upon the lower classes, sometimes even to the extent of questioning their humanity; the lower classes, meanwhile, prop up rogues as heroes for their defiance of an authority they feel does not reflect their values and openly holds them in contempt. To these people, Morgan represents something more than he is. He’s either the lowest form of degradation or the highest form of galantry. Yet it’s at the meeting point between law and lawless that we get the most conflict and moral complexity. It demonstrates that the further removed from something we are, the more convinced we are in our righteousness. Morgan is merely a man trying to survive in a remorseless world who becomes a force of nature, shaped by cruelty and hardship into a weapon against the structures of man. He murders the enforcers, burns the chapels of industry and wages war on that most dangerous of mankind’s creations: society. In the end, Morgan is slain but as we see from the reactions of those observing the body afterwards, he has succeeded in forcing the people to reevaluate their adherence to authority. One by one the police turn their backs on the monstrous Cobham as he instructs the doctors to mutilate the corpse for trophies, leaving the doctors stranded between the moral choice and subservience to authority.