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Thursday, 5 December 2013

The last of the bushrangers

I have been exceedingly busy, getting the first seven Not Your Usual... books ready for publication. There are now five of the seven "in the bag", the sixth only needs some navigation links inserted, while number seven needs some serious revision.

That was the position when I came across a reference to a bushranger called Tom Hughes. In Not Your Usual Bushrangers, I had declared that the bushranging era was dead and over in 1880, following the executions of Captain Moonlite and Ned Kelly.  Annoying my sense of the neatness of things, Hughes came on the scene in 1887.  Here is a new end portion that I have just crafted for Not Your Usual Bushrangers.



Declaring somebody to be "the last of the bushrangers" can be a dangerous business. I was doing the last revision on this book when I chanced on a reference to a policeman whose father had once captured "Hughes the bushranger".

Luckily for my reputation, curiosity got the better of me, mainly because I had never heard of Tom Hughes. I saw a bit about him, and then saw that, after being acquitted of a robbery in 1887, the police were sure he was responsible for a number of burglaries in Perth and Fremantle, so they began watching him closely.

By 1944, The Daily News saw fit
to illustrate O'Connell's killing.
One night, two constables, Franklin and O'Connell, saw him near Fremantle, followed him, and when he ran, they gave chase. They got him by the legs as he went through a fence, but he drew a pistol and shot Constable O'Connell, who later died.

Hughes took off into the bush, but from my point of view, he was not worth looking into, just a burglar who killed a policeman. Assuming that he would have gone to the gallows for that, I almost dismissed him, then and there, as not much of a bushranger, and far from interesting.

I glanced at the next article in my search, and it was headed "Cowboy and Bushranger". I wondered if this might explain why Hughes was such a late entrant into the bushranging game. Could he have got romantic notions of bushranging, while he was in America, and moved to Australia?

I read on—and discovered pure dross. Take this introduction and note the overall smell of baloney, tinged with malarkey and topped with a liberal dose of Yellow Press sauce: it had apparently been published first in the New York Sun.
Colonel Tom Ochiltree sat in the barroom of the Hoffman yesterday drinking champagne with a friend, when a reporter came in. 
"Say, Tom Hughes has been bagged,' he remarked to the reporter. He was much surprised to learn that the reporter was not acquainted with Mr. Hughes. 
"Why, he was at one time one of the first citizens of Denison and at another time of Lareda. Why, everybody in Texas and every other State must have known Tom Hughes. But let me tell you, his capture was accomplished only because of his hard luck, and hard luck was an infrequent incident in the picturesque life of one of the old-time-spirits that fifteen or twenty years ago gave a zest to life in this country."
The Daily News (Perth), Monday 9 January 1888, 3,
 A Texas colonel, swilling champagne in a New York bar? Pull the other one, it's got bells on it!

Still, I did some checking, and found that there was a famous Texan Ochiltree who was a colonel, but he died in 1867, so that made this colonel sound fictitious. I saw, though that he was William of that ilk, so I looked for Tom, and uncovered an original character of that name who had been a Texas Ranger, a Confederate Colonel, a US Marshall, and a Congressman from 1883 to 1885, after which he retired to play the stock market in New York.

So  Ochiltree was genuine, but what of the facts? Hughes would have been dead at the end of 1887: nobody likes cop killers, so there was probably no story for me there! I felt somehow that there was a distinctly fishy odour to Ochiltree's yarn, but I was busy, so I set it aside to get on with some real work.

And so it came to pass, the following night, that my newspaper search filter was set to pull up records from the 1940s. The Tom Hughes itch started, and I ran a search on <Tom Hughes bushranger>, mainly planning to see when he went to the gallows. It would have been neat, I thought, if he was hanged before January 26, 1888, the centenary of the first white settlers landing in Australia.

What I found was a report with the heading "WA's Most Desperate Bushranger Dies". Its date was December 16, 1944. Now without wanting to underline my senior citizen status too strongly, he died after I was born, meaning that in a technical sense, I was born in the era of the bushrangers. Now there was a definite story for me, and it is largely summed up in the first three paragraphs:
WA's Most Desperate Bushranger Dies 
Tom Hughes, only bushranger worthy of renown in that dubious trade Western Australia has known, was buried in Karrakatta cemetery on Tuesday. Many years ago he hurried over that now consecrated ground when hotly pursued by mounted troopers who wanted him for the killing of a policeman at Fremantle. For weeks Hughes had been sought around Fremantle and Perth. It was not long after he ran over the scrub lands that are now Karrakatta cemetery that he was captured and he spent the greater part of his remaining life in gaol.
It is a remarkable fact that when West Australian bushrangers are spoken of the name of Moondyne Joe is first mentioned. Moondyne never engaged in gun play. He was an expert gaol escapee and he robbed settlers' huts; but he never fought pursuing police nor fired a shot at anyone as Hughes did on many occasions. Tom Hughes was born and brought up in and about a humpy where there is now the well populated riverside suburb of Bicton. As a lad he worked as a coachman for a Roman Catholic prelate, but he quickly became a burglar. He robbed the licensee of the Freemasons' Tavern which is now the Palace Hotel in Perth. After three trials, at the end of each of which juries disagreed, he was freed. 
Robberies At Fremantle There followed robberies of tools and explosives from quarries near the traffic bridge at Fremantle and a watch set by police culminated in the chasing of Hughes one Sunday evening as he sneaked away from the quarry with goods he had stolen. Lying in wait for him were two policemen named O'Connell and Franklin. That was in April, 1887, when Hughes was 21. When they challenged him Hughes dropped his bundle of stolen goods and scaled a wall into the street along which buses run into Fremantle centre today after crossing the bridge. The two policemen were so fast after him that they were able to grab his legs as he scrambled through a paling fence on the opposite side. People who had been at church were returning home when they saw the chase.
The Daily News (Perth), Saturday 16 December 1944, 23.
Further digging revealed that the Ochiltree story had some true bits about it, but it was a case of mistaken identity. Our Tom Hughes had a younger brother in Perth who had also tried his hand at burglary, but the boy was only 11, and Ochiltree's Tom Hughes would have been in his forties.
The American Tom had a cool head, if the following story of his being bailed up near Fort Scott in Kansas is true. When I read it, I almost wanted this to be the same Tom Hughes as the bushranger, given the way he tricked his would-be robbers.
Hughes, with his knees knocking together and lower jaw drooping, kept his hands up, but they wore flopping about in a way that made the man with the pistol laugh. He couldn't help turning his head a minute to remark to one of the men with him that he 'never see sich a idjit,' but he never said anything else after that. The moment his eye got around to his companion, Hughes' shaking right hand dropped down on the butt of a revolver somewhere about his clothing, and even before the robber saw the motion, Hughes sent a bullet through his heart. He shot one of the others with the next pull of the trigger, and then told the third to hold up his hands and make tracks toward Fort Scott, which was done instanter.
The Australian Tom Hughes was a superb bushman, who eluded the police for a large slice of 1887, but in the end they got him, after he was shot in the thigh. According to reports at the time, he told the police he expected to pay for his crimes (meaning with his life), and wished they had killed him outright.

He knew he was guilty, everybody did. So why didn't the bushranger Hughes swing? Well, it seems popular sympathy went his way, and all he got was a verdict of manslaughter for killing O'Connell. He was given a long sentence and closely watched, but it wasn't enough.

With the help of another prisoner, Jarvis, they overpowered two guards, seized a gun and forced other prisoners to put up a plank that they used to scale the 18-foot (5.5 metre) wall. Warders gave chase, but they lost the escapees' tracks and Hughes and Jarvis stayed at large for some time, but in the end they were caught.

Reading between the lines, he suffered for his brutal attack on the warder, but after that, he behaved himself and waited for his sentence to end.

One thing is certain: having served his time and been released, Hughes died at the ripe old age (in those days) of 79. He was a late entrant into the bushranging game, and he was young when he did so.

I think I am fairly safe if I now dub him "the last of the bushrangers".

But you never know...


And the series?  I am looking at a January release of seven e-books. Stay posted.

And just an afterthought, here is a link to an earlier piece I did on another unusual bushranger.

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