September 1892. The game was cribbage for a stick of tobacco each hand. Four men whiling away a long night by the light of a slush lamp on Auvergne Station, near the NT/WA border. Even today, Auvergne is an isolated and dramatic locale; rugged mountains cut through by the Bullo, Baines and Victoria Rivers.
Among the men playing cards in a lean-to behind the kitchen that night was Sam Croker, the acting manager. Croker was an experienced stockman, having arrived in the Territory droving a mob of breeders from Queensland to Wave Hill Station for Nat Buchanan. A stockman called McPhee and a Chinese cook, Joe Ah Wah, were also at the table.
Another man playing cards that day was an Aboriginal stockman called Charlie Flannigan, also called McManus. Charlie had been raised by his white father in the Richmond Downs area in Queensland, and had also learned his trade with Nat Buchanan. He had arrived at Auvergne one week earlier, with just a horse, saddle, perhaps a few of the sketches of bush life he loved to draw, and a rifle.
Before the game started Joe Ah Wah told Flannigan that he didn’t feel like a game that night.
‘Best you play now,’ said Flannigan bluntly. ‘For you can’t play cards when you are dead.’ Joe agreed to play a couple of hands, and when they cut the cards to choose partners, Ah Wah and Flannigan teamed up.
Some reports of what followed cited an argument over the card game, but Joe Ah Wah’s testimony did not mention it. According to Joe, part way through the evening, Flannigan took a drink of water from a cask, then went out to the shed in which the men slept, a crude structure of poles with branches piled over the top. He came back carrying his rifle.
Taking up position at a tree near the lean-to, Flannigan raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Croker. The men at the table were oblivious to what was about to happen.
This, it has to be said, was not the first or last time violence had boiled over at Auvergne. The station had a chequered history in those days. As Charlie Gaunt later wrote:
In recording sketches of the olden days I cannot pass Auvergne Station on the Baines River, where more tragedies have been enacted than any station in the North.
I was stock-keeping on that station when Jack Skene was managing it. The manager before Skene, Hardy by name, was speared to death at the old station, down the Baines on the opposite side of the river from where the present station now stands. For years after you could see the stone spear head sticking inches in the door post where it passed through Hardy as he rushed through the door for his rifle.
But men weren’t the only hazards on Auvergne, according to Charlie.
Alligators … came up through the garden, tearing up pumpkin vines and into the beef house, once taking a quarter of beef off a hook.
Charlie went on to list a litany of tragedies, including more spearings, fatal riding accidents and murder. Most bloody of all was the day Charlie Flannigan took aim at his boss part way through a game of cards.
Flannigan fired once, and Croker slid to the floor, mortally struck in the chest. According to the eyewitness report of Barney, a black stockman who was in the shed at the time, Croker called out ‘I am dead,’ after being shot the first time.
Flannigan walked up and finished Croker off with a second round to the head.
Joe ah Wah ran off into the bush, while McPhee helped Charlie wrap his victim in a blanket. Thirty-six tense hours with Flannigan in control of the station followed. Fearing reprisal he searched for and confiscated any firearms. He also forced the others to help bury Croker’s body.
So how did a normally inoffensive stockman come to commit murder? He was a good worker, generally popular, and loved to draw pictures.
Gordon Buchanan, who worked with Flannigan on cattle drives as well as on Wave Hill Station, described him as “… a fair horseman and stockman, and an expert in the drafting yards and branding pen. Illiterate, but fairly well spoken, he seldom swore.”
The key might be in something Flannigan said to Joe just after the shooting. “I have let him run long enough, six months now.”
Also, the next day, viewing the bloody, blanket wrapped body, Flannigan appeared to address the dead man directly. “Well, old fellow, I’ve had the pleasure of sewing you up instead of you sewing me up”‘
So if this killing was just a disagreement over a card game, why did Flannigan later tell Joe Ah Wah that he had waited six months to kill Croker. Was this the result of a long-running vendetta? On the other hand, if there was an open grudge between the two men, why would Croker have allowed Flannigan onto the station. Let alone given him a job. The answer, it seems, is lost to history.
In any case, within two days of the murder, Flannigan extorted a cheque for his “wages” from McPhee and rode hard for the Western Australian border.
Friends at Ord River Station, however, convinced Charlie to give himself up in Hall’s Creek. Burdened by manacles that weighed close to ten kilograms, he was taken on horseback to Wyndham, then on the steamer, Rob Roy, to Palmerston.
In prison, Charlie had the time and the materials to pursue his love of drawing. He sketched sad images of the bush, the things he had seen. Even though he was illiterate, Flannigan copied words and letters, and some of his pictures seem to spell out words. He drew stockmen and steamers, homesteads and bush scenes. The full collection of these sketches is now held by the South Australian museum.
A newspaper article described how white man’s justice was served on Flannigan, the first man to be hanged in the Northern Territory
The execution of Charlie Flanagan … took place at the Fannie Bay Labour Prison at 9 o’clock to-day. Since his conviction the prisoner had maintained a cool demeanour throughout. His chief expressed desire was that he should not show the white feather. Although admitting the crime for which he was sentenced, he showed no contrition or desire to avoid the death penalty. He slept well last night, and breakfasted and smoked this morning, and mounted the scaffold alone. The whole arrangements for the execution were carried through successfully, and death was instantaneous.
Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.