Author: Jacob Hill
“History is easy; just find the dates, names and locations and put it all in order. What’s so hard about that?”
That’s something I’ve been asked a lot, usually in relation to my choice of degree!
Sure, compiling dates and names and facts and figures should make revealing the truth child’s play. But when you’re dealing with humans, everything becomes complicated.
First, how exactly can you know what someone was thinking at any given time? We can’t! We have to infer based off their behaviour and other evidence, but that runs the risk of conjecture and armchair psychology. It’s a fine line to walk.
Second, how can we be sure that we’ve got the full picture? We can’t! Not everything is preserved from the past, so we have to reconstruct with what we have at our disposal. However, the narrative can be shattered like a house of cards as soon as a black swan appears – and some people become too attached to the narrative to accept the new evidence…
Therefore, people lie and falsify evidence to protect their narrative from reality…or to destroy a narrative that’s inconvenient to them. Fake artefacts and sources flogged as genuine artefacts have fooled many people, such as Hitler’s diary, the Michigan Relics, the Donation of Constantine and the Piltdown Man.
But why would people do that? People also lie for all sorts of reasons, whether for political gain, monetary gain, survival or simply because they’re compelled to. How can we be certain of the validity of claims and artefacts we come across? We can’t! There’s a lot of trust involved in the historical process, just as with any human relationship.
But without a doubt, the hardest aspect of history is accepting absurd, albeit incontrovertible conclusions: Nazis doped up on meth, Australia’s unsuccessful war against flightless birds, that one time Pepsi had the sixth-largest navy in the world, a bear being a corporal in the Polish army – these are all things that happened.
Naturally, I didn’t believe any of these events happened, but there’s mountains of evidence for each of these things, giving you no choice but to accept the validity of these events…for now.
The truth is always stranger than fiction. This means that to be an historian, you must keep an open mind. What you hear might well be true, even if it’s utterly absurd. This is especially the case when you’re new to a topic.
But that doesn’t mean blindly believing everything you hear. You have to critically engage with the story, looking for evidence that supports or challenges it. You have to search for motives for creating such a story, whether something has been left out or twisted to fit a certain purpose.
But what happens when there’s absolutely no evidence to prove that an event happened?
BIRDMAN OF THE COORONG
I pulled into Meningie, South Australia as the Sun was going down, creating a beautiful rainbow hue across the sky. As I got out of the car to stretch, my attention was drawn to a very odd statue of an emu. It was painted like an ostrich, which is larger than an emu.
A statue of an ostrich was an odd thing to see. See, there used to be lots of ostriches in the Coorong region. They were valued for their feathers, but when the market died they were let loose. They still wander about in the outback and wreak havoc on the environment, just like camels. But why would a town put up a statue to a pest?
Next to it was an information board, which I assumed would be an explanation of the ostrich industry hundreds of years ago. But I was wrong; it was about John Francis Peggotty, better known as the “Birdman of the Coorong”. That’s when I saw the saddle on the emu-cum-ostrich. I shook my head immediately in disbelief but, committed to my duty as an historian, I read the information provided…
Peggotty was born in Ireland in 1864, but he was apparently born so premature that he only grew to the size of a seven-year-old boy. At some point he moved to England, where he used his stature to sneak into people’s houses via their chimneys. He would steal all sorts of things, but instead of selling the loot for profit, he flaunted it by draping it all over his body. This, combined with his small stature, made him an easy target for police.
He got thrown into jail for a while and afterwards travelled to Australia to live with his uncle. But first, he stopped in South Africa, where he learned how to catch ostriches. He completed the journey to New South Wales, but for whatever reason didn’t meet up with his uncle. Instead, he made his way to Adelaide where he supposedly had a friend there with whom he could commit crimes with. He committed enough crimes here to force him to go on the run.
He fled to the Coorong area south of Adelaide and took up bushranging. But this is where Peggotty would distinguish himself from the other criminals in South Australia: He tamed an ostrich it became his trusty steed.
So, Peggotty and his ostrich rode around the Coorong, conducting dozens of hold-ups and even murdered a few travellers with his dual pistols. Again, he never sold his ill-gotten gains, but instead he wore all the stolen goods. His total haul was worth millions of dollars. The police could never catch him because his ostrich was too fast. Ostriches can run up to 70kph, whereas horses usually averages 50kph.
But in 1899, Peggotty made a fatal mistake when he tried to rob a local fisherman named Henry Carmichael. Carmichael, a well-known sharpshooter, shot Peggotty and the ostrich. The ostrich bolted off, leaving behind a trail of blood.
Carmichael tracked down the now-dead ostrich, but Peggotty, along with the valuables, had disappeared. The crime spree ended after this incident, so its presumed he died out in the Coorong. Peggotty’s remains and spoils have never been found.
And so I finished reading the information board. It was an entertaining story, but too bizarre to be true. And surely I would’ve heard such a strange story before this point, right? Well, after doing bare minimum research on the topic, the answer quickly revealed itself: because it’s a complete fabrication.
First, there is no evidence that John Francis Peggotty existed. Peggotty should have several records related to him: prison documents, immigration documents, news reports of murders and robberies in the Coorong region. His unusual appearance should have been enough to single him out in a world where political correctness didn’t exist.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence anyone else in the story existed. His uncle in New South Wales, his friend in Adelaide or David Carmichael – the only source I could find for their existence is the Birdman story itself. Nor is anyone robbed and killed by Peggotty accounted for – not a single one.
Second, ostriches cannot be tamed and ridden. Ostriches only weigh ~100kg, so anyone who attempts to sit on its back will likely break it. For reference, horses can weigh up to a tonne. Even the lighter racehorses ‘only’ weigh 500kg! But perhaps someone really small could ride one…and luckily Peggotty had experience in capturing ostriches in South Africa (again, no records of his travels here).
Thirdly, it’s clearly an attempt to piggyback off of bushranger stories other states were benefiting from. New South Wales had the vicious Clarke Brothers, Victoria had the infamous Ned Kelly and his gang, and even Tasmania had ‘the gentleman Bushranger’ Matthew Brady. South Australia didn’t have any criminal legends – which is a good thing since glorifying bushrangers is pretty reprehensible.
But then, in the late 2000s, The Birdman of the Coorong story appears! And he killed lots of people and stole more than those other bushrangers! Oh, and he was three-and-a-half feet tall and rode an ostrich, which is how nobody could catch him! And his body and all the stolen goods disappeared under mysterious circumstances, which is pretty convenient!
Yep, and you have a girlfriend at another school.
Why are we only hearing about the Birdman now? Why did nobody write about the absurd Birdman in the 1890s? Why did nobody write about the Birdman until the late 2000s?
In a word: Tourism.
Now, I want to be fair to the town of Meningie. In the 2000s, the Coorong experienced a crippling drought. Lake Albert, a freshwater lake larger than the Bodensee, dried up completely. Since the Coorong region is mostly agricultural, the economy faltered. So, Meningie decided that tourism could help them financially.
So, what could Meningie use to attract visitors? Perhaps a history of the ostriches, or David Unaipon, the man on the $50 note who lived in the Coorong district. And Lake Albert is a beautiful vista, especially with the sun setting behind it. Instead, they created an outrageous story, which is so ridiculous that rumours of Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen or Marilyn Manson having ribs removed for ‘certain reasons’ seem plausible!
Thing is, if they left a detail or two out, they may have had me hooked (for a little bit, at least). But a man that looks like a boy riding an ostrich robbing and killing people in South Australia who disappeared alongside all his stolen goods? Sure…
Next you’ll tell me there was a British Army officer in WWII named “Mad Jack Churchill” who entered battle with bagpipes, a sword and a bow and arrow who was treated fairly by Nazis because they thought he was related to the Prime Minister!
Wait, that actually did happen…
See what I mean about history being hard?
But the difference between Mad Jack and Peggotty is we have several pictures and videos of Mad Jack. We also have numerous eyewitnesses, various artefacts and innumerable documents from countless sources that confirm his existence and exploits beyond a doubt. Peggotty, on the other hand, is nothing but a fabrication.
The Birdman of the Coorong takes elements of reality (ostriches in the outback and bushranging) to create a fun story. But as an historian, I have to utilise my favourite word:
At least I got to ride an emu statue!
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