When Aussie gangsters terrorised California

Incendiary tale: Author Terry Smyth at Toronto Library with his new book about unknown 1850s Aussie gangsters in the US. Photo: Mike Scanlon
Incendiary tale: Author Terry Smyth at Toronto Library with his new book about unknown 1850s Aussie gangsters in the US. Photo: Mike Scanlon

THE term ‘Kangaroo court’ didn’t originate in Australia. Author Terry Smyth’s ears pricked up at the comment. He was curious.

But more shocks were to follow in the conversation in a Sydney pub one day long ago when the former Novocastrian and Herald journalist was talking to an American acquaintance. The talk had somehow gotten around to rebellion in Australia and the 1854 Eureka Stockade, in particular.

The American had made the point of how diggers from faraway California had played a key part in the 1854 uprising. After all, by then, about 1000 Yankee fortune hunters had made their way to Ballarat, Australia’s richest goldfields, and would soon make their mark there in the nation’s history. 

 “We did more for Australia in the gold rush days than Australia did for us,” the American remarked casually.

Smyth asked him what he meant, and more surprises followed. “Did you know that Australian outlaws were the scourge of California and that they burnt San Francisco to the ground?” his friend said.

Smyth resolved to find out more. He discovered that in the roaring days of the 1850s California Gold Rush, the maritime city of San Francisco was the most dangerous town in America because of a notorious criminal gang known as the ‘Sydney Coves’. They were the city’s first organised crime gang. The Coves operated from a waterfront base and were led by killer Long Jim Stuart, who came to an unexpectedly bizarre end.

With police either too scared or corrupt to act, the citizens of San Francisco decided lynch law was their only option. So, with about 700 vigilantes marching around the city with rope for nooses to hang perceived crooks, this citizens’ army ironically became a second organised crime group, spreading terror.

In his new book, Australian Desperadoes, Smyth has documented how these Australian gangsters terrorised California. 

And it’s a ripping yarn. 

Smyth unveiled his strange tale of mystery, murder and mayhem as a guest speaker at Toronto Library last weekend at the start of History Illuminated, organised by Lake Macquarie libraries in conjunction with the Hunter Writers Centre.

Smyth told his Toronto audience that some people today might be aware of the term Barbary Coast, referring to the fleshpots and criminal haunts in wild 19th century San Francisco.

“But that term came after the Australian crooks were all gone,” he said, smiling.

As for the origin of the term ‘Kangaroo Court’, that refers to claim jumping on the goldfields and informal tribunals handing out savage retribution.

“California was America’s original Wild West and (in 1850-51) San Francisco was at the centre. Later, western towns of Deadwood and Tombstone had nothing on San Francisco when the Sydney Coves operated there,” Smyth said.

“But today, all traces of that wild place are now gone due to the early fires and the 1906 earthquake. Not long ago, I stood in Portsmouth Square, the old heart of San Francisco. Here, where lynch mobs once howled for blood is now the heart of Chinatown.

“The part of town known as Sydney Valley or Sydney Town though was once the haunt of the low and vile of every kind, from petty thieves to burglars and cutthroats with low gambling houses, dance halls and saloons full of rowdy patrons. It was also full of ‘soiled doves’, or prostitutes. 

“The city was described as hell, a putrid mess. Clearly there were no early closing laws back then.”

In Sydney Valley (three whole city blocks), Australians ran most of the brothels, illegal bars, gambling dens and boarding houses.

Wearing distinctive broad-brimmed straw hats and carrying guns and knives, the swaggering colonials were often derisively called the Sydney Ducks (after their plain ‘duck cotton’ clothing), but never to their faces.

The district also had more than its share of colourful characters, some ex-convicts, with names like Slasher, Fighting Man Kelly and Palmer the Birdstuffer. But this den of iniquity peopled by the Sydney Coves lacked a leader until Long Jim Stuart came along. He wore a brace of pistols on his belt plus a Bowie knife. Under his reign, the Sydney Coves expanded into extortion, then arson and looting.

In May 1851, a firestorm destroyed more than 2000 buildings and three-quarters of the town. Nine people died. It was the sixth time in 18 months San Francisco had burnt. Long Jim even boasted the day would soon come when California  “would be taken over by the Sydney people”. But a new Committee of Vigilante finally made life hell for the flash Sydney Coves.

“They only lasted two years, from 1850-52. The vigilantes got them all. The Coves were either killed, jailed or disappeared,” Smyth said.

And what happened to Long Jim Stuart? Smyth said he was seized and hanged for murder on the city’s Market Street wharf. His body dangled for about 25 minutes. Stuart’s gang made no attempt to rescue him.

“But Stuart wasn’t dead. Finally, on the mortuary slab, he died. He could have been revived, but they didn’t bother,” Smyth said.


How Australian gangsters terrorised California is a ripping yarn.