Such is Life? No more!

Stuart Dawson has done it again! He’s the academic from Monash University who last year uncovered the distortions, the inaccuracies and the outright lies that the Ned Kelly story-tellers include in their accounts of Constable Fitzpatricks role in the outbreak. He debunked the Fitzpatrick mythology, and now hes debunked another bit of Mythology in the Kelly story: this time (HERE) it’s the claim that Ned Kellys last words were “Such is Life”
This is not as shattering a revelation as his Fitzpatrick research was, because claims that “Such is life” were not Ned Kellys last words have been made before. It was made in 2005 in Alex Castles book, ‘Ned Kellys last Days’ and more recently, joint authors Queensland Psychiatrist Russell Scott and Ian MacFarlane, author of The Kelly Gang Unmasked  made this claim, along with their thesis that Ned Kelly was a psychopath in a paper published in 2014.
The Courier Mail ran their review of that paper under the heading ‘Ned Kelly’s last words were not ‘such is life’, Queensland psychiatrist and Melbourne historian claim’ and attracted a long string of outraged comments from people who usually betray their ignorance of Kelly history in their responses, fail to address the actual argument and typically resort to ad hominem attacks on the authors.
Dawson points out that on the day following Ned Kellys execution, journalists from The  Daily Telegraph, The Argus and The Herald published eye-witness accounts of what happened. The Telegraph reports that Neds last expression ‘was never concluded’ and all he managed to say was “Ah well I suppose…” before he stepped onto the drop. Nobody seriously believes that the Journalists observing  from the floor below would have been able themselves to hear exactly what Ned might have said, and so were relying on what they were told by the officials  who were right there with him at the Scaffold. They told the Journos that Ned had complained about having his arms pinioned behind his back, and that “Ah well I suppose..” was all he said. The Telegraph writer also published the gaol officials speculation that Ned ‘was probably meaning to say he supposed this was the last of it, or this is what it had come to’.
The Argus report seems to be an expansion of the Telegraphs report, converting the speculation about what Ned may have intended to say, into something he actually did say, so it becomes : “Ah well I suppose it has come to this.  
In contrast to these two accounts, which seem to agree that Neds last words were, at a minimum “Ah well I suppose…” the Heralds account  says something altogether different, and is revealed as the source of the famous phrase attributed to Ned Kelly :  “as he stepped on the drop, he remarked, in a low tone, ‘Such is life’”
The immediate problem is how Journalists on the floor below could have heard such words when nobody on the platform near him did. Dawson argues that these words were merely another attempt to recreate the intended meaning of Neds unfinished statement “Ah well I suppose…” but being short and pithy, ‘such is life’ became the expression that was most widely adopted, and eventually became part of the accepted “Legend” . Later writers had Ned saying “ Ah well I suppose it has come to this” AND “Such is life” but on November 11th and 12th 1880, nobody was reporting that he said BOTH.
An important historical fact that I found especially interesting was that the expression “Such is life” was in common use at the time:  “The day after the execution, the Ballarat Star wrote that Kelly’s “last exclamation, ‘Such is life’-a colloquialism that is used frequently in connection with the most trivial worldly affairs – appears to have been dictated, if it were not indeed his last effort at bravado,  by a cool indifference for his fate in this world or the next”
The article also notes that  Charles Dickens used the expression ‘such is life’ in his wonderful novel from 1861, “Great Expectations”
Therefore attributing the origin of  ‘Such is Life’ to Ned Kelly would be like saying Eddie Maguire invented the phrase ‘a big ask’, Kevin Rudd invented ‘ fair shake of the sauce bottle’, or Barack Obama invented “Yes we can”.
All we can confidently say about Ned on the Gallows is that he didn’t make a speech, he mumbled a few words which at best were “Ah well I suppose it has  come to this’ but were probably just “Ah well I suppose….”

“Such is life” is an invention that has stuck and become a prominent part of the Kelly myth that says Ned went bravely and defiantly to the Gallows, but it seems he shuffled onto the trapdoor mumbling, and words, for once escaped him. 

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22 Replies to “Such is Life? No more!”

  1. When Castieu informed him of the date of execution, Kelly supposedly said "Such is Life" at that point. Rather than on the gallows…

  2. Yes thats correct Mark. Dawsons article says this: 'The claimed Castieau exchange was alone in, and unique to, one syndicated news source.’ So if it happened, it happened the day before the execution according to McQuilton.

    It would be fair to say that as it was a commonly used expression at the time, Ned may well have said “Such is life” at some time or other. The Kelly myth though is that he sort of invented that phrase and they were his last words and were spoken in some sort of defiant and heroic way seconds before he was hanged. What we know from the newspapers of the day is that his last words were “ Ah well I suppose…"

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Damn you Stuart Dawson! I suppose (no pun intended) this means that I will now have to scrape off my beautiful "Such is Life' decal, complete with armoured Ned, from the rear window of my ute'?

  4. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Ah, well, I suppose. As the Wagga Wagga Advertiser said of the Kelly gang on Saturday 1 March 1879, “they have long established claims to a position elevated several feet above the common herd, and everybody is anxious that they should attain it, to the end that their proper level—usually left to the discretion of the ‘finisher of the law’— may eventually be determined”.

  5. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    I see someone on Ned Kelly Forum reached a similar conclusion 4 years ago, but without the intensive discussion of source evidence:


  6. NKF deleted the member but not the Comment, and at the bottom it says “Carla” !!

    Was there any subsequent discussion?

    (and to see the Image, highlight the URL and right click “Open URL” – well thats what I do on my Mac.

  7. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Hi Dee, the tinypic linked image is not opening on my PC. However, the NKF page is here and just scroll down to the comment by Carla on 30 August 2012. The post reads as follows:

    Hi Dave and all, Ned’s most famous words he never said!
    Following my previous post asking others what Ned last said, and if anyone had any thoughts on Maikel Annalee’s interpretation? see above. After thinking about it I picked up Alex Castles book 'Ned Kelly’s last days’. It would appear ‘ Such is Life’ and ‘Ah, I suppose it has come to this’ were made up by the Herald and Argus, ”to add descriptive colour to mark the occasion”, Alex C Castles wrote in his book ‘Ned Kelly’s Last Days’ page 218. Alex Castles – Quote – ”In fact the most reliable surviving witness statement came from a police officer, standing only feet away from the condemned man, who recorded that the prisoner’s remarks on the scaffold were inaudible. Ned’s last sentence, he said was incomplete. Although he had began to say something, the words were muffled when the white hood was pulled down. A second later he was gone.” Ian Jones’s in his book wrote, “another newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ might have come closest to the truth” – ” On leaving the cell, and before stepping upon the drop, an expression, with a sigh, escaped Kelly’s lips, which the warders and the Governor interpreted to this effect- ‘Ah well, I suppose’ – probably meaning to say he supposed this was the last of it, or this is what it had come to, but the expression was never concluded” (Page 288 Ned Kelly A Short Life, 2003). So, by all accounts “Such is Life” nor “Ah, I suppose it has come to this” were never spoken by Ned, all they heard was a sigh. Carla.

    The point is simply this: the information I noticed and which triggered my investigation is not new. While in the process of tracking down and reading the original full articles in which these quotes appeared, I chanced across the Launceston Examiner's notice of these three versions in the Melbourne papers. That was the 'light bulb moment', as it clicked that they were all from eye witnesses. So why three versions? The explanation was obvious when I saw them together in the Examiner: the Argus and Herald versions were journalist's condensations of the fullest description from the Daily Telegraph.

    It was then necessary to do the spadework to trace the variations and expansions of these eye witness statements, and to also investigate the fluffy-sounding romanticised 20th century descriptions of Ned on the scaffold which were universally at odds with the 1880 eye witness accounts.

    That led to interesting side investigations of how many witnesses were at the hanging – not 27, as Ian Jones says in his 'Short Life' (2003: 287), but over 40 as discussed in my article; and of how telegraphic wire news was prone to mistakes and subject to sometimes rather curious editing in its journey from source to print in various newspapers.

    What my article tracks and shows is the actual process of construction of a demonstrable historical myth. What anyone makes of the facts now is up to them, but the fact that this extraordinary myth has not just been perpetuated but grown larger over 130 years, despite ready access to source evidence proof that it was wrong, shows just how uncritical a lot of academic research really has been.

  8. Stuart, you did a great job but the problem hasn’t been that the academic research has been uncritical, the problem is that there hasn’t actually been ANY critical research, and myths have been allowed to flourish and be perpetuated without challenge. Ian Jones has been so influential because he has indeed done some real academic research, and this has given him great credibility. However, his work also hasn’t been subjected to critical analysis – until recently – and he has been able to get away with lots of other stuff about Ned that is colourful imaginative and attractive, but quite simply wrong. He was so used to being unchallenged, or hardly challenged that when it finally came along in the form of Ian MacFarlanes substantial book, he went silent.

  9. Jeff Gunnell says: Reply

    Carla was and is a complete champion!

    NKF is moribund.

  10. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Hi Dee, what I was getting at by "uncritical academic research" was not so much Ian Jones' influential version of the Ned story, but the enthusiastic worship of Ned by Professors Manning Clark and John Molony, who had the high-level academic training, paid scholarly leisure, and unlimited academic library access, to do objective historical research but produced profoundly biased pro-Ned eulogies. To do this they necessarily disregarded historical evidence that was literally in front of their noses.

    Thus Prof. Molony selectively quoted material to damn Fitzpatrick from a PROV file which contains, in the same bundle, the two petitions from residents of the Lancefield district endorsing his character and asking for his reinstatement. Thus Ian Jones ignored the dates on the negative comments about Fitzpatrick in his Record of Service, and applied them to the period of his first year of service – in which the Fitzpatrick Incident occurred – when his Record of Service over that first year was in fact consistently good.

    Thus Molony elevated a second or third hand piece of oral tradition from some obscure family history to become his primary narrative of Ned's last moments and words on the scaffold, in direct contradiction to four eye-witness accounts in the papers of the day. Thus John McQuilton accidentally added a second reference not from the Ovens and Murray Advertiser's account, on to his summary of the Ovens and Murray Advertiser's account of Ned's last moments, thereby giving a simple mistake the credibility of authoritative university publication endorsement which few would feel confident enough to protest. Thus experienced writer and dedicated researcher Frank Clune invented a last speech on the scaffold from thin air, again in direct contradiction to his own source evidence from the newspapers of Kelly's day. Thus and thus and thus again.

  11. Molony is the guy who says on a you-tube video that Fitzpatrick RAPED Kate. That comment alone completely destroyed his credibility as any kind of academic authority on Ned Kelly.

  12. Stuart I’m told that on a Kelly Forum that isn’t accepting new members, regarding your latest paper someone called Admin 33 has complained that "the funny thing about these myth haters is that everyone knows who Ned is but nobody knows who the hell this author is” Isn’t it a joke that if you’re anonymous they complain, if you are a real person with a name they complain, but if your pro-Ned you can be real or anonymous and it doesn’t matter.

    This person then describes his own recent testing – “last wednesday” – at the Melbourne Gaol, to see what people down below and on the scaffold might be able to hear of a person speaking in a normal voice and with a canvas bag on his head, and as expected the only people who could actually hear anything properly were those standing upstairs on the Scaffold. This confirms your point that what the reporters wrote must have been conveyed to them by members of the Official party upstairs. He didnt of course conduct his pseudo-scientific test with dozens of witnesses shuffling about down below, coughing, talking and generally making crowd noises, and he didnt have an official party clanking about on the metal floor around the scaffold, or Priests continually offering up prayers for the soul of the condemned.

    He misses the point completely that the Kelly myth has Ned defiant on the Gallows, when in fact he was mumbling and incapable of completing a sentence.

    As you say, there is a dreadful lack of rigorous research in the Kelly world.

  13. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Hi Dee, I don't know who most of the various forum contributors are, and it really doesn't matter. What matters is if they make points supported by solid evidence read in context, not just decorate the Kelly legend with an endless trail of selective quotes, which is what's happened ever since Kenneally led the way back in the early 20th century. That's why I so much appreciated the incredibly valuable discussion with Sharon Hollingsworth throughout writing the article, because she was happy to give considered critical feedback and suggest extra sources of information even though the investigation cut against her longstanding Kelly sympathies. It's the search for historical truth, solving the puzzle about whether we can actually find out what happened, which is a big difference from just sticking to a view and dismissing or ignoring facts that don't fit with it.

    We also collaborated a lot through correspondence over side issues that never made it into the article, like not just how many witnesses were at the execution, but how many we could identify and name (we got most of the 40+ named); or the intensive correspondence about Warder Adams and PROV searches, trying to find duty rosters, etc. You would be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere with as much detailed knowledge of the whole Kelly story from start to finish, and I felt very grateful and privileged that she was willing to share her knowledge and critical powers unstintingly in an effort to get to the bottom of a question where others have just said there are 2 or more versions and we'll never know what was really said. It's amazing what dedicated, unbiased investigation can unearth if people are willing to come to the party with open eyes.

    I must disagree with one tiny point above though – any last words would be spoken just before the bag was pulled over his head, not afterwards! We know that the reporters were told what was said by the gaol officials directly afterwards, as the Daily Telegraph explicitly says so. People really need to get onto Trove or hike into the State Library or Burke Museum microfilms to read the full original articles before they start quibbling. You can't make a case for anything one way or the other just based on a couple of sentences requoted out of context in someone's book.

  14. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Carla's comment was spot on! That's what I'm saying – people do notice these things, but these important observations get swept away in the dominant narrative (Keneally/Jones/Molony etc) and the myths lumber on blindly.

    I would like to give a plug to Kelvyn Gill's "NK – the Historical Record" resource book. It is a huge piece of work which apparently is having a revision or update, and I will certainly be lining up to buy the update when it happens. You still have to check the original source documents as sometimes the sources are listed under the date of the event they refer to, rather than the actual publication date of the original article which could be a couple of days later; and you may want to double check the original text if you're a fanatic for accuracy, like me; but as a basis for searching quickly for relevant stuff it is magnificent. I'd be even happier if it was able to come out as a CD with some kind of copy protection, then you could computer search for items, but I don't know how copy-protection can be done. Anyone know about these things?

  15. Without going too far off track or to purposely change the subject,  I want to say that once again I see that Dee has mentioned about the Scott and Macfarlane 2014 paper that concludes that Ned Kelly was a psychopath. There are a couple of other articles in the past (one of which Scott & Macfarlane do cite) that also attempted to psychoanalyze Ned Kelly. The one they cite is listed in Brian McDonald's "What They Said About Ned!" (where would I be without this valuable resource!).Brian McDonald had these two entries about the articles –

    McIntyre, Angus. "Ned Kelly : A psycho-history." Article in Quadrant. Vol 23…..Jan-Feb. 1979.An extremely well researched historical article on Kelly. For an overview of McIntyre's psychoanalysis and a different interpretation see  Boban, Vesna & Graham Gambie. "Inside Ned's Head : a sad and classic case of paranoia.

    "Boban, Vesna & Graham Gambie. "Inside Ned's Head : a sad and classic case of paranoia." Article in Historic Australia Vol. 1 No. 3…Mar./Apr. 1983.A psycho-analytical  look at Kelly's personality.

    Ok, back to me…It would seem that all three of these articles (yes, I have read them all in full) come to different conclusions. The McIntyre one is scholarly with lots of footnotes and the man sure seems to know his business but it is a bit ponderous to read as it  goes way over my head with all of the Freudian terms. For example – "…in other more technical words, by keeping his narcissism focused on the ego, Kelly deprived his super ego of the self love it needs to render its model of behaviour altogether perfect and worthy of emulation. Alternately, his parents may not have provided him with that model of behaviour in the first place…"

    The Boban &  Gambie article is way shorter and not footnoted but is much easier to read and comprehend. They refute some of McIntyre's findings and as Brianmac says they offer a different interpretation. Interestingly, they come up with the conclusion that he is NOT a psychopath (!!!!!) but instead is paranoid (as noted in their article title).This is what they said about the psychopath bit-"His letters seem to be a justification of his anti-social acts and a plea for understanding. He is saying, I didn't want to do any of it, it was forced upon me. He has been called a psychopath, but this is action totally incompatible with the clinical picture of a pyschopath. Kelly's letters show a deep guilt – a psychopath has none."The article went on with some more compelling analysis and is quite well done and really interesting.

    I am wondering if the differing outcomes found by these authors/analysts might have come from their pre-conceived notions of Ned Kelly? If some unknown person with the same traits were analyzed in something of a blind study would they be labeled the same? Maybe so, maybe not, but something to think about.

  16. I appreciate Stuart's kind words. I have immensely enjoyed our correspondence and was more than happy to assist him in any way I could. He went to great lengths and left no stone un-turned in his quest for every bit of information he could lay his hands on so he could distill it all down and "try the spirits" so to speak (I am talking mixed metaphors not mixed drinks!) to see what the actual possible go was. I always thought that I was all-consumed with a passion for research but I think I have finally met someone who has out-classed even me! I look forward to any future journal articles he might publish and I hope to be able to lend a hand.

  17. Sharon are those two papers accessible on line? I wold like to read them but cant find them. I have one comment though, about the author of one of the two: Angus McIntyre appears to be a political scientist or something of that sort, not an actual Psychiatrist. And the authors of the other paper – are they Psychiatrists? I say this because in thinking about whose opinion we might give more weight to, I would be inclined to favour the opinion of an actual forensic psychiatrist. ( i.e. Russell Scott)

  18. Dee, I don't think these can be found online. Someone sent me photocopies of them a long time ago. I have just scanned them in but the files are so large I will have to send a couple of pages at the time. I tried to size them down but then they became very difficult to read. I tested by sending to myself and it failed to deliver due to the size! Stay tuned, I will get these pages to you in increments.

    Regarding the authors, the article says that Angus McIntyre is a member of the Department of Politics, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria and that "An earlier version of this paper was read to a conference on Freud convened by Deakin University in June 1977." Of course, I can't say what he is doing now as this article was from 1979.

    The other author who is doing the analysing, Vesna Boban, was, according to this 1983 article, a psychology graduate of Sydney's Macquarie University. Just a casual look at google shows that she is in practice these days.

  19. Brad Drysdale says: Reply

    Dr Scott in 2014 was using the PCL-R (Psychopathy check list – revised) in his analysis of Ned. Ned ticked off most boxes in that list of 18 factors.

    I think Sharon will find if she pursues her research that none of the people she quotes ever were experts in this field.

    I understand that Dr Scott deals daily with such people in high security.

    Even today, psychopaths are not easily treated or helped…

  20. Brad Drysdale says: Reply

    Bogan and Gambie are quoted by Sharon as writing "He has been called a psychopath, but this is action totally incompatible with the clinical picture of a pyschopath. Kelly's letters show a deep guilt – a psychopath has none."

    MacFarlane's book says Ned never expressed the slightest remorse for SBC or the three murdered police or their families. No "deep guilt" there, or anywhere else.

    I can't think of an instance of "guilt" in any of Ned's many writings

    More misleading waffle from Ned apologists methinks.

  21. Stuart Dawson says: Reply

    Ned Kelly was responsible for a number of deaths, and there were three points at which he could have expressed public remorse for his actions:

    1. Before or after he confessed and received absolution from Father Gibney after capture at Glenrowan, while he was thought to be in a dying state. Although no-one can know what he said in confession, the Protestant Standard shows that any repentance quickly vanished once he started to recover.

    2. At any time between his removal from Glenrowan and sentencing, including in his Melbourne trial. There were a number of statements throughout these months by himself or his solicitor, but there is not a word of sorrow or repentance recorded anywhere.

    3. The day prior to execution, after learning that the appeal for reprieve was lost. But the gaol surgeon reported his saying that day that he was not sorry and had done nothing whatsoever to be sorry for.

    The point is that he said nothing to anyone that could console his victims’ families, or expressed any regret at all for his actions. Not a single word of remorse in 5 months. He went on hating and blaming others; boasting, “I have stolen horse innumerable”, damaging others’ livelihoods and terrorising a district; and then making excuses in his Governor letters with eternally shifting self-justifications.

    That leaves the morning of his execution, when he was visited in the condemned cell by Deans Donagh and O’Hea for the last sacraments. No-one can know what he said to the priests. But nothing was recorded about expressing any last regrets to his warders or others on his last day.

    It would be nice to think (against the Protestant Standard’s showing that his ‘repentance’ at Glenrowan lasted barely an hour), that he was penitent at the last moment, as he had a lot to be sorry for. But from his track record with the priest at Glenrowan, there is no much reason to believe it.

  22. Brad Drysdale says: Reply

    That sums it all up nicely, Stuart. Well said.

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