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You Can’t Hang Me For It: Life of James Mitchell

Michael Roe 

Thanks Brian, for having introduced me to this remarkable man and narrative. James Mitchell was a recidivist of highest order, spending much very much of his life in prison – in Hobart, Melbourne, Launceston, elsewhere. Appropriately he was born, probably in 1839 in Campbell Street just opposite the gates of the old gaol.  

It was in Launceston Gaol that another warder - different time (1919 to be precise), different place, but it seems a man of similar empathy – recorded the rambling reminiscences of our subject, and so made this book possible. Yet our praise of the scribe has its bounds; whereas his work provided the spine, the bare bones, of this project. Brian has given it life – flesh, blood, personality, psyche. 

Yet by no means does this author usurp his subject: Brian complements rather than dominates. He does so through massive research. There are 478 footnotes. They witness Brian’s mastery of the new technology.  

Altogether the book belongs to a new historiography. There are plenty of good, pertinent illustrations too, some by Brian himself, several others from prison mug-shots. If there ever be ‘history from below’, here it is. 

There are other exemplars of wrongdoers’ more-or-less autobiography: Martin Cash and Mark Jeffrey are names that come to mind. This book is altogether in the top league of the genre.  

One obvious appeal is its portrayal of life in Hobart around 1860.

The book is largely concerned with Mitchell’s criminal activity, but tells of other aspects of low life.  

Among famous people of whom James reminisced the chief is Ned Kelly. They evidently served considerable time together, James characterising Ned as a solid, quiet, dependable chap – ‘But he would stick at nothing if roused’. 

 The most sustained piece of reminiscence that Brian presents is James’s recitation of a ballad about Kelly – the ballad has many versions, this one different from any other on record. James recitation is an impressive feat of memory, complementing and excelling that of the aforesaid ‘poem’. 

It is a mark of Brian’s scholarship that he explores and clarifies these conundrums.

The complement to James’s many human flaws surely was a dynamic, empowering, sense of self. He aroused many enemies – and faced them down.  

So he had fought as a bare-knuckle pugilist. So he flaunted authority in the phrase which ever-perceptive Brian has chosen as a title of this book: You Can’t Hang Me For It; six monosyllable stabs to the jaw, or maybe the gut.  

James Mitchell, for good and ill notwithstanding that possible suicide attempt, embodied life force. To end on that note harmonises with my earlier praise of Brian for giving life to the bare bones of the narrative transcribed in 1919.

 Congratulations, Brian