Cried Peter, where’s your certificate
Or if you have not one to show
Pray who in Heaven do you know?
Well I know Brave Donohue
Young Troy and Jenkins too
And many others whom floggers mangled
And lastly were by Jack Ketch strangled.
–“A Convict’s Tour to Hell” by Australian prisoner Frank McNamara (1839)
On this date in 1834 was strangled the aforementioned Jenkins — John, to his friends — alongside accomplice Thomas Tattersdale for one of 19th century Australia’s headline-grabbing crimes.*
Along with a third man who would turn state’s evidence to save his own neck, these convicts busted out of jail.
On the run in the bush, these fugitives came across the massive estate of Dr. Robert Wardell, a prominent public figure in early Australia. When this newspaper publisher, barrister, and land magnate personally bumped into the trio, he naturally urged the prisoners to give themselves up. Instead, John Jenkins shot Wardell dead.
Tattersdale, a non-triggerman who had actually tried to talk Jenkins out of killing Wardell in the first place, sported a suitably Dostoyevskyan appreciation of his own guilt, and basically just asked the court for a few days to prepare his soul. Jenkins made the trial a three-ring circus with his profane attacks on the court, and his bodily attack on his fellow-defendant when he learned that Tattersdale had offered to testify for the crown. (Tattersdale weepily made up with an irritated Jenkins at the time of their hanging, which was only three days after they were condemned.)
Tattersdale’s lamblike submission just got him written out of the ballads; even the newsmen covering the hanging itself “did not much regard” him.
Jenkins, by contrast, stole the show “with that vulgar attempt at bravado courage which distinguishes men of his class.” He’d been joking about his hanging since the trial, and he played cocksure right up to the time they dropped the trap on him — including a distinctly unauthorized last comment on his life and crime.
Well, good bye my lads, I have not time to say much to you. I acknowledge I shot the Doctor, but it was not for gain, it was for the sake of my fellow prisoners because he was a tyrant and I have one thing to recommend you as a friend, if any of you take the bush, about every bloody tyrant you come across, and there are several now in the yard who ought to be served so.
* An unrelated criminal named McCormick died with them, for murdering his wife.