Day 318: The Infamous, Notorious, And Dangerous Ned Kelly

originally published November 13, 2012

Many blips on the Wikipedian landscape are considered to be ‘stubs’. They lack substance and detail, either because nobody has gotten around to fleshing out the topic, or because there’s just nothing more to say than yes, this hill in Wales exists. Then you have the story of Ned Kelly, Australian bushranger, outlaw, and folk hero. At over 15,000 words, this is practically a full book of information.

But it looks like a good story. So, in the interest of telling as many good stories as I can find, I will undertake the task of distilling this monstrosity down to a palatable thousand words.

It’s a well-worn slab of knowledge that Australia spent a number of its formative years acting as a British penal colony. The bushrangers were a group of escaped convicts who found a way to live in the wild (or ‘in the bush’) to evade authorities. Eventually the term grew to become a synonym of the American outlaw. And like the outlaw, an air of romanticism grew around their myth.

Ned’s father was a cattle-rustler. Ned himself claimed he had stolen over 280 horses as a young boy. After his father’s arrest and subsequent death in 1866, young Ned was spurned into a life of defying the law. At fourteen years old he was arrested for having beaten a pig trader named Ah Fook (which is probably also what the guy yelled when Ned started beating him).

The following year, Ned took up with Harry Power, a noted bushranger and all-around scuzzy guy. Ned cruised in Power’s gang for a while, though when Power got arrested, it was thought that Ned might have ratted him out. Ned’s standing within the outlaw community took a bit of a hit after that episode.

Throughout the 1870s, Ned acquired his own gang, and scuffled with the law periodically. In 1878, things turned nasty.

Constable Fitzpatrick showed up at the Kelly house and arrested Dan, Ned’s brother. Dan overpowered the cop and sent him away, after which both Kellys, along with their mother and a couple members of Ned’s gang, attacked Fitzpatrick on the road near Benalla. The constable claimed he’d been shot through the wrist and beaten with a coal shovel. The Kellys claimed they were innocent.

Ned’s mother and the non-Kellys were convicted of abetting attempted murder, based solely on Fitzpatrick’s evidence. Ned and Dan escaped, and went into hiding along with their friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. A posse of five cops heard that Ned and his gang were hiding out in the Wombat ranges at the head of the King River. They set up camp and started their search of the area.

This didn’t work. Ned, Dan, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart showed up at the camp and surprised the cops, armed to the teeth. Whether Ned Kelly planned to murder all the cops who had come to arrest them or simply disarm them and let them go, we’ll never know. By the end of the confrontation, three officers were dead and Ned’s gang was once again in the wind.

Now Ned Kelly was famous. The reward for his gang’s capture was working its way up to £8000, and the Victorian parliament passed something called the Felons’ Apprehension Act, which made it legal for anyone to shoot them – an arrest and trial was no longer necessary for outlaws like the Kelly gang.

(the reward was £8100 if you shot him through the beard)

The Kellys’ next move was to grab some cash. They wandered into the homestead of Goorum Goorum Gong Wool station (I love Australian names) and robbed the place, hauling in an impressive booty of money, gold and silver. They then robbed the bank at Jerilderie, beginning with a ballsy raid of the police station. Not a bad idea to lock up the town’s police before robbing the town’s bank. Takes a lot of the pressure off.

Around this time, authorities began rounding up all known friends, relatives and acquaintances of the Kelly gang. They were held for three months without being charged. Word of this spread throughout the media, which elicited support and sympathy for Kelly and a widespread resentment for the abuse of power that led to such authoritarian injustice. Whoever was working PR for the authorities at the time was doing a really crappy job of spinning this story.

Whilst robbing the bank, and really the entire town of Jerilderie, Kelly drafted a lengthy letter for public release, detailing the mistreatment of his family (his mother, who had been convicted in the Fitzpatrick case, was destined to be stuck in jail for a long time). This letter is now an important piece of Australian literature.

In June of 1880, Kelly decided his next target would be the banks of Benalla, also the headquarters of the extensive manhunt directed at him. They first showed up at the home of Aaron Sherritt, a police informer who had helped with the case against the gang. They murdered Sherritt, then rode to Glenrowan to try to wreck any police train that was sent after them.

There, with 47 hostages at the local hotel, Kelly and his gang bent the tracks. This might have caused a fantastic derailment, except for a local schoolmaster who had talked Ned Kelly into letting him go. The schoolmaster, Thomas Curnow, alerted the police train before the bent tracks, using a lantern wrapped in a red scarf. The cops stopped their train and continued on foot.

They surrounded the hotel. Ned Kelly attacked the police from the rear, dressed in his own home-made bullet-proof armor. Seriously, he looked like this:

Before long, the police realized that Ned’s legs were vulnerable. That’s where they aimed, and that’s how they brought down the notorious Ned Kelly.

Back in the hotel, Joe Byrne was shot dead at the bar while drinking whiskey at 5AM. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart let the hostages go at 10:00, but did not surrender. The police did the only logical thing: they burnt the hotel – along with Kelly and Hart – to the ground.

Ned Kelly was hanged on November 11, 1880. A petition believed to contain 30,000 signatures was circulated to save his life, but it didn’t take. The aftermath of the whole affair led to changes in policing policy (like maybe not burning down an entire hotel just to kill two gunmen).

As for Kelly’s legacy, he became a mythic Robin Hood type, seen as a symbol of working-class, Irish Catholic resistance to the oppressive British colonial rule of the country. He has been immortalized in film, perhaps most notably as the focus of The Story Of The Kelly Gang, a 1906 Australian film that is considered to be the first feature-length movie in history. Kelly has also been portrayed on screen by Mick Jagger and, more recently, Heath Ledger. Ned remains a political icon, a symbol of Australia’s push for independence.

A curious, even impressive legacy for a killer.

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