THE POLICE MURDERS
(BY ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH)
(FROM OUR SPECIAL REPORTER)
Benalla, Thursday, 8 P.M.
The police have had information respecting the Kelly gang in their possession during the past day or two, but it was not considered desirable to make use of it, owing to its doubtful character, until yesterday, when corroborative reports were received, and it was then felt that there was every probability of securing the ruffians. Superintendents Nicolson and Sadleir having this knowledge in their possession, had arranged for a strong party to proceed to the district indicated, which, it may now be said, was about midway between Beechworth and Eldorado, on what is known as Reed’s Creek. Here are living two or three families, who, if not directly connected with the Kelly gang by family ties, are known to be close friends of theirs, and the idea was to pay them a sudden domiciliary visit with the expectation of finding some of the gang with them. The matter was kept very secret. Captain Standish, the chief commissioner of police, arrived at Benalla by the afternoon train yesterday, to confer as to the best steps to be taken. As soon as Captain Standish arrived he was met by Mr. Nicolson, Mr Sadleir having earlier in the day gone on to Beechworth to make the necessary arrangements, and as soon as the whole of the facts were laid before him he fully coincided with the views of his two officers, and it was arranged that the plan should be at once carried out. Unfortunately it has failed, but there can be no doubt that this is, in a great measure, due to the fact the Kellys have their spies and sympathisers in all parts of the district, so that as soon as any information leaks out or any movement is noticed, information is at once conveyed to them. For instance, when Captain Standish arrived by train in the evening, two of the Lloyds and Isaiah Wright were seen on the platform, and again subsequently, as will be seen later on, the same party inopportunely put in an appearance, and attempted―by cutting the railway telegraph wires―to frustrate the object of the expedition.
About 2 p.m. notice was sent quickly round to all the troopers available in Benalla to report themselves, with arms and horses, at the railway station at midnight, arrangements being at the same time made with the railway department to have a special train in readiness shortly after that hour to proceed to Beechworth; but when an attempt was made to communicate with that township it was found that the wires were cut, or at any rate thrown out of circuit, and it was also found that the line on the Melbourne side of Benalla was interrupted. However, after some delay, the special train got away about 1.30 a.m., and rapid progress was made to Beechworth, which place, after a few minutes’ stoppage at Wangaratta, was reached soon after 3 o’clock. The train consisted of two horse trucks and the guard’s van. In the former were 10 horses, and in the latter was the chief commissioner of police, Superintendent Nicolson, nine troopers, and a black tracker. Four of these men had been out in the ranges for several days previously, under the command of Sergeant Strachan, and had only returned to Benalla and gone to rest a few hours before they were again called upon to turn out for duty. The men were, however, on the alert, and not only ready but anxious for active duty again. It must be said that the appearance of the party in the van would not have given a stranger any idea of the unusual smart appearance of the Victorian police force, for had such a crowd been met on a well-frequented thoroughfare there would have been a general desire to at once hand over any valuables that might be in the possession of the travellers without any cry of “Stand and deliver” being made. It should here be said that while the party was waiting on the platform for the train to get ready, three men were seen hanging about taking stock of the party. They were at once pounced upon, and upon being interrogated made some unsatisfactory replies and were detained for the time. Beechworth was reached just as the cold grey dawn was showing over the eastern hills, and the party being here met by Superintendent Sadleir, quietly proceeded to the police camp, where they were reinforced by another strong body of police, until at last, when a departure was made, there were over 30 well-armed and determined men, together with two black trackers. Rapid progress was made for a few miles along the southern road, and then a divergence was made to the left entering the timber, the men at the same time dividing into three parties, so as not only to push forward more rapidly, but also to cover as much ground as possible. The ground was anything but suitable for rapid progress, as in places it was quite rotten, the horses sinking at times up to their knees, while in other places patches of granite cropped up out of the soil, and this being smooth and slippery from the recent rains, rendered it necessary for every man to keep a tight hand on his bridle, more especially as the gun or rifle carried by each man was loaded, and in readiness for use. After a few miles of such work a halt was called, just as a clearing with a large slab hut was seen in the valley below. A short consultation was held between the officers, and then the place was surrounded by a cordon, while some half-dozen, with Superintendents Nicolson and Sadleir, went to pay a morning call at the house, where it was hoped to find the Kellys. A reserve of about a dozen men was kept in hand by Captain Standish in order to give chase should the desperadoes break through the cordon drawn around them.
A few minutes of intense anxiety, and then the report of a gun was heard. This was quite enough. No necessity for any order to advance. Each man of the party, from the chief commissioner to the junior trooper, instinctively drove his spurs home, and a rush was made for the house. Logs that would have been looked at twice before leaping on another occasion were taken recklessly, rotten ground was plunged through, and a sharp turn round a paddock fence showed a nasty-looking rivulet, swollen with the late rains, and with very bad ground on the taking off side. None of these were noticed, but each man, keeping a tight grip on his weapon with one hand and on his bridle with another, galloped forward, the only anxiety being who should be in first, so as to join in the mélée. The pace was terrific while it lasted, but when all pulled up at the door of the hut, and rushed it, they found, to their disgust, that the Kellys were not there, and that the report they heard had been caused by the accidental discharge of one of the guns in the anxiety of the advance party to make sure of their expected prey, whom they supposed to be in the house. This one incident very plainly shows me that the remarks that have been made about the police not desiring to come to close quarters with the Kelly gang have been quite uncalled for. What I think is, that the men want to be held more strongly in check, or some more valuable lives will be lost. That the men desire to meet with the Kellys and their two confederates is very plain, and when the two parties do meet I fancy the four ruffians will never be brought in alive.
The house to which such an unceremonious visit had been paid was that of a man named Sherritt, who is well-known to have long been intimately connected with the Kellys, and whose eldest daughter was to be married to one of the party now wanted by the police. The house and immediate vicinity were closely searched, but with no success. The birds had evidently received warning and had taken their departure. Of course the man Skerritt put on a virtuously indignant air, and asked whether he ought to be suspected of harbouring such persons after having been in the police at home. As it was evident nothing was to be got at this place, a push was made for another selection some little distance off, belonging to Skerritt, jnr., a son of the last visited individual. Upon entering this hut young Skerritt was not found, and from the appearance of the squalid den, the sole furniture of which consisted of a large bunk, a rough table, and stool, it was evident that neither the proprietor nor any of his acquaintances had been there that night. No time was lost in speculating upon possibilities, but the party pushed on over the ranges, and descending a precipitous and dangerous gorge about 800ft., came upon a green valley known as Sebastopol, having a creek running through it, and overshadowed either side by the high ranges known as the Woolshed Ranges. A sharp turn to the left brought us in front of a slab hut situated in a nicely-cleared piece of land. This was the hut of Mrs. Byrne, who is also known to be most friendly to the Kellys, and is further said to be connected with another of the gang. She appeared at first greatly scared at seeing such a large party surround her house, but finding that she was not herself required, she became very bold and impudent. She could not, or more probably would not, give any information, and, in fact, denied all knowledge of the Kellys.
It was now plain that information had been already forwarded to the gang that this locality was not safe for them, and that they had consequently shifted their quarters, for those who speak on authority are certain, from the information afforded them, but which unfortunately arrived too late, that the Kellys had been about this part within the last few days. That they have not crossed the Murray is quite certain; but at present there is some doubt which direction they have taken, the general opinion being they are doubling back to their old position. Whichever way they do take, they must sooner or later show themselves, to obtain provisions, and be pounced upon. In the meantime, the police officers and men are working their hardest to secure the ruffians. As nothing further could be done for the day, the whole of the men being pretty well tired with their last few days’ work, the party dispersed at Byrnes’ hut, Captain Standish, his officers, and some of the men returning to Beechworth, while the others separated and went to the respective points where they are stationed and from whence they were summoned. As showing the absurd character of the statements which are made to the police officers, it may be said that Dr. Cleary, of Beechworth, went to Superintendent Sadleir about half-past 10 o’clock last night, and reported that while driving from Everton during the evening seven shots were fired at him, and he showed a small scratch as the effects of one of them. Of course his extraordinary story was set down to the effect of imagination, but it shows how men who are supposed to be endowed with a little common sense may be carried away by the present scare. Captain Standish returned to town by the afternoon train. The men who were out to-day were greatly pleased to see him with them in the field.