Stringybark Creek : What the hell was Ned Kelly thinking? 

There’s one thing that I think pro and anti-Kelly factions should agree on about the events at Stringybark Creek: The Gang didn’t approach the police with a plan to kill them. An argument that they went there expressly with murder in mind can certainly be made from plenty of bits of available information such as the extensive damage to trees around the Kelly camp that indicate that for weeks they had been practising their marksmanship, and Ned Kellys own words, written the following year that “I was compelled to shoot them or lie down and let them shoot me”. I’ll return to this argument later.

 

But Kelly also claimed he went there just to disarm the police, that if he had wanted to murder them he could have done so from the safety of cover, and of course, he didn’t murder McIntyre when he easily could have. To me, disarming and not killing police is the more likely explanation of what the Gang had in mind that day. 

What I think should be agreed on is that even Ned Kelly was sane enough to know that a plan to go and kill police in cold blood made absolutely no sense: prior to the confrontation at SBC nobody had been murdered, and though he was wanted for attempted murder, and faced serious Gaol time if caught and convicted, this wasn’t a capital offence, but killing police clearly was.

 

What seems to have been planned for Stringybark was that Kelly and the other three members of the Gang would arm themselves and go to the police camp, bail up and disarm the police, take their supplies and their horses, and send them packing.  Such a simple  mission – what could possibly go wrong?  In fact this plan is so full of holes  its pretty obvious that nobody made  even the slightest  attempt to carefully think it  through. For a start, they couldn’t have thought very much about what would happen if they had been successful and disarmed the police and sent them away – then what? All that would be achieved was the short-term thrill of having bested police, who then would have greatly escalated their efforts to capture the Gang and made life a whole lot more difficult for them.   Even if everything went off as planned, it could only have ever made their situation worse.  The entire idea was half baked, short-sighted and stupid. It was really just thrill-seeking, living in the moment, which of course is a favourite pastime of immature young men to this day.

They also hadn’t thought very deeply about the confrontation itself, about what might eventuate and how they would respond to the unpredictable. The biggest problem here was probably Ned Kellys inflated confidence in his own ability. He was blinded to the reality of what he was planning because his previous experiences of armed confrontations were robberies on the highway with Harry Power, and they were always successful. When confronted by armed bandits, the surprised and terrified, but untrained and unarmed travellers readily bailed up and handed over whatever the thieves wanted, without a fight, let alone a gunfight. Ned Kellys experience had taught him – wrongly as it turned out –  that an armed hold up was a piece of cake.

 

Ned Kellys contempt for police, and an immature and overblown sense of his own invincibility were a deadly mix when guns and testosterone are added in. He likely imagined that what he became used to seeing on the highway with Harry Power was what he would see again at SBC : instant submission to the terror of a loaded weapon aimed at your chest, and his complete domination and control of everything that would happen. But he lacked the wisdom to wonder if armed trained police out looking for him might react differently to unarmed and untrained travellers, and what he would do if they did. He hadn’t developed a Plan B, but if he had thought about it, he might have realised he had left himself with only one option if police reacted in an unexpected way: retreat or start shooting.  He didn’t even have the most basic Plan B , such as that if he had to start shooting his first one would be a warning shot. Instead, feeling invincible and foolishly overconfident he devised a thoughtless, reckless and dangerous plan based on his conviction that the police would do as he ordered them to, like travellers on the Highways always did.

I would guess that when they left their camp at Kellys creek heading for the Police camp at SBC, failure and disaster and even killing was far from Kellys mind. They took guns but were likely in denial about the possibility of ever having to use them. I imagine with hearts beating fast and adrenaline levels through the roof they would have been pumped with eager testosterone fuelled excitement at the prospect of humiliating the police and gaining a thrilling victory over them – but instead horrendous tragedy was just around the corner.

 

A few short hours later it was all over, Ned Kellys reckless gamble had collapsed almost instantly into total disaster and three policemen were dead. Nowdays this murderous shambles, entirely of Ned Kellys making  would be called a cluster-f*ck: the Kelly Gang were now multiple murderers on the run with death by hanging inevitable if they were ever caught. They had voluntarily thrown themselves from the frying pan into the fire.

 

Their only hope now was to stay on the run for ever, and try to devise a justification for the killings which might spare them from the noose if they were ever caught. What Kelly tried to do was blame it all on the police, writing in the Jerilderie Letter, “it is only foolishness to disobey an outlaw as any Policeman or other man who does not throw up their arms directly as I call on them knows the consequence, which is a speedy despatch to Kingdom come”.  As I mentioned above, he claimed to believe that he was “compelled to shoot them” or else “lie down and let them shoot me”. Kellys argument was going to be that he had been told that the police were coming to kill him, that he was going to be shot and have a gun planted on his corpse, that it was either kill or be killed. Over the years, various other elements, all untrue, have been added to this claim to try to strengthen it, such as that the police were in disguise, that they carried ‘body straps’, that they were heavily armed and that they were competing against each other for reward money.

 

The peculiar thing is that when he was eventually caught and went to trial, none of these arguments were presented.

But before then, while on the run, Kelly devised another delusional plan, but this time, unlike at Stringybark Creek where murder emerged accidentally, but entirely predictably out of the chaos, the Gang went to Glenrowan with the express purpose of murdering as many police as they possibly could. Once again Kellys half-baked badly thought out scheme collapsed in complete disarray right at the very beginning, and ironically no police were killed. Instead, three Gang members and two of their innocent prisoners died as the Police finally brought Kellys insane rampage to a fiery end. Another cluster-f*ck entirely of Ned Kellys making. Only people who have never thought about how disastrously these two adventures turned out could ever repeat the absurd idea that Ned Kelly would have made a great General. He was a dangerously reckless and careless fool.

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5 Replies to “Stringybark Creek : What the hell was Ned Kelly thinking? ”

  1. “There’s one thing that I think pro and anti-Kelly factions should agree on about the events at Stringybark Creek: The Gang didn’t approach the police with a plan to kill them.”

    I don’t subscribe to that consensus.

    At minimum, the gang’s plan seems to have been to kidnap the police, but to kill them if they show any resistance. To that extent, it was pre-meditated. They arrived at least with a plan to possibly kill the police, depending on how the police responded. When Lonigan turned to run, Ned Kelly didn’t stand around agonising, or wondering what to do. He had already mapped it out. The plan was, if the police run, shoot them.

    The arrival of Kennedy and Scanlan later that afternoon is even worse. The gang started firing before Kennedy or Scanlan had a chance to either flee or raise their weapons. Kennedy jokingly putting his hand NEAR his weapon was enough. It’s almost as if they were looking for any reason, any excuse to open fire. Again, this suggests a prior decision to kill the police in such a scenario. Kelly at least was itching to pull the trigger. I’d say he was hoping that the police would attempt to defy him.

    You note that after Lonigan’s murder, the gang kept McIntyre alive, and Ned Kelly himself made much of this fact. But it means nothing. They kept McIntyre alive because they needed him as bait, to catch Kennedy and Lonigan when they rode back into the campsite. McIntyre himself believed that the gang would murder him if he didn’t escape.

    I believe that Kelly also made a point you made, specifically that if he had wanted to kill the police, he could have just shot them all from a distance. But that’s not really true. If the gang had opened fire from long-distance on a police camp, then it was likely to degenerate into a firefight. That would be a very messy way to do it, with a high chance of failure.

    The most efficient and professional way of doing it was to first capture them all at gunpoint. Such a strategy also provided them with a chance to interrogate the police about their plans, their equipment, and about police activities in general.

    In terms of the excuses for why they did it, I don’t think you’re right that none of those things were raised in court. At his trial in Melbourne, Kelly’s defence raised the fact that the police camped at Stringybark Creek were in civilian clothes. This was a furphy. Police uniforms were expensive, so they always dressed in casual ‘civilian’ clothes if they went on overnight bush patrols. But Justice Redmond Barry completely quashed that line of defence, his response essentially being, “so what?” Why would civilian clothing give the gang the right to kidnap them? The police weren’t in disguise, but, echoing Barry, so what if they were? It means less than it seems.

    I don’t know exactly what the gang’s plan was going into Stringybark Creek, but it’s clear that murdering the police was, at bare minimum, a planned contingency, and one that Ned and Joe were willing to carry out. I’m not sure about Dan and Steve. Maybe Kelly hoped he would get an excuse to do it, and he got what he wished for.

    1. Thanks for that brilliant response.

      I did consider the possibility that they were hoping the police would give them an excuse to shoot and kill them, but if thats what they were hoping, that implies an intensity of anger and hatred of police that seems way out of proportion to where they were in the progress of the outbreak up to that point. For a long time Ive thought of Ned Kellys state of mind to have been evolving, to have been increasingly paranoid and consumed by police hate but prior to SBC I hadn’t thought he was quite at that white hot place he had got to at Glenrowan. Youre saying he was. I had given him a little credit for still being to some degree sane . …..

      But actually David I think even you are saying that if the police had done exactly what they were ordered to do, like McIntyre did, then none of them would have been killed. Which is almost what I wrote in the second sentence of mine you quoted above….should I have added …”unless the police didnt instantly and completely obey every order the Gang gave them”??

      This post was about their state of mind at the beginning , but once Lonigan had been killed everything changed completely. When Scanlan and Kennedy turned up, the Gang were now all guilty of murder, they knew they would be on the run for ever and would hang if caught, so they had nothing to lose by killing more police. In fact if all of them were dead there would be no witnesses, and who knows, they may never have been convicted. I agree with your description of McIntyre as ‘bait’ and they most likely would have killed McIntyre if they could have . He was an incredibly brave and decent man, and it pisses me off no end the way Ian Jones has smeared him so successfully with the label ‘perjurer’. Very nasty.

      1. The perjury accusation against McIntyre is wrong. Jones treated Sadleir’s account as more authoritative than it was. And even if McIntyre had changed his story, the alternative versions of what happened didn’t exonerate Kelly in a legal sense. The only reason to claim that McIntyre lied is to give Kelly some kind of moral and historical justification, not a legal one. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

        And more broadly, quite apart from that error in Sadleir’s memoir, Sadleir was unreliable. By his own admission (in the same memoir) he committed perjury before the Royal Commission. Also, it sure looks as if he and Nicolson worked together to cover each other’s arses (just as Hare and Standish tried to do the same, but with less success). The way that Nicolson blatantly covered for Sadleir was unethical; I guess that’s on Nicolson rather than Sadleir, but it leaves us to conclude that Sadleir was probably doing the same thing in reverse.

    2. I agree with your comments on that issue, David D. Kelly gave Lonigan almost no reaction time at all before he fired, killing him. From the evidence, as soon as Lonigan moved, he was fired on and killed.
      There is no doubt in my mind that as soon as Kennedy and Scanlan rode into camp, although Kelly called on them to ‘bail up’, they were fired on immediately. Neither of the officers murdered at Stringybark Creek had a weapon in hand, as the evidence discloses.
      Had McIntyre not taken Kennedy’s horse and escaped, Kelly would have murdered him too. How could he leave a reliable eyewitness to two murders alive. He later stated that he would have murdered McIntyre, and repeated that on several occasions.
      On reading all the available evidence, there was plenty of ‘mens rea’ there to justify an opinion that Kelly intended to murder the police, even with the slightest provocation.

  2. I think we will have to go back to the McIntyre manuscript where he talks about what he thought of Kelly and the gang’s intentions as regards whether they were willing to kill the police. I’m in the middle of moving house and everything is pack up, but he does reminisce on exactly this, and he’s the only eye witness. And his testimony was highly consistent over time so I put great weight on his memoir. The only good versions are those by himself, with the Vic Police Museum’s 7 part PDF being the most easily accessible. Unfortunately Morrisey’s transcription has been creative with the punctuation, breaking down McIntyre’s lucid but lengthy paragraphs (he had been a school teacher and wrote extremely well) and in quite a number of places the changes alter the meaning of sentences. Morrissey makes many good observations in his footnotes but I can’t recommend the transcript; the original must be used for citations IMO.

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