By Jon Wyatt - In 1929, this bizarre item appeared in the New South Wales press:
“D. McPhee, in the Maclean 'Advocate' recalls in some reminiscences, that it was at Billy's Creek, on the Armidale Road that the famous hairy man was captured while in the act of ransacking the Grafton-Armidale mail, about 40 years ago. The unfortunate creature, after several years exposure in the mountain scrubs, resembled a beast in skin and hair. He had been reported by picnickers, prospectors and others for ape-like conduct and petty thefts of actions for years, and was generally believed to be an escaped gorilla from St. Loon's menagerie [St Leon's Circus and Menagerie]. This belief was substantiated by an aboriginal legend, that he was the last of his tribe of extinct animals the 'Jorawarra'. He was arrested by the late Sergeant Byrne, and sentenced to four years' imprisonment, which he did not live to serve.
“The above story is often told by old settlers of the Clarence River district.” (Narrabri North Western Courier, NSW, 24 January 1929, p1)
Well, the tale contains errors, and leaves out a lot, but it nevertheless recalls a curious local event. The capture occurred NE of Armidale, which is a town in the New England Region, 485 km (301 mi) NNE of Sydney, Australia.
On May 28, 1888, Constable Byrne of the NSW Police Force captured a 'wild hairy man' at gunpoint at Billy's Creek and took ‘it’ into Armidale, where word spread like wildfire the officer had captured a gorilla, which, according to the press, was 'looting bushmen’s huts for tucker and clothes, and terrifying woman and children in the district”. The excitement in town reached a crescendo a few days later when the ‘creature’ appeared in court. A pressman filed this report:
“What are they going to do with the famous 'wild' or 'hairy man' now he is caught? Will he be exhibited to the public or kept behind the prison bars till the law is satisfied? At the first appearance of this apparent outlaw there was so much excitement prevailing as if a second 'Rob Roy McGregor' had been taken and every one crowded to obtain a view of what was supposed to be a species of gorilla. One the whole, however, the 'wild man' was not such a very outstanding being. His hair and beard were certainly unshorn and his weather beaten skin evidenced long acquaintance with out-door life and a gleam in the eye reminded one of a caged animal suddenly deprived of liberty. He had had a hard life of it in the bush, and was evidentially regardless of the laws of meum and tuum [mine and yours] as far as horses were concerned.” (Armidale Express 12 June 1888, p4)
The prisoner was John Burns, 36, a “bushman” who’d evidentially ‘devolved’ while living alone in the ranges—and he was a sight to behold. In 1919 a soon-to-retire Police Sergeant Stephens recalled:
“The Hairy Man was the weirdest creature he had ever seen. His hair was down to his shoulders, and matted like that of an old dog. His beard and mustache were thick and dirty. His clothes all torn and patched, were kept together by means of pieces of string and grass. He carried three revolvers, but when suddenly assailed by the arm of the law he could not use them, as he had tied them to a bit of rope that served as his belt”. (Armidale Express 21 March 1919, p7)
Burns was initially tried for horse stealing and sentenced to three years in prison, but he was soon identified as being “Riley the Bushranger”, an unkempt lone highwayman, who’d robbed a string of mail coaches over the years. In 1888 he was also tried in Armidale for the 1883 Bundarra mail coach robbery and sentenced to 15 years hard labor; however doubts lingered about the verdict.
(The problem was the coach driver, William McGinty, had testified in 1885 against another man who was in prison for the same robbery; McGinty had recanted his previous testimony, because, as he put it, “Burns was a better fit in appearance and voice”. Some wondered how Burns could have eluded the law for eight years, and one newspaper suggested, “[he] must have led a secluded hermit like existence in the ranges very different from that which sundry romances would lead us to believe is the portion of the ‘gallant highwayman'”. (Clarence and Richmond Examiner 23 October 1888, p4).)
Burns was sent to the notorious Berrima Goal to serve his time, while sightings of the "escaped gorilla" continued and here are three reports from the 1890’s:
In 1892, a letter-to-editor reported four stockmen from the ‘Kangaroo Hill’ station, N of Armidale, were pursued all night by a stone throwing “man-gorilla”. At first light “one of the men distinctly saw the form of a large creature, resembling a man, being about the same height, but much larger in the body, standing about 50 yards above them, on the spur they had been going up, and was directly in front of them... He stood only for an instant, and then moved slowly and silently down the hill.”
“They galloped off again down the spur. There were no stones thrown till they were in action, when several flew swiftly past them, and they narrowly escaped being hit by some. The animal followed them for a short distance, and then, after throwing one more stone made off up a very steep spur... It is reported a gorilla was seen about three years ago, on Guy Fawkes River, by a man, who fired three shots at him without effect.” (Armidale Express 9 February 1892, p4)
In 1895, it was reported:
“Several residents of Bingara [NW of Armidale], including a clergyman, have lately seen a peculiar animal known as the ya-hoo, hairy man of the woods, or gorilla in some rough country near the Horton River. As soon as it was seen the animal rushed off into the bush, but its tracks clearly showed it was no ordinary animal. Its appearance has caused considerable consternation in the vicinity.” (Armidale Express 5 March 1895, p5)
In 1899, 20 residents, mounted and fully armed, left from Wandsworth, NE of Armidale, to capture “a tall, hairy, ferocious, gorilla-looking creature” seen in the nearby hills. The report notes:
“If they do happen to capture such an animal as that described it will authenticate all the stories that have from time to time been told of the existence of the ourang-outang [sic] in the wilds of Australia.” (Singleton Argus 15 June 1899, p 2)
So, what happened to Burns? Well, the old timers thought he died in prison but it now appears more likely he was released in 1900:
“From there though, he disappeared from history, perhaps to return to the rugged wildernesses of New England or perhaps to the land that he was rumored to own near Glen Ines.” (‘Riley the Bushranger’ by Don Schofield, Armidale Express 6 Oct 2014).
The New England Region today is renown for Yowie or Bigfoot sightings and to read a 2010 Armidalel press story headed ‘Yowie Up To No Good: Tourist’ visit http://www.yowiehunters.com.au/index.php/media-clips/1703-2010-armidale-express-yowie-article
Does Yowie exist? I’ll leave that to the reader.
Photo of John Burns, courtesy NSW State Archives and Records, Mugshot Reel 5103, p9.
Jon Wyatt © 2017 Word count 1240
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