Book Review: ‘The Kelly Hunters’ by Grantlee Kieza

I begin this review of the latest book written by Grantlee Kieza, ‘The Kelly Hunters’ with the last words he wrote in it, the final thought Kieza wanted to leave with his readers about Ned Kelly :  a quotation from the report of the Royal Commission of enquiry into ‘the circumstances of the Kelly Outbreak’ :

 ‘The cold-blooded despatch of the brave but ill-fated Kennedy, when, wounded and hopeless of surviving, he pleaded to be allowed to live to bid farewell to his wife and children, is one of the darkest stains upon the career of the outlaws.

 It was cruel wanton and inhuman and should of itself brand the name of his murderer the leader of the gang with infamy’

 

I quote these words to draw the attention of Kelly sympathisers to the fact that this is not a ‘pro-Ned’ book by any stretch of the imagination: Kieza’s often expressed opinion of Kelly is that he was a violent and dangerous criminal murderer and not much else. And neither is Grantlee Kieza’s  new book ‘anti-police’ – his focus on the police provides no support for a core claim of the Kelly legend, that corrupt police were the cause of everything bad that happened to the Kelly clan, though Kieza doesn’t hesitate to point out police faults, their weaknesses and their blunders. They were, after all, human beings and products of their times.

 

As has become obvious by their comments on Facebook pages, somewhat ironically  Ned Kellys fans have found many of Kiezas retellings of incidents in the saga familiar and reassuring, because they are not much different from the versions they already know. As a result, they’re giving this book and its author a warm reception. In fact, despite the reassuring familiarity of what he writes, Kelly fans seem not to have noticed that Kiezas narratives are often subtly different in ways that signal to the alert reader that he doesn’t support the now out-of-date versions beloved of sympathisers. Kieza’s book is a kind of literary Trojan Horse thats been welcomed into the Kelly community who havent realised that within its pages their treasured myths and legends are being dismantled . 

 

For example, Kieza provides an uncritical and routine description of the incident where four police tried to subdue Kelly in the bootmakers shop in Benalla, and includes the fact that Lonigan squeezed Kellys balls ‘with all the power he could muster from his thick sinewy forearms.’ That account would satisfy the Kelly devotees, but then rather than repeating the myth that this was an example of police persecution – which was what Ned Kelly himself also claimed – Kieza wrote ‘Kellys penchant for violence and his hatred for the police had turned a minor incident into a catastrophe’. In other words, this debacle was NOT the fault of police, as is usually made out, but arose out of Kellys defective character.

 

Similarly, Kiezas account of the raid at Jerilderie would satisfy the Kelly sympathiser readers, but would they notice the mocking tone of Kiezas view of how Mrs Devine might have responded to Kelly reading to her some of his ‘rage and irrationality’ from the Jerilderie letter? ‘Mary Devine had other things on her mind than his grudge against society. Two days later she couldn’t remember a word of what this unwelcome guest was jabbering on about’.

Kieza is quietly signalling that his view of the Jerilderie letter is that it was an unhinged rant!

 

The Kelly fans missed that subtle but important message and  instead  identified as an ‘error’ something trivial,  and worked themselves into a frenzy because  Kieza states that it was Steve Hart and not Dan Kelly who marched Mrs Devine at gunpoint to the Courthouse. Various news reports at different times named all four gang members, but mostly named Dan Kelly as the one who did this. Kieza quite simply accepted what Mrs Devine herself said – that it was Steve Hart. Given the news reports were in conflict about who it was, accepting Mrs Devine’s claim makes the most sense.

 

In fact, this book is mostly about filling in detail like that one, expanding and adding texture to what is known about things we knew in outline rather than suggesting new interpretations or openly challenging the broad outlines of existing narratives, as was done recently in ‘Nabbing Ned’. So, for example his quite brief account of the police murders at Stringybark creek conforms with McIntyre’s version. Kieza doesn’t mention Kellys version of events or draw attention to the fact that Kellys version was proven to be a fabrication by the forensic evidence. His account of the attack on Fitzpatrick is again largely Fitzpatricks version, but where he cites Ned Kellys version he notes, without commentary how greatly they varied over time:

“At different times Ned would say he was 15 miles from Greta when Fitzpatrick was injured, then 200 miles and even 400 miles, though Kellys cousin Joe Ryan had a receipt for a horse Kelly sold him in Greta, dated the same afternoon as the shooting”

 

The Kelly sympathiser would dismiss those observations; an alert reader would understand Kieza is suggesting Kellys version was a lie.

 

An excerpt from the book published in weekend newspapers concentrated on the background of Sub-inspector Stanhope O’Connor the Queenslander in command of six aboriginal ‘trackers’ who were sent to assist the Victoria police. Kieza adds a lot of interesting detail about the history of black trackers in general and these ones in particular. They were in many respects victims themselves of colonial exploitation, but their reputation was fearsome and Kelly was freaked out by their involvement in the hunt. The modern-day Kelly sympathiser community, as part of their ceaseless campaign of police vilification have long delighted in pointing out that O’Connor and his black trackers were involved in a murderous atrocity at Cape Bedford in Queensland shortly before their deployment to Victoria. Kieza describes in great detail what happened when O’Connor and his men hunted down and slaughtered at least 28 indigenous men who had been accused of attacking and wounding – not killing – a couple of white men. It was unquestionably an unforgivable, sickening and appalling act of mass murder, so dreadful one hesitates to say anything about it other than to condemn it.

Kieza points out that O’Connor’s actions were supported by large sections of the settler population. A newspaper lamented that O’Connor and his men hadnt killed more aborigines at one encounter, and asked that “the shooting of the Blacks be carried out systematically as punishment for outrages”

 Kieza noted that  “Queensland was a colony where the lives of Indigenous people were often given less value than the profits from sheep and cattle. Archibald Meston a journalist explorer and politician once wrote that in Queensland ‘white men shoot blacks for fun, to try the range of their weapons to teach them a lesson, or from a general idea that like snakes they should be wiped out”


So, no matter how faulty we may consider O’Connor’s moral compass to have been, his culpability has to be somewhat mitigated by the shocking reality that in the 1860’s and 70’s  killing aborigines was sanctioned by large sections of society. In contrast, no sector of colonial society, other than a few criminals ever sanctioned the mass murder of police. The duplicity of Kelly apologists is nowhere more starkly illustrated than by this comparison, where they excoriate O’Connor but revere the heavily armed and armour-clad Ned Kelly who planned to massacre an exactly similar number of innocent men and women at Glenrowan, and almost succeeded but for the bravery of  Thomas Curnow.

 

One thing this book brought to my attention again was the lie told by many Kelly story apologists that the ‘Kelly Hunters’ were a bungling mob of lazy incompetents rushing hither and yon, and achieving nothing while the Kelly gang was running circles around them, doing whatever they pleased and laughing at the police.  

 

In fact, notwithstanding police imperfections – which Kieza doesn’t ignore – the Gang was increasingly being hemmed in and restricted in what they could do and where they could go. Bank security was beefed up and the Gang had to abandon a plan to rob the bank at Beechworth or anywhere else for that matter, they were becoming increasingly frustrated as their funds quickly disappeared into the pockets of the people being paid to hide and feed them as they ceaselessly moved from place to place to stay out of the way of police patrols. They became increasingly fearful and paranoid about  Aaron Sherritt and O’Conner and the black trackers. Kieza reports how skinny Joe Byrne became under the stress of it all. Ned Kelly said he was sick of being hunted ‘like a dog’.

 

Eventually, as a result of this relentless police pressure, Kelly devised a desperate escape plan many have called ‘mad’ – the lunacy of the armoured attack and attempted police slaughter at Glenrowan which turned out to be a massive blunder and ended in unequivocal victory for the Kelly Hunters, with three Gang members dead and Kelly on Death Row.

 

As with all books of Kelly history, this one has a few mistakes and claims that are dubious. Kieza repeats a version of George Metcalfs injury that’s been debunked : he was hit in the eye by a bullet accidentally fired by Kelly, not a brick fragment thrown off by a police bullet. Kieza seems to suggest Lonigan was shot twice. He repeats Ian Jones claims about sympathisers gathering at Glenrowan and an unseen  sympathiser army on horseback  galloping about the place in the dark :  Dawson has shown no such army ever existed, and the horses galloping about were police horses released from the train! Kieza also mentions the mythology that’s been developed around two ‘rockets’ which only one man ever reported seeing.  No doubt there are other ‘mistakes’ but none that Ive seen are glaring or  especially important. Something curious I noted was that Morrissey is not referred to anywhere in the text or the bibliography!

 

Something that disappointed me a little was that Kieza hesitates to make explicit what his research says about the Kelly myths , how the record refutes the claimed basis for the extreme police hate which is central to the Kelly myth. Kieza shows that many police were poorly paid hard working family men, honest and brave individuals engaged in a complex and difficult man-hunt for a ruthless and terrifying gang of murderers. His style is to let the facts speak for themselves,  but I would have liked him to have pointed out sometimes exactly what the facts are telling us : the Kellys were not persecuted – they were criminals; the police were not corrupt – they were doing their job.

 

In sum,  this is a great book. It’s a continuation of the now decade long series of research-based Kelly works that are replacing the hero mythology with true history, depicting the Outbreak as a complex and fascinating chapter in the history of crime in Australia. Kieza did this in ‘Mrs Kelly” and does it again here in a readable and cleverly restrained way.

Kelly sympathisers should hate it, but the message is too subtle for many of them I think! 

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16 Replies to “Book Review: ‘The Kelly Hunters’ by Grantlee Kieza”

  1. I always pick mine up from Big W. Usually have copies on the shelves on release (at a big discount).

  2. My bad, it was Mighty Ape books that stuffed up; and still haven’t got it. Bad, Bad, bad…

    1. Amazon are very efficient! You could get it right now as an e-book! But its worth the wait Stuart and I am looking forward to your review of it.

  3. Hi David, I have just got the new Kieza book at last, and noticed two things right at the start:

    First, he has Ned Kelly born in December 1954 based on school records; but this has been contested and June 1855 is also a longstanding contender. There is a strong case for it here, amongst other places, https://www.ironoutlaw.com/keep-ya-powder-dry/ned-kellys-lost-birthday/

    Second, he has the green sash awarded to young Ned for saving young Richard Shelton from a creek before Ned’s father was gaoled for killing a calf in the second half of 1866. This has also been discussed before, in the Green Sash posts on this blog. We can say that the rescue most lilkely occurred in the summer of 1866-67 after Red Kelly had died a while after his release from gaol (or actually the Avenel lockup); and we now know that the sash was given to Ned by Mr Shelton (Richard’s dad) many years later, while the Kelly gang were on the run, as we learn from Kenneally’s third edition of his Inner History of the Kelly Gang which was also discussed on this blog.

    It looks like Kieza’s book is a well told work, but a critical eye will have to be maintained while going through it… I have to put it on hold for a few weeks due to other things, so will not get back to it till the end of May. Such is life.

  4. I am halfway through the book now. There are some very interesting anecdotes, but there are many obvious errors of facts as well. Why these errors are there is a mystery, as there is plenty of evidence that shows they are myths, and that shows a lack of in depth research.
    I will be interested to read the rest of the book, so a better assessment can be made.

    1. Having now read this book from cover to cover, I am disappointed. Kieza had an excellent opportunity to remove all the myths that Ian Jones falsely promoted in his Ned Kelly, A Short Life book. He failed to do so, and in many instances continued to promote them.
      The chapter relating to the siege at Glenrowan is almost a carbon copy of what Jones wrote.
      Jones made up so much of the Glenrowan story, and sadly Kieza followed what Jones had written, almost to the letter.
      Suggesting that there was an army of supporters waiting with Ned Kelly riding to them and warning them off, is a load of fiction, as has been well established for a long time.
      Claiming that Sgt Steele shot at Margaret Reardon with a bullet going through her baby’s shawl has been long exposed as fictitious nonsense.
      There are many more myths that Kieza has promoted as being true, when they have been exposed as fiction for several years.
      It is not as though those facts were hidden from him. They are all easily accessible on line.
      Sadly, not what I had expected from Kieza at all. A very poor effort on his part.

      1. Hi Sam, I still haven’t got to read this book but after your note I grabbed to check what you said about the ” sympathiser army” and you are right, Kieza has just repeated Jones’ myths about that. My paperback edition doesn’t have an index for some reason – is there an index in any editions of it? It’s next to useless without one.

        But to the point, on page 221 Kieza writes that ” Ned’s cousin Jack Lloyd set off two Chinese rockets – one faint, the other glowing brilliantly – to alert Kelly sympathisers that the battle had begun and that they were to gather at a pre-arranged site to provide back-up.” His reference to this is Arthur’s RC evidence, but Arthur does not put it elaborately like this; the text is lifted entirely from Jones’ ridiculous speculations.

        He continues, ” Many of the sympathisers had been issued with the gang’s best guns, including a Snider-Enfield with the inscription ‘NK Son of Red’ carved into the wooden butt.” His reference for this is the Culture Victoria website!!! And they’ve taken it from Jones. Absolute rubbish and fourth rate research.

        Third, he says “Over the next couple of hours there was a noise of constant galloping between Glenrowan and Greta as Kelly supporters received directions.” Again, total nonsense, but for variety he references it to McQuilton, who got it from Jones.

        It is hard to stomach this nonsense, all of which I demolished in detail in my Republic Myth book in 2018. Why in the world he is retelling this total bunkum I have no idea. If he hasn’t heard of my republic myth demolition job he’s been living under a rock.

        Then on page 227 he says that Kelly when he left the Inn “rode out to the armed sympathisers waiting for him and told them to go home before they were killed.” Again, this is complete horse—- which I took apart in meticulous detail in the republic myth book. I am so pissed off with this drivel that I don’t think I will bother reading his Kelly Hunters at all, and just promote David Dufty’s ‘ Nabbing Ned Kelly’ which is properly and fully referenced to real historical sources, not this half-baked crap of using Culture Victoria and Jones’ mates for sourcing… FFS.

        1. As you will have seen I did notice these errors in Kiezas book and mentioned them in my review , but unlike you and Brad I decided that the book was worth recommending and worth reading because its overall message was that Kelly was a violent criminal and not worthy of the status of an Aussie hero and icon. I think its a bit too soon for us to expect a popularise writer to have written a book that dismisses every single Kelly myth. I see it as a positive step in the right direction.

          1. Hi David, fair enough, I just get exasperated when people recycle the most blatantly ridiculous Jones myths without a second thought. Yet he references Ian Macfarlane’s Kelly Gang Unmasked which also kicked Jones’s republic myth to death, just in a different way to the way I went about it.

          2. Kieza has embellished the story beyond belief with fictional nonsense. Although he does not say his book is factual, the opportunity to present factual information that was readily accessible is a disappointment. The Glenrowan section is terrible. Some of the claims made are well known myths, and in some instances they have been expanded with fiction. e.g. Sgt Steele shooting at Kelly with his pistol.
            For example, why state that Sgt Steele fired at Margaret Reardon as she was leaving the hotel, when a couple of chapters later, he says that Steele was cleared of that allegation.
            His summation of the Royal Commission also distorts many facts, leaving a false impression of what actually occurred. e.g. Claiming that the RC recommended that Supts Nicolson and Hare be appointed police magistrates. Not true at all. The RC recommended they both be retired. The government rejected that recommendation and appointed them magistrates. The new Victoria government rejected almost all the recommendations of the RC relating to police, and practically none of those recommendations were accepted. Detective Ward was moved back one position, meaning for promotion he was moved back behind the man who was behind him. The three junior officers who were supposed to be guarding Sherritt were dismissed. One having already resigned.
            No other police were demoted, sacked, or admonished.
            A very disappointing book written by someone that should have done a better job.

            1. Thanks for pointing these things out Brad. Its good you have such detailed knowledge of the Commissions report. I agree with you in these instances Kieza could have done a lot better.

  5. Anonymous says: Reply

    “Some of the claims made are well known myths, and in some instances they have been expanded with fiction. e.g. Sgt Steele shooting at Kelly with his pistol.”

    Brian W. Cookson. Sydney “Sunday Times.” April 19th 1914.
    The Battle of Glenrowan described by the man who shot Ned Kelly.

    Sergeant Steel.

    “It was a futile, as well as cruel business, because the place was full of the Kelly’s prisoners as anyone could tell by the awful screams. I stopped as much of the shooting as I could and did none myself except to let go a couple of revolver shots at two of the bushrangers who walked on to the verandah with their armor on and fired at the police.”

    I know I shivered when I saw that ghostly apparition stand behind the lower part of a fallen tree, and quietly proceed to take pot shots at the two or three of us with the queer looking weapon that it carried. Once the weapon ran empty, and the spectre calmly reloaded it from the bag that was over its shoulders. Then it started to shoot again.
    “I fired at the headpiece with my revolver, but the mark was small, and I do not know if I hit the slit in the top of it that I aimed at. But the man in the headpiece took no notice except to take steady aim at me and fire”

    Interestingly Sergeant Steel failed to mention he was also armed with a revolver in the Royal Commission.
    Re Mrs Reardon.

    9012. What were you armed with?—A gun with slugs.
    9013. Then it would not be true that the bullet went through the woman’s shawl?—Certainly not. I had no bullet.

  6. I am suspicious of the comments attributed to Steele by Cookson. Steele died on the 9th Feb 1914. This article supposedly appeared in the Sydney Sunday Times on the 19th April, some two months after his death.
    Steele gave the following evidence at the RC in 1881.
    9016. Then you did not keep firing upon the house steadily?—No. I only fired four shots altogether—two at young Riordan, and the two at Ned Kelly.
    Anonymous, are you not aware that in 1882 Sgt Steele was cleared of the false allegation that Steele fired at her, putting a hole in her baby’s shawl as she left the hotel?
    The claim that Steele fired at two of the outlaws who came out onto the verandah is suspicious as well. Steele almost certainly remained at the back of the hotel, while the verandah was at the front of the hotel. Strikes me that Cookson may well have invented much of what he wrote. I may be wrong, but common sense and historical evidence does not support the written comments.

  7. I think you are being too generous to kieza. I only had to begin reading to see that he has tainted ned and his clan from the very beginning of this read.

    Kieza’s negative, insulting and critical descriptors for the kelly family collectively and the individualy are free flowing.

    Kieza gives no real social context and simplistically says from day dot that the Kellys were immoral (why mention ellen kelly was pregnant before marriage if not to assert some inferred superiority) and therefore pretty much deserving of all shit that happens to them.

    Its no coincidence that this has come out after Ian Jones has passed – could you imagine what the great man would say??

    Perhaps though the real clue this book is little more than an attack on a family within a proud, oppressed community (potentially large enough to have strived to become a Republic – how staggeringly courageous !!) the victims of prolonged entrenched and extreme British cruelty and corruption is the ‘honour role’ of people recommending this book: little johnny howard, the australian newspaper, the daily telegraph…good grief. I wonder why Andrew Bolt wasnt used?

    1. Mike are you SERIOUSLY objecting to Kieza suggesting the Kellys were immoral? Really?

      And do you REALLY believe it was ’no coincidence that this has come out after Ian Jones has passed’ What are you suggesting – that Kieza wouldnt have dared to do it if Jones was still alive ? I suppose youre aware that Ian MacFarlanes great book ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’ came out when Jones was still alive and Jones didnt say a single word in public about it – not one word. Maybe ’the great man’ knew the game was up.

      Wake up mate! You’re dreamin’

    2. As well as David‘a reply noting that Jones said nothing in response to Ian MacFarlane’s demolition of a whole pile of his myths, he said nothing when my Redeeming Fitzpatrick article was published that demolished most of chapter 7 of his Short Life book content; and he said nothing when my Myth of the Republic of North-Eastern Victoria came out, except to sneer in the Wangaratta paper about what my agenda was. That demolished the entire central pillar of his Kelly fantasy. Not to mention my article on Kelly’s shooting of George Metcalf, Labourer, which exposed his blatant and dishonest manipulation and misrepresentation of historical source evidence. So, no.

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