On this day: ‘Mad Dog’ Dan Morgan is shot

By Alice Orszulok 7 November 2013
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Defiant bushranger, or just hopping mad? Either way, Mad Dan’s killing spree ended gruesomely.

Defiant bushranger or just hopping mad? Whatever he was, Mad Dan’s killing spree ended gruesomely.

AT ABOUT 9AM ON the morning of the 9 April, 1865, ‘Mad’ Dan Morgan stepped out of the McPherson residence at Peechelba Station, Victoria, where he would meet his end.

Morgan had spent the night coercing Mr McPherson to drink rum with him while insisting the governess play the piano. During this time he had held the rest of the family – eight women and four men – at gunpoint. This was Morgan in a good mood.

Morgan had allowed the nurse-maid, Alice Keenan, to tend to a crying child. She took the opportunity to slip out a window. She ran to a neighbouring house where she alerted a squatter to the invasion.

Hours later, Morgan was shot in the back on his way to select a horse from the stockyards, where about 40 policemen and volunteers from Peechelba township lay hidden under the cover of bushes. Morgan died soon after.

Deadly and dangerous

Daniel Morgan -– who went by many other aliases including ‘Bill the Native’, ‘Down the River-Jack’ and ‘Jack Smith’ – was later described by a Victorian newspaper, The Cessnock Eagle, as the most blood-thirsty delinquent to ever take to the Australian bush.

His tendency toward impulsive cruelty and unpredictable mood swings earned him the title ‘Mad Dan’. Dan would often brutally torture and then murder his victims, only to weep and beg for forgiveness as they lay dying in his arms.

“If the media gave him that label, it was for good reason,” says Andrew Sergeant at the National Library of Australia.

On one occasion, says Andrew, Morgan held up a station near Albury, New South Wales, where he consumed a considerable amount of alcohol before shooting a station-hand during his meal.

Seemingly remorseful, he immediately apologised and claimed that he had made a mistake. He then arranged for another worker to ride for a doctor, but as the worker rode away Morgan shot him in the back, and then nursed him in his arms, crying and pleading for forgiveness until he died.

The life and death of ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan 

Little is known about Morgan’s early life, but he is believed to be the son of Irish ex-convicts. He grew up in Campbelltown, NSW, where he attended a Catholic school.

Morgan began his criminal record in 1854 when he was sentenced under the name ‘John Smith’ to 12 years of hard labour at Pentridge Prison, Victoria, for highway robbery.

When he was released from jail he had developed an intense hatred of authority and went on a rampage against the police and anyone else who confronted him.

“A lot of bushrangers were going around stealing during this time,” Andrew says. “Morgan took it to the next level.”

Understandably, there was not much remorse at the death of the bushranger. During the disposal of his body, he was decapitated in full view of the public, and the skin of his face, including his beard, was removed.

Many people took locks of his hair as mementos before his head was sent to be studied at the University of Melbourne. The policeman at the scene stated that he did not object to these proceedings, as he did not look upon Morgan as a human being.

According to Andrew, stories like Morgan’s – with parallels to the tales of Ned Kelly – still resonate today because of our obsession with bushrangers as a symbol of defiance against the law. “Whether consciously or subconsciously, we have an infatuation with anti-authority, and [Morgan] was the personification of that.”

by Alice Orszulok