The Legend of Ned Kelly

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Podcast Transcript

In the late 19th century, the American frontier became famous for its outlaws and gangsters. Men like Billy the Kid and Jesse James became notorious for their criminal exploits.

While this was happening in the American West, there were similar outlaws in the Australian bush. 

One, in particular, has captured the imagination of Australia and the reason he became so famous was…..unique.

Learn more about Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang and how they became legendary, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Australia was famously populated by the British who sent convicted convicts to settle there.  To be fair many of the people that the British sent were often on trumped-up charges, just because they needed bodies.

But there were actually hard-core criminals sent to Australia and 19th century Australia was a far wilder place than the country you know today. 

It was in this environment that Ned Kelly was born in what was then the colony of Victoria in 1854. His father, John “Red” Kelly, came from Ireland and he was one of the convicts who was sent to Australia as punishment. The crime he committed in Ireland was stealing two pigs. 

His family had a history of getting into trouble with the law. Ned had an uncle named Jim Kelly who was arrested for cattle rustling, and an eight-year-old Ned made his first court appearance to testify on his behalf. 

In 1865, Red Kelly was sent to prison for six months for stealing a calf. When he was released from prison, his already bad alcoholism worsened and he died in 1866, leaving a 12-year-old Ned to provide for his family. 

The Kelly family was poor and given their history of crime, was often harassed by the local police. 

At age 14, Ned fell in with a bushranger named Harry Power and got into trouble with the law for stealing horses. He served two prison terms before he turned twenty, one of which was three years long. 

In his first run-in with the law at the age of 14, he was accused of stealing 10 shillings from a Chinese pig dealer by the name of Ah Fook. He was acquitted due to a lack of evidence, but I mostly just wanted to say the name Ah Fook.

Here I should explain what bushrangers are. Back in the 19th century when men got into trouble with the law, some of them would flee into the bush. Many of these bushrangers were often children of convicts which were sent to Australia, just like Ned Kelly. There most of them reverted to a life of crime, often robbing people during the Australian gold rush of the 1850s and 1860s. 

In 1878, after another confrontation with police at the family house in Victoria, Ned was accused of attempted murder of a police officer, and he fled into the bush. His mother Ellen ended up going to prison for her role in the event. 

The events of what happened were hotly disputed at the time. According to the Kellys, the officer in question Alexander Fitzpatrick, went to the Kelly house to arrest Dan Kelly. However, the Kellys say that he was intoxicated and tried to take advantage of their younger sister. There was a fight where they knocked a revolver out of the officer’s hand, and he was injured. 

According to the officer, he wasn’t intoxicated and his injury was a gunshot wound. 

Ned and his brother Dan vowed vengeance against the police. They teamed up with two other associates, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, and they killed three police officers in an ambush, in an event known as the Stringybark Creek police murders. 

The group, now known as the Kelly Gang, were declared outlaws by the Victorian government.  

A bounty was placed on their heads of £800 for all four, which would eventually be raised to £8000. 

If you remember back to my episode on outlawry, someone declared an outlaw was literally declared to be outside of the protection of the law. That literally meant that someone could kill you without punishment, and no one was allowed to render you any assistance. 

However, that isn’t what happened. 

Kelly and his gang found sympathizers and other criminals who were willing to help them while they were on the run. 

On December 9, 1878, they raided the small town of Euroa. They held over three dozen people hostage while they went and robbed the town’s bank and tore down the telegraph wires. They escaped with £2,260 and some people think that some of the hostages were actually supporters of the gang.

After the Euroa raid, the number of police and military in the region was increased dramatically.

Nonetheless, on February 7, 1879, they raided the town of Jerilderie in New South Wales. 

Here too they took several hostages, including two police officers, and robbed the bank on Sunday morning when everyone was at church. They walked away with £2,141, and they also burned the bank’s mortgage paperwork saying, “the bloody banks are crushing the life’s blood out of the poor, struggling man”.

Prior to the raid on Jerilderie, Ned Kelly wrote a letter to one of his gang members, Joe Byrne. It was a 58-page letter, expanding on one he wrote the previous year for the Victoria legislature, justifying his actions, complaining about the conditions of the poor in Victoria, and railing against the British and their Empire. 

After the Jerilderie raid was when the bounty on their heads hit £8000, the highest ever at that time in Australia. 

For over a year, the gang laid low and didn’t do anything which would raise attention to themselves. 

In June of 1880, they hunted down and murdered Aaron Sherritt, who was formerly an associate of Joe Bryne, who had turned police informer. 

The police had been steaking out the homes of know Kelly gang associates, and Sherritt’s was one of those homes. When Sherritt was killed, there were four policemen inside who were supposedly there for his protection. 

When Byrne knocked on the door, he shot him as soon as he opened it. 

This put the Kelly gang in a bind. The police were inside the building Sherritt had been shot in and they were armed. The gang needed to get away, but they knew that by morning, the police inside would have sent for help and reinforcements would be arriving. 

They realized that the police reinforcement would be arriving by rail, so they went to the town of Glenrowan to set up an ambush, and to try and derail the train. The plan was to derail the train, shoot the survivors, then go to another town, rob the bank, and release everyone from jail to cause more chaos. 

They also brought with them to Glenrowan a few special items. 

These items are the things that made Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang famous, and why I’m even bothering to do an episode on this topic 140 years later. 

The gang had created bulletproof armor that was to be used in shootouts with the police. 

The armor had been created over a period of months while they were laying low the previous year. The metal was 6-millimeter thick iron used in plows, and it was probably made by blacksmiths who were sympathetic to the gang. 

The armor was really heavy. Ned’s armor weighed 44 kilograms or 97 pounds. It only covered the head and torso, and the limbs were exposed. 

The police had been notified of the armor well beforehand, but they dismissed it as nonsense. 

The gang took over 62 hostages in a hotel Glenrowan, but it was a very odd hostage-taking. They supposedly had a dance and gave the hostages food and one hostage later said that “[Ned] did not treat us badly—not at all”

They waited for the police to show up, but they didn’t arrive. The police had been notified that the train track was sabotaged, so took their time.

By 2 am, a few hostages were freed, but by 3 am the police had finally shown up.

The gang donned their extremely heavy armor and stepped out to meet the police on the veranda of the hotel. 

The entire shootout took place in the moonlight. 

The armor turned out not to be decisive in the battle. The Kelly Gang was simply outgunned. The police fired between 100 to 150 shots, accidentally killing three of the hostages.

Joe Byrne was killed when he was shot in the groin. 

Ned Kelly was wounded in his hands and legs and managed to stumble out into the bush where he hit until morning. 

Dan Kelly and Steve Hart remained holed up in the hotel. 

At about 7 am, Ned Kelly stumbled out, wounded and wearing his armor, shooting at the police. Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were fired from the hotel to support Ned. 

The armor actually blocked bullets, but after 30 minutes, one of the police officers just shot Ned Kelly in the legs with a shotgun which ended the affair. 

Ned was taken into custody and brought to the railway station where a doctor attended to him. He was found to have 28 wounds on his body, from both gunshots and his armor. 

After removing the rest of the hostages, the police decided to burn the building down at about 2:50 pm. While it was burning, a Catholic priest ran in to find the bodies of Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly, and Steve Hart. It is known exactly how Kelly and Hart died. 

Ned Kelly survived and stood trial in October of that year and was sentenced to death by hanging. 

On November 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was executed, despite a petition with 32,000 signatures asking the governor for clemency. 

After his execution, the story of Ned Kelly and his suit of armor became legendary.  The story was romanticized and Kelly began being thought of by some people as a hero who fought against the system. 

Ned Kelly and his gang became the subject of dozens of books, paintings, poems, songs, and movies. 

The first full-length feature film in history, clocking in at over an hour, was The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was produced in 1906. 

At the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, there were a bunch of performers dressed in Ned Kelly armor.  If you visit the town of Glenrowan today, you can see a giant Ned Kelly statue dressed in armor. 

Ned Kelly’s armor can be found at the State Library of Victoria, and two of the other armor sets can be found at the Victoria Police Museum.

On January 20, 2013, Ned Kelly’s family reburied his remains in a cemetery next to his mother. 

Whether Ned Kelly was a hero or not has been the subject of debate ever since a bounty was put on his head. The other debate has been about his armor. 

Personally, I think the armor idea was a good one in theory. Ned Kelly’s armor at a total of 18 bullet marks on it, and none of them penetrated. However, each of them still managed to wound him to some extent, either via bruising or a concussion. 

The problem was, to use a metaphor from software, they went into production with the alpha version of their product. If they had time to build something properly, it might have worked much better, especially if their limbs weren’t exposed. 

Several military strategists and other people like Arthur Conan Doyle applauded the Kelly Gang for their originality and suggested that something similar could be used by police in certain circumstances. 

Regardless of what you think of Ned Kelly, his gang, and his armor, his story and the image of his iron bucket helm have become one of the iconic stories and images for Australia. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Amin over at They write, 

Gary, your show is the best. By best I mean all podcasts ever. please continue producing such top-notch casts.

Thanks, Amin! In the word of the fake Nicholas Cage…..that’s high praise. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.