Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bushranger John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald arrived on the convict ship Anne in 1801, by 1803 he had received at least one flogging, and again in 1806 when he absconded from his assignment in Newcastle, he received 300 lashes.  He absconded again in 1806, 1809, 1811 and 1812.  He was eventually sent to Van Diemen's Land where he escaped once again, in 1814, managing this time to roam free for nearly a year before being captured and sent to Sydney for trial. His companion Bartholomew Foley was executed in Sydney in 1814.

Although he was not known to have committed any very serious offence, or personally to injure anyone he robbed or who apprehended him. John Fitzgerald appears to have been a serial absconder from prison, his death in 1817 was reported in the Sydney Gazette of 4th October, 1917  as follows:
To Correspondents
In the last Gazette our attention was called to the mention of the death of John Fitzgerald, by drowning, after numerous hair breadth escapes from a different destiny. The following are the circumstances of his death:— The brig Endeavour's anchor becoming so much involved at her moorings abreast of the King's Wharf as to defeat every effort to extricate it by main strength, the deceased, who was esteemed the best diver in the Colony, was employed to go down and examine, and if possible to disengage it. In prosecution or which object he thrice descended, and re-appearing, reported that the vessel's anchor was entangled with two others. Much enfeebled by exertion, he was as sisted into a boat; where, having remained a short time, he avowed a determination to accomplish the purpose in which he had been engaged, and taking the end of a rope to make fast to the vessel's own anchor, went down once more. He had been before known to remain beneath the surface for three minutes and a half as was reported, but on this occasion he had exceeded all his powers; after disappearing four minutes, he was seen to rise to the level of the water at some distance from the place he went down at, he sunk — to rise no more. Thus terminated the existence of this extraordinary character. He was a native of Ireland, and had been in the Colony about 16 years, during the last 14 of which he has been distinguished as an incorrigible fugitive and bush ranger, and had repeatedly suffered the severity of punishment, as well for his desertion as numerous petty offences, which were chiefly committed during his periods of absence; he was never known, however, to commit any very serious offence, or personally to injure either those whom he plundered, or by whom he was afterwards apprehended. Of late years his obduracy had been only punished by confinement, when brought in from his vagrancy to the woods; and on all these occasions he was willing, tractable, and obedient, but seldom missed an opportunity to resume his wanderings, and commit some trifling depredation before he took his leave. We select from among his numerous irregularities the following recent fact, as descriptive of his general character. — Being about 18 months since brought in, and confined as usual to the prison, he attracted the commiseration of a Gentleman, who humanely attributing his irregularities rather to an imbecility of understanding than an inherent inclination to evil, imagined that an easy situation and plentiful diet would induce him to relinquish a course of life that had been a perpetual source of suffering; and determining on the experiment, obtained him as a servant to his farm a few miles from town, with instructions to work as he thought proper, or barely to walk about the workmen's huts to protect them while they were in the field, and directing at the same time that he should be amply furnished with provisions. —In this charge he continued for a few days; when his evil genius appearing to him in the shape of the irresistible daemon, opportunity, which he had no natural inclination to resist, he called a summary muster of all the men's eatables and wearables, and leaving the huts secure from further depredation, once more betook himself to the inner recesses of the woods. He was sometime after apprehended, and returned to his town habitation, the Gentleman not choosing further interference with a being, who by an act of needless and wanton ingratitude had confirmed his first opinion of the weakness of his intellect. He was the companion of Collins at the time he was last apprehended and shortly after executed; but had not participated in the crimes of that atrocious offender. Actuated by the momentary impulse, his depredations were instantaneously conceived and executed, without consulting con- sequences; and whenever apprehended, the officers of the police had no occasion to interrogate him on the subject of his exploits, as he always became his own biographer, and voluntarily narrated the particulars of his iniquities. That his head was considered as faulty as his natural bent of disposition, was perhaps little to be doubted; and to this consideration alone, it is no less probable, he was so long permitted to escape an opposite destiny to that which has at length terminated his excesses, and brought his self-created difficulties to a period.

The following extract from the website gives us some further information about Fitzgerald, although weather it is true or not remains a mystery.

A curious story about Fitzgerald emerged in 1857. The Hobart Town Courier told a tale concerning Governor King and the ship's bell on board the Lady Nelson, which was then moored in Sydney Harbour. These events happened in 1803, and Governor King suspected that the watch on the vessel was not as alert as it might be. He decided to set a thief to catch some slackers. King was not only the colony's governor, he was the senior naval officer.
He sent for Fitzgerald, even then recognised as a good swimmer, who was brought to him in double irons, suggesting that he had recently been naughty. The governor ordered him to swim to the ship during the night. Once there, he was to go on board, remove the ship's bell and bring it to Government House.
In those days, each half hour in each watch on board ship was signalled by the sounding of the bell. Even if a thief got on board and made off with the bell just after the bell was rung, the theft should be discovered in no more than half an hour—if the ship's guards were alert.
The point King wished to make was that the crew of Lady Nelson, were expected to watch for signals that might come at any time of the night from the Governor, and pass them on to the other naval ships in the harbour, Supply, Reliance, Buffalo and Investigator. There could be no slackness on the ship, just in case there was an emergency.
Fitzgerald swam out to the ship safely, even in double irons, but he needed the help of a constable to make it back to shore again with the bell. He was rewarded with two gallons of rum and one set of irons was removed from his legs. When the lieutenant who commanded Lady Nelson handed in his report in the morning, stating that the bell had been rung every half hour, he was punished for submitting a false report.
Looking back on Fitzgerald's later 'career', it is all too likely that, having found favour with the slightly eccentric King, he may have been tempted to persist in his waywardness, which seems to have started around then.

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