1846: William Westwood, aka Jackey Jackey

On this date in 1846, the Australian outlaw William Westwood — better known as Jackey Jackey — was hanged with 11 others for a prison riot/escape attempt that claimed several guards’ lives.

“To the old hands,” relates George Boxall in this volume of bushranger folklore, “he was always the gentleman bushranger.”

More legends have collected round the name of Jackey Jackey than round that of any other of the bushrangers, and many of them are obviously variants of the stories told of the historical highwaymen of England. For instance, Jackey Jackey is said to have bailed up the carriage of the Commissary. When he discovered that the Commissary’s wife was inside he dismounted, opened the door and, sweeping the ground with his cabbage tree hat, as he bowed low before her, he invited her to favour him with a step on the green.* He rode incredible distances in incredibly short periods of time** … [and] never did anything mean or brutal or unworthy of a gentleman bushranger, until he was almost goaded to madness by the cruel discipline of Norfolk Island.

Transported to Australia at the age of 16, Jackey Jackey made that reputation with only a scant few months in the bush. The Victorian era was already underway in our young outlaw’s mother country; the day of the highwayman had long since given way to the day of romanticizing the highwayman.

Only on the empire’s distant fringes could the profession persist; there, men like our day’s principal self-consciously took their chivalrous forebears as their templates: Jackey Jackey thrashed a confederate who did violence to a woman, and threatened to murder the man if they should meet again.

Jackey Jackey had only a few months out in the bush in 1840-41 to trace the outlines of the gentleman bandit figure he aspired to. Caught in an inn in 1841, he spent the next several years exercising that other great craft of the folklore criminal: escape.

A cycle of jailbreaks, fleeting moments of liberty, recaptures, higher-security lockups, and increasingly desperate jailbreaks eventually landed at Norfolk Island, where “the treatment of the prisoners in the island was rigorous in the extreme, and may aptly be described as savage.” (Boxall, again)

Just a few years before Jackey Jackey’s death, they had been savage enough to provoke inmates desperate for the release of death to draw lots between the privileges of being murdered by a fellow-prisoner and hanging as that murderer.

Norfolk experimented with liberalizing its regimen in the early 1840s, but it was in rollback mode when our bushranger landed there. The steady removal of the minute privileges that make incarceration bearable — the right to grow a few potatoes; access to one’s own cooking tin and utensils — eventually triggered a similar suicidal mental break … but this time, on a riot scale.

Jackey Jackey made the following speech: “Now, men, I’ve made up my mind to bear this oppression no longer ; but, remember, I’m going to the gallows. If any man funks let him stand out. Those who wish to follow me, come on.”

A policeman named Morris was standing in the archway or entrance to the yard, Jackey Jackey rushed forward, struck him a fearful blow with an enormous bludgeon, and knocked him down. A large mob of the prisoners snatched up such weapons as came to their hands and followed him.

there were about eighteen hundred prisoners on the island, and of these, sixteen hundred were among the rioters. The soldiers numbered only about three hundred, but their discipline enabled them to overawe the vastly superior force, numerically, opposed to them. Perhaps the habits of obedience and submission, so long enforced on the prisoners, may have had some influence. Perhaps, even among this herd of desperate and reckless men, the sight of the soldiers standing firmly with their guns presented ready to fire may have instilled some fear. However this may have been, there was no fight. The rebels retired slowly and unwillingly to the Lumber Yard, where they permitted the soldiers to arrest them one after the other without making any show of defence until one thousand one hundred and ten of them were placed “on the chain.” Perhaps Jackey Jackey and the more violent of his followers may have thought that they had done sufficient to ensure them that death on the gallows which was the avowed object of their rising, while the majority had been so demoralised by official brutality as to be utterly indifferent as to what might become of them.

Twelve suffered death on the Norfolk Island gallows this date for the murder of the guard, with headline-grabber Jackey Jackey exonerating four of his fellow-sufferers in his dying statement.

The remains of the gallows area at the Norfolk Island gaol, gorgeously captured by Canberra photographer Allyeska. (Image used with permission.)

The bitter letter our despairing bushranger wrote to a gaol chaplain, meanwhile, could have been posted from many a modern penitentiary.

I was, like many others, driven to despair by the oppressive and tyrannical conduct of whose whose duty it was to prevent us from being treated in this way. Yet these men are courted by society; and the British Government, deceived by the interested representations of these men, ontinues to carry on a system that has and still continues to ruin the prospects of the souls and bodies of thousands of British subjects … instead of reforming the wretched man, under the present system, led by example on the one hand, and driven by despair and tyranny on the other, goes on from bad to worse, till at length he is ruined body and soul. Experience, dear bought experience, has taught me this. In all my career, I never was cruel I always felt keenly for the miseries of my fellow-creatures, and was ever ready to do all in my power to assist them to the utmost, yet my name will be handed down to posterity branded with the most opprobrious epithet that man can bestow. … this place is now worse than I can describe. Every species of petty tyranny … is put in force by the authorities. The men are half-starved, hard worked, and cruelly flogged. … Sir, out of the bitter cup of misery I have drunk from my sixteenth year ten long years and the sweetest draught is that which takes away the misery of living death; it is the friend that deceives no man; all will then be quiet no tyrant will there disturb my repose, I hope, William Westwood.†

(Boxall’s History of the Australian Bushrangers is available from archive.org here.)

* This legend is lifted wholesale from the c.v. of English highwayman Claude Duval.

** Warp-speed horsemanship features in many English outlaw legends, including those of Dick Turpin and the lesser-known John Nevison.

† Death as an escape from injustice and misery: another timeless theme.

On this day..