Stephen Corby, in TRAVEL, 23 July 2021, where the title runs thus “Statue stands and delivers a curious tale”
Standing beside Lake Albert in Meningie, South Australia, is a statue of an emu wearing a saddle, with little footrests to encourage visitors to climb aboard. It’s a bizarre tribute to the wildest, bearded-boy bushranger you’ve never heard of, John Francis Peggotty. A man who allegedly never grew larger than a seven year old, Peggotty is said to have terrorised the Coorong in the late 1800s, robbing and occasionally murdering people while riding a getaway ostrich; he was often shirtless and draped in stolen jewellery.
A sign informs us he lived from 1864 to 1899, which means he died 19 years after the infamous Ned Kelly, yet there are no photos of the mysterious Birdman of the Coorong.
A search for more clues around Meningie does little to illuminate the curious holidaymaker. On display in the local museum is a gold chain and pistol, reportedly presented by local fisherman Henry Carmichael as evidence he had shot the bushranger and his ostrich repeatedly on September 17, 1899. Somehow Peggotty escaped into the sand dunes. His body was never found but it’s said his bones lie there, draped in thousands of dollars worth of gold and jewels.
Mik Batki, owner of the delightful Coorong Cabins where we stay the night, is a Peggotty enthusiast. “It’s an incredible story. I’ve lived here more than 20 years and I’d never heard of him until about seven years ago … until one of our locals, Denise (Mason), dug him up,” he explains.
Perched on the lake shore, where pelicans swoop past in vast squadrons, the cabins are a warm and welcoming place to spend the night scouring the internet for more Peggotty details. Born in County Limerick, his peripatetic life took him to South Africa, where he raced ostriches, London, where his small stature enabled him to crawl down chimneys to steal jewellery, and finally to South Australia.
Mason, a local schoolteacher, amateur historian and publicist, says the Peggotty legend was fuelled during the last great drought, when Lake Albert dried up. Meningie received funding from the state tourism authority to help to revive the town, so a call went out for local yarns that could pique visitor interest. What turned up was a two-page tale about The Birdman of Coorong in Pix, an Australian tabloid “pictorial” magazine published from 1938 to 1972 that favoured “quirky” stories.
“With tongue in cheek, we’ve kind of run with it,” Mason says. “We can’t say if it’s true or urban myth but who cares, and there’s enough truth in there to make you go, ‘Well, maybe …,” Mason says with a smile. That truth includes the fact ostrich farms did exist in the area, and some of the birds escaped and ran wild, she says.
Not all the locals were as captivated by the legend as Mason. In fact, some were concerned hordes of outsiders would converge on the Coorong to dig for Peggotty’s bones and gold. “It caused some angst but for the most part we love it, and it’s really tweaked a lot of people’s imaginations,” Mason says.
As for the statue, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why it’s an emu, not an ostrich. “It was just much easier to find an emu statue, so we got this one and painted it like an ostrich,” Mason reveals.
It’s also interesting to note Meningie residents pondered building a giant mullet (the famed fish of the region, not the hairstyle) instead of going with the bushranger story to promote their town. Clearly they made the right choice.