Did Steele shoot mother Jones in the tits?

In the Kelly sympathiser world, only Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick is hated more than Sergeant Arthur Loftus Maule Steele.  What people seem to remember most about him, apart from his weird middle names, and what people despise him mostly for is that at the siege at Glenrowan, in a state of excitable blood lust he was supposed to have gleefully shouted out amidst all the shooting ‘I have shot Mother Jones in the tits’. It’s a memorable line, which no doubt is why it has stuck to Steele’s story like a limpet, and for just about everyone, encapsulates the kind of man he was, the kind of man who was so obsessed with catching the Kelly Gang that reckless shooting at innocent hostages trying to escape from the Inn was no problem.

No surprises then that in their Second Progress Report, dated October 18th 1881 the Royal Commission of Enquiry into the circumstances of the Kelly Outbreak recommended ‘…that Sergeant Steele be reduced to the ranks’ – in other words demoted.

 

The Enquiry had been informed by Constable Arthur that at the Siege, as dawn approached, a woman and her husband, son and baby tried to escape the Inn. Arthur reported that Steele ordered her to “Throw up your hands or I will shoot you like a —- dog” but then as she kept coming, he fired at her twice and then turned to Arthur and said “I have shot mother Jones in the tits”. Arthur then told the Enquiry that he “told him not to fire – it was an innocent woman. I said I would shoot him if he fired” (Q11127) As it turned out the woman wasn’t Mrs Jones but Mrs Reardon, and later it was claimed her baby received a graze from a bullet across her forehead, and there was a bullet hole in the shawl the baby had been wrapped in.

 

Next the Commission was told that Steele also fired at Mrs Reardons son Michael, and he was injured as he rushed back to the safety of the Inn.

Arthur also told the commission that Steele’s claim to have been the one who effected Kellys capture by shooting him in the legs then rushing him was wrong. Arthur said that Steele fired on Kelly after Kelly tripped and fell over one of the branches protruding from the logs where he was caught:

11172. You are prepared to say that those who have sworn that he was struck by Steele, before he fell, are wrong in their impression?

Arthur I  never saw Steele fire a shot till afterwards. He was down on the ground-not exactly on the ground-he was stumbling and falling.

11173 Did Kelly fall forwards or backwards?

Arthur Forwards;

11174 Who was upon him, then, first?

Arthur I  could not swear who; there was a general rush, and we were all up about the same time.

 

 I’ll discuss this last claim of Arthurs in a later post. However the thing that might surprise Kelly supporters to learn is that these allegations about Steele’s behaviour at the Siege were not actually the reason that the Commission recommended he be demoted. In their Report these incidents were ignored, and instead the behaviour of Steele’s that the Commission described as ‘highly censurable’ was in relation to events at Wangaratta on November 4th 1878. On that day

 

 “…..he received reliable information that the Outlaws had been observed on the previous morning passing under the One Mile bridge at Wangaratta……..there can be little doubt that had he exhibited judgement and promptitude on that occasion he would have been the means of capturing the gang and preventing the loss of life and the enormous expenditure of money subsequently incurred in the extermination of the outlaws. Your Commissioners therefore recommend that Sergeant Steel be reduced to the ranks”

 

On October 26th, a week after the Report was released, 150 to 200 people attended a large public gathering in Wangaratta to protest at Steele’s treatment by the Commission:

 

“One of the most enthusiastic meetings ever held in Wangaratta took place in Georges Hall last Wednesday evening to protest the recommendation of the Police commission that Sergeant Steele  be reduced to the ranks……The most perfect unanimity prevailed throughout the proceedings and the several movers and seconders of the resolutions were warmly received; the various points made by the speakers either in praise of Sergeant Steele or in condemnation of the findings of the Commission being greeted with loud and prolonged cheering………’

 

 

“……..As far as his conduct at Glenrowan went they might learn from their respected townsman Mr Marsden that when Ned Kelly advanced on the Police in the morning Sgt Steele went boldly into the open ground, faced the outlaw deliberately, received his fire, returned it with both barrels and brought him down (great cheering). Not only that but Kelly had kept his last shot for Steele and when that officer with undaunted bravery closed with him Kelly turned to and the pistol went off in the struggle; the bullet actually passed within a few inches of his head(prolonged cheers)” (O&M Oct 29 1881)

 

 

As a result of the meeting, the Commission received a petition signed by 310 ‘residents in and around Wangaratta’ expressing their ‘astonishment and regret’ at the decision to demote Steele, writing that in their opinion ‘Sergeant Steeles services during the Kelly pursuit and his prominent share in the capture of the leader of the Gang alive, so far from entailing unmerited disgrace and reprobation demanded commendation and advancement’. Their point was that if Steele had set off in response to a ‘mere rumour’ received that day about the Kelly Gang passing under the One Mile Bridge, he would have been disobeying the order he had already been given to investigate Kelly sightings at ‘The Rats Castle’. What Steele did was arrange for others to follow up that rumour and then continue to do what he had been ordered to do. That contingent botched it – but Steele continued on to do what he had been ordered to do.

 

A similar petition with 23 signatures was received a few days later from Yackandandah, another with 12 signatures came from Chiltern and on December 15th Steele wrote to the Acting Chief Commissioner of police:

 

“I now deem it my duty to place before the head of the Department a few remarks showing the injustice done to me at the hands of the Commission.

 

“….I respectfully submit I acted  strictly in accordance with the discipline of the Service; and from the imperative nature of the orders I received from Mr Sadleir I had no discretionary power left me but simply to carry out my instructions….

 

“….I would respectfully  request that my remarks be submitted to the Honourable the Chief Secretary in the earnest hope that he may think fit to grant me an opportunity of proving my innocence and exposing the persons who have so cowardly conspired to do me injury”

 

Unlike Fitzpatrick, whose request for an opportunity to defend himself was denied, Steele’s request resulted in an enquiry into ‘references made by some of the witnesses to alleged reckless firing by Sergeant Steele during the police attack on the Glenrowan Inn”. The enquiry took place over three days at the old treasury building in Melbourne in late March 1882.

 

 

Constable Arthur repeated his claim that Steele had shouted and sworn at Mrs Reardon and fired a second shot after he (Arthur) had warned him not to. He then added that he ‘would not swear that it was at the woman’. Mr Heron (one of the three Enquiry members) then read Arthurs written complaint in which he distinctly stated that Steele had fired two shots at the woman:

 

“Mr Heron: How do you explain the discrepancy between what you wrote and what you now swear?

Arthur: My meaning was that he fired the shot in the direction of the woman”

 

Mr James Reardon and his wife repeated their belief that Steele had shot at Mrs Reardon after saying “Hold up your hands or I’ll shoot you like a ___ ____ dog”. After hearing this Mrs Reardon said she saw the end of a gun protruding from behind a tree, two shots were fired and then her son called out that he had been shot. Later she was told that it was Steele behind the tree. Mr Reardon said that some three weeks later he met Steele at the Wangaratta Station and Steele admitted that he was the man who shot the boy.

 

At the enquiry, Steele said to Mr Reardon “Did you not ask me to come and have a drink with you on the occasion?

Reardon:  I did

Steele: Did you not shake hands with me?

Reardon: ( excitedly) I did not shake hands with you Sergeant Steele.

Mr Heron: You say you invited Sgt Steele to have a drink with you. Was that not rather strange behaviour towards a man who you say boasted of having shot your son

Reardon: Well, I thought it was the best thing to do

 

 

Steele informed the enquiry that he had encouraged Mrs Reardon as she escaped, and directed her to an opening in the fence. This claim was supported by four seperate witnesses : Constable Cawsey said that he ‘distinctly remembered Sergeant Steele calling out to Mrs Reardon in an encouraging tone of voice “Run quickly and you won’t be molested’…’ He said Steele then fired two shots ‘…but they were certainly not directed at the woman. She was walking on his left rear at the time’.

 

Constable Moore agreed with Cawsey, recollecting hearing Steele call out to the woman “Throw up your hands come this way and you wont get hurt” He also said that if Arthur had warned Steele not to shoot the woman, he would have heard it because he was closer to Arthur than Steele was, but he heard no such words.

 

Constable Patrick Healey, who was seven yards from Arthur and twenty from Steele said the same thing – if Arthur had shouted a warning at Steele he would have heard it too, but didnt.

 

Charles Rawlings a local farmer also reported hearing Steele challenge the woman and said that when Steel subsequently fired two shots “the woman was completely out of the line of fire”.

 

 

Steele, in his testimony, emphatically denied shooting at Mrs Reardon, saying that the idea of shooting at a woman never entered his mind. However, he agreed that after twice failing to respond to his challenge, he had fired at Michael Reardon, believing he may have been a gang member trying to escape.

 

And finally, Mrs  Anne Jones herself appeared. She told the inquiry that Mrs Reardon informed her that a bullet went through the babies shawl ‘whilst she was lying down on a bed in the house’.

 

 

The Boards findings were published in the Argus on March 30th 1882, and the proceedings had been published on each of the two previous days in the same paper. They’re all well worth reading. The board noted Steele was carrying a double-barrelled shotgun and wrote “Can it be possible that within so short a distance and armed with such a weapon, had he fired at her she and her infant could have escaped unhurt?’ A rhetorical question, obviously!

 

They concluded with this:

“It is further remarkable that the alleged firing on Mrs Reardon by Sergeant Steele was not reported or spoken of by Constables Arthur and Phillips until the Police Commission sat, a period of nearly one year after the date of the Glenrowan affair. Nor was the conversation ever alluded to in any conversation or in any whatever in the police barracks or amongst the constables generally. The witnesses called by Sergeant Steele and examined by the Board distinctly prove that he did not fire on Mrs Reardon.

 In the opinion of the Board, Sergeant Steele showed himself to be a courageous man and excellent officer. He took up from the first moment the most prominent position. When the Outlaw came under his observation he steadily advanced upon him and overpowered him with the assistance of the other police. His superior officers Messer Nicolson and Sadleir both speak very highly of him in the highest terms of commendation as a most trustworthy and efficient sergeant of police.

 The board unhesitatingly and unanimously acquit Sgt Steele of the charges made against him’

 

An unhesitating and unanimous decision in Steeles favour!  Case closed wouldn’t you say?

I will write again soon about other aspects of this case worth clarifying but the time has come for a ‘new view’ of Sgt Steele to be written into the record and the anti-Steele Kelly myth consigned to the dustbin of history.

 

Discuss:

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6 Replies to “Did Steele shoot mother Jones in the tits?”

  1. Interesting read David and casts a much more favourable light on Steele’s performance at Glenrowan.

  2. Well, that certainly exposes and demolishes a lot of the mindless drivel and poor research that is endlessly repeated in Kelly world. Steele was well respected by the ordinary townsfolk of his day who knew his work and reputation, and as I recall was publicly presented with a valuable ceremonial sword for his service to the community. Steele also displayed his expert knowledge of criminal dealings in the north east in his comments to the Royal Commission as Rey the Baumgartren horse stealing ring, the disruption of which was the real trigger behind the Kelly outbreak.

  3. The one thing that stands out from the Kelly saga is the unfair denigration of police from several quarters. Pro Kelly authors blame the police for starting the Kelly’s on their criminal bent, and the anti-police Royal Commission members did a thorough hatchet job on many police that did not deserve the treatment handed out by the RC members.
    Looking at Constable Fitzpatrick, the reality is that he was just doing his job as he was required to do, yet he has been mercilessly victimised by Kelly fans for decades. He was not given an opportunity to defend himself before he was dismissed on a spurious claim of insubordination from a relatively junior police officer. It was a serious miscarriage of justice.
    Sgt. Arthur Steele fared no better, and was unjustly accused of shooting at a woman who was carrying a baby at the time, as she tried to escape from Ann Jones Inn. He gave evidence at the RC, but after the false allegation was made against him by Constable Arthur, he was not afforded an opportunity to defend himself, and the RC recommended he be dismissed.
    It took him some two years to clear his name, yet the Kelly fans ignore the clear evidence that he did not shoot at Mrs Reardon and was unanimously cleared by a government commission.
    Fortunately the government of the day rejected most of the RC’s recommendation regarding their attacks of police who were acting properly.
    The only police, as far as I have read, that were dismissed, were the four officers who were at Sherritt’s hut. One had resigned and the other three were dismissed. Those three officers although armed with a revolver had no training in their use, and knew they were going up against well armed criminal entities, armed with at least one shotgun. If you were in their position, would you have been game enough to venture outside against those odds?
    It is more than time that the truth regarding the honest decent police who were trying to deal with the Kelly scourge was promoted, as it has in this blog.

  4. Somewhat redressing the balance in favour of Steele is this fine obituary from the Wangaratta Chrionicle, 11 February 1914 p. 3 – “Death of Sergeant Steele – Distinguished Police Office”,
    https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/92115993

    Steels was presented with an engraved ceremonial sword which was displayed in “Ned:The Exhibition” in 2001, with the illustrated book of the exhibition later published. The text is not much good in my opinion but there are some good pictures in it.

  5. Thomas Whiteside says: Reply

    A good point. I’ve always though the charge of cowardice against the officers in Sherritt’s house was unfair. Dan and Joe tried to hound them into a point blank ambush. People forget Dan and Joe were there a full two hours and made a half baked effort to burn the place down!

  6. This is all new David, shunned by the Kelly devotees. Real research! Well done! I’m impressed!

    Ian MacFarlane

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