There is one compelling reason why I believe everyone who purports to have an interest in the Kelly outbreak should read this book: to my knowledge it’s the first book since the outbreak that is an authentic voice from the other side of the argument. It’s not an argument ABOUT the other side of the debate by an ‘anti-Kelly’ author or an academic trying to find the balance and the middle ground in the great struggle between the Kellys and the Police – there are plenty of books like that. No, this is an account BY the other side, and for the first time. It’s a voice, a perspective, a family history and an account of an experience of the Outbreak that we have never properly heard before, and no matter what you might have already decided about the Outbreak, this voice from the family of a murdered policeman has to be respectfully listened to. Until now it’s been more or less drowned out by the machinery of the Kelly myth-making industry.
This was the realisation that dawned on me after I had read just a few chapters of this book, that this was a story we haven’t really heard before, and we all needed to listen.
I must admit, before my copy arrived I had some misgivings about it. I heard Leo Kennedy being interviewed on the ABC one morning and he seemed hesitant and nervous and didn’t make his case at all well. Even though the books title is “Black Snake The real story of Ned Kelly” I wondered if the book was going to be one long sob story about Bridget, Michael Kennedys widow.
I finally got my copy last Monday. It was a good-looking book, a proper hardback with a dramatic cover and a thick section of mostly familiar photographs in the middle. The writing style makes it very easy to read. There are 43 short chapters and a disappointingly thin smattering of references, but no Index and no Bibliography. True to its title, it wasn’t a sob story about Bridget Kennedy, but a story about Ned Kelly as seen through Kennedy eyes. I also realised it was written from a very clear and unambiguous moral perspective, something which was often lost in earlier Kelly narratives which in their attempts to understand the outbreak, and be seen to be even-handed, or perhaps because of confusion often avoid taking a position about the ethical qualities of Ned Kellys behaviour, making allowances for his behaviour on the basis of his claimed persecution, his claimed mistreatment and suffering as the son of a widow. But for Kennedy it is clear: bullying, forgery, thieving, lying and killing are unambiguously criminal. There are no excuses. There is no need to canvas alternative views, or take seriously the testimony of the known liar Ned Kelly in trying to understand, say, the McCormick incident or how Michael Kennedy died. Theres no point in trying to sugar-coat the brutality of hostage taking and Bank robbery at gunpoint with references to sham displays of courtesy to women, or forced dancing, and no point in even mentioning the foolish adulation of men or women who may have been taken in by it. So Kennedy ignores most of it.
Predictably, many Kelly myths are exposed in this book. For example, debunking the myth that the policemen who went to Stringybark Creek were in disguise, Kennedy points out that Policemen had to buy their own uniform, and it had to be kept in perfect order. However, because they were so poorly paid it could take a year just to pay it off, and so to prolong the life of their expensive uniforms they would often wear ordinary clothes when on country patrols. I also learned Police had only 12 days off per year, most had never fired a weapon of any sort, ever! – and Irish were 14% of the Victorian populous but 82% of Victoria police.
How many of us knew of Edwin Graves, a stockman who caught Ned Kelly trying to steal his boss’s black mare in 1874, and ‘gave him (Ned) an absolute hiding’? Kennedy claims that Ned Kelly would often get drunk and pick fights because he wanted to be known for his toughness, and this need to impress people was his motivation for the Cameron, Jerilderie and other letters, and explains why whenever he had an audience he harangued and boasted and lectured anyone he could corner, self-justifying behaviour which continued even in the Court room after his conviction.
I hadn’t known that the Kelly Tree was originally known as the Police Tree. There’s an anecdote about a woman who was so afraid of the Kelly gang that she hid her husband’s trousers so he couldn’t go and join the search for them! Kennedy says the green sash taken from Ned at his capture at Glenrowan wasn’t being worn as some kind of Irish republican symbol but as ‘wadding to protect his shoulders and chest from the leather straps and metal’. There were a number of other things he mentions without much support, such as that Fitzpatrick accepted a bribe of several hundred pounds from Ned Kelly to stay quiet after the ‘incident’, that the gang held up the Glenmore store for supplies prior to the Glenrowan showdown, and that in 1877 Ned and some others murdered a guy called Barron, reputed to have been an ‘enforcer’ employed by George King who also disappeared in very suspicious circumstances at about the same time. Some say for physically abusing his mother Ned murdered George as well.
More importantly Kennedy debunks the negative mythology about the four police who went to Stringybark Creek, and in particular the reputation of his great grandfather Michael Kennedy, detailing his years of dedicated service to policing prior to his death, his status in the various communities that he worked in, and his devotion to his family and his community. One of the slurs still made against him, and one which Leo Kennedy says his great grandmother Bridget often mentioned and was deeply offended by was that Michael Kennedys motivation, in searching for the Kellys, was the reward being offered. Ned Kellys defence suggested to McIntyre at Kellys trial in Melbourne that Kennedy conspired with Scanlan at Stringybark Creek to set off that day without McIntyre and Lonigan in the hope they would catch the Kellys and only have to split the reward two ways instead of four.
“McIntyre felt gutted to be dragged into a corner by Bindon. It was all hypothetical. It should have been objected to and stricken from the record. Bindons slurs showed the worst side of the combative legal system. Though baseless hypotheticals and conjecture, he had disparaged the dead men’s actions”
In fact, Kennedy was known to share any rewards he received with anyone who had helped him earn it. Its recounted that in 1878 he received £40 for helping to capture Daniel McIntosh a sheep thief: he gave some of it to local informants, used half of the rest to pay down his mortgage and the rest he saved.
Kennedy offers some interesting perspectives on Ned Kellys trial. He believes David Gaunsons involvement was entirely self-serving, his main intent being to advance his own political interests, and that he ‘used’ Ned Kellys notoriety and fame to advance his own profile. He describes Gaunsons fake Ned Kelly ‘Interview’ – the one that begins “I do not pretend to have led a blameless life or that one fault justifies another…- as a ‘stunt’ which ‘wounded himself and Ned”, and his failure after two months to have produced a ‘brief’ as ‘ridiculous’. He reminds the reader that the option of manslaughter was not available to the jury because of a ‘special protection law’ which required that anyone who caused the death of a policeman while resisting or escaping arrest must be charged with murder-manslaughter was not an option. Bridget Kennedy always resented the fact that Kelly wasn’t tried for Scanlan’s murder and for the murder of her husband: “Then there would have been none of this nonsense that’s going on today” she quite correctly would claim.
There were unfortunately a few important mistakes in this book. Kennedy correctly reports that Lonigan was killed within seconds of the order to ‘Bail up’ and well before he could draw his gun, but his claim that Lonigan had turned to run and was shot through the eye when looking back over his shoulder is wrong. Without listing the reference, he claimed that a bullet fragment entered Lonigan’s ‘upper chest near the right breast bone’ but I have never seen that reported anywhere in respect of Lonigan’s post mortem findings. He also was wrong to claim that bullets were fired into Lonigan’s dead body in some sort of bonding ritual, after McIntyre had fled. Leo Kennedy noted that Dr Reynolds told the RC that “If wounds were inflicted before the circulation had actually ceased it would be impossible to state accurately whether they were before or after death”but failed to realise that would have meant the firing of additional bullets into Lonigan very soon after he fell, something which McIntyre would have seen and reported. But he didn’t. But if those bullets had been fired into Lonigan long after McIntyre had fled the scene, circulation would indeed have ceased long before, and the wounds would have had a different appearance, something that Reynolds would have seen and reported – but he didn’t. This detail is particularly important as it was for Lonigan’s death that Kelly was eventually hanged. Getting this detail right cements in place the proof that what Kelly claimed about Lonigan’s death was a lie.
There’s a brief discussion about the history of mis-identification of the site of the Police camp at Stringybark Creek, and Leo Kennedys involvement with Genepool and the makers of the Lawless documentary that was screened last year. The documentary makers claimed to have found the exact place of the police camp, and Kennedy says the siting problem ‘was solved by dating the hut and by matching Constable McIntyre’s map and the various descriptions from all testimonies given at the time with the Burman photos’. These statements will mean nothing to everyone except the well-researched Kelly buff, and cannot be verified because regrettably Kennedy doesn’t supply the critical references. The claim that the hut was ‘dated’ is going to be news to everyone with an interest in that subject – no-one I know was convinced by the documentary makers glib explanations. Somehow, I expect if this claim is challenged, and I don’t doubt that it will be, it will be found wanting. The Lawless documentary makers claim to have found the place where Michael Kennedys body was found in 1878, “a quarter mile northwest of the camp” is also likely to be challenged!
Kennedy fell for a number of the Kelly baseless myths about Constable Fitzpatrick, describing him as foolhardy, saying he tended to be busier in the bedroom than in the police station, and that he died from cirrhosis of the liver. However, he claims the cirrhosis was not caused by alcohol but was a result of Fitzpatrick suffering from haemochromatosis. These claims are again not referenced but we know the death certificate didn’t mention hemochromatosis or cirrhosis so I am at a loss to know where he obtained this information from.
The last claim made in this book that I want to mention is the thing that probably surprised me the most. Anthony Griffiths, a Kelly descendant told Leo Kennedy on Valentine’s Day 2017 that Kelly descendants then and today are adamant: Ned was a horse thief and not a very good one. “He did not have a political bone in his body. He was a thief who was too busy thieving”
Now isn’t that interesting? I wish the Kelly descendants would tell that to the Kelly fanciers and ask them to stop hero-worshipping and making up stupid fairy stories about Ned Kelly, and lies about good men like Michael Kennedy. Notwithstanding my criticisms of this book, it is nevertheless a terrific informative and insightful read and a great addition to my Kelly library. Thank you Leo.
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