Mr. Bulletproof

My last post covered the early history of Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, one of the most iconic figures of Australian (and, indeed, Irish) history, up until the Fitzpatrick affair of 1878 had landed his mother and two friends in jail. Not only that, but both he and his brother Dan were now wanted men; at his mother’s trial the prosecutor said that, had Kelly been there, he would have ‘given him twenty one years’ (some sources say 15, but that’s really a triviality). Seeing the situation was hopeless, and finally losing their tether at the injustice and aggression of the police, Ned and Dan fled the district and went into the bush, and here we pick up the story.

The police were anxious to finally and properly deal with the Kelly brothers and to close down their rustling racket (although they never had any evidence for it), and a £100 reward (a large sum in those days) was put on both their heads. Ned and Dan saw the need to lay low, and made their way to the Wombat Ranges, where they attempted to raise some cash by means of a whiskey distillery and gold panning. Their plan was not, for the moment, anything criminal, but all that changed in late October when the police learned of their whereabouts, and nine policemen set out to capture them. They aimed to execute a pincer movement, one group aiming to catch the gang as they ran away from the other, but this plan went swiftly awry. As they searched for the Kelly camp (the Wombat Ranges was a large area), one of the groups (comprising four men) made camp at Stringybark Creek, unknowingly less than a mile from the Kelly camp. Ned Kelly, who had presumably been keeping a watchful eye out for the police, saw the camp, gathered his brother, two associates who had joined them (Joe Byrne and Steve Hart) and made for it. At around 5pm, the four men (with five guns between them; Ned carried two rifles) surprised the two officers who remained at the camp (the other two having gone off to explore) and told them to lay down their arms. Although Constable McIntyre surrendered immediately (which was probably the sensible thing, given that he was unarmed), a Constable Lonigan, who Kelly had some history with, went for his gun. Ned Kelly immediately shot him in the head. When the other two officers returned they were presented with a similar demand to ‘bail up’, but instead chose to open fire. Both men were shot dead (one thanks to Kelly), but the ensuing chaos gave McIntyre the opportunity to escape on a horse. Upon his return to his home police station he told of Kelly’s ambush on their party, and the slaughter shocked the whole area. All four men were declared outlaws, to be taken dead or alive.

The police took this idea rather… enthusiastically, and gave themselves emergency powers to, basically, break in to anywhere they liked without a warrant and to arrest any suspected sympathisers. Needless to say this did not endear them to the common folk of Australia, particularly when even these tactics failed to find Kelly. Shock at the Kelly gang’s murders slowly turned to annoyance and resentment towards the police, and sympathy with the plight of the Kellys grew. However, the Kelly gang themselves were in dubious shape; without any money they were struggling to keep themselves going, or to help any of their sympathisers who found themselves in prison. The outlaws needed cash, and fast; and so Ned Kelly decided to rob a bank. What the hell, they could only hang him once.

This first raid, on the town of Euroa, was masterful in its execution; after taking over a building to act as a base and to rest their horses, they marched into the bank, weapons drawn, cut the telegraph lines to prevent any messages getting out, and walked out a few minutes later £2260 the richer, an enormous sum. Many of the hostages were, apparently, surprised and charmed by how dignified and polite their kidnappers were, nobody had to be killed and even the newspapers had to admit the robbery had been a veritable triumph. Some of the sympathy for the Kelly gang turned into veritable admiration as, once again, they disappeared into the bush and left the police floundering in their wake. Several months later, it was the turn of the Bank of New South Wales at Jerilderie, an equally slick and bloodless operation that also included, the next day, Ned reading out a weighty 7391-word manifesto/autobiography to the town’s populace. He intended it to be distributed across the country and the world but, as it was, ‘the Jerilderie letter’ went via a complex route into the government archives, and wasn’t published until the 1930s. It is, basically, the Kelly viewpoint on everything that had befallen them, and his views on why he felt his action was justified and the police were ‘cowards’, among other things; it’s phrasing makes it tricky to read, but it provides a shining insight into the mind of the famous outlaw. This letter is the reason beyond all others that Ned Kelly, more than all his compatriots, is remembered to this day.

After Jerilderie, the Kelly gang disappeared for 17 months, and the police pressure intensified. The price on their heads was upped to £4000, over $2 million in today’s money, and the whole ‘locking up friends and sympathisers’ plan ‘ went into overdrive; a select blacklist were banned from owning land in a certain area, for fear they might provide a safehouse for the Kelly gang. This angered the gang, who were incited to one final act of defiance. After shooting an informer (who the police had intended to use as bait), the gang took over the town of Glenrowan, subduing the occupants, and settled down to wait for the police to arrive. It was also here that the Kelly gang donned the outfits that would cement their reputation in history; home-made, 44kg suits of metal body armour, covering chest, back, head and groin, leaving only legs and arms unprotected. These were the first pieces of bulletproof armour, (sufficient to stop a bullet at ten paces), and must have made the outlaws seem mighty fearsome.

The police coming after them knew about the armour from their inquiries, and upon arrival (a released hostage prevented the gang’s attempt to sabotage the train line from being successful) began a shootout against the Kelly gang; 50 against four. During the 15 minute gunfight, Joe Byrne was hit once and Ned 3 times (it is a testament to their armour’s effectiveness that it wasn’t more), before they retreated to the hotel where their hostages were kept. Slowly, it became apparent that the Kelly gang were losing; some time later that night, Joe Byrne was killed thanks to a stray shot to the groin, and the terrified hostages began to escape to the police line. The next morning, Ned Kelly attempted to ambush the police from behind (or had already been out and went back to rescue his compatriots; stories differ), but they now knew to aim for the legs. After 28 shots to his flesh, and countless to his unpeirced armour, Kelly finally went down, somehow still alive despite horrific blood loss. When the police finally fought their way through into the hotel, they found Steve Hart and Dan Kelly dead. Both had almost certainly committed suicide rather than be captured.

Ned Kelly was hanged less than a month later, but his memory has survived long past that Australian November day more than a century ago. The British have had a long history of being brutally controlling to their possessions, both across the empire and in Ireland (indeed, if you go back far enough we can count Scotland and Wales too), and it was invariably the common people who suffered at the hand of harsh taxation, a near-total lack of care for the welfare of the poor and a brutal legal system. Many thousands of people have suffered at such injustices, but Ned Kelly is a rare example of a normal guy who stood up almost alone against the system- and won. His memory acts as a rallying point for all thoughts of freedom from control, of oppression, of having one’s destiny decided for you. He lived fast, he died young, he represented the fight against some of the worst aspects of Britain’s imperial age. And, even today, that means something.

Plus, a bulletproof suit of armour? SO GODDAMN COOL!!!

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The Birth of A Legend

On the 11th of November 1880, a young man in his mid-twenties was hanged in Melbourne, Australia. Nothing particularly unusual about this; Australia was British-owned at the time and took a blunt approach to law enforcement, resulting in many a young man’s death. But this particular young man was something special, as indicated by some (not entirely authenticated) reports that a petition to save his life attracted 30,000 signatories. The man’s name was Ned Kelly, and his story was an extraordinary one.

Some reports claim it was a year later, but Edward Kelly was born in June 1854 to an Irish family in Beveridge, Victoria. He grew into a brave, boisterous boy; aged ten he jumped fully clothed into a river to save the life of a drowning seven year-old, and wore the green sash the family concerned gave him as a reward for much of the rest of his life. His father had been exported to Oz several years ago for theft, and had managed to do well enough for himself to buy a small bit of land; cheap as land was in Australia at the time, such an achievement wasn’t bad for an ex-con at the time. Not that this made life easy for him; the government view at the time was that, since a large proportion of Australians were former convicts, they must all be dirty stinking thieves who shouldn’t be given an inch. This was not conducive to a healthy state of living for Australia’s poor (ie almost everybody), and as such Ned’s father turned to cattle rustling in order to make life that little bit more comfortable. However, the law soon caught up with him, and he was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, which had a permanent effect on his health. Shortly after his return, he died, forcing young Ned to drop out of school to help his mother. His experience with the police during this escapade was not positive, and could be said to have affected the rest of his life.

Still, Ned’s mother Ellen, a famously spirited woman, was still around and moved the family to an area of uncultivated farmland (a lot cheaper than their former freehold home) at a place called Eleven Mile Creek. It was here that Kelly made his first notable forays into the lawless side of things; there was a sharp divide at the time between small landowners (such as the Kelly family) and the ‘big business’ landowners known as squatters. The latter had the police very much on their side and would vehemently ‘protect their interests’ against the hard-up small-time farmers, and a there was something of an undercurrent of resentment dividing the two camps, as there usually is between the rich and poor. The small men, like the Kellys, did what they could to keep their heads above water in this rather messy environment, and a little small-scale rustling was considered part and parcel of the whole business, horses and cattle being exchanged like an alternate currency. Illegality became a way of life for them, and in many ways it was a highly necessary one.

The police, of course, did not take this point of view; the rustlers were, to their mind, nothing more than the basest of thieves, and their patrols were determined to take them down. As ‘The Kelly Gang’ grew in reputation, the forces of law became determined to find some reason, any reason, to take them down, just to keep them under control. After several charges were (reluctantly) dismissed through lack of evidence, he was sent down twice within two years; firstly for assaulting a hawker and later for being caught in possession of a stolen horse. He was sentenced to three years whilst, bizarrely, the man who stole it received just a year and a half. A few years later, he was involved in a fight with police concerning his state of drunkenness (which many thought odd, given that he barely drank; some think his drink may have been spiked), and then came The Fitzpatrick Incident.

In 1878, Ned Kelly’s brother Dan found himself victim of an arrest warrant for horse rustling (the Kelly ring had now grown substantially) and a Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly house in an attempt to arrest him. He found Dan with his mother and sisters, and agreed to let him finish dinner before coming with him. Some reports state that there had been a scuffle even before this, but what is known is that Ellen Kelly asked Fitzpatrick whether he had an arrest warrant. Fitzpatrick in fact only had a telegram telling him  to take Dan in, and his mother (quite rightly, if my legal knowledge is anything to go by) said that Dan therefore had no obligation to go with Fitzpatrick unless he chose to. Fitzpatrick responded by pulling out a pistol and threatening to ‘blow her brains out’ if she continued to ‘interfere’, to which Ellen made some comment to the effect of ‘you wouldn’t be quite so brave if Ned were here’. Dan Kelly responded in possibly the most clichéd fashion imaginable; telling Fitzpatrick that his brother Ned was coming to get him to look out of the window before jumping up, grabbing him and forcing him to drop his weapon, before releasing him (unharmed, he later claimed).

This is generally agreed to be (at least approximately) the true version of events; however, Fitzpatrick then rode to Benalla and announced that he had been attacked by most of the Kelly clan armed with revolvers, and that Ned had shot him in the wrist. The wound was almost certainly not bullet-induced; it was probably made to look worse than it originally had with the use of Fitzpatrick’s penknife (indeed, Fitzpatrick was later labelled a liar and thrown out of the force), but that didn’t matter to the courts now that they had something to take down Ned Kelly for. Within a few hours the Kelly homestead was surrounded and all present were arrested (Dan had already left to try and find his brother in the bush). Punishments were harsh; based only on Fitzpatrick’s drunken testimony, Ellen Kelly received three years whilst two other men who’d been present in the house (Ned’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion and an associate named William ‘Brickey’ Williamson) got six years apiece. Ned Kelly was furious, and demanded vengeance; a story that we will pick up next time…