Spotlight: The Myth of Gardiner, the Widow, the Twins and the Map

One of the earliest recorded myths pertaining to the bushrangers is that Frank Gardiner married a rich widow in the United States of America and had twin sons who returned to the Forbes district after Gardiner’s death to find his buried treasure. One of the first recorded instances of this story hitting the headlines goes back all the way to 1879 with this little article from the Evening News, Sydney:
Frank Gardiner, of whom so many stories have been told lately, writes to a person in Burrangong, stating that he is married to a wealthy American widow, and has comfortably located himself in Nevada. He intimates that he had quite enough of the roads in Australia, without resuming so precarious an occupation in a foreign land, and where Judge Lynch has such unlimited jurisdiction.
According to legend Frank Gardiner wooed a rich widow upon reaching America.

As time went on further elements were added to the story, specifically the existence of relatives who were given a map to Gardiner’s buried treasure. In some versions Gardiner had twin sons, in others they were nephews as in this extract from an article in Young Witness in 1918 which relays events that allegedly took place in 1912:


[Mr. Butler] next met two men—unmistakable Yankees, with an aggravated twang; they were at the camp with Jackson, and subsequently visited the narrator at his home; here harmonious evenings were spent, one of the visitors being an accomplished musician. He gave out that he had been sent to Wheogo by the Forestry Department for the purpose of enquiring about the timber around there. He eventually developed a genius for prospecting for anything he could find claiming to be a specialist in searching for radium … One night “‘Monte” as one of the visitors was called, came as usual to indulge in some music, and in course of conversation said, “A chap met me up there to-day, and asked if I was looking for gold.’ To this he replied, “You must reckon I’m a fool to be looking for gold at the top of a hill;” the man who had accosted him (an employee on Wheogo) said, “I don’t mean ordinary prospecting, but bushrangers’ gold.” Monte replied, “I wish I knew where there was some planted here; I’d soon have a look for it.” He then drew from Mr. Butler the story of the bushrangers’ gold, including the Eugowra episode, everything that happened, and how long that was ago. He remarked that the robbery occurred about the time he was born — forty six years ago. He feigned ignorance of the whole matter. Soon after this Mr. Butler walked over the hill, and then found where they had been working. There was a big hole, extending some forty feet along the surface, and some two to three feet deep; at what seemed to be the spot where the search ended in success was a hole about two feet deep and a foot across, at the bottom of which was rubbish. The searchers were not then present.
The article goes on further to describe how the men who had been digging were supposedly Frank Gardiner’s nephews and had been successful in their search, following a map drawn by Gardiner showing where the treasure was buried on a mountain overlooking Wheogo, whereupon they left town without so much as a by your leave. Furthermore the article suggests that Gardiner was shot in a brawl over a game of cards in Colorado – another pervasive myth.
In the 1920s, as many of the people involved in many of the great bushranger stories were shuffling off the mortal coil, interest in the stories was rekindled. In 1925 the Morning Bulletin once more brought up the notion of the bushranger’s buried treasure, this time shifting the location from New South Wales to Queensland. This time, however, there was the story of an old woman with mysterious antique jewellery supposedly given to her by Gardiner as well tales pertaining to the supposed site of the Apis Creek hotel Gardiner ran before his arrest. The article also alludes to some kind of government cover-up. It reads in part:
One reads with great interest and true tale of these murderous exploits and even fiction on these lines finds many readers. However, the tale I’m about to relate, the particulars of which I have collected whilst following the Rainbow Trail during the past twelve months, is as far as I know absolutely true and much of it is well known to the “powers that be” in this state.

A rather amusing incident connected with Gardiner and buried treasure happened in the nineties when D. C. M’Connell and Sons, of Cressbrook, owned Apis Creek Station. The place on Apis Creek where Gardiner at the time of his arrest, in 1864 kept the Apis Creek Hotel is situated about a mile and a half from the station homestead and a young man engaged in acquiring the knowledge necessary to qualify him to control a station property of his own had heard so much of Gardiner’s gang and buried treasure, that he had a vision of a hoard buried in a grave situated in a patch of scrub at the back of the site of the old hotel.
A rough bush fence surrounded the grave and it certainly was a likely spot for the hiding of a camouflaged hoard of treasure. When the dream was repeated the second night and again on the third night it seemed like getting money from home  so away the dreamer went with a pick and shovel and dug down in the grave until at last he saw it – not the treasure – but the skull of a man dressed in a grey flannel shirt and moleskin trousers. However the seeker decided to dig down deeper for surely a dream such as his repeated three times in succession could not possibly be false. So stacking the remains by the side of the hole he dug down until he came to solid ground and knew that he had reached the bottom of the old grave and that some lying spirit had led him on a wild goose chase. Replacing the remains – which he afterwards learned were those of a poor old bullock driver who had been killed – he carefully tilled in the grave and retired. And so ended his first and last treasure hunt.
Later on in the nineties two men arrived at Apis creek, also on a treasure quest and they were believed to have met with success. They represented themselves as Yankees and arrived at the station with riding horses, pack horse; rations, and prospectors outfits and obtained permission to prospect for gold on the run. For about a month they were fossicking about and finally left hurriedly but before doing so they gave out that they bad discovered nothing. But strange to say they gave away most of their equipment and sold their horses, saddles and packs for a mere nothing. Afterwards it turned out that they had confined their attention chiefly to the old hotel site, where they bad done a lot of excavation work and left lying on the surface a big empty rusty iron box after the style of the old oblong colonial oven, which had apparently come from underground and which was shrewdly suspected of containing the gold that they had been prospecting for.
An old miner on the Boyne River, known as “Jack Blunt” – by reason of his continued reiteration of the fact that he was Jack Blunt, that is to say outspoken – told mcethat be heard that Gardiner confided to his, lawyers in Sydney, at the time of his trial there, that he had valuables secreted, but that he would let them lie there and get them out when he was a free man. So when Jack Blunt was passing along the Peak Downs road, after hearing this rumour, he cut across to the old road and visited the site of the old hotel, but found that others – the Yankees I suppose – had been there before him and rooted up the ground and probably got the treasure.

Gardiner’s arrest at Apis Creek
In a 1943 article from The Forbes Advocate the tale undergoes yet another transformation, the buried treasure this time being attributed to Ben Hall rather than Frank Gardiner and is supposedly buried on the site of his old property and the two American men have increased in number:
After the great gold escort robbery at Eugowra in June, 1862, when a very large quantity of gold was taken which could not be fully accounted for, it was often surmised that many thousand ounces were still hidden somewhere to the Weddin Mountains. On a hill about three miles south of Ben’s old homestead there is a standing rock of about 15ft. high, which gives it the name of “Trig Hill.” Over twenty years ago three mysterious strangers arrived by train at Grenfell. Their spoke a highly. American accent and asked the direction of Ben’s old homestead. They said that they were going ‘prospecting’ for some mineral that was not gold.
What we see here is the evolution of the myth as it gets passed around from person to person in a game of what is, somewhat insensitively, referred to as “Chinese whispers”. What is the true story is anyone’s guess. Presumably Gardiner did not have any buried treasure – he lost most of his cut of the Eugowra haul because it weighed his packhorse down too much and he had to abandon it. When Gardiner was exiled he moved to San Fransisco where he died, some reports placing the death as early as the 1890s. Records from the time Gardiner was there have been lost, but it is pretty safe to assume that he did not marry a wealthy widow or leave a map to his buried treasure.

The chances of Gardiner having buried treasure are slim at best

“Frank Gardiner.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 1 December 1879: 3.

“STRANGER THAN FICTION.” Young Witness (NSW : 1915 – 1923) 12 March 1918: 4.

“THE RAINBOW TRAIL.” Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954) 21 December 1925: 14.

“THE ROARING 60’s” The Forbes Advocate (NSW : 1911 – 1954) 28 May 1943: 6.

John Francis Peggotty: The Birdman of Coorong

The story of John Francis Peggotty is one of the most bizarre in bushranging only made more bizarre by the fact that it seems to be nothing more than an elaborate urban myth perpetuated by an enthusiastic tourism board. South Australia can’t lay claim to many bushrangers, and certainly none of the calibre of those found in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania so why did this story capture the imagination? The short answer is novelty.

According to the stories John Francis Peggotty was born three months premature in Limerick, Ireland in 1864. As an eighteen year old he travelled to South Africa where he learned to ride ostriches (ostrich racing being a popular sport there). Peggotty’s tiny, underdeveloped frame was ideal for the pursuit of riding large flightless birds and he became wildly proficient. For reasons undetermined, Peggotty left South Africa for England where he went on a crime spree, his tiny body effortlessly sliding down chimneys to give him access to homes where he could pilfer all he desired like some sort of strange reverse-Santa Claus. Getting nabbed and doing time in gaol did nothing to deter the tiny Irishman and he set his sights on Australia and joined his uncle’s farm in New South Wales. Farming proved to be unappealing to Peggotty and he took his leave and went to South Australia where he soon took up a life of lawlessness.

Peggotty resumed his crime career with his unique modus operandi but it wasn’t long before Peggotty in a Fagin-esque manner began recruiting urchins to join him in his exploits, teaching them his tricks for stealthy break and enter. Peggotty would not trade his ill-gotten gains for cash as many would presume, but rather took much pleasure in wearing the stolen jewellery and was frequently seen bedecked in gold chains of various sizes, glimmering rings and jangling bracelets. Adorned in jewellery and little else, Peggotty was a weird figure indeed.


Tiring of the break-and-enter business Peggotty decided to take inspiration from the likes of Captain Thunderbolt and Frank Gardiner and go bush and become a highwayman. Unable to mount a horse because of his size Peggotty took advantage of the birds brought to South Australia for the lucrative ostrich feather trade, liberating a bird and riding it like it was a gallant steed. Peggotty bailed up travellers throughout the Coorong on his ostrich, liberating them of anything that crinkled or tinkled before word began to spread that this impish outlaw had become a veritable menace. Choosing to haunt the region by the shores of Lake Albert with its towering walls of sand, Peggotty atop his fowl steed was irrepressible. The police soon set out in search of the so-called “Birdman of the Coorong”.

Gallant Steed: Peggotty preferred avian mounts to equine ones

In a short time Peggotty had numerous robberies and two murders to his name and a sizeable reward on his head. Things came to a head when the birdman attempted to rob a fisherman named Henry Carmichael on 17 September of 1899. Carmichael was not in the mood for such nonsense from who he thought was no more than a juvenile delinquent at first but soon realised from the bushranger’s quirky steed that this was the infamous Birdman. Grabbing his rifle and levelling it at Peggotty, Carmichael was determined to claim the reward. Peggotty knew not to mess around and took off, the ostrich leaving Carmichael in the dust. As bullets whizzed past him, Peggotty ducked and weaved but the fisherman was far too proficient and a bullet struck the ostrich and brought it down. Peggotty tumbled to the ground and another bullet penetrated the delicate frame of the bushranger who crawled into the undergrowth and seemingly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Some say that beneath the mountainous sand dunes is a tiny skeleton wearing a small fortune in gold and jewellery waiting to be found.

In all probability the lack of records and contemporary news articles indicates that this is in fact pure myth. That Peggotty is a name plucked straight from the works of Charles Dickens also gives it away. That hasn’t stopped the powers that be from using the tale of the Birdman to foster tourism in the Coorong in a bid to help the district recover after a particularly nasty period of drought that caused quite a lot of pain to the locals. The tale is a cracking yarn full of adventure and humour that aims to connect South Australia to the great bushranging tales of the Eastern states. It is also a fantastic way of creating a bit of legend around the wild ostriches of the Coorong, large flightless birds imported for their feathers but let loose when they were either released or escaped. it may not be the truth but it is a cracking good yarn.

Tourist Attraction: Have you got what it takes to be a Birdman?