|This is where Ned Kelly stole a Gold Watch from the corpse of Michael Kennedy
Even Sympathisers admit occasionally that Ned Kelly wasn’t perfect, that he was human like the rest of us and that he made mistakes. In doing so of course they’re conceding the self-evident reality of being mortal, as well as ‘the bleeding obvious’ when it comes to the life of Ned Kelly. But if you’re trying to create or maintain a legend about someone, you highlight exaggerate concentrate on and talk up the positives, you focus on everything that helps build up the image and you excuse or minimize or simply ignore all the negatives. These are the techniques used by the Kelly mythmakers wherever you look, and is at its most obvious in the biographies, beginning as far back as you want to go, right up to this years publication by Eugenie Navarre. Even Justin Corfields Ned Kelly Encyclopedia, which you would think should be objective and unbiased has been identified by Alex McDermott as being anything but objective, chosing perspectives that favour Ned over ones that don’t in many of the entrys. The same applies to the Kelly Vault, a public Museum which again one would expect to be neutral and objective in its presentation but instead presents Ned Kelly as the failed leader of the movement for a Republic of North East Victoria, a contentious, and unproven speculation.
But if you’re not so much interested in legends, fairy tales and myths, but in the historical reality and the truth of who Ned Kelly really was, you have to look at everything, you have to identify the hyperbole and the places where truth has been gilded, or ignored, or exaggerated, you have to try to see things from an independent and objective place rather than through the rose-tinted spectacles of the true believer.
When it comes to the available discussions of the personality of Ned Kelly there’s not much more than adulation and sycophancy but lately Ive been coming across random items in the Kelly story that aren’t often commented on but which I believe reflect aspects of the personality of Ned Kelly that nobody wants to acknowledge let alone talk about. That’s what this post is about. I show how the mythmakers of the Kelly legend ignore or gloss over unpleasant truths about Ned Kellys personality, and highlight, exaggerate and uncritically promote anything that could be positive.
Among the many wonderful things claimed for Ned Kelly, one often reads that he was a devoted son. He liked to make a play for public sympathy and portray himself as “a widows son” , that he defended her and was consumed with a quest to get justice for her. The reality however was altogether different and exposed him as a hypocrite. As I’ve previously pointed out, in 1877 Ned Kelly was a self described ‘rambling gambler’, travelling all over the countryside doing very well for himself out of his ‘wholesale and retail’ stock thieving operation, developing a reputation for dressing in fine clothes and custom made boots, and no doubt enjoying the hospitality of Hotels and taverns wherever he went. At that very same time, Nicolson visited his mothers home and found no men there but his mother and young sisters were living in poverty and squalor, in a shack at Greta that was about to fall down. How does that fit with the ‘devoted son’ image, or for that matter the Robin Hood image of a thief who gave his takings to help the poor? Doug Morrissey pointed out that if the house had eventually fallen down, Mrs. Kelly would have lost her selection, and it was in that desperate context that Ned finally returned for a couple of months at the end of that year and rebuilt it for her.
But suppose I am wrong and despite good evidence not to believe it, Ned actually WAS a devoted son who took care of his mother. Suppose Ned Kelly really was a good son – well I have to ask, so what? What’s so special about being a good son? Wouldn’t any son, if he was a normal human being with a poverty stricken widowed mother and young siblings do his best for her? Why on earth is Neds putative filial devotion elevated to an act of saintly sacrifice, when its what sons in that predicament would do and have been doing for millennia the world over? There is definitely no evidence whatsoever that Kellys actual devotion to his mother was anything other than ordinary, no evidence that I know of that he was an exceptional son, but as with so much of the Kelly myth, what is believed to have been the case is actually just the story that came from Kelly’s own mouth, and people have believed it.
How many other perfectly law abiding men and women in the north east were also ‘widows sons (and daughters)’ but not expecting anyone to feel sorry for them because of it? And how many of them justified a life of violence and outlawry by saying they were doing it for their mother? Neds’ grandstanding was just egotistical attention seeking. His words were not matched by action, except that he used his mothers name and predicament as an excuse for his personal campaign against authority.
The myth says Ned Kelly was the champion of the poor. In the Jerilderie Letter Ned Kelly paraded himself as the champion of the poor, orphans and widows, ordering ‘those men who joined the Stock Protection Society to withdraw their money and give it and as much more to the widows and orphans and poor of Greta district’ and later, ‘those who have reason to fear me to sell out and give 10 out of every 100 towards the widow and orphan fund’. The historical reality is that he liked to talk about the poor, and he liked to bully and order other people to give to them but this was just a self-promoting posture that was contradicted by his actual behavior towards them. The truth as exposed by Doug Morrissey is that he freely stole from the poor, and the effect of his theft of their horses was much worse than the effects similar losses had on the wealthy: the poor became destitute. The money he stole from banks ended up in the pockets of his family and friends and anyone who supported him – their poverty was irrelevant, but that didn’t stop him from pretending that it was their poverty he was interested in helping, when in fact he was buying them off for his own benefit. How do his words expressing concern for the poor match the fact that he rounded up ordinary people at Gunpoint and used them as hostages and human shields at Euroa and at Jerilderie and at Glenrowan where sadly some of them were killed? Does anyone recall Ned ever expressing regret about their deaths? He wrote several letters from Prison but I don’t recall he even bothered blaming the Police for those deaths – it was as if they never happened. The lives and deaths of the innocent were of no genuine interest to Ned Kelly – he forgot about them because he was forever preoccupied only with himself and his image.
This is why at Jerilderie Ned couldn’t resist showing his hostages the revolver he took from Lonigan and the gold watch he stole from Kennedys dead body. He was showing off and grandstanding:
‘Almost like a circus hypnotist, Kelly takes from his pocket a golden timepiece.
‘This is a nice watch isn’t it? He asks the two rhetorically, as he shows it to them.
“Yes” allows Dudley
“That was poor Kennedys watch” the bushranger says “Wasn’t it better for me that I shot the police than have them carrying my body into Mansfield as a mangled corpse?” (from Peter Fitzsimons “Ned Kelly”)
Taking guns and ammunition from dead enemies in war is understandable and acceptable, but looting their corpses for personal items like watches and rings is regarded as a low act, and is nowdays forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. I am not sure what the rules were in 1878, but I would imagine most people would have felt the same way then as we do today about looting corpses for personal effects : it’s a disgrace, despicable.
Why don’t Fitzsimons, or any of the other writers who mention this behaviour condemn it as ghoulish and immoral? For Ned Kelly to apparently express no shame or embarrassment at having looted a corpse, and then to display the watch to impress hostages is exactly in keeping with the analysis of his personality published in 2014, identifying him as a psychopath. Its creepy.
Another item that caught my eye and made me shudder about the kind of person Ned Kelly actually was, related to his behavior in Court. He was on trial for murder, a capital offense, a predicament that could hardly have been more serious, and this is what Alex Castles wrote about it:
‘Ned’s dress and conduct did not help his cause. As always in a major criminal trial the presentation of the accused was of considerable significance for the Jury. Ned appeared in the dock at the start of the second day of the trial wearing a large silk handkerchief with a vivid multicolored flower pattern draped around his neck. To the hardworking soberly attired members of the Jury it was like a badge of defiance confirming him a member of the indolent lawless class which preyed on the community. It was also widely noted that Ned responded with a knowing wink directed at the Jury after a witness’s remark that he had acted in a ‘gentlemanly fashion’ in front of women. In an age dominated by stern opposition to drinking alcohol and indulging in sexual license, these jurymen drawn from the conservative classes would surely no have been impressed’
What more repulsive image could there be, than that of a man on trial for murder winking at the men of the Jury when his conduct in relation to women was mentioned? At that moment, with that act he exposed his ‘gentlemanly behavior’ towards women as an insincere act of manipulation and hypocrisy, again, the very behavior that typifies a psychopath. It also shows how unconcerned he was that he had killed Lonigan. Instead he wanted to share a joke with the all male Jury about how he could wrap women round his little finger. What a creep!
The closer one examines Ned Kelly, the less attractive he becomes, and the tired sympathiser refrain ‘Ned Kelly, hero or villain’ sounds more and more ridiculous. Its a no-brainer.
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