On November 11th1880, the convicted murderer Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was executed for the killing of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. He killed two other policemen on the same day, and later orchestrated the murder of Aaron Sheritt, a former friend, as a prelude to what he hoped would be the mass murder of nearly two dozen more police at Glenrowan. Fortunately Kelly’s horrifying plan for mass murder was thwarted and he was captured, tried for Lonigans murder, convicted and hanged. He was then buried within the Prison grounds in an unmarked grave, in accordance with the policy of the time, intended to deny murderers any kind of honour in death and in the hope they would be forgotten for ever. Clearly, that didn’t happen in Ned Kelly’s case.
137 years later, November the 11th is celebrated as Remembrance Day, and wreaths are laid at Cenotaphs to commemorate the heroic men and women of Australia who died in War. If past years are any guide, in what can only be described as a sickening and misguided homage, flowers and cards will also be placed at the Old Melbourne Gaol on the trapdoor where Ned Kelly stood for the last few seconds of his natural life, with maudlin messages to ‘dear Ned’, the convicted killer. I expect other flowers will appear at the Greta cemetery where his headless remains were reburied in an unmarked grave in 2013. The various Kelly sympathiser Facebook pages will also no doubt participate in this show of emotion, with expressions of grief and sorrow at their idols fate. Its a quite horrible irony that Kelly is remembered and honoured by a few ill-informed hero-worshippers as if he was a brave soldier who fell in a real war, on the same day when the nation remembers Australia’s genuine heroes, men and women who died for a noble cause. I find it nauseating and offensive when Kelly fanciers try to place these two events alongside one another as if they are in some way equivalent. The Fallen we all agree are heroes whose sacrifice should never be forgotten. Ned Kelly was certainly not one of them. It seems he will never be forgotten but he should be.
There’s no need to ask why people would do these things and want to remember this man : its because they are in denial. They don’t want to accept the fact that he was a murderer, but instead indulge a fantasy, and ignoring reality think of him as a misunderstood hero who fought injustice, made a stand against corrupt police and judiciary who persecuted him and his family, who killed only in self-defence and eventually lost his life in a brave battle for a higher cause. They claim he would have made a great General, and liken him to Peter Lalor, the visionary leader of the Eureka rebellion. They ignore Ned Kelly’s life of crime, his self-proclaimed career as the leader of a criminal stock thieving syndicate, his highway robbery with Harry Power, the bank robberies and hostage taking, his convictions for assault, indecency, and ‘feloniously receiving’, his abandonment of his mother and siblings in ‘poverty and squalor’ to pursue the life of a ‘rambling gambler’, his lies about the Fitzpatrick incident and the Stringybark creek killings, his bloodthirsty plan for a massacre at Glenrowan…they ignore all of this as well as the findings of the Police Royal Commission which investigated the entire saga, and instead embrace the view which Ned Kelly had of himself, and promoted in his Jerilderie letter, that he was a hero, a wronged innocent man, and that it was corrupt police who were to blame for everything. There is almost no historical basis for any of this, other than the words of the killer himself, and the small number of people who believed him.
However there’s one historical claim that is often alluded to at this time by Kelly supporters which is indeed true, and which, on first inspection seems to support the sympathisers view of Kelly. Ian Jones wrote about it in the Introduction to his biography ‘Ned Kelly : a short life’ : “In country and cities, folk of Neds time acknowledged the potency of his rebellious appeal by signing, in their tens of thousands, a petition for repeal of his death sentence. Of course this spectacular display of support confirmed the darkest fears of respectable society.”
On Facebook pages and elsewhere on the Internet its not unusual to read Kelly sympathisers mentioning this Petition saying it was a petition for Ned Kellys pardon, for the repeal of his death sentence as Jones wrote, or for his release or for a retrial. Following Ian Jones lead they see the petition as a proof that the ordinary person was on Ned Kellys side, but the authorities and the people in power were not.
However, as ever in the Kelly world the truth about this Petition is nowhere near as simple as the Kelly sympathisers would have you believe. Though the document is headed ‘Petition for Reprieve’ the text of the Petition merely asks that “the Life of the CONDEMNED man, EDWARD KELLY may be spared.” There is no mention of repeal or reprieve or of a pardon or a retrial. The Petitioners simply didn’t believe Ned Kelly should be hanged.
The wider story of this petition is that it was motivated not so much by an interest in the details of Ned Kellys case but in the use of capital punishment. David Gaunson who was Ned Kelly’s solicitor was a leading light in the campaign to abolish capital punishment. David and his brother William were prominent members of the ‘Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment’. They believed that capital punishment was morally wrong, that nobody should hang, no matter what crime they had committed. It was in this capacity that he established the Petition and arranged meetings throughout Melbourne and further afield, in an effort to have Ned Kelly’s sentence changed. The campaign against capital punishment continued for another 105 years, ending in 1985 when capital punishment was finally outlawed for good in Australia.
The last person to be hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan, in 1967. There are interesting parallels between his case and Ned Kellys that show how in both cases support for a reprieve of the death sentence shouldn’t be seen to be support for the condemned man or belief in his innocence. As in Ned Kelly’s case, after Ryan had been sentenced to hang for killing a prison officer, enormous protests occurred around the country and thousands signed a petition for his reprieve. Like Neds petition, Ryans was also ignored by the authorities, and just as thousands gathered outside the OMG to protest on the morning of Neds execution, so too did thousands gather outside Pentridge when Ryan was executed. At both, no doubt some of the people there believed the condemned man was innocent, but its clear the greatest bulk of the protest was about the cruelty of capital punishment, not the guilt or innocence of the condemned person.
This campaign against capital punishment continues elsewhere in the world to this day, and in the USA at every execution Petitioners still request the life of the condemned man be spared. Just as they did outside the Old Melbourne Gaol when Ned was executed, and outside Pentridge when Ryan was hanged so today they still gather outside the prisons where felons are executed in the United States, not so much because they believe in the innocence of the condemned man but because they are opposed to Capital punishment.
So, on November 11th when you lay your flowers and your cards on the trapdoor at the OMG, don’t feel pity for the fantasy figure of your wishful thinking, an innocent man crushed by a nasty system – he was a remorseless violent killer who deserved to be punished. Instead, express sadness and regret that a young man, a fellow human being, was subjected to a cruel and inhumane punishment and be thankful that at last in Australia we have moved on from such barbarity.
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