The real story behind the legend seems to be that Jack caught up with another prospector on his way to the Halls Creek goldfields and the other fellow was very worn out, almost on his last legs. Jack is said to have first taken the other man’s swag on to his barrow and when the other man could walk no further Jack loaded him onto the barrow and took him as far as he could before resting for the night. This went on until they reached their destination some 30 miles away. This story is taken from local press reports made closest to the date of the incident and is therefore likely to be the most accurate. ** (See 'Latest research' below.) All the other tales have grown up and been exaggerated over the years.
By the time newspaper men and other assorted tale tellers had
finished with the tale a 7’ tall Russian Jack, the strongest man in Australia,
had wheeled his sick mate 300 miles to Wyndham.
The story goes that Jack got into an argument and then a fight with a local business man and was locked up for the night. The local lockup was just a chain and a large log. Jack, feeling thirsty, simply picked up the log and went to the local hotel to get a drink. When the law arrived Jack was persuaded to return the ‘gaol’ if he got a bottle of brandy for carrying it back.
Jack was known as a tall, powerfully built man with a stern face but a kindly
nature. He had a legendary appetite but his appearance and characteristics have
been greatly exaggerated over time as his legend grew. He has been described as
being just about every height from 5’10” to 7’ tall. He was said to have
Herculean strength (able to break an inch and a half steel bar with his bare
hands according to one report). Most stories about him mention that he was well
liked and had a good heart.
One problem with the stories told about Russian Jack is that there are known to have been several men who went by this nickname. One from the Perenjori area fell down a small open cut mine in the dark and when found later merely commented that he had missed a shift at work. This story was of course attributed to the original character and so the legend grew a little bit more.
What was the truth? At this juncture it is hard to say with certainty but from our research we believe his real name was John Fredericks and he was of Russian Finnish descent. He was undoubtedly strong but was under 6’ in height.
P. Bridge in his book 'Russian Jack' says the following:
'The barrow men had very hard work on the road, many of
them being old verging on sixty years of age. A young Russian made light work of
it, however. He is a great, strong bullock of a fellow, and went ploughing
through the heavy sand as though it were a macadamized road. His barrow, which
was badly built, creaked and groaned, and laboured like an ancient craft at sea.
When within twenty miles of the fields he came up with another man lying utterly exhausted by the side of his barrow. The Russian picked up the exhausted man’s load and placed it on top of his own, exclaiming, ‘Here mate, if you’re too tired to walk, jump up on top’. Mate managed to walk but the Russian wheeled the double load right into the fields.'
Jack’s death, like his life is shrouded in mystery. Reports say he died in 1904 and again in 1909. Official records show 1904 as the most likely date. In the end both memorials to Russian Jack, who I guess should have been called Finnish John, are incorrect in a number of important respects including when he was born, what he did, and when he died. But as the journalists say ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story.’
The most recent information we have found indicates that the legend of Russian Jack has been blown out of all proportion over the years. The following information comes from Frederick William Ponsonby Cammelleri, a prospector who was on the Halls Creek goldfields at the same time as Russian Jack. This is the earliest - and probably most accurate - account of what happened:
'A very big and powerful Russian who had a wheelbarrow made in Derby, with a special wide wheel, so as to make it easier in the soft sand, met two old men knocked out carrying their swag, with a 37 mile stage without water to Soda Springs ahead of them. Russian Jack, as he was known afterwards on the fields, put all their traps on his barrow, and off they went. This shows the good feeling one man felt towards another.'
From this account it can be clearly seen that there was no
dying or sick man wheeled 300 miles to help as the legend states but simply a
good hearted man helping out strangers who were in trouble.