Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Story of John Best - Part 8



In late 1829, Thomas Wells was finally released from the Debtors Gaol. However, all his assets, including the Allanvale estate in August, had been sold off to others. Wells relocated to Launceston, where he was offered work as an accountant. So ended the connection between Thomas Wells, John Best, George White and Bryan Bennett. It must be said that Thomas Wells’ selection of these Minerva men (and John Bell) as his assigned servants had been providential, as each man was afforded the opportunity to work, free of chains or gaol house, immediately upon their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Assignment to Wells allowed each man to improve his lot (e.g. via the ‘thirds rule’ of flock increase). I believe Wells was very supportive of the request by Best, White and Bennett for their families to be brought here from Ireland. Many ‘masters’ ill-treated their assigned servants and often received trouble in return. Not Thomas Wells. He was very fair to his servants. John Best, George White and Bryan Bennett were each able to establish themselves with a place for their respective families to live, long term, thanks to Thomas Wells.

However, in the summer of 1829-30, approaching the peak of the Black War, John and Mary Best were confronted by an event as significant to their family as John’s transportation was back in 1817. To give a flavour of Best family life at that time, the following events were recorded in newspaper of the time and happened in the weeks prior to the confronting event:

  • on 27 December 1829, about 50 natives appeared, passing the 20-acre paddock near Allanvale in the Macquarie District, proceeding northwards. "They were closely pursued by soldiers, who, however, could not come up with them before they found cover at the head of the valley, in a more heavily timbered spot, continuing to a scrub, which, by affording that concealment and protection the Natives delight in, temporarily baffled the pursuers."
  • on 1 January 1830, William Smith while in the employ of Mr Triffitt (jr.) was killed by natives near the River Ouse,
  • on about 2 January 1830, John Best’s eldest son, Michael, sheared some sheep for Mr Richard Garner, a free settler who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land per 'Woodlark' on 8 July 1823 and had settled at Cockatoo Valley sometime shortly before 1828. Garner’s property was near Michael Best’s 100 acre block and also, of course, near the Best family at Hollow Tree, and
  • during the month of January 1830, Richard Garner slept over at the Best family’s hut on several occasions, as ‘natives were in the neighbourhood’. Mr Garner was on very friendly terms with the Best family.

On Wednesday, 20 January 1830, Michael Best left Hollow Tree to drive some sheep to Hobart Town market. Michael met Bryan Bennett on the way to Hobart and they travelled together. After completing their respective tasks in Hobart, they left together on the Friday night (22 January 1830) and headed to Bryan Bennett's house (Stonefield) on the Hamilton road, just west of New Norfolk. The trio arrived at New Norfolk at 11.00am. It was a very hot summer day and Bennett suffered in the heat, so they stopped for lunch and a drink. They left after lunch, then stopped at Mr Bastian’s Blue Anchor Inn on the Hamilton road (in present day Lawitta), where Michael had more alcohol. George White and John Hagan joined Michael and Bryan Bennett, possibly at the Blue Anchor Inn. The four men reached Bryan Bennett’s house between 3.00 pm and 4.00 pm on the Saturday. That evening, Michael drank some rum at Bennett's house. Michael went out with George White and John Hagen that evening. The men returned to Bennett's house later that night and went to bed about 10.00pm. It seems likely the trio went drinking and possibly conducted a deal to acquire some bottles and/or a keg of alcohol. On Sunday morning, Michael went from Bennett’s house to New Norfolk with John Hagen, where they drank a gill of brandy at the Blue Anchor Inn. They returned to Bennett’s house at about 10.00 or 11.00am. Michael was quite intoxicated and created a ruckus in the Bennett household, by talking loudly to himself and making a complete fool of himself. George White was asked to remove Michael from the house, which he did. Michael returned later, much subdued, ate dinner with a glass of rum, then departed at 8.00 or 9.00 pm that Sunday evening.

On Monday the 25th of January 1830, Michael made his way in a cart to George White’s hut at Shamrock Valley farm, arriving about dawn. He unloaded some things from the cart, possibly a keg of liquor, and asked George White’s assigned servant, James Weldon, to bring him some bottles. Possibly Michael decanted the keg of liquor into those bottles. A short time later, Weldon saw Michael running as fast as he could, with a handkerchief tied around his head, until Michael disappeared amongst the trees. 

Michael made his way, on foot, for 3 ½ kilometres in a north-eastward direction, until he reached the house of Richard Garner. Garner was alone in a hut located about 50 metres away from his house. At about 9.40 am, Michael entered the hut and, in a drunken rage, picked up a butcher’s knife lying on a table and used it to murder Richard Garner. This was a crime of real anger, as Michael stabbed Garner 3 times in the neck and 4 times just below the collar bone after an intense struggle. Garner's left hand also had defensive cuts on it. Michael subsequently violently punched Garner's assigned convict, Samuel Lee, on the chin when Lee arrived with some bullocks. Lee went and fetched Garner’s other assigned servant, William Smith, who was working elsewhere on the property. Both men returned and upon entering the hut, discovered their master, murdered. Lee and Smith went and fetched two sawyers (Langridge and Dilley) from nearby and attempted to capture Michael. Smith had a gun with him (probably protection in case of native attack) and threatened to use it, which ultimately proved enough to help subdue Michael. Constable Roadknight was then fetched from Hamilton by Mr Dilley and brought to the scene. Roadknight transported Michael by cart along Thousand Acre Lane to the Hamilton Watch House. During that ride, Roadhouse interrogated Michael. After a time, Michael first tried to pass blame onto Samuel Lee, but then seemed to resign himself to his guilt, perhaps as the effects of alcohol began to wear off.

Someone would have gone to the Best family home at Hollow Tree to relay the dreadful news. John and Mary Best must have found the news shocking, almost too incredible to believe. Richard Garner was a good friend of John and Mary Best. One, or both, would have travelled by bullock-drawn cart to the Hamilton Watch House as soon as possible. John probably had an opportunity to talk to Michael on the Tuesday (26th of January). John must have felt so helpless – trying to understand why his son had done what he did, Michael’s guilt becoming all too apparent to John. Michael probably claimed he had no idea what happened, that he must have somehow lost his mind. As any loving parent would, John left the Watch House and began to make arrangements to sell Michael’s sheep. The proceeds would help to cover the cost of mounting a legal defence. The sheep were sent away to a sale yard.

Michael was taken back to the murder scene on the following Wednesday (27th January), where a Coronial Inquest was conducted. Richard Garner still lay where he had been felled. The summer heat had contributed to rapid onset of decomposition. Dr Robert Officer was in attendance. After Dr Officer and the constables had finished their examination of the scene and questioned Michael about various aspects, the Coronial Inquest outcome was determined – Michael was to be committed to trial for the wilful murder of Richard Garner and transferred to Hobart Gaol. Richard Garner, aged 30, had no relatives in Van Diemen’s Land. His body was probably wrapped in cloth and removed by cart, probably to Hamilton, and burial occurred on Thursday 28th January. Immediately after the Inquest, William Roadknight, on behalf of the Crown, seized Michael’s property – his 100 acres of land at Cockatoo Valley and the 160 sheep that had been sent to the sale yard. John Best must have been dismayed to learn that Michael’s sheep had been seized, as there then seemed little hope of paying the costs of Michael’s defence. Joseph Tice Gellibrand was appointed to Michael’s defence and applied to the Chief Justice to compel the giving up of the sheep to cover various defence costs, such as calling in various witnesses. In support of this application, Gellibrand drafted an affidavit for John Best to sign that pleaded for the release of Michael’s sheep to defray court costs and mounted an argument that Michael was insane and unable to give the necessary directions for his defence. The Attorney-General, after consulting with the Solicitor-General, agreed to the application, on condition that Michael should go to trial immediately. Mr. Gellibrand agreed and thus Michael’s sheep funded his defence in Court.

In Hobart Gaol, Michael was constantly attended by Catholic Reverend Philip Conolly. Michael was held in one of the solitary cells which opened onto the gaol yard.

The trial was held on Monday 8th February 1830 in the Supreme Court of Van Diemen’s Land in Hobart. The trial took 15 hours, with numerous witnesses called, including Bryan and Mary Bennett. At 12.30 am on Tuesday morning, 9th February, Michael was found guilty and sentenced to death.

On Thursday 11 February 1830, the Hobart Gaol was readied for the execution. Michael ‘scarcely spoke a word when brought out into the Dress room where his arms were pinioned, keeping his eye as directed by the clergymen on the usual passages of the Catholic homily adapted to his case. He appeared sunk in apathy, and walked up the fatal ladder with a seeming insensibility of the awful step he was about to take into eternity.’ John Best's eldest son, Michael, was hanged on Thursday 11 February 1830 in Hobart Gaol.

Michael's execution - would have been much like this

The motive behind Michael’s terrible act of violence is unclear. After his apprehension, suspicion centred on Richard Garner having accidentally become aware of Michael being involved in some suspicious sheep transactions and subsequently threatening to expose Michael to the authorities. Michael had been drinking alcohol frequently over the week before the murder (probably longer). He may have been living in fear of how to deal with the problem of having to face a very serious criminal charge. Michael had undoubtedly been drinking heavily on the morning of the murder, given his strange behaviour at Richard Garner’s hut. He clearly searched Mr Garner’s house looking for something – perhaps he expected to find a letter or a receipt that would expose his supposed suspicious sheep transactions in Garner’s safe box, a damning document Garner was perhaps ready to hand to the authorities. By breaking into the safe box, yet not stealing anything, strongly suggests that Michael was guilty of some previous wrongdoing.

Go forward to read The Story of John Best - Remaining Parts  (opens in a separate tab)

Go back to read The Story of John Best - Part 7 (opens in a separate tab)

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