SIX OUTBACK TALES OF PIRATES, THIEVES & CON MEN
As much as politicians, policemen and priests, those on the wrong side of the law have also shaped Australia.
Whether their impact has been culturally positive might be up for debate, but the strength of their tales surely isn’t. See, there are some absolute bell-ringers when it comes to the tales from the Aussie underworld.
From outback hucksters, to pirates, to crime matriachs, there are those revered and those reviled, and those still operating today.
QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD, Dubbo, NSW.
Kate Leigh grew up in a bear pit, the youngest and wildest of eight children to a poor family living on the outskirts of Dubbo.
By the time she was 20, she was married to a crooked Chinese bookie in Sydney, and he was thrown in the brig soon after.
While her man’s gang were locked up, she kept abreast of the Sydney underworld and figured she could do this better than all the blokes, at least she hadn’t been caught. Every couple of years she’d go marry another criminal and she would learn from their mistakes.
She also knew a decent market when she saw one, knowing that Aussies were going to have a drink and a bet whether it’s legal or not. When puritans passed a law in the 1920s forbidding booze after 6pm, Leigh saw an opportunity, and within a year or two she had 30 bootleg grog joints set up just across Sydney.
She didn’t network, she was the network. And she soon took over the cocaine trade when that too was criminalised. She had the white powder coming in from all angles, local Sydney chemists giving dodgy prescriptions, and sailors shipping it in from Argentina.
Before you know it, in any kind of business venture, there are going to be competitors, and they’ll usually be more hostile the better you are at something. And Leigh wasn’t backward about protecting her patch when she diversified into hookers and gambling dens.
After a childhood in Dubbo she was adept with a shotgun and not afraid to use it when rival crime lords started slashing her workers with razor blades: and the feuds became known as the Razor Gang Wars.
The fight to control Kings Cross got so heated that Leigh and her rival, Tilly Devine, used to have street fights with each other in broad daylight.
When underworld figures turned up dead or didn’t turn up at all, Leigh was believed responsible, but was far too powerful to go under for the major crimes.
Each time she was arrested on some minor offense the media would show up and she would put on a show for them in court, the once-poor country girl now covered in jewellery.
Like all reigns, it came to an end. Booze became legalised and WWII meant boats couldn’t freely come into Sydney from South America anymore. Sensing her business and influence on the decline, the government saw their chance and went in for her money, cleaning the crime boss out with a giant tax bill.
In Larry Writer’s definitive profile on the era, Razor, he refers to Leigh’s legacy as being as much about the brutal criminal Razor Gangs, as it was her charitable financial support for the poor during the depths of the Great Depression.
In the 1950s, People magazine described both sides of her personality: “She is tougher than most men, can punch, bite and gouge with the fierce courage of an animal…”
”She is (also) popular with the kids, particularly with her Christmas gifts. Every school lunch hour they cram her shop, laughing at her jokes.”
Or this from The Telegraph: “’She plays a dominating part in the tragedy which is spelt D-O-P-E. She meets young women in cafes and hotel lounges, and she ingratiates herself with them. Such a nice, agreeable dame! Such a monster in human disguise.”
WHEN THE CONVICTS MET THE SAMURAI, Macquarie Harbour, Tas.
Americans and Poms take great delight in the old chestnut that we’re a nation founded by criminals.
And the story of the first boat ever sailed abroad by Aussies probably doesn’t help matters.
It’s the great Australian film that’s never been made, a bunch of convicts break out of prison in Tasmania, steal a boat and sail it all the way to Asia in search of women, adventure and anonymity.
The convicts hardly knew each other when they mutineed on a ship that was relocating them from Hobart to an even more brutal prison on Tassie’s west coast.
One of the convicts, William Swallow, knew how these things worked as he’d served in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
He convinced the others their lives were done for anyway, so why not give it a shot. And give it a shot they did, making it all the way to China.
The convicts seemed relaxed on the journey across Tassie in the MV Cyprus, so relaxed that the skipper was fishing and talking to them like normal people. For this, they spared his life when they mutineed, dropping the crew unharmed on land before they set sail for the South Pacific.
They landed in Tonga, found food, water, women and a tribe so friendly that half of the convicts stayed. Swallow kept moving, he figured he’d be able to make it all the way to England.
They got to Japan, not realising it was in self-imposed isolation, and not taking to foreigners too kindly, especially smelly ones like these.
What kind of dishevelled navy did they represent? Swallow claimed that a samarai cannonball knocked the telescope from his hands when he first arrived.
They refused to leave, so the samarais dressed up as local fisherman to get a decent look at these westerners and see if they were armed, but were forced to return due to an “unbearable stench in the vicinity of the ship”.
It was Australia’s first foray into foreign waters, and the strapped convict crew offered them gifts of alcohol and boomerangs.
After cannon fire forced the vagrant ship to move on Swallow’s crew sung sea shanties and did backflips off the bow into the warm summer waters. Aussies on tour – it almost sounds like an end-of-season footy trip.
They moved on to Hong Kong, sunk the ship and made out like they’d been shipwrecked. Because there was no way of knowing that they were convicts, they were treated like long lost maritime heroes, nursed back to health and plied with sizzling pork and sake.They made it all the way to London on another boat, but bad luck for them had seen them overtaken by another ship from Tassie with news of the convict mutiny.
When Swallow finally landed he was immediately arrested and dispatched back to Van Diemens Land.
THE POSTCARD BANDIT, Mt Tom Price, WA.
Like Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, Abbott became a media sensation who stood for someone having a go at life, all be it on the wrong side of the law.
Unlike Biggs, Abbott wasn’t a show pony. And the whole story that Abbot was sending photos while he was on the run was a complete fabrication.
The WA police force had concocted the postcard thing in a bid to get the public to help track this dangerous crook down.
The whole thing backfired horribly, and the country threw their support behind the modern day bushranger.
Seriously, who doesn’t like an escape, if you watch any Alcatraz movie, you’re not cheering for the guards.
But in Abbott’s case, even the screws were cheering for him. Even retired Woodford Prison warden Hans Andersen told the Courier Mail that Abbott was a “political prisoner and likely to rot in his cell. It is a travesty he will serve more time than infamous killers.”
Abbott was a shy country kid from Mt. Tom Price who loved solving puzzles but who lived in chronic pain due to busted eardrums. When a misunderstanding saw him institutionalised as a teen, he got really good at petty crime.
His obsession with solving difficult puzzles then saw him turn to ingenious bank robberies, generally without violence, and he eventually found himself in the fortress of 150-year-old Fremantle Prison. And this is where things got interesting.
In 1989, Abbott and a mate wore warden’s outfits that Abbott had made in jail, and they made it to the very perimeter before they leapt over the limestone walls to freedom. He stayed on the run for five years, the police closing in on him but never nailing him.
Each time, they would find momentos and photos amongst Abbott’s gear, and they would tell the media that he was trying to rub Australia’s nose in it by sending postcards, and they dubbed him Australia’s Most Wanted Man.
There were photos of him in resort pools with women, outside police stations, you name it.
Abbott kept robbing banks too, with strange new techniques, and he made a clean getaway each time, until eventually caught in a Surfers Paradise hotel.
When they caught him, he did three years in Brisbane gaol before escaping again, this time spending six months on the road.
When ABC’s Australian Story uncovered letters from Abbott, he wrote “Misguided people think I was some sort of hero. I want to state clearly that I regret the way my life has gone, and I don’t want it to be glamorised in any shape, manner or form.”
Gold Coast lawyer Chris Nyst took up Abbott’s case, later telling the Courier Mail, “His successes have been more successful and his failures have been more spectacular.
“I think politics got in the way of good sense in Abbott’s case and I think that’s reflected in the way he’s spent a disproportionate amount of time in prison in comparison to offenders who have committed much more serious crimes.”Abbott’s exact release date is still unknown but it might not be until 2026, and as he himself told the ABC: ““If I could turn back the clock I’d love to have been a doctor or a lawyer, or anything other than a criminal who now spends his days in a prison cell.”
THE REAL LIFE AUSTRALIAN ‘THUNDERBIRDS’, Gippsland, VIC
Of all the mental health tendencies, the malignant narcissist is the most fascinating.
They don’t so much revel in the pain of others like a sadist, their aim is purely to transcend the tawdry ho-hum of everyday living with a fantasy life, reality be damned, where they are a creature of almost supernatural ability.
While we’re all narcissists to some extent – more so now, more than ever – the malignant narcissist goes the extra mile to drape themselves in glory.
One of the more intriguing cases to capture the public’s attention is that of John Friedrich, who originally worked in Aboriginal missions in the Musgrave Ranges of SA and on Queensland’s Mornington Island.
He was engaging and well-liked by colleagues despite his weird affectations. The only question mark hanging over him, was why a young German wanted to come and live in this part of the world, so far from his hometown of Munich?
While in the Western Desert he got staph and was nursed to health by RN Shirley Manning, the two struck up a bond that resulted in the German marrying the outback nurse.
So far, so normal. Until you start to dig into Interpol’s files on a fella by the name of John Friedrich Hohenberger. He was wanted back in Germany for fraud, but they never really searched for him because the last time he was seen was skiing during a blizzard and he was believed frozen somewhere in the Alps.
While they eventually found out that he was alive and had made it to Australia, their records – thanks to Friedrich pulling a ticketing scam – showed that he had returned to Germany. They believed he was somewhere in Europe and he was on a wanted list.
But now that he had a new life in the bush, a new wife and a new identity, there was no reason to go back to that life of fraud, he could start afresh. When he had fully healed he took a job in Melbourne with the National Safety Council, a mob who promoted safety at work and in schools.
Within a short time, he rose through the ranks to become the national director, turning it into, according to Simon Caterson in the Daily Review, a “Hi-tech search and rescue operation that worked with the military in sensitive locations such as the global surveillance facility at Pine Gap.”
The company soon had near on 500 employees, with Friedrich raising millions with different banks for this transformation. Such was the bankers’ and politicians’ trust in Friedrich that they would join him on field trips to try out the NSCA’s new gadgetry.
“An air fleet comprising numerous helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, as well as a 42m ocean going vessel and a mini submarine for deep sea rescues. An extensive inventory of land-based vehicles featured several fire trucks, a massive snowplow and an articulated eight-wheeled vehicle capable of moving through swamps.”
His futuristic vision also earned him an OAM – “Quite an honour for a foreign fugitive from justice who had been living in the country illegally for a more than a decade under a false name.”
And how had he done all this? Simply by believing his own bullshit so much that others around him were also swept up in it?
But the NSCA fell hard when the banks faced a downturn and came looking for their money.
In the wash up, Friedrich had run up debts as big as Alan Bond, but due to the embarrassment of the banks (they had been hoodwinked by a confidence trickster) they never investigated the full extent. Though it’s believed that banks were in a $500m hole that not even an 8-wheeled swamp mobile could pull them out of.
Friedrich looked for an exit, but couldn’t find one this time, shooting himself with an antique pistol at his home in Sale before he could be charged.
His legacy wasn’t all bad, his was a curious form of narcissism, rather than wishing to be seen as rich and powerful his goal was to be seen as a champion of the people, with his ill-gotten goods. Through various rescues, the NSCA saved hundreds of lives in Victoria alone.
Yep, John Friedrich was Australia’s greatest conman in more ways than one.
And the story just gets weirder, before Friedrich died he enlisted a young writer to help him with his autobiography, that writer was Richard Flanagan who would go on to become a Booker Prize winner.
But nothing he would ever write would be as fantastical as Friedrich’s alleged life story. Especially the part where he was a CIA spy who has working to stop the spread of communism in Asia and the Middle East, and his codename was ‘Lago’.
Flanagan recently told the Guardian: “He was a master at inviting other people to invent the worlds he wished them to live in, and perhaps that’s the world we’re in now.”
PIRATE BLACK JACK, Esperance, WA
Not much thought went into his name, which is why he’s fallen through the cracks as just one of 100 pirates around the world with the exact same name.
C’mon, if there was a pirate phone book, half the pages would be dedicated to “BLACK, Jack, Mr.”
You’d think with our creative bastardisation of language that we could do better than this, but alas, this is the name given to our only homegrown pirate.
Like any decent pirate, he had a patch, the Recherche Archipelago off Esperance. He also had a hideout and cave, on Middle Island, that was protected by rough seas and Antarctic swell.
It seems the same person responsible for his name, kept up his record by also naming Black Jack’s Bay, and Black Jack’s Cave. Both of these spots can still be accessed in rare calm conditions.
It almost seems as if whole pirate story has been concocted by someone at Goldfields Tourism but the story of Black Jack is a real one.
His name was John Anderson, an African American whaler who lobbed into town and figured he knew of a more profitable and less labour intensive way to earn a crust.
The local Aborigines didn’t know what to make of him, and their relationship soon turned sour with the strange-looking black man. They had frequent run-ins with him, which at one stage saw Jack kidnap some local girls and use them as his own personal harem on Middle Island.
By all accounts, Anderson was a brute, but an effective one. According to WA News: “Declarations made in Albany courthouse in 1835 reveal that Middle Island was “in the possession of John Anderson, a master of a sealing boat. The court also heard that Anderson stole money from seamen or forced them to give it to him or be murdered.”
Anderson was a charismatic and flashy leader and had built quite a big crew around him. And the lot of them plied the backwaters of an archipelago of 100 islands, eating seal meat and robbing big boats heading to Sydney with supplies.
It turned out that he who lives by the whaler’s knife dies by the whaler’s knife, as when Anderson went on an unnecessary murderous rampage, his team, scared of Navy reprisals, mutineed and stabbed him in his limestone cave.
Archeologists hope to check the murderous ex-sealer’s island next year for remnants of his reign but if it’s one thing Aussies love as much as the idea of a pirate or a bushranger, it’s chasing treasure, so they’re not holding out too much chance of uncovering a treasure chest this long after the fall of Black Jack.