Out of the mists: Search for truth about Elizabeth Jessie Hickman

LIZZIE'S WILD RIDE: Documentary maker Peter Young (centre) with film crew at Sandgate Cemetery back in 2002.
LIZZIE'S WILD RIDE: Documentary maker Peter Young (centre) with film crew at Sandgate Cemetery back in 2002.

THE real story of the elusive Lady Bushranger roaming the vast Wollemi wilderness can now finally be told.

That's the view of late-blooming author Di Moore, of West Wyalong, who is in a unique position to reveal the truth.

She is, as she only discovered with a shock in 2002, the granddaughter of the legendary Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the notorious cattle rustler from the wild, mountainous countryside around Rylstone and Kandos, west of the Putty Road.

More amazingly, Mrs Moore's search to uncover the truth only began when she was 67 years of age. It then took her 11½ years researching before releasing her newly published book, Out of the Mists.

Subtitled The Hidden History of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, the book covers the infamous bushranger's career to her lonely death at age 46 years and burial in a pauper's grave at the rear of Sandgate Cemetery, near Hexham.

ELUSIVE: A rare image of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, this one from a police mugshot.

ELUSIVE: A rare image of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, this one from a police mugshot.

There was no headstone to mark her passing, no mourners to grieve and no flowers left by her graveside. In a further indignity, she shared her grave with a child buried decades before and a man buried there a few weeks before her own death.

As I first wrote more than a decade ago, when you think of Australian outlaws, it's always colonials like Ben Hall, Ned Kelly or our very own Thunderbolt that spring to mind. Few ever think about female bushrangers, except maybe Thunderbolt's companion Mary Ann Bugg in the 1860s.

And yet, Jessie, or Lizzie, Hickman (1890-1936) lived an extraordinary life within human memory, being one of Australia's outstanding circus roughriders, then a bush recluse with a cavalier attitude to stock ownership. Her life first came to attention in 1996 with the publication of a book by a North Coast author.

It revealed a colourful legend - of a gun-toting Jessie Hickman, nee Hunt, who ended up hiding from police in a remote cave on Nullo Mountain.

She was said to have gone bush dressed as a man after killing her abusive third husband "Fitzy" in the 1920s.

But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction as Mrs Moore discovered over the years (with the help of researcher Jim McJannett).

After delving into what she describes as "the murky mists of faulty memories, myths, lies and distorted repetition as a tale is passed on from generation to generation", Mrs Moore emerged with what she believes is the closest we may ever get (with detailed footnotes) to the Lady Bushranger legend, warts and all.

And it's a fascinating read, despite my initial misgiving of the book's first-person "factional" style; of using a little poetic licence to recreate events the way they probably occurred.

You also have to be impressed by Mrs Moore's tenacity and dedication as a new family history researcher. Not swayed by romantic notions or sentimentality, she probed a world until then "safely hidden in a well-stocked cupboard of disreputable skeletons".

Yet, Jessie Hickman probably had herself most to blame for the confusion surrounding her Lady Bushranger legend.

"Jessie was a great storyteller and was never inhibited by a need to adhere to the truth," Mrs Moore reveals.

"Tales that people have solemnly assured me were told to them by Jessie have proved to be, at best, a much distorted version of some event; at worst, a total fabrication in order to play a joke on some poor friend. Jessie could lie with the best of them."

And yet, maybe Jessie simply encouraged tall tales about herself to keep unwelcome guests away from her cattle duffing and horse theft activities.

But while debunking a few myths, if only a quarter of the lurid tales are true, what a life! Yarns include her riding a horse over a cliff into a river to avoid police, creating a diversion to steal cattle held in a police yard, riding naked through the bush and escaping from police custody on a train despite being locked in a toilet.

And it all began after Jessie was dumped at a circus at the age of eight years to make her way in life.

PURE CURIOSITY: Author Di Moore embarked on 11 1/2 years of research upon learning her grandmother was Jessie Hickman, Australia's elusive female bushranger.

PURE CURIOSITY: Author Di Moore embarked on 11 1/2 years of research upon learning her grandmother was Jessie Hickman, Australia's elusive female bushranger.

Little wonder then her career also inspired writer Courtney Collins haunting debut historical novel The Burial in 2012.

Well-known Hunter bush historian and author Greg Powell is familiar with Mr Moore's new book, which he described as "very, very good".

"It's her family history book, really. It seems there's been errors about Jessie Hickman's past. She was never officially a champion rider and she didn't kill a 'husband' called Fitz," Powell said.

"Even a well-known photograph of Hickman isn't her, but someone else," Powell said.

And while Jessie Hickman wasn't a conventional bushranger (she didn't stage any hold-ups) she did have five aliases, had a gang, stole and roamed the bush while being pursued by police.

With all the renewed interest in this wild colonial lass it seems very surprising there hasn't been a documentary made about Jessie Hickman already. Or has there?

In October 2002, a small film crew from Warrego Productions descended on Sandgate Cemetery to make a 58-minute doco about the still then largely unknown Lady Bushranger.

The independent Central Coast film company was there shooting the closing scenes of its documentary at Hickman's pauper's grave.

"It's a real shame she ended up this way," Warrego executive Peter Young told the Newcastle Herald at the time.

He said his documentary, based on the original 1996 book by North Coast author Pat Studdy-Clift also involved visiting Hickman's mountain cave and hideout.

Mr Young said he'd originally tried to make a movie of Jessie Hickman's life but raising all the necessary finance proved too difficult, so he resorted to making a documentary instead.

He also fully remembered filming in Sandgate Cemetery. "I've even still got the 2002 photograph taken there by your (Herald photographer) Peter Stoop. It's on my office wall," Mr Young said.

So, what did happen to his documentary titled Was The Lady a Bushranger?

"It was completed, but later shelved," Mr Young said. "We still have the documentary rights to the first book by Pat, but her movie rights belong to a woman in Western Australia. I think that's in progress at the moment," he said.

Mr Young said he'd considered shortening his documentary as there was still keen interest in it. Many people wanted it, but for free.

"I wouldn't do that. Our helicopter work alone for it cost $10,000. So, we're now concentrating on corporate work, not documentaries."

FAMILY TALE: Di Moore's Out of the Mists.

FAMILY TALE: Di Moore's Out of the Mists.

Mr Young said SBS TV had made a bid for his film and while the offer would cover some costs, it would give it exclusive rights to his footage for three years.

But the final word should go to Mrs Moore.

"I would like to say that researching with Jim [McJannett] and writing the book was a labour of love, but I would not be telling the truth. It was a labour of pure curiosity.

"I just had to know as much as I could about this new grandmother who had been sprung on me. I must say I got more than I bargained for," Mrs Moore said.

Out of the Mists is available through garryanddi@bigpond.com or by phoning (02) 6972 3152 for $25 and $5 postage.