MID-1800s Pooncarie, Menindee and Bourke were some of the last places in Australia you might look for a bushranger, but one daring bloke who did visit these small Darling River ports had one of the most chequered histories of them all.
Frank Pearson was at various times known as Doctor Pearson, Messrs Arnold, Blake, Kelly and Wilson, as well as Army major Patrick Pelly, VC – but police of the day knew him only as Captain Starlight.
And he wasn’t the only one to ‘work’ that isolated part of the state…Charley Rutherford and the notorious Frederick Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt, came as far as Bourke in search of easy pickings.
Ireland-born but migrating to Australia in his mid-20s, Frank Pearson forged a reputation as a liar, cheat, thief, con man, bushranger, serial impostor and murderer – and was on the run almost from the time he arrived to the time he died, in Perth in 1899, aged 62.
The amazing story of Captain Starlight has been captured in book form by Toowoomba-based school librarian and author Jane Smith as part of her bushranger series that includes books on Ben Hall, Captain Thunderbolt, Frank Gardiner and Captain Moonlite.
The book actually opens up with the story of Pearson’s death in Perth where, as ‘Major Patrick Pelly,’ he had been working as a clerk-accountant with the WA Geological Survey, a job he got on the recommendation of the then Premier, Sir John Forrest.
Apparently Pearson had been feeling unwell, and took a swig of what he thought was his heart medication. But he had grabbed the wrong bottle in the dark. Friends quickly on the scene took one whiff of the bottle, noticing a distinctive almond aroma – cyanide!
The book on Captain Starlight then traces Pearson’s life, and it’s an intriguing, colourful tale, describing a well-educated, articulate and romantic figure who never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
At one stage in his later years in Perth (after his release from jail), Pearson regales fellow workers with his exploits as a war hero, describing the 1877 siege of Plevna in the Russo-Turkish war, even showing them bullet wounds in his shoulder, wrist, leg and hip.
He didn’t like it when an astute and well respected co-worker commented that he must have ‘led’ the regiment from behind, because his wounds showed that all missiles had hit him from the rear.
It was also later in life that Pearson claimed to be the inspiration for a fictional figure of the same name – the Captain Starlight in Rolf Boldrewood’s 1882 novel Robbery Under Arms.
Thomas Alexander Browne, who wrote under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood, soon set the record straight, saying his character was a composite of several bushrangers of that era, including the cattle thief Henry Readford and Thomas Smith, aka Captain Midnight. (Bushrangers all seemed to like the term ‘Captain). The alias Captain Starlight’ is wrongly inscribed on Readford tombstone.
Pearson started his bushranging career within two years of arriving in Australia, operating in border areas of Queensland and NSW, including around Bourke and Menindee, and usually with his sidekick Charley Rutherford. They were bold and ambitious, getting more daring with each hold-up, but so far hurting no-one.
When the pair was spotted in south-west NSW, police patrols from Walgett and Euston were alerted, and patrols were sent out to trap the outlaws. The police patrols, some with blacktrackers, rode for days without any luck, but when they did cross paths with the highwaymen, it was completely unexpected.
NSW mounted policemen John McCabe and Queensland’s Hugh McManus had stopped for supplies at a local inn when the two armed bushrangers barged in, announcing that it was a hold-up.
McCabe and McManus didn’t hesitate. They went for their pistols. In the shoot-out that followed, Mc-Cabe was shot in the chest, but not before he and McManus had put two bullets into Pearson, one in the hand and the other in the shoulder.
In the confusion, the bandits made their escape by horseback, following the Darling River towards Pooncarie, stealing fresh horses along the way. The pair split up, Rutherford heading towards Queensland, and Pearson, getting weaker and weaker from his wounds, trying to hide in hill country near Bourke.
Police trackers found him in a cave, tired, thirsty and weak, and badly bitten by bull ants. He was still armed, but didn’t resist. Pearson admitted shooting McCabe, and after being told that the policeman had died, was charged with murder. After recovering from his wounds, Pearson went to trial, was found guilty and sentenced to death, later commuted to ‘life.’ He was freed after 15 years.
Author Jane Smith has done her homework on Pearson, with no fewer than 217 ‘endnotes’ indicating painstaking research into the Bushranger’s life, from Ireland to Queensland, NSW and all the way across to Perth. There were anecdotal reports of Pearson having at least one foray down the Darling River as far as Pooncarie, and possibly Wentworth, and an interesting account of a bushranger, quite possibly Pearson, riding his horse into the Overland Corner Hotel across the border into SA and scratching his name into the wall.
There’s an interesting epilogue about ‘the real life of Starlight,’ and factual information about how he came to change his name from Pearson to Pelly – he had assumed the identity of a fellow prisoner while serving time in Her Majesty’s Jail in Victoria.
Pearson actually spent quite a few years of his life in jail, for crimes ranging from horse stealing, fraud and forgery, and every time he was released, went back to bushranging, although there is evidence he did do some ‘honest’ work as a drover. But more dishonest work as a doctor, for which he wasn’t qualified.
Readers learn about the many lives of Starlight, his civil servant days, detailed accounts of his bushranging exploits, various terms in jail and investigations by authorities into just who Frank Pearson really was.
Captain Starlight is available through Big Sky publishing.