Historians demolish bushranger conspiracy theory

Published 07 February 2012

urallaHistorians from the University of New England have put paid to a long-running conspiracy theory surrounding the death of the bushranger Frederick Wordsworth Ward. The outlaw, popularly known as Captain Thunderbolt, was shot by police at Uralla, New England, in May 1870, although there have been persistent doubts surrounding the circumstances of his death.

Dr David Andrew Roberts, a Senior Lecturer in Australian History, and Carol Baxter, an Adjunct Lecturer in the University’s School of Humanities and author of Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady (Allen & Unwin, 2011), have conducted extensive research into allegations that Thunderbolt escaped from NSW and lived out his final days in America.

In March 2010, the NSW Legislative Council demanded the release of archival records that were expected to throw new light on the bushranger’s death. It was thought that these documents could prove that the police had shot the wrong man in 1870, and that the colonial government had engaged in a high-level conspiracy to conceal this from the public. The Parliament’s request for documents was ultimately rejected by the NSW Lieutenant Governor, James Spigelman, on the grounds that Thunderbolt’s death had no bearing on the conduct of the current State Government.

The exhaustive research of Roberts and Baxter, to be published in detail in the next issue of the International Australian Studies Association’s Journal of Australian Studies, has proved the allegations of a conspiracy to be entirely baseless. “There is no supportable evidence that secret documents concerning the death of Thunderbolt exist, or any reasonable grounds for assuming that they might,” the researchers conclude.

“It’s quite remarkable that the powers of the Parliament should have been used to investigate a 140-year-old episode from the colonial past,” Dr Roberts said. “What’s even more remarkable is that those powers were used to elevate a wild conspiracy theory that had been put forward in an historical novel.”

In their novel Thunderbolt: Scourge of the Ranges (Phoenix Press, 2009), Hamilton and Sinclair claimed that the police had manipulated the official inquiry into the capture of the bushranger by falsifying documents and witness statements. They further accused the then NSW Labor government of perpetuating the conspiracy by keeping the documents hidden from the public.

Roberts and Baxter suggest that the conspiracy theory presented in the novel, and then promoted in the NSW Parliament, was built on a misrepresentation of the nature and practice of State record-keeping in NSW. “It’s not unusual for historical literature to offer sensational alternatives to historical fact,” Dr Roberts said. “But it’s quite another matter for the powers of government to be used in an attempt to validate such radical and serious claims. Some will feel that there are questions to be asked of senior NSW politicians who supported those allegations. What did they hope to achieve?”

The paper by Roberts and Baxter is being published in advance of a documentary-drama on the controversy, titled Empty Grave: the Thunderbolt Mystery, made by the Queensland-based filmmakers Evolution Studios.