cri de coeur feature
Photo: Ned Kelly, the day before his execution, 1880; courtesy State Library of Victoria Collection, photo by Charles Nettleton
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.
The next day, Sunday, while his comrades stayed at the station, Ned helped Devine’s wife prepare the courthouse for the priest who was coming to officiate mass, while Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, dressed up in police uniforms, forced Constable Richards to lead them through town, explaining to the citizens of Jerilderie that these were reinforcements on their way to Victoria, where they would help the authorities track down the Kelly gang. Next day, Ned occupied the Royal Mail Hotel, locked up his prisoners in the hotel bar and robbed the Bank of New South Wales next door. Unfortunately for Ned, instead of the large sum he had hoped for to support his gang during their flight, the vault only held some £2,000.
Ned led the bank manager and two other employees into the hotel, where he locked them up with his other prisoners, but he was interrupted by three customers coming into the bar for a drink. Ned and his men captured two, but the third, Samuel Gill, editor of the Jerilderie and Urana Gazette, managed to escape. Ned’s disappointment was great, because it was Gill whom Ned wanted to see above all, to publish in the Gazette Ned’s exculpatory statement. Ned decided to leave the prisoners in the hands of the rest of the gang and walk over to Gill’s house, taking with him Constable Richards and one of the bank employees, an accountant named Edwin Living, as hostages. Only Mrs. Gill was at home. McDermott reproduces the conversation Ned had with her:
“Don’t be afraid, this is Kelly.”
“I am not afraid.”
“That’s right. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you or your husband. He should not have run away. Where has he gone to?”
“If you shoot me dead I don’t know where Mr. Gill is. You gave him such a fright I expect he is lying dead somewhere.”
“All I want him for is to print this letter—the history of my life. And I want to see him to explain it to him.”
In the end, Ned handed over the letter to Living, who promised to deliver it to the editor. Ned returned to the hotel bar, where he addressed his captive audience. “I want to say a few words,” he began, “about why I’m an outlaw, and what I’m doing here today.” Then he gave them a summary of the letter, and he and his men took their leave. Contrary to his promise, Living did not have the letter published but handed it over to the police. The Jerilderie letter finally appeared in print in 1930, in the pages of the Melbourne Herald. The original document was anonymously donated in 2000 to the State Library of Victoria, and The Jerilderie Letter (McDermott’s book) was published in 2001.
On the surface, Ned’s letter merely contained his version of the murders of which he and his gang stood accused. Six months before these events, on April 15, 1878, a certain constable Alexander Fitzpatrick had arrived at the Kelly property to arrest Dan for the theft of horses. By all accounts, Fitzpatrick was drunk, and in his attempt to enter the Kelly estate, he was wounded in the wrist. Fitzpatrick claimed that the aggressor was Ned; Ned said that at the time he had been in New South Wales. A day later, Ellen, the boys’ mother, together with some neighbours, was arrested by Fitzpatrick for “attempted murder.” Ned and Dan escaped to the mountains, which they knew very well, and for the next six months the police combed the area without finding them. It was not until October that, panning for gold in a creek, Ned came across a police search party. There was a shoot-out, and three policemen were killed. The fourth escaped and, upon reaching the town of Mansfield, reported the attack. Ever since, Ned’s response to the accusations was “Fitzpatrick is to blame.”
The Jerilderie letter is not merely a personal version of the alleged facts. It is the testimony of an angry man about his time and place, about the country settled by a society that mirrored the British Empire’s system of privileges, caste and legal corruption. Law is not law, Ned Kelly implies, when it is enforced through “the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police.” And as to the people of this country, he concludes: “If they depend in the police they shall be drove to destruction.”
Gradually, furiously, the facts of one man’s life become a depiction of the whole of world that surrounds him, with its fears, violent acts, petty vices, agonies of survival, helplessness. The Jerilderie letter holds its place next to the testimonies of other great outlaws: François Villon, Jean Genet, Jack Henry Abbott.
There is a further dimension to Kelly’s character, and that is his genius for language. There is no equivalent in writing for peinture naïve, and yet something of the sort is apparent in the Jerilderie letter. It is impossible to read it and not be reminded of the tongue-freeing artifices of Joyce and the minutely crafted ravages of Céline, and yet there is no conscious artistic intention in Kelly, no second level where the writer knows that he is making literature—wringing new meaning out of language, reshaping grammar and syntax to suit a secret purpose, giving, in Mallarmé’s all-too-literary phrase, “a purer sense to the words of the tribe.” It is up to the reader, a century and a half later, to grant The Jerilderie Letter its rightful place in the universal library.
Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) All Men Are Liars, The City of Words, A Reading Diary and The Library at Night. He lives in France. Read more of his Geist work at geist.com.