Was Ned Kelly a Psychopath?

Heath Ledger  as a Psychopath in Batman : he also played Ned Kelly, another Psychopath?
The day after the anniversary  of Ned Kellys death, the Queensland Courier Mail ran an item with the accurate but cleverly provocative  headline Ned Kelly’s last words were not ‘such is life’.  It was provocative of course because most people do indeed think they were, and it was clever because undoubtedly it would have drawn attention, as was intended to an internet publication entitled Ned Kelly — stock thief, bank robber, murderer — psychopath”, written by Ian MacFarlane and Russell Scott, a forensic Psychiatrist. They proposed that the “such is life” myth is but one of many popular misconceptions about Ned Kelly, the biggest one being that rather than an admirable and heroic figure who cared about the Poor and about Society in general, Ned Kelly was a violent psychopath who only really cared about himself. Predictably the Kelly fanatics responded with personal attacks on the authors, allegations that this was all about trying to sell a book and make money off Ned (its not a book and its free to read on the internet, and of course Ian Jones latest book wasn’t about making money off Ned was it?) and recitations of Kelly doctrines like the “Robin Hood” myth, the Police Corruption dogma and the “Kate was Groped” excuse: anything but consider the proposition or try to counter it with rational argument. 
The second last of the 81 comments published was my own contribution:
Can someone explain why “psychopath” might not be such a bad description of a person who bragged about being the best stock thief in the area, that he could beat anyone in a fist fight, told lies, robbed banks, took hostages, murdered three policemen and a former friend, planned a terrorist style attack on a train full of police and made armor to stride about the wreckage of the train and kill any survivors? Seems a perfectly reasonable thing to at least ask the question.

To Kelly sycophants the very notion that Ned Kelly might have been a psychopath is blasphemous, and they would never entertain the possibility for even one second. One of them, a prominent Ned Kelly Forum Member had already responded to the article some weeks earlier by suggesting on his Facebook page that its just “puerile rhetoric”, all of Psychiatry is nonsense, that the Psychiatrist has issues himself, that people like me are the only Psychopaths in the Kelly story, and its us that the Psychiatrist should be investigating! This of course is the same individual who for many months attacked and denounced Ian MacFarlanes earlier book though he had never read it, and who more recently announced  that I am Ian MacFarlane.! (News to me as well!) As that saga demonstrated yet again, evidence and facts are not important to these people – so their hysterical negative reactions to this publication are entirely predictable, and ignorant and therefore irrelevant.
But for the more rational Kelly fan – and there are some! –  this article is never-the-less a challenging read, because it is intended I suspect for a professional audience rather than the general Public. Most of us, when we hear the term “Psychopath”, think of crazed serial killers and madmen, people who delighted in killing and torturing their victims, people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson and Hannibal Lecter , –  “Good-bye Clarice. Will you let me know if ever the lambs stop screaming?” .
Its not immediately obvious how such a label could be made to fit Ned Kelly, who, for one thing, has never been accused by anyone of torturing people or killing for pleasure.

Therefore to present their case to a general rather than Professional  readership I think this article would have been greatly improved by an initial description of exactly what personality disorders are and what constitutes a Psychopath in general terms. Having investigated this for myself, I have discovered that the experts disagree among themselves on what defines a Psychopath but they agree on some basic features.

Heres a description from a Scientific American article that says that  “few disorders are as misunderstood as is psychopathic personality”
“Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships. Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.”
It turns out that the people and behaviours we non-psychiatrists think of as Psychopathic are just the extremes of a spectrum that makes up the Psychopathic personality that has people like Hannibal Lecter at one end and at the other end, people who walk amongst us, have no criminal record, and may have lives which at least to casual acquaintances seem quite normal. In between the extremes are all manner of  difficult individuals, all of whom to some extent are devoid of guilt and remorse, inclined to have superficial interpersonal relationships devoid of empathy and love, to have issues with honesty and impulse control and a tendency to be violent.  

So the question about Ned Kellys personality becomes “Does it fit somewhere along that spectrum known as Psychopath?”
The first part of Scott and MacFarlanes article chronicles the life of Ned Kelly in some detail, highlighting the poverty and the criminal environment that Ned grew up in. In doing this they are pointing out the environmental influences that shaped  Kellys  adult personality – its believed that personality is created out of inherited traits that are moulded and built upon by subsequent positive and negative influences, and as they show, there were many negative influences on Ned Kellys life from a very young age, not the least of which would have been that of his alcoholic father. Ned from a young age, his mother father uncles and brothers all had many run-ins with the Law, sometimes resulting in acquittal and at others with imprisonment. There was also drunkeness and violence within and outside the immediate family, open expressions of hatred of authority, the Police, of squatters and the English, and there was support and admiration for anyone who opposed authority and in particular for the activities and lifestyle of Bushrangers, who were the working class heroes of their day. 
They write that the Jerilderie letter “offered a remarkable insight into Kelly’s grandiosity and narcissism” – wish I had thought of those terms – and describe the relevant detail of the Stringybark Creek murders, the bank robberies, Glenrowan and Neds capture, his trial and execution. 

Up to this point, the influence of Ian MacFarlane is obvious as it is very much a précis of The Kelly Gang Unmasked, with the same uncompromising and unsympathetic tone. Much of the information provided in this part would be news to anyone who only learned about Ned Kelly from the mass media and from the popular press, but its necessary to tell these harsh truths to understand the context in which this analysis of his personality takes place. To be more accessible to the general reader I thought the tone could have been a little less severe – the reader is left in no doubt about the authors feelings about the Kelly Gang and Ned in particular, something which might provide some readers with an excuse to dismiss the  entire thesis. Its a big leap in one step to jump from thinking of Ned Kelly as an icon and hero to deciding instead that he is an irredeemable sociopath.

The last third of the article highlights features of the life of Kelly that reveal aspects of his personality that contribute to the view that he was a psychopath. Its divided into sections that are devoted to explorations of the Interpersonal, Affective, Antisocial and Lifestyle features of Kelly’s life and create a compelling basis for the diagnosis of “Psychopath”.  The central feature of the Psychopathic personality seems to be a lack of empathy, an inability to feel guilt or remorse and a callousness that enables the psychopath to relentlessly pursue his own grandiose schemes with no regard for what it might cost to those around him.  These traits are easily made out in Ned Kellys involvement in, and subsequent recorded statements about the Police killings at Stringybark Creek, in the murder of Aaron Sherritt and in the planned train wreck at Glenrowan. 

Kellys lies are easily demonstrated – the authors point out the many inconsistencies between events that happened and the various contradictory statements of Neds  about them, documenting his propensity to tell lies when it suited. They note – as I pointed out in an earlier post – that even Ian Jones doesn’t believe Ned Kelly told the truth about where he was at the time of the “Fitzpatrick Incident”. But there were many other obvious lies and misdirections and falsehoods, for example in his statements  from Prison about what his intentions were for the Train at Glenrowan,  and in claiming he sent Curnow to stop the train.

Nobody disputes the claim that he was a thief.

Nobody can deny his narcissism : “I am a widows son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed”  and everyone has read his boasts about being the best stock thief in the district and that he was never caught, that he could beat anyone in a fist fight, that if he had been allowed to defend himself in court the outcome would have been different, even the notion that by wearing armour he could confront and defeat an entire Police force….

In discussing “affective features” – i.e. the emotional dimensions of Ned Kellys life – they highlight the absence of any record that Kelly had any significant “intimate relationships”. In fact various women have been nominated as being in love with Ned Kelly – five are listed by Ian Jones –  but none was ever  important enough to Ned to gain a mention in any of his many letters and recorded speeches; it appears these young womens infatuations were not reciprocated. This has led to suggestions Ned may have been gay. On the other hand it is well known that Ned Kelly exhibited a special charm that had women hostages singing his praises: surely that implies something positive about his character? The non-psychiatrist has forever been persuaded that these gushing reports by infatuated women who encountered Ned Kelly in bank Robberies show what a gentleman he was – but to the trained expert they reveal something altogether different. In fact, being superficially charming to casual acquaintances in a life devoid of real and enduring relationships is a typical characteristic of a sinister and shallow psychopath. This is why expert psychiatric analysis is so necessary – the layperson is fooled by the record just as the women were at the time.

I found it a fascinating and compelling discussion, especially once I had gained a little understanding of what a psychopath is and how one can be recognized. If you had to be like Charles Manson or Hannibal Lecter to qualify as a Psychopath, then I would have to say Ned Kelly wasn’t one – he’s not quite at that extreme end of the spectrum. But if a psychopath is a person who never seems to experience guilt and remorse, is inclined to have superficial interpersonal relationships devoid of empathy and love, to have issues with honesty and impulse control and a tendency to be violent, then it seems pretty clear : Ned Kelly most likely was a Psychopath.  
Here is a typical list of the features of Psychopathy: Ned ticks most of these boxes:
   Glib and superficial
   Egocentric and grandiose
   Lack of remorse or guilt
   Lack of empathy
   Deceitful and manipulative
   Shallow emotions
Social Deviance:
   Poor behavior controls
   Need for excitement
   Lack of responsibility
   Early behavior problems
   Adult antisocial behavior

Heres a link to the excellent article that this list comes from: www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199401/charming-psychopath
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8 Replies to “Was Ned Kelly a Psychopath?”

  1. Ned was Knackered says: Reply

    I've read the paper and Dr Scott uses the PCL-R (Psychopathy Check List – Revised) as would any psychiatrist diagnosing a psychopathic personality. He does not use hollywood characters like Hannibal Lecter. He uses Ned's own letters, newspaper refences and history to formulate his cleverly argued insight.

    The Kelly fanatics don't want this. But it is all there, for the first time, ever, proving that Ned was seriously mentally ill.

  2. Great blog, Dee!

  3. Excellent write up Dee,
    I can think of several people today who fit that psycho analysis !

    Regarding what Ned said,
    Dr Maikel Annalee from Sydney researched Ned's last words.

    " So it has come to this :
    You can't keep the peace by Injustice; You can only keep Justice in Peace. Such is life!
    Ned Kelly 11.11.1880 "

    I also researched newspaper reports of the day and while we don't know what he mumbled, mumbled he did. I can believe with Ned's stoic position, and words his mother told him " Mind you die like a Kelly son" he could easily have said something relevant as what Dr Maikel made of it.

    Wonder if anyone else could come up with better?


  4. You had to be there, Bill.

  5. Ned Kelly has been lovingly polished and romanticised by deceptive
    authors and writers that fell for all the ghastly mistakes you have been carefully pointing out.

    When you strip away the bulldust, Ned is revealed as a career criminal and police killer – a deranged psychopath.

    What a creep.

  6. Some past doodlers gave Kelly mild mental assessments, but they were amateurs. Dr Russ Scott deals with psychopaths daiiy as part of his job.

    It is very likely Ned was a psychopath. This is the first time after 134 years that Ned has been subjected to a proper psychiatric assessment.

    Future Kelly writers will need to get all this stuff on board.

  7. Anonymous says: Reply

    an attempt is made above to prove Kellys narcissism by quoting thus: “I am a widows son and my orders must be obeyed”

    that certainly sounds narcissistic but of course the quote has been butchered – from my recollection it is “I am a widows son OUTLAWED and my orders must be obeyed” which in the context of the situation the Kelly family was in, the vengeance threatened and English language usage at the time puts the emphasis firmly on the perceived injustice. Not narcissistic at all then, it seems.

    a site that refers to 'misstellings' in the case of others reveals much about itself in its own misstellings; primarily that it is exactly the same as its mirror images that misquote/invent/extrapolate etc to prove Kellys sainthood.

  8. "Anonymous" you are right I have indeed misquoted the Jerilderie Letter, as you point out and have now corrected it, as it was not my intention to "butcher" the quote. I was careless.

    However I disagree that including the term "outlawed" renders that quote any less narcissistic – the context is irrelevant. For anyone to announce that "my orders MUST be obeyed" implies they regard their judgements and commands to be infallible and beyond questioning or challenge. This is perfect arrogance, indicative of a supreme confidence in ones self, a complete absence of anything resembling humility and in total conformity with the concept of narcissism.

    But I thank you for pointing out my mistake.

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