The Kelly Book I would write (Part Four)

Part Three ended with a discussion of the so-called ‘Fitzpatrick incident’, an incident that followed an attempt to arrest Dan Kelly on a charge of horse stealing. It resulted in Mrs Kelly being sent to Gaol for three years, convicted of ‘wounding with intent to prevent lawful apprehension’, and two of her sons going into hiding to try to escape arrest. I pointed out in Part Three that the Kellys and their supporters then and ever since deliberately confused everyone by telling so many lies about what happened that day that much of their false version of events was accepted as the truth until quite recently.  

 

 

Something similar can be said about the next important event in the story, the police murders at Stringybark creek in October 1878: many lies that have been told about it have been accepted as the truth until quite recently. This is what happened : the Kelly brothers disappeared after the Fitzpatrick incident and so a police party of four went searching for them in dense bush at Stringybark Creek. Unwittingly they made camp on the first night of their search less than a mile from Ned Kellys hideout. The following day Ned and Dan Kelly with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart armed themselves and approached the police camp, a violent confrontation followed and three of the policemen were murdered. Kelly supporters’ version of what happened includes the lies that the police were in disguise, that they were heavily armed, that they were planning to kill the Kelly brothers if they found them, and that they were carrying specially made ‘body straps’ to bring the dead Kellys back. They say the Gang never intended to kill anyone when they went to the Police camp, the killings were acts of self-defence  and therefore were not murders.

 

Each one of those claims is false but I think the most important lie to debunk is the claim by Ned Kelly that when he shot and killed Lonigan it was an act of self-defence. Kelly said that Lonigan threw himself behind a battery of logs and lifted his head up above them preparing to shoot Kelly dead, but Kelly fired first and hit Lonigan in the right eye, killing him more or less instantly. In support of that claim Ian Jones wrote that several days after the tragedy McIntyre gave a statement to Sadleir describing what happened and it was the same story that Ned Kelly told. However according to Jones, to undermine Kellys self-defence claim, in other statements McIntyre later committed perjury, saying that Lonigan was shot while still out in the open.

 

We know for certain that Jones got this completely wrong for two reasons; firstly, what Jones calls a ‘statement’ given by McIntyre to Sadleir is actually just what Sadleir remembered when he wrote his memoir 35 years later. By then Sadleir was 80 years old which may explain why the memoir contains many errors, including for example the claim that it was Dan Kelly who killed Kennedy, and a claim that all gang members fired into the bodies of the dead policeman after it was all over. Both of these claims are false. All the actual statements made by McIntyre are consistent, and all say Lonigan was out in the open when Kelly shot him.

 

The second reason we know Jones is wrong, Sadleir’s recollection was wrong and McIntyre told the truth about Lonigan’s death is because at the autopsy Lonigan was found to have gunshot wounds in places that would have been impossible to hit if Kellys claim was the truth, that Lonigan was behind a battery of logs with only his head showing above them when killed. The autopsy also showed that all these wounds happened at the same moment, when Lonigan was alive, indicating that what Kelly fired at Lonigan was not a conventional bullet but a charge of shot or most likely a bullet divided into four. 

 

After the policemen were dead and McIntyre had escaped, the gang robbed the corpses taking watches and rings, stole what they wanted from the police camp, set everything else on fire and then fled the scene. A few weeks later they robbed the bank at Euroa and then a couple of months after that robbed the bank at Jerilderie. It was here that Kelly handed over a letter that much later became known as the Jerilderie Letter. It was a rambling self justifying litany of anti-police rhetoric, hyperbole and lies. Kelly claimed he needed the money to fund an appeal against his mother’s conviction but not one penny was ever used for that purpose – instead the stolen money was distributed among supporters, not among ‘the poor’ as is often claimed.

 

Both of these crimes were carried out over several days and involved taking many hostages and imprisoning them under armed guard. Commentary has often been made about them being brilliantly planned and superbly executed. In fact though daring they were also stupidly reckless and careless of human life, because more innocent lives could have easily been lost. If that had happened nobody would be talking about Ned Kelly being a potential General in the army – the robberies would have been regarded as shocking crimes and Kellys reputation further enhanced as a terrifying killer on the run.

 

Much is made by Kelly supporters of the fact that the gang killed nobody at either of these robberies, this being evidence in their minds that Kelly was not a bloodthirsty maniac preoccupied with killing. The counter argument is firstly that it’s a mischaracterisation to claim opponents of Kelly regard him as a bloodthirsty maniac preoccupied with killing.  This is a classic ‘straw man’ argument. Secondly, for the victims these crimes were very far from being the amusing frolics they are often made out to be : they were terrifying traumas accompanied by violent menace, the brandishing of loaded guns and a constant stream of highly credible threats of violence and shootings. Credit doesn’t go to the Gang for nobody being killed but to the wise behaviour of the frightened hostages themselves, all of whom would have fresh in their minds the recent news of the Gangs shockingly brutal police murders. They were all aware, from McIntyre’s reports, that the slightest deviation from total submission could result in being shot.

 

For sixteen months after the Jerilderie raid, the Gang was continuously on the run but with sympathiser and family support stayed out of the public eye and the reach of the Law. Very little is known about the activities of the Gang during that time but we know they were stealing farm equipment to make armour, their funds were disappearing fast and they were becoming increasingly paranoid and suspicious about their friend Aaron Sherritt : they suspected he was a police informer.  Eventually Kelly developed a secret plan to solve all his problems at once: the murder of Aaron would draw police to the district, the train they would  arrive in would crash where the gang had destroyed the track, and the armour  would make it easier to kill any police who survived the crash and easier to then go down the line and rob banks. In remarks that demonstrate how out-of-touch he had become, Kelly said later that the plan was aimed at securing his mother’s release from prison, even though there was less than a year of her sentence left by the time his mad plan was enacted at Glenrowan. What sane person would ever imagine that shortening a prison sentence by a few months justified wrecking a train and killing a couple of dozen police?

 

Popular Kelly biographer Ian Jones recognised this plan was a problem for the idea that he and many others subscribed to that Kelly was some kind of hero. Jones wrote that the plan was mad, that if enacted it would be a ‘criminal atrocity of monstrous scale’ – unless it was being enacted for some other much higher cause than just robbing banks and freeing his mother. Jones picked up on an idea that was floated decades earlier in articles mocking Ned Kelly, that he wanted to be the leader of a Republic, and decided to completely ignore every recorded explanation that Ned Kelly himself gave for the Outbreak. Jones then went about convincing everyone that Kelly really DID want to be the leader and founder of a Republic, even though Kelly didn’t mention such a thing even once. Jones genius was an idea that saved Kellys image by transforming the plan for Glenrowan from a criminal atrocity into a political statement, an act of war, the opening salvo of a campaign aimed at establishing a republic of North east Victoria.

 

Fifty years later, almost everybody accepts that Jones idea was a personal fantasy of his that had no basis in historical fact, but never-the-less this fallacy had been incorporated into the narratives about Glenrowan for fifty years in just the same manner as lies and misinformation was incorporated into the narratives about the Fitzpatrick incident, the Stringybark killings and the bank holdups. In my book all of them would be fully exposed and the factual details of what really went on properly recorded.

 

What’s left is Jones assessment that what was planned for Glenrowan was mad and a criminal atrocity of monstrous scale – and in that assessment, he was certainly correct. The plan was finally enacted in June 1880 and the gang successfully murdered Aaron Sherritt, and ripped up the train tracks near Glenrowan. Thankfully, because the great Generals plan was so badly thought through, every other part of the plan failed, and the police finally had their man. Kellys famed ‘Last Stand’ only lasted 15 minutes – encased in armour he was protected but the armour also restricted his movements and his vision: as a result, he didn’t hit, let alone kill a single policeman. However, there was much collateral damage: three gang members were dead, two of Kellys prisoners were killed by police bullets,  George Metcalf and Aaron Sherritt were killed  by the Gang, Mrs Jones Inn and livelihood  burned to the ground, and innumerable people deeply traumatised for life.

The final act of the Outbreak was the trial and execution of Ned Kelly by hanging on November 11th 1880. Again the narratives of the Trial have been infiltrated by sympathiser distortions and misinformation, the aim of them being to portray  Kelly as a victim of a corrupt system who didnt get a fair trial. You’ll read that he was prevented from speaking – not true; you’ll read the Trial was rushed – not true; you’ll read that McIntyre committed perjury to enable a conviction – not true; you’ll read the Judge was corrupt and incompetent – not true.

Certainly a variety of legal experts have made criticisms of the trial – but has any trial anywhere, ever been conducted in such a way that no criticism of it would be possible? I doubt it. Sympathisers point to these criticisms and claim support for their claims about an unfair trial – but they never mention that every one of those same legal experts also believed that even if the trial had been conducted perfectly, the outcome would likely have been the same: conviction for the murder of Thomas Lonigan. And sadly, in those days that meant only one possible outcome: death by hanging.

 

The postscript to the Kelly outbreak was the Royal Commission of Enquiry, conducted in 1881. As usual, Kelly supporters promote seriously inaccurate interpretations of the Commissions findings, the most important finding being rejection of Ned Kellys central claim that his criminality was a response to persecution and harassment by police. The Commissioners also had harsh words and critical judgements of several  of the Police involved in the outbreak. Not all police were above reproach in their behaviours and their judgements, and some of the criticism was justified.

 

However, the commission determined that the source of the outbreak was ‘the unchecked aggregation of a large class of criminals in the North East’ andthat the police, in their dealings with the Kellys and their relations, were simply desirous of discharging their duty conscientiously; and that no evidence has been adduced to support the allegation that either the outlaws or their friends were subjected to persecution or unnecessary annoyance at the hands of the police.’

 

With Ned Kelly out of the way the north-east quickly returned to life as usual, and for Ned Kellys brother Jim this included horse stealing. He went back to prison in 1881 for five years.

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