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A Close Call

Mounted Constable Jack Mahony’s Colt Revolver

BY STEVE PLAYFORD spl85704@bigpond.net.au - published here with his permission.


Mounted Constable Jack Mahony’s Colt Revolver

Situated 534 km south of Darwin, Larrimah was once the end of the Northern Territory’s “rail line to nowhere”. In the 1950s it boasted a smart hotel, proudly kept by Jack and Kath Mahony, and their three charming daughters, June and twins Deidre and Denise. Kath had been brought up in the hotel business and was meticulous in keeping the premises up to scratch, with none of the garish clutter of today’s pubs. Old fashioned hospitality and simple entertainment were the hallmarks of the establishment, and Jack was very proud of his leafy beer garden which on arrival gave the impression of an oasis. The public bar was particularly high; if its purpose was to stop anyone from “jumping the bar” it worked well. The exception to this tidiness and decorum were a Colt revolver and a dress sword hanging behind the bar – a worry to Kath but graciously accepted. Jack, an ex policeman, had carried that Colt for 22 years of action packed police work. Brought

out on occasion was a spear-slashed policeman’s hat. Jack’s story telling, with his Irish Australian humour, was legendary.

Today the bar is littered with tourist junk; but Jack, the Colt and the hat have long gone. (image)


Jack’s daughters Deidre and Denise have told me that their Dad “had decorated the dining room walls with the many Aboriginal artefacts he’d been given during his years of outback service. It was like a private museum. The decor was a great talking point amongst patrons. Sadly, even though Dad went to the trouble of wiring each item to the wall, most pieces were stolen over time.”


The Colt and the slashed hat featured in Jack’s most dramatic story. Jack would not dwell on the details, but in presenting it here I have tried to do so from Jack’s viewpoint, with the help of his daughters. Published versions have been slightly fictionalised, others have questioned certain aspects (not the facts themselves), this version is the plain facts according to Jack.

A mounted police patrol with four trackers set out from Roper River to investigate the murder of the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel at Caledon Bay in Eastern Arnhem Land – as remote and uncivilised a place as one could find in Australia. On 1st August 1933 the patrol, including Mounted Constable (MC) Mahony, used a mission boat to sail to Woodah Island to interview Aboriginals there. Searching on foot they located four Aboriginal women who they detained and questioned. Shortly afterwards an Aboriginal man approached and was addressed by one of the trackers, Paddy, in his own language but he ran off. This response aroused the suspicion of the police party. Resuming the search for the men, they left MC Albert Stewart McColl and two trackers to guard the women. The vegetation thereabouts is coastal scrub, with belts of denser growth difficult to walk through, loosely called “jungle”. One of the women, Djaparri, apparently went or fled some distance into the jungle, pursued or accompanied by McColl, we don’t know the details. She may have lured him with a promise to show him where men were, against the tracker’s advice – that is what the police believe. Her husband Tuckiar (or Dhakiyara), the leader of a Yolngu clan, was concealed in the scrub and had been signalling her. Tuckiar felled the policeman with a “shovel nosed” spear to the chest. “Shovel nosed” is a generic term for a steel bladed spear, the blade is long and flattened. When McColl’s body was found he had pulled out the spear, his six chambered Webley was drawn and it contained two fired cases, a misfired cartridge, and three live cartridges.

Tuckiar’s “shovel nosed” spear, with which he killed McColl. It was kept as evidence in the in the trial. (image)

Man Man Wirripanda, a descendent of Tuckiar, with Tuckiar’s spear on a new shaft. (image) After spearing McColl, Tuckiar and his men then went looking for the police search party.

Mahony, separated from the others, saw Tuckiar’s group stalking the police party on the edge of the jungle. The following is an excerpt from a letter dated 22nd August 1933 written by Jack to his fiancée, Kathleen O’Shea

“I saw Ted and Vic emerge from the jungle about 100 yards away as I stood at the foot of a slope lined with dense shrub, then they disappeared again. I saw a movement of dark forms gliding through the scrub, following the same direction as Ted and Vic. At first I thought these were our boys and made towards them. When I was about 50 yards from them, they seemed to disappear into the earth. Becoming suspicious I stopped, caught a glimpse of spear heads and suddenly saw a black woolly head and a pair of glistening eyes. I knew immediately what was in store for me. I began backing away pulling my revolver at the same time. I now saw 5 heads and one native crouching in the scrub. He sprang up from the ground and hurled a big shovel-nose spear at me with terrible ferocity. I saw his action, leapt aside and at the same time fired a shot over his head. The spear went very close; I heard it whizz by and had I not leapt aside, it would have let my innards out. The others were trying to get behind me. I was now in desperate straits. This same native, a huge, powerfully built man with a savage gleam obviously thought a bullet could not hit or harm him and was fitting another spear in his woomera. I fired another warning shot but neither had deterred any of them in the least. It flashed through my mind about the open claypan behind me and I now had a clear run for it. I whirled around and raced for my life in a zig-zag fashion down the slope towards it. I had only gone a few yards when I felt an almighty thump to the side of my head. I was now running flat out and when I thought I’d reached the middle of the claypan I whirled around again and took careful aim on my left arm. I fired then at the big leader who was on the edge of the scrub. The shot must have gone close as it seemed to have a steadying effect and they changed their tactics; moving back into the dense scrub and once more began circling around. I fired again twice but both bullets were duds. I really thought my time was up. I called and cooeed loudly to Ted and Vic and not hearing any response thought that these natives had got them both. I had just emptied my gun and they were still in the scrub but closing in for the final rush. I was really at a disadvantage as a spear is a silent killer; you cannot hear until it gets you. Just as I was reloading my revolver, Ted, Vic and good old Paddy came racing like mad, but they could not see my attackers, so I yelled a warning…… but the assailants had made a get-away. Ted and Vic did not realize the true position until we all looked my hat.”

Jack’s hat showing the spear slash. The puggaree received a longer slash, but has unfortunately been lost, and his police badge was handed in when he retired. (image)

Close up of the slash. Jack’s head was unscathed, he said he had perched his hat high on his head. (image)

Returning to camp, they searched for McColl but were unable to find him till the following morning. With the death of McColl the patrol was disbanded, and a report transmitted to HQ in Darwin from the mission on Groote Eylandt.

The Aboriginal hostility to the police was unexpected. Unknown to them, two itinerant sailors, Traynor and Fagan, had recently been murdered by the Aboriginals on Woodah Island, for exploitation. The murder of McColl caused an outrage in Darwin and the southern cities. An appropriate response to the situation was the subject of much debate. There were fears of a frontier war, and Aboriginal attacks on missions. Calls for a punitive expedition were seriously considered, then dismissed. Finally the police, who had acted in a responsible manner throughout the entire episode, were excluded from what was clearly their duty. This was a humiliating insult. Astonishingly, the missionaries were given the job of bringing in the accused. With a certain amount of deception, a delegation of missionaries persuaded Tuckiar and other suspects to volunteer to travel to Darwin for talks with the “Big Boss”. Little did they know what was in store for them.


In the ensuing “talks’, Tuckiar did not deny killing McColl, and recounted that the second policeman had fired three shots at him, and three spears were thrown, one touching the policeman’s hat.


Tuckiar stood trial for the murder of McColl in Darwin on 3rd August 1934. No charge was laid for his attack on Mahony. The proceedings were not explained to him and he was not asked to speak. There were no eye-witnesses, only hearsay and conflicting evidence of discussions Tuckiar had had with others; whether he had acted in self defence or was defending his wife was not of much concern. The more senior officers were excluded from giving testimony, Ted Morey who led the patrol was not asked to be present, neither was Jack; only Vic Hall gave evidence, which was an injustice to the officers who had put their lives in danger, and lost a mate. With the exception of Paddy, also known as Big Pat, the trackers were also excluded.

Tuckiar was found guilty and sentenced to death. I do not know Jack’s attitude to this, but I would suggest that he would understand that in 1933 the Aboriginals in Arnhem Land had never been advised that they were subject to British law, and British protection; they knew only the fierce and warlike ways of their tribes. Vic Hall certainly had much to say on injustices to Aboriginals. However, the verdict did excite public indignation, and hurriedly the sentence and conviction were quashed by four High Court judges in Canberra and instructions were given for Tuckiar’s release. He was transferred from Fannie Bay Gaol to Kahlin Compound but disappeared later that day, never to be seen again. Speculation at the time that the police had something to do with that is unfounded, such a suggestion was insulting to all policemen and it is unfortunate that it was not officially refuted. Theories abound, the truth is that nobody knows.

MC Jack Mahony (image)


Tuckiar (or Dhakiyara) (image)

More information can be found at: http://uncommonlives.naa.gov.au/searchresults1.asp?searchstring=caledon%20bay&numPP=10&slID=all

John Joseph (Jack) Mahony (1895 -1959) was born in Richmond, Victoria. He first went to the Territory when engaged in survey work, then joined the police in May 1931. In 1934 he married Kathleen Mary O’Shea and they had three daughters, June and twins Deidre and Denise. He served with the police at Mataranka, Roper River, Arltunga, Alice Springs, Lake Nash and Anthony’s Lagoon before retirement in 1953 when he took up the Larrimah Hotel.


Close to his retirement Jack arrested Wason Byers, manager of Coolibah Station, for cattle rustling. Byers was well-known as somewhat of a tough, but generally likeable Territory character. Unfortunately he had a reputation for rough-treating his aboriginal stockmen. This was his un-doing as one of the stockmen, still smarting from rough treatment, reported the dodgy brands on some of the cattle. Jack impounded the 100 plus head in question and washed them down so the dodgy brands were clearly visible.

Cattle rustling was a major affair and presented certain difficulties for the legal system. The Court was held at Anthony’s Lagoon, in Jack’s office. Justice Kreiwaldt presided in full Judge's robes and wig! Edna, one of the tracker's wives, reported (chuckling) to Kath "by crikey Missus, that Judge him properly pretty fella!!"

Jack kept the court entourage fed for the week. Fortunately he had a good veggie garden, and kept goats and chooks. Fresh beef was procured from the station manager. Not enough hard evidence could be produced for a conviction (witnesses to the over-branding would have been thin on the ground!). A photo taken of the police contingent, the news reporter and the defendant shows them sitting around the dining table at the Police Station, winding down after the trial. In the photo Jack's face is blurred. He maintained that he deliberately shook his head as the photo was taken to signify his disgust at the farcical nature of the trial.

With his irrepressible Irish humour, Jack was a great story teller and raconteur and regaled his hotel guests with stories of hunts for native murderers, swimming rivers infested with crocodiles and other adventures. His Colt and his slashed hat were the centrepiece of his tales. In a tragic accident in 1956 he was severely burned and it is believed to have contributed to his early death in 1959.


The Police patrol in 1933 included some of the legendary figures in NT Police history – Ted Morey (leader), Jack Mahony, Vic Hall, Bert McColl, Big Pat (Paddy) and other Aboriginal trackers. Jack and Ted formed a close bond, having previously worked together in the wilds of the Fitzmaurice River area in pursuit of the outlaw Nemarluk. Ted described Jack as a “pocket Hercules, with a pugnacity that would never acknowledge defeat. With many accomplishments, he had an exhilarating sense of humour. He was tremendously popular and a wonderful mate”.


MC Jack Mahony with two Aboriginal boys in the “modesty pose” often used for photographs. (image)

Jack on the morning of McColl’s death. (image)


Jack wrote stories for the NT Police Newsletter about his exploits, including “Murder of Three Japanese at Port Keats 1932” about the notorious Aboriginal outlaw Nemarluk, and “The Great Roper Flood 1940”; his work in the latter was highly commended. Two of Ion Idriess’ books, “Mantracks” and “Nemarluk” rely heavily on information Ion gained from Jack, and Jack is photographed on the cover of the former. Jack was also a keen photographer and parts of his collection are on file in the NT Archives.

His revolver is a Colt Single Action Army, model of 1873, serial No. 24526, calibre .45” Boxer with a 5½” barrel and was manufactured in 1876. It has the rare “COLT’S FIRE ARMS MFG. Co. 14 PALL MALL LONDON” address on the barrel, only 150 revolvers are so marked, all Colt SAAs were manufactured in Hartford Conn. USA and British Customs refused entry to goods marked as if of British manufacture. It is likely to have been among a number that were impounded for not being submitted for proof, to be later released and proofed. Due to it having been refinished, some markings are indistinct. There is no calibre marking apparent, and very faint British proof marks are on the cylinder but are not evident on the barrel. It has been said that Jack claimed it was police issue, this and how he came to keep it have not been confirmed. It was 77 years old at the time of his retirement, the bore was poor, so the police could well have “written it off”.


(image)

Vic Hall’s revolver, also present on the Arnhem Land patrol, is written up in http://www.acant.org.au/Articles/VicHallsRevolver.html by its owner John Corcoran.


Its serial No is 155570, manufactured 1894, calibre 44-40, originally with 7½” barrel, and as such was private purchase. Vic wrote that his father had used it when a United States Marshall. Bert McColl was carrying a police issued .455 Webley, and both he and Mahony were placed in danger by police ammunition that misfired – mention was made of this during the trial. The assumption here is that they were using the same .455 Webley ammunition. Although not correct for Mahony’s Colt, it will accept four .455 cartridges easily, five at a push, after which the rims overlap. It is unlikely that .45 Boxer cartridges were issued or easy to purchase. Note that in his letter of 22nd August 1933 he refers to his revolver being empty after five rounds, not six. Ted Morey is believed to have carried a Webley.


(image) The revolver hung behind the bar until Jack got to know a younger and likeable fellow in Ross Thyer (1922-2008), who lived in Tennant Creek from 1947 and visited the Larrimah Hotel on shooting and baseball trips up and down “the track”. Ross had spent time in the Navy and was quite a colourful character. One of his less momentous feats was to have slept right through an attack by Japanese fighter planes on his ship, including a direct hit on the ship’s chimney. His shipmates had counted him amongst the missing until he came up on deck to find out what all the commotion was about!

Ross told me he and Jack would take the Colt out the back of the hotel and shoot bottles with it, however Jack’s daughters assure me that that is most unlikely, besides which their mother would have objected to it. Ross was keen on pistol shooting and in about 1949–1950 formed the Tennant Creek Pistol Club with Sergeant Kelly and Glen Rhys Jones.

Ross’ attempts to buy the revolver fell on deaf ears until the late 1950s when Jack suddenly said he could have it for £60. Jack said he was only selling it to Ross because he would keep it, not sell it. The circumstances of the sale suggest the local policeman Alan Lake may felt it his duty to intervene, despite his respect for Jack’s record, and facilitated its transfer to a pistol club member. Ross did not have more than a basic knowledge of its history, it meant more to him as a symbol of the American Wild West as he had a strong interest in American Indians. When he and his family moved south to Strathalbyn in SA in 1970 he was able to take it with him. He used the revolver for pistol club target practice very occasionally as the ammunition was hard to get. Sadly the revolver has been reblued, and as is often the case, the inscriptions on it have been partly defaced. Ross had a new barrel fitted, however the original which was not reblued has now been replaced. Although Ross (then in his 80’s) said he had not refurbished it, I think it had slipped his mind.

In about 1990 Ross approached me at one of our Heritage Arms Society displays to show me his historic Colt. I kept in contact with him and in 2004 when handguns over .38” caliber were banned for pistol club use I helped him take out a Collector’s Licence. Ross passed away in 2008 and although his son Kym would have dearly liked to keep his Dad’s pride and joy, he decided the difficulties were too great and he passed it on to me, for which I am most grateful.

The Colt is real history, in your hand it feels just like it felt to Jack on the many occasions he needed its potency – a strong, reassuring presence. That feeling of history is impossible to recreate, it is not dry chapters in books, it is not grainy photos and films, it is the real thing.

To complete this article I include an anecdote about Jack given to me by Jack’s daughter Deidre.


The Colt, the Snake and the Cat.

In the early 50’s a plague of rats passed through Anthony’s Lagoon eating everything in sight; even packets of Rinso. Overnight they made quick work of Dad’s prized veggie garden. He responded by building two ingenious traps from 44 gal drums which he filled with cattle dip. Each morning these traps were seething with demented rats, which had to be taken away and buried. This process held a ghoulish fascination for my sister and me.


Sometime later the rats were followed by a plague of snakes, presumably washed out of their black soil holes by a very heavy Wet Season. They had been well fed by the recent abundant food source. There was a rough lean-to verandah enclosed on three sides adjacent to Dad’s Police office. It had an ant-bed floor and Dad used it to store dried out dingo scalps that the doggers brought in to collect their bounty. Mid morning one day, Dad stepped down onto the floor of this verandah to bag-up the scalps only to be confronted by a large angry King Brown snake. He had disturbed its slumber on the warm earth floor and inadvertently blocked its escape. Very gingerly Dad reached around into his office, took the Colt off the wall where it always hung, and slowly put in a round. Hitting an aggressive snake with a revolver is no mean feat, but he did so, and made rather a mess of the snake. On hearing the shot ring out, Dad’s two Trackers Dick and Barney were quickly on the scene. There was much laughter at the Boss’ “cowboy shootout” with a snake, killing a snake being child’s play to them; also some ribbing that he actually managed to hit it with one shot.

Following the snake incident, there was a terrible ruckus one morning under the floor boards of the house where my sister and I were doing our correspondence lessons. Immediately Dad and his trackers were on the scene. The house was built too low for them to see under but they quickly came to realize that a feral cat had been in mortal combat with a snake and was enjoying a feed. Dad gave Barney a .22 rifle to have a pot shot at the cat when he flushed it out with water from the hose. In the meantime Dick had gone to his quarters to get a boomerang. The cat took off across the flat like lightening. Barney took aim with the .22 and missed, while Dick launched his boomerang at the fleeing animal with all his might. It caught the cat around the back of its neck and that was the end of it. Laughter erupted, and much good natured ribbing. Ancient technology and skill had won the day, with Dick having the last laugh.

**o0o**

I am indebted to Deidre Pyle and Denise Backhouse, Jack’s twin daughters, for their help with this article.

References: Justice All Their Own – The Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932-1933 Ted Egan 1996 Outback Policeman. Vic Hall 1970 Dreamtime Justice. Vic Hall 1962 Bad Medicine. Vic Hall 1947 Man Tracks. Ion Idriess 1935 An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land.. Andrew McMillan 2001 Oral History Interview with Kath Mahony. 1982, and other material from the NT Archives, with thanks to Francoise Barr.

BY STEVE PLAYFORD spl85704@bigpond.net.au

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