Why did Ned Kelly become a criminal? (Part Two)

In part One of this discussion I discussed the claim made by Ned Kelly that he became a criminal because of the treatment that he and his family received at the hands of police. The problem with that claim is that when it was examined by the Royal Commission in 1881 they found no evidence to support it. They made many adverse findings about various aspects of the way the police conducted themselves during the Outbreak, and the Commission showed itself to be more than willing to call out any bad behaviour, and to punish police found wanting, but they made a very clear and unequivocal denunciation of the claim that the Kellys and their associates were persecuted by police : they weren’t.


Its not all that surprising that they couldn’t find anything to substantiate the claim that the Kellys were persecuted, because even Ned Kelly couldn’t think of a case of serious persecution when asked for an example of it during that famous ‘Interview’ in August 1880. All he could remember was the time when a policeman grabbed him by the balls. He would possibly have had a better case to make if he mentioned the time he was pistol whipped about the head by Constable Hall, but these examples of admittedly unnecessarily rough treatment at the hands of police were not random acts of persecution by police harassing the innocent Ned Kelly, but examples of police doing their job in response to criminal behaviour by him. On one occasion, it related to being drunk and on the other for being in possession of a stolen horse. On both occasions, Ned Kelly was the one who first resorted to violence and it was met with force, even excessive force, but none of it would have occurred if Ned Kelly hadn’t broken the law in the first place. This of course is the opposite of what you would expect to see if Ned Kellys complaint was true, that his criminal acts were a reaction to police harassment – what the record shows is police involvement AFTER criminal behaviour, not before it. As far back as you want to look into the record books of Kelly clan interactions with police, this is the pattern you always uncover : entirely appropriate police involvement following complaints of lawbreaking by Kelly clan members, complaints about domestic violence, sexual assault, public brawling, arson, stock theft – even one case of animal cruelty!


Incidentally I found it remarkable that when asked for an example of the persecution he was complaining of, this supposed peoples’ hero and revolutionary republican could only talk about himself. There was no vision, no lofty sentiment about values and justice and a noble cause on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the marginalised – just the self-absorption typical of a narcissist.


Another reality of Kelly history that was the opposite of what you would expect to see if Ned Kellys complaint was true, was the so-called ‘quiet years’ which followed his release from prison in 1874 through to 1877. According to the legend, during that time Ned Kelly went ‘straight’ and had legitimate employment of various kinds. During that time there were no arrests or interactions between Ned Kelly and the  police, demonstrating quite clearly that when the Kellys stayed within the law, police left them alone. The Kelly myth is that even when they obeyed the law they were harassed and persecuted: the reality of what happened during the quiet years show that claim to be wrong.  Later, Ned Kelly himself admitted that he returned to a life of crime around early 1877 – and sure enough, before too long police started taking an interest in the Kellys again. The pattern is very clear: when the Kellys didn’t break the law the police didn’t harass and persecute them – they left them alone; but once they broke the law, as anyone would expect, sooner or later police came knocking.



So, as its clear Ned Kellys claim to have been forced into crime by police persecution was just an excuse, and not by any means a novel one, the answer to the question “Why did Ned Kelly become a criminal?” has to be “Ned Kelly became a criminal for the same reasons other people become criminals”.


So what are they? Well, I am not a psychologist or a student of criminology, so all I can do is pass on what I’ve read and what I understand from modern thinking on the subject, but explaining and understanding human behaviour is far from easy at the best of times. Criticism and contributions from experts would be most welcome! At its simplest though, every individual is a product of inherited genetic influences acted on by the environment in which they develop and further affected by choices that are made along the way. For some, the combination of their particular genetic inheritance and the ‘nuture’ they receive leads them to make choices that eventually see them behind bars. I am not going to enter the debate about whether or not criminality is a purely social construct – for this post I am adopting the view that a criminal is a person who for various reasons has chosen to ignore the bounds of what is regarded in his own society as acceptable behaviour and go beyond them.


In an attempt to understand Ned Kellys criminal behaviour, after his execution, Ned Kellys head was apparently subjected to phrenological examination. In his time there was a belief that criminals were born, not made, as exemplified by the now disproven ‘science’ of Phrenology. Others argued criminal behaviour was an entirely moral choice, but others saw it as a result of various adverse influences on a person’s developing character, that children were born innocent. The argument about the relative contributions of genetics and environment –  ie ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ – continues to this day, but the consensus is that both are important and the contribution of each varies from person to person.


Some people are indeed born with conditions that predispose them to criminal behaviour. A common example is the damage caused to a developing baby’s brain by a mothers alcoholism: it leads to fetal alcohol syndrome which is a risk factor for antisocial and criminal behaviour later in life. There are of course many things which can have an adverse effect on brain development, including infections acquired before birth, and even deafness, congenitally acquired is known to be a risk factor for criminal behaviour – because of the way it affects learning.  Fragile X syndrome is an inherited condition that alters brain function, results in low intelligence and is found in prison populations at much higher rates than in the general community. Gender is inherited and just being male increases the likelihood of someone being a criminal. The argument about what gives rise to different personality types accepts there is a contribution from genetics, and as is well known, some personality types are associated with an increased tendency to criminal behaviour. There are many known, and probably more yet to be discovered genetic variations that contribute to someone becoming a criminal. Fascinating research is uncovering surprising differences in brain anatomy and functioning between convicted criminals and the rest of us. These are all the contributions from ‘nature’.


It’s obvious of course that not all children whose mothers were alcoholics become criminals and most adults whose IQ is low or who have Fragile X or anti-social or other dysfunctional personality disorders – and most men – are not criminals. This is because these conditions are not ‘causes’ but ‘risk factors’, they are the substrate on which environmental and social factors act on a developing personality to influence the eventual outcome we observe as human behaviour. These social and environmental factors are such things as the family environment in which a child grows up, the functionality or dysfunctionality of the parenting the child receives, the other role models and influences that the child may happen to encounter, the quality of a child’s education, experience of poverty, homelessness, mental illness, physical and mental abuse, brain damage, unemployment and so on. Apparently, the best single predictor of whether or not a child will become a criminal, is whether or not a parent is a criminal.


So, when it comes to the question of why Ned Kelly became a criminal, it’s not that hard to find the likely contributors to his subsequent criminality.  We know nothing about his genetics or his brain anatomy, but if he was a psychopath, as has been suggested, then at birth the seeds of psychopathy were already forming. By contrast, we do know a lot about the influences that would have acted on the foundations of personality and character that he was born with. Ned Kellys extended family was not at all typical of the average family of the north east, who according to Doug Morrissey lived by a strict Christian moral code, valued hard honest work, went regularly to church, didn’t drink or swear and frowned on partying and sexual immorality. Many of Ned Kellys role models appeared to have very little respect for any of that ethical code, and growing up he was exposed to an extended family who were often in trouble with police in relation to stock theft, drunkenness and fighting. Family members were in and out of court and prison and no doubt would not have imparted favourable opinions and impressions of police and authority to the growing Ned Kelly.  On two occasions Ned was encouraged to lie to the Courts in an effort to help uncles escape convictions. He witnessed domestic violence and drunkenness, and though the evidence is that despite his alcoholism Red Kelly was a positive influence on his son Ned, that influence disappeared with Reds premature death when Ned Kelly was only 11.  His role models then became the seriously lawless Quinns, he spent time living with aunties whose husbands were all in jail, his mother’s home became an illegal ‘sly grog’ outlet and possibly also a place of prostitution, and was visited by known criminals such as Harry Power, a man who Ned was subsequently ‘apprenticed’ to, with his mothers approval.  Ned Kellys world view was also no doubt coloured by his families poverty, which was largely a result of his fathers drinking and consequent failure at farming, and further amplified by the families loss of everything they owned in a fire started deliberately by Neds uncle Jim when his sexual advances to the widowed Ellen Kelly were rejected by her one night in 1868. Their poverty affected the limited education he received, his career prospects and probably his determination to escape it, by any means.



There are many other potential contributors – much is made in the Kelly mythology of his being catholic and being Irish in a British colony, and Kelly himself referred to these realities as being issues that affected him – but those two things in particular were true for huge numbers of people in the Colony – Kelly was not unique in being affected by them, but he was one of the few who became a criminal. I believe he used these issues as excuses, just as he used the false complaint that it was persecution that drove him. That also, as I showed in part one was an excuse. It didnt happen.



And then there were the choices he made.  What a person chooses is heavily influenced by all that has gone before, all the role models that have influenced him , all the happy and unhappy coincidences that have affected a persons attitudes and reactions, all that has been learned or not learned, seen or not seen in the lead up to the moment of decision. In Ned Kellys case his physical abilities, his physical beauty and strength, his apparently dominating presence and possibly his command of language all combined to create particular and rare opportunities and choices for him. Every choice a person makes leads to places where other choices become possible and if the steps are influenced towards disrespect for societies norms, disrespect for the rule of law, disrespect for public institutions and for private property, then who can be surprised if the road ends at criminality?  Early on Ned Kelly was a member of the Greta mob, an informal association of like-minded young men who were high-spirited, reckless, in need of excitement, adrenaline junkies perhaps, the larrikins of their day, hoons on horseback who learned disrespect for the law, skylarked about the district and were known to be engaged in petty crime. Next was his apprenticeship at a mere 14 to a wanted criminal Harry Power, where he learned about robbery, about disrespect for private property and personal security, about how to threaten and violate without concern travellers going about their lawful business. And ominously perhaps, the power of a loaded gun. From that point on, the intoxicating effects of the sense of power and control derived from life outside the law would have been almost irresistible to any young man.



As even some Kelly apologists have said about all these influences “What chance did he have?”


When one looks for an explanation of Ned Kellys life of crime, what is found is that his background and upbringing ticks all the boxes in the list of the things that are known to predispose to such a life. There is no need to go looking for other explanations, but in any case if you do, and you look for what Ned Kelly and his supporters claim was the cause of his criminal life – persecution and harassment by police – you can’t find it.  Its a myth

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2 Replies to “Why did Ned Kelly become a criminal? (Part Two)”

  1. Hello David,
    The word criminal was too easily given out to anyone who did not agree with their suppressers draconian rule. The proposition that some people are born criminal or into criminal class is quite wrong and all very dependant on their social class.

    The notion of who stipulates their law onto others is in accordance to who wins the war, and then controls what you are allowed to do, believe or think. The winners usually take advantage of IN-Equality they create. For thousands of years the west coasts of Europe, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were settled by a pre Christian race of ‘sea farers’ peoples that sought free new ground to make home. They came primarily from the Middle east – Mediterranean including Northern Africa. In other words people of Arabic descent. From central Europe and northern regions the pre-dominant inland tribes like the Germanic, Saxon Celts, Normans, Vikings, all tried to dominate and take over each others territory, but all were over ruled by the Romans who got as far as Britony and Angel land. This resulted in millions of deaths due countless wars and rebellion and exterminations, hence the word ‘terrorist’. The winners always set the rules – laws. Anyone who breaks them will be classified as criminal. So it all depends if you are a winner ruler or criminal loser.

    I may continue if there is enough interest, but David, your one track ‘Kill Ned’ maybe justified if it were all that simple as you put it. I started reading Doug Morrissey’s Selectors, Squatters some months back, you seem fond of his line
    and thinking. Even the first few pages I stumbled when he writes in essence, “ Ned Kelly was only a small part of peoples lives” ( up North East) so is dismissed as the criminal behaviour of only by Ned.

    Of John Red Kelly, Doug writes, “The Irish Police described the 21 year old livestock thief as a notorious character habituated to a life of crime, there was no political or religious motivation in any of Red’s crimes” but then Doug’s opening statement he quotes Ian Jones-

    “ Red Kelly was a true Irishman with profound bitterness against centuries of subjection to English and Anglo Irish. He drank in with his mothers milk stories of the brutally suppressed rebellions of 1798, and would pass on to his son a burning pride of Ireland, a love of her traditions and a yearning for freedom from – ‘The Saxon Yoke”

    Then Doug says “ Freedom from the Saxon Yoke had been achieved in Australia”
    Sorry but this is far from the case. The English overlords were here to stay and continue the same control as before, but yes, an uprising by the majority if Settlers, would be giving them a slightly better chance of financial survival, but they were still under the Saxon yoke.

    Later I may continue but I’m trying to put together a book chapter I may call ‘Grog and Gold’.
    It will cover some interesting insight into why Ned was seen as criminal yet only following his instincts for a fairer society which was far from easy to achieve in those early days.

  2. Thanks for your comments Bill – lots of interesting and thought provoking ideas there, and I am certainly interested in continuing the discussion though obviously, and sadly I think the great majority of sympathisers aren’t. ( If they were, we would have heard from them by now I think! )

    I’ll just address a couple of them first up:

    Essentially what you’re saying about Ned Kelly is the argument I discussed in Part One, that to sympathisers like yourself, Ned Kelly wasn’t REALLY a criminal – he was someone who by force of circumstance ended up breaking laws in striking back at the oppressors. Such people do exist. In relation to Ned Kelly the question that follows is ” Was Ned Kelly such a person?”

    In part one I explained why I believe the arguments saying he WAS such a person fail, and in part two I pointed out why I am sure he was NOT such a person – essentially thats because what we know about Ned Kellys life and background ticks all the boxes in the lists of things regarded as the usual explanations of why people become a criminal.

    Bill heres a question for you : were there any ACTUAL criminals in the north-east at that time, or was everyone labelled a criminal just reacting against oppression?

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