Compared to today's vile heros, Ned Kelly-the Australian outlaw who wrote the angry, articulate Jerilderie letter in 1879-seems as innocent as an ogre-slaughtering hero of fairy tales
The writer and historian Thomas Carlyle, who coupled extraordinary prejudices to extraordinary wisdom, declared in 1841 that “the Hero can be Poet, Prophet, King, Priest or what you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born in.” Carlyle was not saying that the circumstances of our environment exclusively shape who we are, but that our surroundings determine that which we appear to stand for. Though Ulysses’s actions remain the same, in the telling by the Romans he was a brutish, ruthless trickster; in that of the Greeks, a hero. The two denominations are not necessarily contradictory.
The truth be told, most of our heroes are ruthless tricksters, whether their ruses succeed or not. Depending on whether we consider them to have been on the side of the devils or the angels, we consecrate them in our pantheon or damn them for eternity. Robin Hood, Joan of Arc and Che Guevara were all outlaws, and we have granted them the status of heroes because, however bloody their actions, we have decided that they chose the better side.
But what side is that? From the time of our earliest tribes, we have established legal codes to allow us to live together in the expectation of harmony. Not to kill and not to rob are engraved in the laws of every society, and yet every society has armies and police forces that ensure some kind of indentured servitude, and every society has some form of banking system. “If I had to answer the following question, ‘What is slavery?’ and if I answered with a single word, ‘Murder’, I would be understood. Why then to this question, ‘What is property?’ can’t I answer ‘Theft’ without being certain I would not be heard?” wondered Carlyle’s contemporary, the wise politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Our laws, though necessary, are often unjust, and they protect the strong against the weak, the rich against the poor, the old against the young. Most of us like to think of ourselves as law-abiding citizens, but we also admire outlaws because we don’t trust the law.
As time passes, our acceptance of what is permissible in the conduct of a hero seems to transgress further and further the limits of what the law lays out as permissible. It was scandalous but heroic of Robin Hood to rob the rich, of Joan of Arc to contest the authority of her confessors, of Che Guevara to fight against the American Empire, while killing their opponents with arrow, sword and gun. They had, in our stories, a certain gallantry and charm. Today, however, our heroes have grown ugly. Millions of readers and viewers accept, without blinking an eye, the bestial methods of a Hannibal Lecter (literally eating the brains of his opponent) or a Lisbeth Salander of the Millennium Saga (brutally sodomizing and then tattooing her opponent). Dante’s Count Ugolino gnawed the skull of his enemy, Archbishop Ruggieri, and Regan had Gloucester’s eyes gouged in King Lear, but neither Regan nor Ugolino became heroic in their time, as Hannibal and Lisbeth have in ours.
Compared to them, Ned Kelly, the “outlaw and willful murderer” (as the police posters proclaimed) who haunted the Australian bush in the second half of the nineteenth century, seems as innocent as the ogre-slaughtering hero of fairy tales. Ned was born in 1854 (or ’55), the son of an Irish rebel who had been transported to Tasmania for crimes perhaps linked to the Irish Uprising, and who, after his seven-year sentence had been served, settled in Victoria, where he married. Though the Kelly family was suspected several times of cattle and horse stealing, Ned seems to have been a brave and intelligent child: when he was about ten years old, he received a green sash for saving a boy from drowning. The sash must have had a great significance for him, because he wore it under a self-made armour during his final confrontation with the police in 1880.
From his adolescence onwards, Ned Kelly led a violent life, involved in punch-ups, assaults, cattle rustling and bank robbing. For the latter purpose, he formed a gang of four: himself as leader, his younger brother Dan, the opium-addicted Joe Byrne and the melancholy adolescent Steve Hart. Ned was finally captured in June 1880, tried for his crimes and condemned to death by hanging. When the judge pronounced the fatal words “May God have mercy on your soul,” Ned replied: “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.” His mother’s parting words to him were: “Mind that you die like a Kelly.” A petition to spare Ned’s life was signed by over thirty thousand admirers.
To “set straight” the account of his adventures (or misdeeds) “present past and future,” Ned Kelly wrote a remarkable document, which he wanted published, and which became known as the Jerilderie letter. A book by the same name was edited by the historian Alex McDermott, who sets out, in his introduction to the book, the extraordinary facts that led to Ned Kelly’s arrest.
On February 4, 1879, the Kelly gang rode north to the small town of Jerilderie, through the parched bush of Victoria, during one of the worst droughts in Australian history. In order to deal with the fearsome gang, wanted for the murders of three policemen, a new Act of Parliament had been passed, the Felons Apprehension Act, which rendered their arrest easier. At the Woolpack Inn in Jerilderie, the four men had a meal and Ned learned the names of the town’s two policemen, George Devine and Henry Richards. That night, outside the police station and under a full moon “so clear that it could have been day,” Ned called out to Senior Constable Devine that a row had started at the inn. Devine and Richards ran outside, only to find themselves facing the gang’s guns. The policemen were disarmed, handcuffed and locked up in the station’s cell. After ascertaining that there was no one else in the station except Devine’s pregnant wife and children, Ned explained that his visit had two purposes: to rob the Bank of New South Wales and to publish a statement he had written. He asked that Ned’s wife cook the gang dinner, and during the meal he read to her and to his captives long passages from the fifty-six-page document he had composed over the past two months.