The courthouse is full. You can just about smell the curiosity mixed with the stench of sweat and vindication. From cattle farmers fed up with losing their stock, to bored housewives, and kids craning their necks to see above the crowd, nearly everyone in the district has rocked up to sneak a peek at the trial of the notorious ‘Lady Bushranger.’ The year is 1928 and it is not the first time Elizabeth Jessie Hickman has been in front of a judge.
From the moment the rodeo champion turned ‘cattle duffer’ rode into the town of Rylestone the rumours about her had spread like wildfire. It was said she had climbed through the bottom of a long drop toilet, jumped out of the window of a moving train, driven a heard of cattle over a cliff, and even ridden bareback and naked through the bush to outrun the police.
It is hard to say what is the truth and what is exaggeration, but Jessi Hickman did live rough and wild, hiding out in a cave on Nullo Mountain, running a gang of cattle rustlers dubbed ‘the Young Bucks.’ And whether or not she had the ability to Houdini herself out of train windows in nothing but her birthday suit, she did evade capture for a very long time.
But now she had been caught. And the locals who had lived in fear of the ‘Wild Woman of Wollemi’ were hungry for justice, or at least for just a glimpse of legendary Ms Hickman. The locals of Rylestone and nearby Kandos were due for disappointment. Not only did Jessie avoid a third and possibly much more serious jail sentence, while she was being held overnight in prison, the herd of cattle she had allegedly stolen, mysteriously disappeared from the police station. No evidence, no crime. Jessie Hickman went home, and so did the disappointed townsfolk.
She lived a quiet life from then on, basically a recluse and died aged 46 of a brain tumor. She was buried at Sandgate Cemetery in Newcastle, in an unmarked pauper’s grave. No dramatic shootout with the police, no public execution and little to no mention in modern history or popular culture. Australia’s last bushranger. And a lady at that.
Got your attention? Good.
Welcome to episode one of The Mad, Bad and Scantily Clad Women of Australian History. I’m Jess Mess a Perth girl from Western Australia, who grew up in the mountainous and arid lands of the Pilbara. I have always been fascinated by historical female figures, and spent my childhood lost in stories about fascinating women from long ago and far off places who overcame incredible odds to achieve incredible things. I had a particular obsession with pirates, and bandits, outlaws and cowboys. The rebels. The rule breakers.
Women a long way from home, and mostly up to no good.
Now of course like all Aussie kids I had been raised on the home-grown stories of frontier men who broke the rules. The Ned Kelly’s and the Moondine Joe’s. If there were women in these stories (which was rare) they were always sisters, and mothers and lovers.
And now I am the mother, of my own blood thirsty young lass, who craves adventure and adores stories about rule breakers and rebels. So, I set out a hunting for some local tales, tall or otherwise and came across Jessie Hickman.
Now Jessie is not Australia’s only female bushranger, and certainly not the most infamous. Mary-Anne Bugg would be the first to come to mind (if indeed a lady bushranger came to mind at all!) Known as Captain Thunderbolt’s Lady, or Lady Thunderbolt. Mary-Anne was the daughter of a Worimi woman and an assigned convict, she was born in 1834 and grew up on Berrico outstation. She had fifteen children with the three major men in her life, four of them were fathered by Fred Ward otherwise known as the notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.
Countless myths abound when it comes to Lady Thunderbolt. Some say she rode by Captain Thunderbolts side, and was just as vicious a horse thief as her husband (they never married), others that there’s was an undying romance (they separated, and she returned to a previous partner John Burrows, who she lived out the remainder of her life with), others that she swam to Cockatoo Island with a file in her mouth, and rescued Captain Thunderbolt.
Carol Baxter, author of ‘Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady’ disagrees with most of these myths. And while Mary-Anne Bug is certainly very interesting, at the end of the day she is remembered primarily because of her association with Captain Thunderbolt. Although in my book anyone who raised fifteen children is impressive in their own right--bush ranging activities aside!
If you do want to learn more about Mary Anne Bug, Baxter has also published a website with a load of information about the Thunderbolts, just head to www.thunderboltbushranger.com.au.
Jessie Hickman caught my eye for two reasons. The first that she did everything on her own steam. She wasn’t someone’s partner in crime, she was the ringleader of her own gang of criminals. And secondly because her story leading up to her eventual ‘life of crime’ is just as weird and wonderful as living in a cave in the hills of Wollemi National Park, stealing cattle and eluding the constabulary by comical and perhaps entirely constructed means.
Born Elizabeth Jessie Hunt on the 6th of September 1890 in Burraga News South Wales, she was the daughter of James Hunt and Susan Ann McIntyre. Her father by all accounts was a terrible drunken wastrel and gambling man who abandoned his wife and two children to fend for themselves, disappearing for long stretches of time and reappearing when he needed money. When James Hunt received a lengthy prison sentence Jessie’s mother was unable to provide for both children. Jessie had always been fascinated by horses, and when the circus came to town it left with an eight-year-old Jessie in tow.
Sold to the circus at eight. You can’t make this kind of magical story telling up.
I can’t help but think about her mother, and how painful the decision to send Jessie away must have been. My daughter is seven and as much as she would love to run away with the circus, she is still very much a baby, and wouldn’t want to go very far without her ‘mummy’ along for the adventure.
What kind of a life must she have had after that? A small child raised by circus folk? Sure, there would have been the more exotic elements, beautiful women in elaborate costumes performing acrobatic tricks on horseback. High flyers, and tight rope walkers, clowns, and lion tamers and all the other exciting images circus life conjures.
Then there’s the five am starts, constant packing down and setting up, always on the road. Living life between a tent and a wagon, constantly cleaning up animal dung, and surrounded by the smell of horse sweat and hay.
Some of the larger circus’ employed teachers to educate the children of performers and we have evidence from her letters, and her will that Jessie certainly could read and write. But this wasn’t a large circus and Jessie wasn’t there to be educated, she was there to work.
Newspaper clippings, and research done by her biographers suggest she started off with Hyland’s Vice Regal Circus as a stable hand, but due to her small size and affinity for horses was quickly trained up as performer, learning acrobatic stunts and pony tricks. By ten she had moved on Skuthorp’s Buckjumpers and eventually left with former acrobat Martin Breheney, to become a star in his new troupe Martini’s Buckjumpers. Her career as a performer spanned more than a decade, and she was considered one of Australia’s best roughriders.
But life as a buck jumper was no rodeo. (Pardon the pun) The circus would have had other children, but the Scuthorp’s and Martini’s were a different story. In ‘Out of the Mists’ a biography written by Jessie’s great granddaughter Di Moore, there are accounts of incredibly foul language, and a gun kept under a pillow to ward off unwanted advances. But the author admits there is no record of how, or by whom, Jessie was raised from the point where she left her mother behind in Burraga.
Accounts of Lance Skutthorp have him as a former stockman, who wore sapphire studded shirts and performed with Americanised ‘razzamatazz’ but despite all that was an ‘Aussie Bushman through and through.’ I’ve spent a bit of time around circus performers and stockmen myself. I certainly wouldn’t be asking any of the colourful, exuberant and generally binge drinking characters I have come across in the modern world of circus and showbiz to raise my daughter any time soon. But Jessie’s own letters convey that Martin Brenehey was a fatherly figure in her life, that he wasn’t like other showmen.
Which is why when Martin died due to complications from injuries sustained in a carriage accident, Jessie took it particularly hard. Di Moore’s account suggests Jessie took time off to grieve, returning after a long holiday in New Zealand. But in February 1910 Martini’s Showjumpers gave its final performance spelling the end of Jessie’s career as a rough rider.
The next few years were tumultuous. She started a small riding school, met a young sailor by the name of Ben Hickman. At twenty-two she fell pregnant, and although her sailor proposed Jessie refused to marry him, and left the baby to be raised by a girlfriend she had made during her holiday in New Zealand.
Within a year, she was facing charges for theft and she spent her first stint at the Long Bay Reformatory. She managed to behave well enough on the inside to get let out for good behavior, but before long landed herself right back inside with another nine-month sentence.
At 27 Jessie was once again a free agent. She has already led a colourful life, abandoned by her mother, and now a woman who had refused to be a mother to her own child, she had two prison sentences under her belt and was almost completely unemployable. It was around this time that notorious cattle duffer John Fitzgerald tracked her down.
The job was simple enough. Rounding up cattle from one area and herding it to another. And ‘Fitz’ as he was known, was after Jessie for her skills as a horse woman. Considering the rightful owners of the cattle weren’t always aware of the ‘redistribution process’ Jessie had been hired to facilitate her criminal record might have been as attractive as her reputation in the saddle.
From stealing horses, and saddles and chickens to moving stolen cattle. Jessie had officially gradated into the life of a career criminal. ‘Fitz’ was not a nice man to work for. The owner of a fairly hefty criminal record himself, he was a violent drunk and more than one man in his employ had gone missing under suspicious circumstances.
But Jessie got on with it, hiring a crew to work under her, and getting on with the business of becoming a bonafide cattle duffer. As long as ‘Fitz’ got the cattle sold quickly at market, and kept the coppers off her back he was doing his job.
Di Moore would have us believe that Jessie couldn’t stand old Fitz. That even though he ‘tried it on’ a few times, she had rebuffed any romantic advances keeping things between them strictly professional, making sure he knew about that gun she always kept under her pillow case.
However, Patt Studdy-Clift’s biography insists that although they weren’t ‘officially’ married, they did live together, and openly referred to each other as husband and wife.
Whatever the relationship between them, it didn’t last for long. Because in 1918 it was John Fitzgerald’s turn to go missing.
Rumour has it, Jessie killed him.
Studdy-Clift asserts it was self-defense. That Jessie and Fitz got into a drunken brawl after she accused him of killing a member of her crew. Fitz attacked Jessie, and she hit him over the head with a chair leg.
Di Moore, gives an account of Jessie threatening Fitzgerald with a gun, after he accused her of stealing his already stolen cattle, nearly landing her back in jail.
However, Moore’s novelization of Jessie’s life asserts repeatedly that she didn’t actually follow through on these threats. There is no death certificate for John Fitzgerald, and a body was never found. But then again, no body, no crime. Perhaps her appearance at Rylestone Court wasn’t the first time Jessie Hickman got rid of the evidence.
Whatever did happen to her cattle rustling boss, he wasn’t heard of again after 1918, and from then on, the only person Jessie worked for, was herself.
At the end of world war one, Ben Hickman returned. And somehow or other he managed to convince his wild, cattle rustling lady love to finally get hitched. So, at 30 years old, eight years after giving birth to, and then abandoning his baby, Jessie Hunt finally became Jessie Hickman.
Did she give it a good old go? Settling down with her returned serviceman, trying out the staid and settled life of a Jewelers wife living in central Sydney? Perhaps she did. But it wasn’t long after her wedding, that she started finding excuses to visit her brother Hector who lived out Kandos way.
The towns of Kandos and Rylestone are a good 250 kilometers out of Sydney. That is a solid drive by car, but Jessie was on horseback. You are talking a solid three-day ride, and through mountainous well forested territory more like four or five days. That is a long way for a newly wed to travel solo.
Less than a year after marrying Hickman, Jessie stopped coming back to Sydney. And it wasn’t long before Jessie was back to her old cattle duffing ways. And business moving stolen cattle was good. She took out a government lease on crown land near emu river, and set to building herself a hut. Along with her hide out on Nullo mountain, she had herself a pretty good set up.
And before long she had built quite the reputation for herself amongst the nearby townsfolk. Everything was blamed on Jessie, from missing chickens, to stolen cattle. Before long the law had caught up to her.
And this is where the fun really begins. Remember the tall tales at the opening of this story? Climbing down long drop toilet, and riding naked over cliff faces?
Well in 1926 the first solid accusation was laid against ‘The Lady Bushranger’ and this is where the fun begins. Legend has it that the first time the police knocked on Jessie Hickman’s door with a warrant to inspect her supposedly stolen cattle, it had taken them such a long time to track down Jessie’s isolated bush hut that it was already too dark to get a good look at the suspect herd of cows. So the ‘copper’s chained her to her bed, and all laid down on the floor in the next room, to get a good night’s sleep before hauling her into the station the next morning.
Except when morning came, Jessie was long gone. So the story goes she had dismantled her entire bed, taken to the chain with an axe, and slipped off into the night quiet as a mouse.
Another account had her chained to a fence, another that she asked to go to the toilet, and just kept on walking past the outhouse into the bush. The police not expecting a lady to disappear into the darkness, let her slip right through their fingers.
Whatever really happened, we do know she did escape that night. And Jessie Hickman spent the next two years on the run from the police, hiding out in the Nullo mountains. And she didn’t let it stop her rounding up and selling stolen cattle.
Eventually they hired a local indigenous tracker James McDonald. Unfortunately for the local constabulary Jessie had a good relationship with the local indigenous people, and ‘Jimmy’ wasn’t in a hurry to catch this lady bushranger for them.
Then one day, while she was hiding out in Nullo cave Jessie came across Jimmy McDonald unconscious. He’d been thrown from the saddle, when his horse got spooked by a snake. According to Jimmy’s grandson Jessie not only took him into her hide out, and stayed with him till he woke up. Once she was sure he was going to be alright, she went out in search of his horse, and sent him back down the mountain not knowing if the gig was finally up.
It’s not surprising that from then on, Jimmy McDonald just couldn’t find hair nor tail of the Lady Bushranger, and so her legend grew. Murder. Cattle Thief. Escape Artist, and now outsmarting the best tracker in the area.
Was there anything this woman was not capable of?
Hide your valuables, lock up your cows and don’t let your young men out at night, for fear she might seduce them away to join her gang of wild and wooly cow thieves!
Except, Di Moore would tell you there was no gang of cattle duffers. That other than a few contacts, when it came time to sell her stolen cows, Jessie worked almost entirely alone. Certainly, her choice to live in the middle of nowhere, and the size of her tiny mountain hidey hold, only big enough to fit a small swag, a cupboard and a camp stove, suggests she wasn’t one for company.
But in May, 1928 the law finally caught up with The Lady Bushranger. Strangely enough after searching high and low through the mountains, ranges and canyons of Capertree Valley, the police tracked her down right where they had first attempted to arrest her two years before. It turns out, Jessie had become so confident, she was living back in her own cottage.
When the Police arrived, Jessie was casually pitching hay for her herd of misappropriated cattle. The Police report says Jessie ran at them with pitchfork shouting, ‘If you want me you’ll have to BLEEP carry me to Rylestone!’
Jessie in turn accused the police of throwing her to the ground, kneeling on her back, and then chaining her to the fence outside of her cottage for hours, before finally dragging her back to the Rylestone to face charges.
According to Jimmy McDonald’s grandson, when they eventually did leave the hut, they tied a handcuffed Jessie to the back of a commandeered sulky, (a sulky is a kind of small carriage), and in the snow no less!
She appeared in court on the 9th of May, accused of stealing cattle from neighbouring farms, and evading arrest. Amazingly, despite a two-year man hunt and what seems to me a ridiculous flight risk, Jessie Hickman was released on bail.
But Hickman did not run. She went back to her farm and lawyered up. Her defense was this. That a lot of cattle roamed freely on Nullo Mountain, and the allegedly dispossessed cows had simply gotten mixed up in her own herd by accident. Something quite common in those parts of the world.
The Jury met for less than an hour. And Jessie Hickman was pronounced ‘Not Guilty.’ Of course, the fact that the offending cattle had disappeared mysteriously in the middle of the night, or that several Hickman’s friends were in the jury didn’t hurt things…
After two years as an outlaw with a price on her head, Jessie was finally off the hook.
Did she retire from her life of crime after that? Who is to say. She certainly disappeared from the attention of the police and the papers.
There are a few letters here and there, divorce proceedings from Ben Hickman when he decided to remarry. But after her infamous day in court we don’t hear much more about the antics of the wild woman of Wollemi.
In the final years of her life, Jessie became more and more isolated from other people. Her behavior was said to be erratic, her memory poor, and her handwriting grew steadily worse. Finally, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and soon after passed away.
Evidence from her medical records and the coroners support suggest she had died from a brain tumor.
Survived by a brother, a nephew, a son who was raised by someone else, and a growing body of local legend in the town of Kandos, about the mad, bad and scantily clad Lady Bushranger who outsmarted the law, and lived a life less ladylike.
Thanks for listening to my first podcast. I hope you enjoyed hearing about Jessie’s adventures as much I enjoyed researching her!
For links to websites, articles, and books about the Lady Bushranger check out my website, jessicamessengerplaywright.com, under the podcast section, you can also follow me on facebook @JessicaDianneMessengerWriter, or Twitter @JessMessWriter