John Howard’s Worst Decision. Landslide victory...

John Howard’s Worst Decision. Landslide victory ends in one (jail) term wonder

By Anne Skinner | Eidsvold, Central Queensland | 31 March 1936

John Howard was on his way to the biggest win of his life.

Nothing could stop him now!

He was all set to reap the rewards of his hard work. First, though, he needed a wardrobe befitting his new status.

With all the confidence of an aspiring prime minister about to cast his election day vote, buoyed by a tailwind of positive polls and a favourable media, Howard entered the Eidsvold gentlemen’s outfitters, selected a snazzy new suit, a pair of leather dancing shoes and a fine felt hat, as well as a suitcase to put them all in, and slapped two £5 notes down onto the shop counter.

Too busy planning his next three years to notice the keen glance the shopkeeper shot him, he almost pranced out of the shop with glee. It was a landslide win! He'd done it! He’d got away with stealing more money than he'd ever dreamed of! And now he was spending it!

Mentally voting himself the canniest bushranger of all time – and soon to be the suavest, once he'd donned his new wardrobe – Howard decided to round off the day with a few wagers on the races before heading south to Sydney and a life of abundance and ease.

He was in the betting shop, about to lay another stolen fiver on a horse with short odds and good prospects for a first at the finishing post, when the long arm of the law fell across his shoulders. Looking up into the stern face of a large Sergeant, Howard felt his own prospects shrinking to a view of the blank wall of the Eidsvold Police lockup.

The world's suavest bushranger was about to become a one-term wonder – a jail term, that is.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this....

Just a few days earlier, Howard had preselected himself to lead a one-man bushranging party against the feeble opposition of the middle-aged mail car driver bearing the payroll from the National Bank in Eidsvold to the Golden Plateau Mine near the small town of Cracow.

It was almost too easy. Howard knew the day, time and route of the mine's wages because, until recently, he'd been working the underground shift there. Until he crunched the numbers and figured out that stealing the weekly payroll stacked up far better than a lifetime of honest toil.

It was a kind of tax reform on the run, he reasoned; a redistribution of wealth from the mine’s coffers (and with all that gold, surely they could afford it?) to his own pockets.

So it was that on 28 March 1936, John Howard, ex-gold miner and newly sworn in bushranger, donned a long, concealing overcoat, tied a bandanna over his lower face and hid in the scrub near the gate on the track from Cracow to the Golden Plateau Mine. With no gun laws to get in the way, he had acquired a .22 automatic rifle to help persuade the mailman to part with the £1400 payroll.

He hadn’t been hiding for long when the mail car drew up and a woman passenger alighted to open the gate. Howard leapt out of the bush and thrust the rifle under her chin, bellowing: “Don’t open that gate!” A terrified Violet MacDowell obeyed, as Howard ordered driver Charles Williams to get out of the car, unlatch the gate and then “walk down the road and keep walking”.

“Give me my handbag,” Violet gamely called out as Howard got into the car. “All right lady,” he unexpectedly agreed, throwing it onto the roadside and disappearing in a cloud of dust down the dirt road to Cracow.

Next stop, Sydney!

Down in New South Wales, he had useful connections who could help him attain the kind of lifestyle those other poor suckers working in the mine could only dream of. One of those connections was all set – for a small fee – to launder his loot through the betting shops, street vendors and low bars of Australia's biggest city.

The police would never trace the money and he'd be home and dry.

Sadly, in life, politics and bushranging, seemingly good fortune can turn back to bite you before you know it. If Howard had just stuck to his original plan – steal the money, ditch the car and make a dash with the cash to the State border – he might, just might, have got away with it.

But now the dancing dandy who wanted to make a flashy debut in Sydney town took over from the cunning bushranger. Just a quick local shopping trip and few flutters to enjoy his new-found wealth – where was the harm in that? But he hadn’t reckoned on the police circulating the serial numbers of the notes around the local shops. The proprietor of the gentleman’s outfitter in Eidsvold reported his sale to the police, who quickly ran Howard to earth in the betting shop.

It was all downhill from there.

Howard was brought before the Rockhampton Circuit Court on 12 May, charged with robbery under arms and theft with violence. Despite his early guilty plea, cooperation with the police and heartfelt apology to Violet MacDowell, the 37-year-old was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in Brisbane’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol.

That wasn’t the end of John Howard’s troubles with the law. Just over a year later, he and a prison mate voted in their own version of an exit poll and made a break for freedom. They were caught before they even left the premises.It was a bitter defeat. The unsuccessful escape attempt earned him an extra six months on his sentence. Not only that, after the Boggo Road authorities had severely admonished the lax guards, massively tightened prison rules and abolished privileges for all prisoners, a not-so-secret ballot conducted among the rest of the inmates revealed he’d earned their

undying enmity.

The guards and the prisoners called him Cracow Jack, but without affection. There was a permanent swing against him, and the subsequent spill left him at the bottom of the prison pecking order for the remainder of his sentence – ultimate proof that sartorial hubris can be more dangerous to personal freedoms than tax reform, gun laws or misleading polls.

Don’t risk a redistribution of your mining wealth through failure to comply with tenement regulations. Vote 1 for Global Tenements to chart a safe route away from all legal bushrangers.

Acknowledgement: Grateful thanks to John Mossman of the Eidsvold & District Historical Society, who first told me the story of Cracow Jack.

Sources: Maryborough Chronicle, Trove, Boggo Road Gaol archives.

This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Queensland. Anne is forever fascinated by the amazing stories and often unbelievable characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at anneskinnermedia@gmail.com

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