The first 600 or so of The Jerilderie Letters nearly 7500 words is Ned Kellys explanation of an incident that resulted in him being sentenced to six months hard labor at Beechworth Gaol when he was 15. By then he was an impressive five foot ten inches tall and weighed 11stone 4pounds. The incident began with a dispute about a horse belonging to a Mr McCormick. Angry exchanges took place and Mrs McCormick accused Ned of having taken the horse and later returning it. That would have been the end of the matter but later in the day Ned took a calfs testicles to taunt Mrs McCormick who was known to be infertile, sending them with a note suggesting her husband should strap these testicles “to his own cock” so that he might “shag her better the next time”. Ned says this was someone elses idea, and because Mrs McCormick wasn’t actually there when he visited, he gave them to his cousin Tom and told him what he wanted done with them. Naturally, when they were delivered, the McCormicks were incensed and returned to angrily confront Ned, who, once again accused of having taken the horse, reacted by punching Mr McCormick in the face – “my horse…..jumped forward and my fist came into collision with McCormicks nose and cause him to lose his equilibrium and fall prostrate. I tied up my horse to finish the battle but McCormack got up and ran to the Police camp. Constable Hall asked me what the row was about I told him they accused me and Gould of using their horse and I hit him and I would do the same to him if he challenged me” (JL)
Peter Fitzsimons calls this entire incident “ a grubby adolescent lark” – but it was more than that. It wasn’t just a prank, it was an entirely gratuitous pornographic insult to an infertile woman, and a violent assault on her husband by an out of control youth who couldn’t control his temper. And for what? For being accused of taking a horse? And I think its worth pointing out that the victims of his verbal and physical assaults were not squatters or the wealthy or the powerful but simple hawkers, poor people like the Kellys. His own kind.
Well, you might say, he was just a hotheaded youth, and indeed he was. But 10 years later when he dictated the Jerilderie letter as a mature man has he grown up and developed a more mature view of what happened? In fact in his account in the Jerilderie letter there isn’t the slightest hint of remorse, regret, reflection or insight into what happened, but instead Kellys interest is in excusing himself and blaming others for what happened – it was Goulds idea to send the testicles, Tom Lloyd delivered them not Ned, Mrs McCormick made the horse jump and caused Neds fist collide with Mr McCormicks face, and ten years later he still defiantly dictates his threat to assault the Policeman if he repeated the same accusation- he still believes that if someone insults you, you should beat him up. This is incredibly immature behavior from a teenager let alone a 24-year-old adult, and certainly not the sort of behavior you would expect from someone writing some sort of Manifesto for a higher political ideology. As a Manifesto, the Jerilderie letter is already looking shaky. Its author’s first interest is himself.
The next 1000 words of the Jerilderie Letter are Ned Kellys account of how he ended up in Gaol for three years with hard labour. Almost half of this narrative is Neds description of a fight between himself and Constable Hall who had tried to arrest him for being in possession of a stolen horse. Kelly, like all people in possession of stolen goods, denied knowing the thing had been stolen, but certainly, he was innocent of the original theft – it had been taken by Wild Wright while Kelly was still in Prison. Kelly openly paraded about town on the stolen horse, perhaps defiantly thinking that if he were stopped, his claimed ignorance of the horses origins would be a legitimate defence. In any event, Hall decided to arrest him and another violent fight ensued. Kelly ran off – claiming in the Letter he was trying to catch the horse, which had now run away – and Hall shot at him but the gun misfired.
“I stood until Hall came close he had me covered and was shaking with fear and I knew he would pull the trigger before he would be game to put his hand on me so I duped, and jumped at him caught the revolver with one hand and Hall by the collar with the other. I dare not strike him or my sureties would loose the bond money I used to trip him and let him take a mouth ful of dust now and again as he was as helpless as a big guano(goanna) after leaving a dead bullock or a horse. I kept throwing him in the dust until I got him across the street the very spot where Mrs O’Briens Hotel stands now the cellar was just dug then there was some brush fencing where the post and rail was taking down and on this I threw big cowardly Hall on his belly I straddled him and rooted both spurs onto his thighs he roared like a big calf attacked by dogs and shifted several yards of the fence I got his hands at the back of his neck and tried to make him let the revolver go but he stuck to it like grim death to a dead volunteer”
Colourful language for sure. But once again, there is not the slightest hint that having now reached the supposedly mature age of 24, Ned Kelly has developed a more measured understanding of his behavior when he was 16. Surely he would express at least a hint of regret that by over-reacting as he did he escalated a simple arrest for something he could have legitimately claimed to be innocent of, into a violent brawl that involved bystanders and resulted in him being bashed over the head by the constable with his revolver, leaving a wound that required several stitches? No doubt this violence didn’t help his case when it reached Court, and perhaps because of it he received the harshest of sentences : three years Gaol with hard labour. But no – not a hint of remorse or regret – instead, his account in the Jerilderie Letter revels in the violent details of how he humiliated Constable Hall in the main street of Greta. He also proudly declares that even though he and George King were the greatest horse stealers in the district, he was never convicted of stock theft – an arrogant boast that would only impress those who think theres something admirable in criminal behaviour that goes unpunished:
“I was acquitted on the charge of horsestealing and on Halls and Murdocks evidence I was found guilty of receiving and got 3 years experience in Beechworth Pentridges dungeons. this is the only charge ever proved against me Therefore I can say I never was convicted of horse or cattle stealing”
One might have expected a visionary leader wanting to do something for the poor and establish a Republic of North East Victoria might have developed reservations about his behaviour as a much younger and immature man, but not Ned – nothing of the sort – at 24 years of age he was still unashamed of his violence against the Police and against the Hawker, McCormick, he was proud of his skill as a stock thief, and the fact that he got away with it.
The narrative then wanders about somewhat, he accuses Constable Flood of being a horse thief, complains about British justice, mentions a bull he was accused of stealing but claims it was a wild one that he found, denies a mob of calves were stolen by him and then writes
“I began to think they wanted me to give them something to talk about. Therefore I started wholesale and retail horse and cattle dealing”
Once again, instead of accepting responsibility for his actions, here he is claiming that in some way, he was driven to become a “wholesale” stock thief by the expectations and accusations of others. These are the sorts of excuses children make when they are caught out! I am starting to wonder if ned Kelly ever grew up.
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