James Whitehead: Fact vs Fiction

Unlike the way he is presented in ‘The Outlaw Michael Howe’, James was not ‘John’, he was not Scottish and nor was he a cruel madman. In fact, the real James was a Yorkshireman like Michael Howe and hailed from Preston in the East Riding of Yorkshire. James was described as being “a good looking young man”, whose character was “humane” and “good”, with these qualities staying with him throughout his bushranging career. He never wantonly killed a man or destroyed property and acted with a strong moral compass. Examples of this are seen in his choosing to leave the company of George Watts and Thomas Garland in March 1815, after being appalled by their actions of “wanton destruction”. He was also happy to give Mrs Triffitt back her dress material after she had requested it, even tipping his hat to her in apology for the action. Lastly, his words to George Green, a servant to Magistrate Humphrey, speaks volumes in how he viewed outlawed life which is a far cry from the brutal, power crazed man we see on film. After George expressed his regret at seeing James in such a situation, James suddenly looked downcast and replied he was sorry to find himself in the situation also, adding it never would have been the case if not for the treatment of his previous master.

Unfortunately, like Michael, James’ character and actions have been greatly tarnished and blackened by the words of others, so much so in fact, that they may as well be two different people. And, indeed they are. For there were two other John Whiteheads operating around the same time as James. One died in March 1815, as recorded by Robert Knopwood in his diary, and the second in September 1815, with the latter committing most of the outrages unjustly attributed to James.

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