Groping a bushranger: Jimmy Kenniff and the sword-swallower


jimmy kenniff a w chisholm sword swallower bushranger

Even amidst one of Australia’s largest ever manhunts, there was a brief moment of levity when journalist A W Chisholm testified to groping bushranger Jimmy Kenniff in a dark Rockhampton street.

Queensland never ranked very high in the bushranger stakes. Other states had famous outlaws like Ned Kelly, Captain Moonlite and Ben Hall. But Queensland’s main claim to fame is being home to Australia’s last active bushrangers, the Kenniffs.

The Kenniffs

The Kenniffs moved to Central Queensland after various convictions in NSW during the 1890s. The father and sons rustled cattle and horses and held up a general store among other crimes.

In early 1902, a police constable, a station manager, and an Aboriginal tracker set out to arrest the two older brothers, Paddy and Jimmy. The posse surprised the Kenniffs in their bush camp and managed to apprehend Jimmy but not Paddy. The Aboriginal tracker left to collect their packhorses so they could pursue Paddy. But on his way back, he heard gunfire. Then, the Kenniffs appeared out of the bush, seemingly intent on killing him. He left to find backup, and by the time he returned, no one remained at the campsite — no Kenniffs, no constable, no station manager.

When other police arrived, they found evidence of a gunfight and the burned remains of the police constable and station manager. And so began one of the most extensive manhunts in Australian history. Parties of horsemen scoured central Queensland. Reports of sightings came from around Queensland and even New South Wales.

Police feared Paddy and Jimmy’s family would help them to avoid capture. So, the cops arrested Paddy and Jimmy’s 67-year-old father and their 16 and 19-year-old brothers for horse stealing. Probably a trumped-up charge. The cops locked the trio in Rockhampton Gaol and contrived one excuse after another to continually adjourn their trial until the search for Paddy and Jimmy succeeded.

Jimmy Kenniff

Then, news broke that a heavily armed Jimmy Kenniff had arrived in Rockhampton intent on breaking his dad and brothers out of jail.

Amazingly, after a few late night drinks, the bushranger divulged his plans to A W Chisholm, sub-editor of the Rockhampton Daily Record. So much for the element of surprise!

Chissy reported that a friend told him customers of a nearby pub had recognised the bushranger in their midst. The journalist raced to the scene and lured Jimmy outside for an interview. Despite his scoop, the journalist then went home to bed, returning to the office the following morning to write his copy for the afternoon paper before finally alerting the police at 9 am. Perhaps he forgot the £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the Kenniffs.

But within a few days, police arrested a sword swallower for causing alarm by impersonating notorious criminal Jimmy Kenniff. Chisholm was called as a police witness at James Leroy’s trial. The journalist testified that the man he knew as Jimmy Kenniff said he would steal horses from a nearby hotel, then go the gaol and ‘get the old man and two boys out’.

“I put my hand on  it”

“I told him if he attempted anything of that sort, he would get shot. He said, ‘I can do some shooting myself if it comes to that’. He said he had three revolvers but would not show them to me. I felt his hip pocket and felt something bulging like a revolver. It was not a clear night, and I could not see very well.”

James Leroy’s lawyer was amused. He suggested alternatives. “It might have been a pipe case you felt in his hip pocket?”

“It might have been. He would only let me feel the shape of it from the outside, and I put my hand on it.”

Unsurprisingly, the courtroom continually erupted into laughter.

Chissy apparently stood in a dark street feeling up a bloke with no gag reflex and a long hard bulge in his trousers. Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Though… to be fair, according to his evidence, Chissy didn’t know about the gag reflex at the time. He allegedly thought he was groping a brutal, remorseless killer, not a sword swallower.

But then, James Leroy took the stand. He testified he’d been on the grog for days when Chisholm offered him £3 to impersonate Kenniff for a few hours and create a ‘sensation’. Drunk and broke, the sword-swallower accepted. Worse, Chisholm contacted James Leroy again after his arrest and subsequent release on bail. This time, he offered to pay Leroy’s fine and another £10 if the sword swallower implicated a journo from the opposition Morning Bulletin. James Leroy copped a £2 fine, and Alfred Wilson Chisholm found himself unemployed.

Police apprehended Paddy and Jimmy Kenniff a month later. Paddy went to the gallows in Boggo Road Gaol. Jimmy served a long term of imprisonment and died of cancer in Charters Towers in 1940.

More Rocky History:

After escaping a conspiracy to entrap him in Rocky, Jack Boyd was later convicted for a gay sex act in Townsville.

In 1943, Walford Dunbar claimed he fell over and accidentally landed on a dick.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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