Joe Bragg: a life in crime

Research Brief 19


Last week a new entry appeared in the Prosecution Project database. Trial #64652 records the conviction on 16 February 1870 of Joseph Bragg on the charge of wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm. He had pleaded guilty.

Bragg was tried before the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir Alfred Stephen, a judge with a reputation for severe sentencing, especially of bushrangers in the 1860s. The sentence of 5 years on the roads or other public works was predictable on this serious violence offence.

In court Stephen read out Bragg’s lengthy criminal record as well as the multiple prison disciplinary charges already incurred by this young veteran of Sydney’s tough streets. There were 15 convictions resulting in various terms of imprisonment since the first in 1863 at the age of about 14, and a recent period of time in the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. This was Bragg’s first appearance in the colony’s highest court. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the Chief Justice’s opinion that ‘light sentences to such incorrigible rogues as this Bragg were worse than useless’. Bragg was probably lucky not to fare worse. As he left the dock he declared ‘with an air of bravado … that he was able to do his five years’. In his notebooks the Chief Justice recorded that ‘he clearly requires permanent restraint’.

Bragg was already a notorious figure – Sydney newspapers spoke of him as one of the ‘Forty Thieves’, a street gang of petty criminals, of a kind that would soon be known as larrikins. Before his life was out he would see plenty more prison time – on the same day Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne, 11 November 1880, Bragg was sentenced to another 5 year term in the Sydney criminal court by another Chief Justice, Sir James Martin. The offences were again those of inter-personal violence: garrotting, assault and robbery, in company with a co-accused, one Mary Moore, his wife. This time the judge recorded his view that ‘if not for prisoner’s previous history he might have been disposed to pass a more lenient sentence’. Bragg was also punished with the ignominious corporal punishment of 25 lashes, a legacy of penal responses to the offence of garrotting.

Joseph Bragg was however no ordinary lag, condemned to no greater place in history than the lines of a court register and a prison photo book. He was also a rebel in his own cause: protesting against the brutality of treatment in Berrima prison in the 1870s he was among the prisoners and ex-prisoners who testified to their experience at a parliamentary inquiry in 1878.

And for a time at least Bragg became a temperance reformer. It was in this guise that he came to the attention some time later of the fin de siecle criminologist and sexologist, Havelock Ellis.


In 1890 Havelock Ellis published in London a popular quasi-scientific treatise on The Criminal. The book sought to advance a new appreciation of the complex social and psychological factors underlying criminal behaviour, and the irrationality of contemporary punishment especially in prisons. Ellis was a populariser of European ideas about criminality. But he was a socialist of sorts and took greater account of the social backgrounds of those inhabiting the prisons, departing in this respect from the more biological determinism of Cesare Lombroso. Ellis had spent some years in Australia in his youth, and was a willing recipient of correspondence from the colonies about crime, criminals and punishment.

It was from one of these, a Sydney evangelical reformer George Ardill, that Ellis heard the story of Joseph Bragg. Bragg was one of Ardill’s success stories – for a time anyway. He had rescued Bragg from a life of crime in the 1880s, encouraging him to tell his story of personal redemption. In May 1886 Bragg launched himself onto the Sydney lecture circuit as ‘the standard bearer of the Blue Ribbon Army… the beacon of hope to which stragglers are pointed’, entertaining his audience in the Temperance Hall with his life of crime, adversity and personal reformation.

This was the origins of Bragg’s 3-part tract’ The Confessions of a Thief’, published by George Ardill, and forwarded in 1893 to Havelock Ellis, to be first reported in Ellis’s ‘Retrospect of Criminal Anthropology’, published in the Journal of Mental Science, an antecedent of the British Journal of Psychiatry. Thence they found their way into the 3rd edition of The Criminal, published in 1901. Ellis found Bragg’s autobiography ‘of extreme psychological interest’, a ‘remarkable’ work that confirmed the dangers of drink, as well as poor heredity, but opened up the possibilities of redemption through personal endeavour. They also confirmed for Ellis the irrationality of a prison system that became an education in crime for those brought into it at a young age.

That education seemed to be one that Joe Bragg could never quite divest. The recidivist was back in trouble already in 1889, for beating his young son, who in turn was sent off as a neglected child to the Industrial School training vessel, the Vernon. A year later Joe the father created further turmoil when he alleged brutality and immorality at the Vernon.

By the time Ellis received ‘The Confessions’, Joseph Bragg alias Joseph Orton was inside prison again, sentenced to 7 years gaol at Cobar in western New South Wales for yet another violent assault and robbery. Neither George Ardill’s temperance remedy nor Havelock Ellis’s criminal anthropology could quite explain or contain Joe Bragg’s troubled career in crime and violence.


Author: Professor Mark Finnane, ARC Laureate Fellow

To cite this research brief: Mark Finnane, ‘Joe Bragg: A life in crime’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 19, (18 December 2015, viewed 19 July 2016).