‘The people round know me right well – they call me Johnny Troy’. The trouble was that no-one did know a bushranger hero named ‘Johnny Troy’, not in Australia, at least. So, who was he, if he ever existed?
There were several incidental mentions of him and his deeds in historical documents and folklore. He featured briefly in a poem titled ‘The Convict’s Tour to Hell’, probably composed by ‘Frank the Poet’ (Francis McNamara), in or before 1839. The poem is a celebration of convicts and bushrangers, including the famous Jack Donohoe, shot dead in 1830. Troy is mentioned in the same breath as the now much better-known Donohoe. The poem is fantasy of a convict, Frank himself, visiting hell, where he finds all the despised overseers and gaolers writhing in eternal agony. When the devil hears that Frank was a convict in life he immediately says that he has come to the wrong place. Convicts should all go to heaven. When Frank reaches the Pearly Gates, he confronts St Peter who asks:
where’s your certificate
Or if you have not one to show
Pray who in Heaven do you know?
Well I know Brave Donohue Young Troy and Jenkins too
And many others whom floggers mangled
And lastly were by Jack Ketch strangled.
Frank is allowed straight into heaven where he is made ‘a welcome guest’, along with his old convict mates.
But that was about all anyone knew of this Irish bushranger until the 1950s, when American folksong collectors began to hear a ‘Johnny Troy’ ballad – mainly among lumber jacks. It seems that while Johnny Troy’s vigorous song had faded away in Australia, it had been well received by the Americans, who often sang it together with a couple of other Australian bushranger ballads, ‘Jack Donohoe’ and ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. It is likely that these songs reached America during the California gold rushes, which explains how they got there.[i]But there was still no news of the lost bushranger in Australia. Until some solid research by the late Stephan Williams turned up the whole true history of Johnny Troy.[ii]
John Troy, aged eighteen, was transported for burglary and felony from Dublin aboard the ship Asiain 1825. He was a weaver by trade and drew a seven-year sentence. Soon after arriving here, he was found guilty of robbery and served two years on the Phoenix‘hulk’, or prison ship. After completing this sentence, Troy’s record was one of continual ‘bolting’ from iron gangs and involvement in mutinies aboard convict ships, details of which appear in his ballad. He served time at Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and after being returned to Sydney in 1831, escaped again and took to bushranging. After a busy period of robbing travellers, in company with other fugitive convicts, Troy was betrayed and recaptured in 1832.
He was tried with three others for highway robbery. The court heard from numerous witnesses and policemen and eventually the judge ‘summed up at considerable length’, sending the jury to consider their verdict at 7pm. No doubt anxious to be off home or to the pub, the jury came back a few minutes later with a guilty verdict for three of the defendants. John Troy, Tom Smith and Michael Anderson were, unusually, sentenced to hang immediately. The judge was clearly not in a good mood as the legislation for capital punishment clearly provided for a three-day break before execution.
In the event, there was a respite of a week but on August 18, 1832, Troy and Smith (Anderson was reprieved) were led out to be hanged in Sydney Gaol. ‘Great crowds assembled to view the awful termination of their lives’. Troy accepted his sentence saying, ‘he had committed many offences, and deserved to suffer death.’ He preferred death to a lifetime in a penal settlement. He also claimed, in proper outlaw hero style, that Smith was innocent. After some words from the clergy present, the executioners fiddled with the ropes ‘in their usual bungling manner’. The condemned men, both carrying red handkerchiefs, were finally put out of their misery and ‘after some convulsive struggling, were ushered into eternity.’[iii]
And Johnny Troy did, however undeservedly, achieve an immortality of sorts. Hanged criminals were usually thrown into cheap coffins and carted off for burial in the ‘Public Nuisance’ cart used to collect dead animals from the streets. But in this case the bodies of Troy and Smith were given into the care of a cousin of Troy’s. There was an Irish wake around the bodies that night and a subscription taken up for good quality coffins. Next day, the coffins were taken out and laid in front of the house of the bushrangers’ betrayer, a man named Donohoe. The red handkerchief Troy had been holding at his death was thrown ominously at the traitor’s door. The police had to break up the crowd, which gave ‘three groans’ for Donohoe and a long procession followed the dead men to their final burying place.
Troy was a convict hero. The ballad that celebrated his real and imagined activities is much like those romanticising other bushranger heroes, real and mythic. Troy is born in Dublin, ‘brought up by honest parents’ but is transported to NSW after robbing a widow. He escapes and with three companions takes to the bush – ‘Four of the bravest heroes who ever handled gun.’ Robbing on the highway, they come across an old man and demand his gold watch and money – on pain of having his brains blown out. The man pleads that he has none of these and also has a wife and family ‘daily to provide.’ On hearing this, Troy refuses to rob the man, gets back on his horse and throws the man fifty pounds ‘to help you on your way.’ The song concludes in proper Robin Hood style with the verse:
The poor I’ll serve both night and day,
The rich I will annoy;
The people round know me right well;
They call me Johnny Troy.
In another American version, the story includes Troy’s death ‘on his scaffold high’ as ‘a brave young hero.’
Why Troy was forgotten in the place where he committed his crimes and died for them is a mystery. Perhaps there were enough bushranger ballads and legends around to satisfy the demand. People are still singing many of these in Australia, where they are a strong element of folk tradition. Johnny Troy lives on only in America, though he is in good company, or bad, there. The tradition of the outlaw hero that runs from Robin Hood includes American badmen as well as our bushrangers. Jesse James and Billy the Kid, among many others, are celebrated in the same Robin Hood style, and just as controversially, as Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and Ned Kelly.[iv]
[i]Porter, Kenneth W. ‘Johnny Troy’: A ‘Lost’ Australian Bushranger Ballad in the United States, Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1965: 227-238 at http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=965759253841134;res=IELLC, accessed August 2017 and Kenneth Goldstein, notes to LP by Ellen Stekert https://outlook.office.com/owa/redir.aspx?REF=uGDzIsjlRKV7AAi2uiMuTkjGP8W_Z1kfDm1FbqmyGwnbKgjVlN_UCAFodHRwczovL3Byb3RlY3QtYXUubWltZWNhc3QuY29tL3MvTTQxYUJ2VVZwcjVwdHI_ZG9tYWluPWZvbGt3YXlzLW1lZGlhLnNpLmVkdQ, accessed August 2017. See also Library of Congress for a version collected in California prior to World War 1 at https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701036/, accessed May 2019.
[ii]Stephan Williams, Johnny Troy, Popinjay Publications, Canberra 2001 (revised from original 1993 edition). It is fitting that Stephan Williams resurrected this story of the vanishing bushranger as he was himself an unsung hero of Australian folk history, mainly through his impeccably researched series of self-publications issued under his Popinjay imprint.
[iii]Stephan Williams, from the Sydney Gazette, 21 August 1832.
[iv]Graham Seal, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History, Anthem Press, London, 2011.
This post is from my recent book, Great Bush Stories
See also Paul Slade’s essays on bushrangers and related matters at http://www.planetslade.com/bushranger-ballads.html