By the end of the weekend of June 26th to June 28th, 1880, the weekend of Ned Kellys last stand at Glenrowan, six people had been killed: Aaron Sherritt had been murdered by gang member Joe Byrne who was himself later shot and killed by police; gang members Dan Kelly and Steve Hart had committed suicide trapped inside the Ann Jones Inn, and tragically Martin Cherry and Johnny Jones, innocent hostages imprisoned in the Inn by Ned Kelly were caught in the crossfire and also killed by Police bullets.
The issues that relate to these two innocent deaths are what I want to consider in this post.
I haven’t yet had a chance to read the newly released book “Ned Kelly : Iron Outlaw” by a long-time Kelly apologist, Brad Webb but I predict that in it, he will repeat his frequently previously expressed opinion that the Police were to blame for these two deaths, and they prove the Police were a corrupt and undisciplined mob of killers who were so inflamed by ‘blood lust’ they couldn’t have cared less who they killed in their determination to destroy the Kelly Gang. His views are quite typical of the people who think Ned Kelly was a hero. In their eyes, responsibility for the loss of innocent life lies fairly and squarely with the Police. Here’s another example from the Facebook Page of another prominent Kelly apologist:
“Bob, they don’t use the word MURDER, when the cops, with premeditation and deliberate acts, knowing the Glenrowan Inn was full of defenceless men, women and children, opened fire mercilessly, with intent to kill everyone inside.”
Firstly, we can dismiss the idea that the Police ‘opened fire mercilessly with intent to kill everyone inside’. This preposterous suggestion, a deliberate vilification of the Police is not supported by any statement or evidence from the time, and is completely contradicted by the fact that only 3 of about 60 people in the Inn died as a result of Police gunfire, and one of those three was a gang member. Given that the prisoners were trapped together in a confined space, and barely protected by the thin timber walls of the Inn, it wouldn’t have been difficult to kill or wound most of them, if that had been the intention. In fact, when the shooting started, to try to help protect the hostages it was a Policeman, Constable Hugh Bracken, also a prisoner in the Inn who told all the other hostages to “lie down, as flat as you possibly can on the floor, it is the only chance you’ve got”. Outside the Inn police were told to fire high to avoid the hostages lying on the floor and Hare is reported to have told his troopers “Do not fire unless they fire first”. One cant help wondering why it is that Kelly sympathisers make such ridiculous statements as the one above that the Police wanted ‘to kill everyone inside’, and why, when they do, no-one among their ranks ever challenges them. When ordinary people read this kind of absurd exaggeration they realise Kelly sympathisers are not credible.
It would be wrong though to pretend that the Police were all perfectly behaved at Glenrowan. Steele, who arrived after the shooting started and according to Justin Corfield without realising the people inside the Inn weren’t all Gang members or sympathisers fired carelessly at genuine hostages wanting to escape, and later, after bringing down Ned Kelly he had to be restrained from executing him on the spot. The Black trackers also were reported to have been shooting indiscriminantly, and had to be warned. The truth though is that the great majority of Police conducted themselves appropriately, and it was Police themselves who pulled the errant ones into line.
Secondly, we can also dismiss the suggestion that the deaths of two innocent hostages were ‘murder’, because we know they weren’t deliberate killings preceded by ‘malice aforethought’ which is how a murder is defined. The Police advanced on the Inn in the dark, calling on the gang to surrender “in the name of the Queen” but the Gang, protected by their armour responded with shouts of “Come on you bastards; the bloody police can’t do us any harm” and started shooting. The police replied in kind shooting at the flashes coming from the veranda of the Inn. The deaths of Johnny Jones and Martin Cherry were clearly unintended, but who was ultimately to blame? Is it entirely the fault of the Police if they accidentally kill someone in a hostage crisis?
Obviously, Kelly sympathisers say yes, the Police were at fault because if they hadn’t fired the bullets, the hostages wouldn’t have been killed. That of course is the entire point of having human shields – to discourage return fire. On the other hand if the Kelly Gang hadn’t taken people hostage in the first place, they would never have been in harms way.
I think the first point to be made is that the Kelly Gang were the criminals here, not the Police. The gang had been on the run for nearly two years and had already murdered three policemen at Stringybark Creek, they had robbed two Banks of an enormous amount of money, and they had murdered Aaron Sherritt. They had turned up at Glenrowan heavily armed, equipped with armour and dynamite, they had dismantled a section of railway line and were intent on committing a criminal incident of major proportions, beginning with a lethal train wreck. At gunpoint they imprisoned a large group of innocent people, children and babies included, to be used as human shields, and as some sort of bargaining chip in a negotiation whose purpose even now is only guessed at. This was to be a criminal act of unprecedented slaughter, and it was the duty of the Police to prevent it, to end the two year “Outbreak” and bring this murderous Gang to justice. And that’s exactly what they did.
Since that time, 1880, there have been innumerable hostage crises around the world, and they all create the same dilemma for authorities: should the lives of innocent hostages be protected at all costs, or should the hostage-takers be stopped by whatever means necessary and the possibility of ‘collateral damage’ accepted ? The argument against giving in to criminal demands is that it encourages other criminal gangs to use the same tactic and potentially creates many more such dilemmas, leading ultimately to greater harm, greater loss of innocent life. On the other hand, the loss of even one innocent life is an almost unthinkable tragedy which could be avoided by simply giving in.
In 1880 the world was nowhere near as familiar with hostage crises as it is today, so there was little experience or knowledge if any, of the best way to approach such dangerous scenarios. In modern times capitulation to the demands of the hostage takers is unusual, and Governments mostly adopt a hardline approach but at the same time attempt to negotiate a solution that saves lives. Often enough though, specially trained squads with sophisticated equipment end the crisis with some sort of assault which doesn’t always end well for the hostages. At the 1972 Olympics, at Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, in Peru 1996, in Moscow 2002 and at the Lindt Café in Sydney, December 2014, as well as many other sieges, innocent lives were lost, but surely no-one in their right minds would think these people were ‘murdered’ by their rescuers, or that the intention of the authorities was anything other than to save the lives of all the hostages if they could?
There have been inquiries after many of these events, and the actions of the authorities frequently questioned and criticised. Indeed, this is what happened after the siege at Glenrowan with the 1881 “Royal Commission of enquiry into the circumstances of the Kelly outbreak”. Superintendent Hare who led the initial charge at Glenrowan was not criticised in any way in relation to what happened at Glenrowan – in fact, his Pension was increased by £100 per annum owing to the injury he received there. However, Superintendent Sadleir’s behaviour at Glenrowan was criticised : the Report said somewhat curiously “that his conduct of operations against the outlaws at Glenrowan was not judicious or calculated to raise the police force in the estimation of the public”. I call their comment curious because Sadleir was in Melbourne for the entire duration of the siege and only arrived at Glenrowan after Ned had been captured, and the Inn burned to the ground. Sargent Steele, who was supposed to have shot at hostages attempting to escape the Inn, and who was prevented from illegally killing Ned Kelly immediately after he had been captured, was also criticised in the Commissions report – but not about his behaviour at Glenrowan. The Commission was critical of his failure to follow up on sitings of the Gang in November 1878 which may have led to their early capture. Bracken, Curnow and ‘members of the press’ were all commended for their behaviour at Glenrowan. Martin Cherrys death was mentioned, as was Johnny Jones injury, and reckless firing by the Blacktrackers after hostages waved a white flag was decried, but in the final report, there was no mention or apportioning of blame for the deaths of two innocent people.
Likewise, there was an inquiry by the NSW Coroner after the Lindt Café siege in Sydney 3 years ago in which an innocent hostage, Katrina Dawson was killed by Police when they stormed it, freed the remaining hostages and killed the gunman, Man Haron Monis. The coroner specifically addressed the issue of Katrinas death :
“Nevertheless, because the inquest seeks to identify how such incidents might most effectively be responded to in general terms, it is inevitable the focus will fall on any suboptimal performances. Plaudits should and will be offered where deserved but mistakes can’t be papered over if performance is to be improved and public safety increased.
That said, I cannot stress too heavily that the deaths and injuries that occurred as a result of the siege were not the fault of police. All of the blame for those rests on Man Monis. He created the intensely dangerous situation, he maliciously executed Tori Johnson, he barricaded himself in a corner of the café, and his actions forced police to enter the café in circumstances where the risk of hostages being wounded or killed was very high. Monis deserves to be the sole focus of our denunciation and condemnation.”
These words could equally be applied to what happened at Glenrowan, which was a situation that had many features in common with the Lindt Café siege. There were also some significant differences, such as that Monis had never before killed anyone whereas the Kelly Gang had murdered four times, and whereas Monis threated to and finally did murder one of the hostages, the Kelly Gang used their hostages as human shields and didn’t threaten to kill any of them themselves. However the Gang certainly imprisoned their hostages against their will and very deliberately placed them in harms way, fired on the Police and dared them to shoot back. There cannot be any doubt, given the findings of the 1881 Royal Commission, the historical responses to the many hostage crises that have occurred since then, and the unequivocal findings of the NSW Coroner who investigated the Lindt Café siege, that if he had conducted a similar inquiry into the deaths of Johnny Jones and Martin Cherry at Glenrowan that he would have said, as he did of Monis:
“I cannot stress too heavily that the deaths and injuries that occurred as a result of the siege were not the fault of police. All of the blame for those rests on Ned Kelly. He created the intensely dangerous situation, he maliciously executed Aaron Sherritt, he barricaded himself in a corner of the Inn, and his actions forced police to respond in circumstances where the risk of hostages being wounded or killed was very high. Ned Kelly deserves to be the sole focus of our denunciation and condemnation.”
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