Brian Rieusset Family web site
You Can’t Hang Me For It: Life of James Mitchell
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
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.
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
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.
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.
book is largely concerned with Mitchell’s criminal activity, but tells of other
aspects of low life.
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
It is a mark of Brian’s scholarship that he explores and clarifies these conundrums.
complement to James’s many human flaws surely was a dynamic, empowering, sense
of self. He aroused many enemies – and faced them down.
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.