The signs around Mitchell say this is “Kenniff Country” and tourists are invited to follow the “Kenniff Trail”. Just as the passage of time has turned the Kelly Gang from criminals and murderers to folk heroes, a similar process has happened here for two cattle thieves who murdered two men, including a policeman, twenty years later. The story of what happened in 1902 is fascinating and it was the first time white people were sentenced to death based solely on the testimony of an Aboriginal person.
Mitchell is 550km west of Brisbane and named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first white person to trudge this country. Mitchell called it “Champagne Country” but many of those that followed him found life less bubbly and prosperous. The Kenniff brothers Patrick (b 1863) and James (b 1869) were among those to find out just how barren a beverage Champagne Country really was.
The pair were sons of Irish-born James Kenniff and his wife Mary. The Kenniffs lived near Dungog in NSW but the father and his two sons were convicted for stealing stock in northern NSW and they scampered away north to escape justice. They established a property at Ralph near Augathella and were determined to live a straight life. They lived by bush work; they also raced horses and opened books on the local race meetings.
But conditions were tough on the land and the depression of the 1890s left them penniless. It was all too easy to return to old ways. With convicted cattle duffers Thomas Stapleton, John and Richard Riley and others, they launched what the Australian Dictionary of Biography called a reign of 'mild terror' stealing cleanskin and poorly branded cattle from Carnarvon and other neighbouring stations.
In 1895 the brothers were charged in a Roma court with stealing or receiving stolen horses. Pat got a three year sentence and Jim got two years. Both served time in St Helena Prison off the coast of Brisbane. When Jim was released he went back to the Ralph property which was empty. A year later Pat was released and also went back to Ralph. Pat quickly returned to his thieving ways attracting the attention of Police Commissioner Parry-Ogden who sent a sergeant to investigate their activities. A warrant was issued for their arrest after a daring raid on a police camp and Jim was captured at Ralph after a shootout.
Jim beat the charge in court which encouraged his brother to turn himself in. But Pat was found guilty of another charge and was sent back to St Helena for another three years. While he was away, local landholders agitated the Lands Department to terminate the lease at Ralph Block when it expired in 1899. In the meantime, a neighbour bought the property directly from the Kenniffs and employed one Albert Christian Dahlke to manage the properties. He and Jim Kenniff had a personal animosity that ran deep.
Around the same time a new constable, George Doyle arrived in the area looking to set up a moveable police station. He chose Kenniff’s camp site on Ralph Block as the preferred site. Doyle and his Aboriginal tracker Sam Johnson moved into what was called the Upper Warrego Police Station.
In November 1901, Pat returned again from St Helena and was stunned to find a police station at his home. With the country in the middle of a massive drought, the brothers plotted to steal horses and sell them in Roma. In January 1902 they rounded up 36 horses and took them to Mt Moffatt in the Carnarvon Ranges.
Doyle and Johnson were patrolling in the area and intercepted Pat Kenniff. They took him to Mitchell where he was fined £20 and then released to find the money. He caught up with his brothers and launched a spree of retaliation, burning down an outstation, driving off horses and robbing workers.
On 25 March, Doyle received another arrest warrant for the Kenniffs. Dahlke was there when it arrived and volunteered to help carry out the arrests. On Good Friday 28 March, Doyle, Dahlke and Sam Johnson set off to find the horse thieves; only Constable Doyle was armed.
On Easter Sunday the trio had arrived in Lethbridge Pocket 10kms from Mt Moffatt Homestead where they spotted Jim, Pat and a third brother Tom. Dalhke and Doyle followed Jim while Johnson set off in elusive pursuit of the other two brothers.
When Johnson arrived back he found Jim Kenniff in their custody. Doyle told Johnson to ride the 200 metres to their pack horse to get handcuffs. While Johnson was away he heard gunfire that sounded different from Doyle’s revolver. Johnson rushed back only to see Pat and Jim riding towards him. Johnson took to the scrub and made his escape. He raised the alarm and another man, Jim Burke agreed to accompany Johnson back to the scene. They found two horses with blood stains but no sign of Doyle or Dalhke. They rode back to Mt Moffatt late on Easter Sunday to tell people of the news.
Johnson rode through the night and all the following day to get to Mitchell and the nearest telegraph station. Others returned to the scene where they found more blood stains and belongings of the two missing men. On the Wednesday they found a third horse which was Doyle’s mount. Inside its police pack bags were charcoal and burnt bones.
Police found the location where the bodies were burnt and a doctor confirmed the remains were of one or possibly two humans, recently deceased. Mt Moffatt was now a murder scene and a large manhunt began for the Kenniffs. On 12 May a reward of £1000 was offered for Pat and Jim’s capture. Early on Monday 23 June, the pair were found at Back Creek (later renamed Arrest Creek) a few kms south of Mitchell. They were captured unharmed and taken to Brisbane for trial.
The trial took place in the Supreme Court in November 1902. Sam Johnson’s evidence was crucial for the prosecution. The defence was simple: neither Kenniff was there at the time of the murder. It was a landmark case. No white man had ever been convicted of murder on black testimony. The defence lawyer tried to discredit Johnson’s evidence. But Johnson answered the derogatory questions in dignified fashion reinforcing the credibility of his evidence.
Both the Kenniffs were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. A Full Court later commuted Jim Kenniff’s sentence to life imprisonment. Pat Kenniff was hanged on 12 January 1903. Jim was released in 1912. After working on cattle-stations in the north-west he fossicked in the ranges north of Charters Towers and died there of cancer on 8 October 1940, aged around 71.
Back in Mitchell, those sympathetic to the Kenniffs blamed Johnson for the conviction and threatened retribution. Even those who did not much admire the Kenniffs did not like it was the word of a blackfella that convicted them. Johnson eventually requested a transfer for his own safety. He moved to Longreach where he died in 1919 of influenza. Sam Johnson was buried in a forgotten, unmarked grave and to this day has no monument or memorial in his name.