Some people live both in fame and infamy. As for Edward Kelly, his legacy remains controversial among Australians. Known by many as Ned Kelly, he was an outlaw who led his gang, raided towns, and killed a policeman. He represented the lawlessness of the Australian frontier during the 19th century.
Many people treat Ned Kelly as a folk hero who sought revenge from the Victorian authorities. Those who consider him as an Australian Robin Hood say that he aimed to rebel against the tyranny of the elite against his impoverished countrymen. But others object to this heroic image of Ned Kelly. Nonetheless, this debate brought forth so many accounts about his life—he has the most biographies in Australia.
What led to the ultimate demise of Ned Kelly? The criminal career began in 1869 when he was only fourteen years old.
As a young child, Ned Kelly grew up in a troubled family. His Irish father, Red Kelly, got deported to Australia for stealing farm animals, which he repeated in Victoria. Ned’s uncle is also notorious for theft. Their family also struggled to farm, which was made worse by Red Kelly’s severe alcoholism. Nonetheless, Ned Kelly studied hard and mastered their local terrain. He even saved his peer from drowning.
But their poverty attracted Ned Kelly to engage in bushranging. In 1869, he befriended Harry Power, a transported Irish prison escapee. He trained Ned Kelly in stealing horses. One day, they planned to steal from a gold escort. But they almost got shot. This experience made Ned Kelly separate from Harry Power for months.
Ned Kelly performed his first crime by himself, where he robbed a Chinese animal dealer 10 shillings. But the charges against Ned Kelly got dismissed. Then, he reunited with Harry Power. The two committed three armed robberies before Ned Kelly got caught. However, the court could not incriminate them.
Unfortunately for the pair, the police found and arrested Harry Power. He taught that his protege betrayed him, a charge that Ned Kelly vehemently denied.
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A few months later, Ned Kelly punched a man who accused his friend of stealing a horse. This assault caused him to get jailed with hard labour for five months. But after getting released, Ned Kelly got involved in another offence—horse theft.
As Ned Kelly went home with the horse he supposedly stole, a constable led him to the station to sign documents. But, when they arrived, they violently scuffled as Ned Kelly refused to get arrested. He got imprisoned for three years with hard labour.
In 1878, a constable, Alexander Fitzpatrick, attempted to arrest Ned Kelly’s brother, Dan. But he went there without an official warrant. He also seemed drunk after passing by a hotel hours before. Fitzpatrick and the Kelly family fought violently. Ned Kelly shot Fitzpatrick’s hand while his mother, Ellen, struck him with a shovel.
After this incident, the Kelly brothers had to flee. The case turned them into fugitives from the law, while their mother got jailed. Meanwhile, Alexander Fitzpatrick became a symbol of police negligence and corruption.
Ned and Dan Kelly gained sympathizers and gang members as they hid. They earned supplies by harvesting gold, creating whisky, and receiving provisions from their supporters. But the police soon found out where they were. They failed to see that they were close to Ned Kelly during the raid. But he closely monitored their movements.
The following day, the authorities continued scouting the area, leaving behind another pair of constables. Kelly’s gang attacked their camp, ordering the two policemen to raise their arms. But one of them tried to take his gun and run for cover. Ned Kelly killed him on the spot. Then, the gang stole their revolvers and shotguns. They shot, killed, and looted the officers who pursued them that afternoon.
As the authorities continued to chase them, the Kelly gang’s resources started to run out. So they decided to attack a bank in nearby Euroa. They took hostages at the nearby railway station and cut the telegraph wires connecting the town to the city. Oddly enough, some of them even gave them clothes and supplies. Some think that they were Ned Kelly’s sympathizers.
Then, they attacked the local bank at Europa, stealing cash, gold, and documents. They took all witnesses as hostages as well. After the raid, they commanded their captives to leave only three hours after the gang left.
Then, the Kelly gang planned to rob the bank in Jerilderie also. They scouted the area, talked to locals, and assessed the police force in the town. Jerilderie only had two constables at the office the following day, so the gang turned them and their families into hostages. They spent the next day learning about the local Bank of New South Wales and scheming the attack.
The execution day finally came. They seized the hotel beside the bank, imprisoning the patrons and passers-by. The gang stole cash, jewellery, bank documents, and deeds. They also published their grievances against Australia’s elites and their alleged abuses against poor people, declaring that this is their motivation behind their illegal activities.
The Kelly gang’s successful raids and offences prompted the authorities in New South Wales to give four thousand pounds for those who could capture the men. Victoria also offered the same bounty. In total, the eight thousand pound offer is the highest prize for the capture of bushrangers.
The governments in New South Wales and Victoria also targeted the sympathizers of the Kelly gang. But this persecution only made them even more popular.
Aaron Sherritt was a friend of Ned Kelly’s fellow gang member, Joe Byrne. He also admired Ned Kelly and his cause, but he supported the police to hunt Ned Kelly. So Dan Kelly and Joe Byrne killed him.
The police finally encountered Ned Kelly soon after this. Equipped with bulletproof armour and handguns, Ned Kelly attacked the police. They shot his legs, and he ran to an inn. He hid there and kept hostages, whom he released after a while.
The authorities decided to burn the inn to force the gang out. Three gang members died from shots and severe burns, while Ned Kelly survived the fire and over twenty-four gunshot wounds.
Upon his arrest, the Melbourne authorities charged him for murdering two constables, robbing banks, murdering Aaron Sherritt, among several charges. He got convicted of hanging. Over thirty-two thousand supporters rallied for a lighter sentence, but the Executive Council persisted with the death penalty.
Ned Kelly got executed on November 11, 1880, in the old jail of Melbourne. He calmly faced his death, reportedly saying, “Such is life.”
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