Ned Kelly Biography

Ned Kelly, Australia's first Crocodile Dundee, had a patriotic notion but a murderous bent. He was Robin Hood if you were family or friend.

Every country seems to have a criminal folk hero. England has Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber; Canada has a noted bank robber named Paddy Mitchell; the United States has Jesse James and a veritable pantheon of other villains. Australia, both a country and a continent, has one outlaw of renown, a national anti-hero named Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly is much prized by Australians. A few years ago, when British rocker, Mick Jagger, was selected to star as Ned Kelly in a movie of the same name, Australian critics panned the movie mightily, taking issue particularly with the premise that a Brit could accurately portray a legend of Oz.

North-east of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria and extending to the border of the state of New South Wales, the Murray River, is a ranching region known to this day as Kelly Country. Here the legend of Ned Kelly was played out. Some of the famous locales: Stringy Bark Creek, Euroa, Glenrowan, Wangaratta, Mansfield, Greta, Beechworth.

By some accounts Ned Kelly and his gang were horse thieves, bank robbers, and murderers. By others, they may have been political revolutionaries, misunderstood deprived youth; or just plain good old boys. One point is certain: all were dead before their thirtieth birthdays. Ned Kelly was twenty-five when he was hung. His brother, Dan, was nineteen when he died, probably of smoke inhalation during a police siege at Glenrowan. Notwithstanding, to be "as game as Ned Kelly" in contemporary Australia is to be a real-life Crocodile Dundee.

Originally, Australia was peopled by convicts and the colonialists who used them as labor. Governance was often provided by remittance men and other genteel cast-offs of English high society.

Some of the Kelly gang could trace roots back to transported convicts who, having served their sentences, stayed in Australia as free men, of a class known as "selectors", because they were entitled to select a piece of land on which to live. Ned's father was among these transported convicts who later became a "selector".

Unfortunately, others known as "squatters" had come before and had already taken up the choicest land. The closest parallels in American history would be that between the cattle barons and the sheep herders, the open range-ers and the homesteaders. Not only was the Kelly family "selector", it had its roots in Ireland, itself regarded as an English colony.

Ned's mother, Ellen, arrived in Australia from County Antrim in 1841. She bore twelve children by two husbands, the second of whom was John Kelly. The family managed. They raised horses, rustled them, traded them. Criminal charges were frequent. Going bush to avoid prosecution was a common practice. Ned's younger brother, Dan, obtained mention as a suspected horse thief in the local Police Gazette when he was five years old. Jim Kelly, another brother, received five years in jail for stealing four cows. Ned was the eldest son, and when his father died in 1866, at twelve Ned became the man of the house.

The Kelly children were of the land. They scratched their livelihood, did some cunning and crafty, learned their bush - guns, horsemanship, prospecting, lumbering, brawling, and hard drinking.

Ned was on the run in 1878, hiding out over at the Murray River in New South Wales due to warrants on stock charges, when his mother was sentenced to three years for a trumped up attempted murder conviction.

To avenge his mother's wrongful conviction was seen as reasonable and just, the cornerstone of the Ned Kelly legend. Ned came back home. At the time the reward for his apprehension was set at 100 pounds. But in October, 1878, police hunting the Kellys unknowingly camped near the Kelly hideout at Stringy Bark Creek. Three of the four police were killed. Two hundred police scoured Kelly Country but no trace of the four-man gang was found.

Flight is expensive, even on horseback. Bail money and legal fees for sympathizers, money for shelter, fresh horses, silence. In December, 1878, the bank in Eurora was robbed of 2000 pounds. The reward for the Kelly gang climbed to 1000 pounds a head.

Next, two months later, a New South Wales bank in Jerilderie was robbed; another 2000 pounds taken. At Jerilderie another part of the Ned Kelly persona was created. Kelly dictated an eight thousand word autobiography and a manifesto for a new independent state. Ned Kelly's manifesto did not see the light of day until the 1930's, having been suppressed by authorities. The reward rose to 8000 pounds. But, for sixteen months no trace of the Kelly gang surfaced.

The final stand of Ned Kelly and the gang came in Glenrowan in June, 1880. Beyond the predictable: three dead and Ned eventually hung, there is the uniqueness that Ned armored his gang with bullet proof plates, presumably fashioned from parts of ploughshares. The Glenrowan siege was to be a stand-off as fabulous now in Australian folklore as the gunfiight at the OK Corral in American legend.

The Kelly gang made their stand in a local hotel. As with their bank robberies, they took hostage many locals, in this case, about thirty people. Many heroics and actions of familial loyalty were described of the resulting siege when fifty police laid down their withering fire at three a.m. One gang member was shot dead. Two others, including Ned's brother, Dan, died during a fire which destroyed the hotel. Ned, who had escaped, returned in his full armor, emerging like an avenging specter from the dawn mists, so the story goes, guns blazing to rescue his brother. Instead his armor-less legs were shot from under him and he was captured alive.

Ned Kelly's trial was quick, the judgment was quick, and the hanging was quick. The judge who pronounced sentence died twelve days later in his chamber. Upon sentencing, Ned's comment to him had been, "I'll see you where I'm going." Ned Kelly was hung in November, 1880, before his mother was released from prison.

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