THE real story of the elusive Lady Bushranger roaming the vast Wollemi wilderness can now finally be told. That's the view of late-blooming author Di Moore, of West Wyalong, who is in a unique position to reveal the truth. She is, as she only discovered with a shock in 2002, the granddaughter of the legendary Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the notorious cattle rustler from the wild, mountainous countryside around Rylstone and Kandos, west of the Putty Road.
More amazingly, Mrs Moore's search to uncover the truth only began when she was 67 years of age. It then took her 11½ years researching before releasing her newly published book, Out of the Mists. Subtitled The Hidden History of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the book covers the infamous bushranger's career to her lonely death at age 46 years and burial in a pauper's grave at the rear of Sandgate Cemetery, near Hexham.
There was no headstone to mark her passing, no mourners to grieve and no flowers left by her graveside. In a further indignity, she shared her grave with a child buried decades before and a man buried there a few weeks before her own death. As I first wrote more than a decade ago, when you think of Australian outlaws, it's always colonials like Ben Hall, Ned Kelly or our very own Thunderbolt that spring to mind. Few ever think about female bushrangers, except maybe Thunderbolt's companion Mary Ann Bugg in the 1860s.
And yet, Jessie, or Lizzie, Hickman (1890-1936) lived an extraordinary life within human memory, being one of Australia's outstanding circus roughriders, then a bush recluse with a cavalier attitude to stock ownership. Her life first came to attention in 1996 with the publication of a book by a North Coast author. It revealed a colourful legend - of a gun-toting Jessie Hickman, nee Hunt, who ended up hiding from police in a remote cave on Nullo Mountain. She was said to have gone bush dressed as a man after killing her abusive third husband "Fitzy" in the 1920s.
But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction as Mrs Moore discovered over the years (with the help of researcher Jim McJannett). After delving into what she describes as "the murky mists of faulty memories, myths, lies and distorted repetition as a tale is passed on from generation to generation", Mrs Moore emerged with what she believes is the closest we may ever get (with detailed footnotes) to the Lady Bushranger legend, warts and all. And it's a fascinating read, despite my initial misgiving of the book's first-person "factional" style; of using a little poetic licence to recreate events the way they probably occurred.
You also have to be impressed by Mrs Moore's tenacity and dedication as a new family history researcher. Not swayed by romantic notions or sentimentality, she probed a world until then "safely hidden in a well-stocked cupboard of disreputable skeletons". Yet, Jessie Hickman probably had herself most to blame for the confusion surrounding her Lady Bushranger legend. "Jessie was a great storyteller and was never inhibited by a need to adhere to the truth," Mrs Moore reveals.
"Tales that people have solemnly assured me were told to them by Jessie have proved to be, at best, a much distorted version of some event; at worst, a total fabrication in order to play a joke on some poor friend. Jessie could lie with the best of them." And yet, maybe Jessie simply encouraged tall tales about herself to keep unwelcome guests away from her cattle duffing and horse theft activities. But while debunking a few myths, if only a quarter of the lurid tales are true, what a life! Yarns include her riding a horse over a cliff into a river to avoid police, creating a diversion to steal cattle held in a police yard, riding naked through the bush and escaping from police custody on a train despite being locked in a toilet. And it all began after Jessie was dumped at a circus at the age of eight years to make her way in life.
Little wonder then her career also inspired writer Courtney Collins haunting debut historical novel The Burial in 2012. Well-known Hunter bush historian and author Greg Powell is familiar with Mr Moore's new book, which he described as "very, very good". "It's her family history book, really. It seems there's been errors about Jessie Hickman's past. She was never officially a champion rider and she didn't kill a 'husband' called Fitz," Powell said. "Even a well-known photograph of Hickman isn't her, but someone else," Powell said.
And while Jessie Hickman wasn't a conventional bushranger (she didn't stage any hold-ups) she did have five aliases, had a gang, stole and roamed the bush while being pursued by police.
With all the renewed interest in this wild colonial lass it seems very surprising there hasn't been a documentary made about Jessie Hickman already. Or has there? In October 2002, a small film crew from Warrego Productions descended on Sandgate Cemetery to make a 58-minute doco about the still then largely unknown Lady Bushranger.
The independent Central Coast film company was there shooting the closing scenes of its documentary at Hickman's pauper's grave.
"It's a real shame she ended up this way," Warrego executive Peter Young told the Newcastle Herald at the time.
He said his documentary, based on the original 1996 book by North Coast author Pat Studdy-Clift also involved visiting Hickman's mountain cave and hideout. Mr Young said he'd originally tried to make a movie of Jessie Hickman's life but raising all the necessary finance proved too difficult, so he resorted to making a documentary instead.
He also fully remembered filming in Sandgate Cemetery. "I've even still got the 2002 photograph taken there by your (Herald photographer) Peter Stoop. It's on my office wall," Mr Young said. So, what did happen to his documentary titled Was The Lady a Bushranger?
"It was completed, but later shelved," Mr Young said. "We still have the documentary rights to the first book by Pat, but her movie rights belong to a woman in Western Australia. I think that's in progress at the moment," he said.
Mr Young said he'd considered shortening his documentary as there was still keen interest in it. Many people wanted it, but for free. "I wouldn't do that. Our helicopter work alone for it cost $10,000. So, we're now concentrating on corporate work, not documentaries." Mr Young said SBS TV had made a bid for his film and while the offer would cover some costs, it would give it exclusive rights to his footage for three years. But the final word should go to Mrs Moore. "I would like to say that researching with Jim [McJannett] and writing the book was a labour of love, but I would not be telling the truth. It was a labour of pure curiosity. "I just had to know as much as I could about this new grandmother who had been sprung on me. I must say I got more than I bargained for," Mrs Moore said.
Out of the Mists is available through firstname.lastname@example.org or by phoning (02) 6972 3152 for $25 and $5 postage.
Interesting theory behind Waltzing Matilda - who knows if it's central premise is true, or not. Also note the 'militant union' people. In around 1935 a 'militant union' person tried exploding a bridge at a local coal mine in Lake Macquarie - from memory it was at Belmont or Redhead - I happened by chance to come across the story about the bridge when looking up microfiche of old Newcastle Newspapers at Newcastle Library - Local History Section.
Landline, Controversial new play contends Waltzing Matilda lyrics written about love affair, workers' rights
A controversial new play challenging the origins of Australia's favourite song, Waltzing Matilda, contends that the lyrics were written about a love affair and are a coded manifesto of workers' rights.
The play, called The Man They Call the Banjo, was adapted from the book Waltzing Matilda - The Secret History of Australia's Favourite Song by folk singer and amateur historian Dennis O'Keefe.
In 1895, AB "Banjo" Paterson paid a visit to Dagworth Station, near Winton in western Queensland, in the company of his fiancée of eight years, Sarah Riley. Riley was a close friend of Christina MacPherson, a musical 21-year-old who came from a respectable pioneer family from Western Victoria. MacPherson was visiting her brother Bob, who had sought to increase his pastoral riches by taking up Dagworth several years earlier. But the station turned out to be far from the economic bonanza it promised.
Falling wool prices and adverse seasons were compounded by industrial unrest by militant, striking union shearers and soon the MacPhersons were plunged into heavy debt. Paterson visited only months after the escalating tensions between pastoralists and striking shearers had seen shots exchanged at Dagworth Station and the state of Queensland on the brink of civil war.
One of the militant shearers, Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister, torched the Dagworth Station woolshed on the eve of shearing, incinerating 140 lambs. The day following his revengeful act, Hoffmeister's body with a fatal gunshot wound was found at a shearers' camp near a billabong, his apparent suicide assumed to be an act of remorse.
The phrase "Waltzing Matilda" stems from the practice of itinerant shearers tramping through the outback with little more than a swag (a matilda) slung over their back. It is accepted that Bob MacPherson related these dramatic events to Banjo Paterson and that the bush poet changed the dead shearer into a swagman, but Mr O'Keefe's book and subsequent play wades into muddied, sometimes murky waters. Mr O'Keefe contends that while Christina MacPherson played a half-remembered marching tune she had heard months earlier at the Warrnambool races in western Victoria, Paterson was flirting outrageously with her.
Song 'written about a love affair' The parlour at Dagworth Station became a hotbed of passion, jealousy and ultimately, shame for Paterson exposed as a cad and told to pack his bags back for Brisbane.
This version was given credence by descendants of both Christina MacPherson and Sarah Riley. Riley broke off her engagement to Paterson soon after. Folklore says both women were greatly upset by the episode and neither of them ever married. "No-one ever really looked at the fact that it was also written about a love affair," Mr O'Keefe said.
"Saying that Waltzing Matilda was made up of a love affair and the shearers' strikes makes it a very interesting story."
But MacPherson descendants are upset by Mr O'Keefe's accusation that Bob McPherson may have shot and killed Samuel Hoffmeister in revenge for razing the Dagworth woolshed and some are boiling as furiously as the famed swagman's billy.
Mr O'Keefe's theory is backed by a Melbourne barrister who scrutinised Hoffmeister's inquest, but historian Professor Ross Fitzgerald disputes that finding. "I can't see any ambiguous evidence that that's the case," Professor Fitzgerald said, adding that he did agree with Mr O'Keefe on the song's deeper meaning. "I think Waltzing Matilda is absolutely crucial to understanding the violence that happened between the striking shearers and the squatters in western Queensland so it's much more than a mere entertainment or a ditty. It's a very powerful political allegory."
The truth - 118 years since the writing of the song - will never be fully known, but like the song, the story behind it is set to gain more prominence. US film producer Bill Leimbach is currently shooting a feature-length movie at Winton, with a storyline giving full flight to Paterson's alleged love triangle. In Mr O'Keeffe's play the swagman, who hitherto was only heard by those few who passed by the billabong, is likewise given full voice as the ghostly conscience of Banjo Paterson.
The show is playing several dates in southern Australia in coming months, with hopes of a national tour later in the year.
Tim Lee's story, Banjo's Back, screens on Landline at 12:00pm (AEST) Sunday on ABC1.
* N. B. The article keeps alternating spelling between O'Keefe and O'Keeffe, so for readabilities sake I have kept one spelling.