Like an Australian Billy the Kid, Ned Kelly is a notorious outlaw and bushranger whose story has provoked endless discussion and debate, not to mention several films.
Opinions have never been united when it comes to Kelly; was he a misunderstood victim, or a notorious murderer who deserved what he got? People have always asked if there was anything more to him than just his infamous run-ins with the law. Here are 44 wild facts about Ned Kelly.
“I am Ned Kelly, the son of Red Kelly, and a better man never stood in two shoes.”—Ned Kelly.
44. Sounds Like a Prequel!
Kelly’s father was an Irishman named John “Red” Kelly. Born in County Tipperary in 1820, he was deported from Ireland at the age of 21 when he was convicted of stealing two pigs.
John was taken to Van Dieman’s Land, which today is known as the island of Tasmania. However, John would move to the continent of Australia, traveling around doing odd jobs until he found success digging for gold.
As a result, he bought land for himself just outside of Melbourne and married Ellen Quinn in 1850. They would have eight children together, of which Ned Kelly was the third.
43. I Can Never Remember His Birthday!!
It remains uncertain which day Kelly was born on due to a lack of detailed records. However, historians have concluded, based on what little evidence there is, that Kelly was born at some point during December 1854.
42. Farewell, Father
Despite his father’s successes, Kelly’s family would continue to have run-ins with the local police forces. In 1865, Kelly’s father, Red, was found guilty of having a bullock hide in his possession without a satisfactory explanation.
The implication was that he’d stolen the bullock for its meat, and so Red was sentenced to hard labor in Kilmore Jail. After he was released, Red became alcoholic, which led to his early death on December 27, 1866.
41. It’s Those Kelly Boys Again…
Before Kelly himself was declared an outlaw, there were an incredible amount of accusations thrown at him and other members of his family by neighboring farmers of stealing livestock.
Many have argued that this was a case of their community turning on them unfairly due to Red Kelly’s past, while others say that that it’s an example of the Kelly family being born to no-good behavior.
40. When Harry Met Kelly
One of the most important figures in Kelly’s life was an Irish-born bushranger named Harry Power, which is one of the top five or six coolest names that we’ve ever come across.
Power was a fugitive from the law who took Kelly under his wing in 1869 and taught him the life of a bushranger, a term used to describe fugitive outlaws who lived in the bush. However, after an attempt to rob horses from a squatter ended in failure, Kelly ended up serving a couple of sentences over the course of a few years for a number of infractions.
39. A Keepsake for Simpler Days
When Kelly was just a boy, he saved another boy’s life by successfully pulling him out of Hughes Creek. As a reward, the boy’s grateful family gifted the young Kelly with a green sash. Kelly must have been very proud of this sash because he was wearing it under his armor when he was finally cornered and taken prisoner—more on that later.
38. If You Want Something Done Right
While most of the film adaptations of Kelly’s life have been largely disappointing, The Last Outlaw was deemed a resounding success. This miniseries was released as close to the hundredth anniversary of Kelly’s execution as possible, and portrayed Kelly’s life in four parts, with John Jarratt in the lead role.
37. Could We Call it a Rashomon Moment?
The same year that the 14-year-old Kelly had first worked alongside Harry Power, he was arrested for charges laid against him by the Chinese-born Ah Fook. Fook claimed that he had been robbed near the Kelly home by the teenaged Kelly and driven off the property.
When Kelly was brought to court, he claimed that Fook had assaulted Kelly’s sister, Anne, and Kelly had come to her rescue. Anne and two witnesses with ties to the Kelly family confirmed Kelly’s story, leading to his release. To this day, it remains unknown which side was telling the truth, or whether either of them was telling the truth at all.
36. A Mysterious Criminal
In 1870, Kelly was reported to be working with Harry Power again. During the spring of that year, the two of them allegedly committed several robberies before Kelly was captured by police.
Witnesses to the crimes, however, failed to positively identify Kelly as being one of the culprits. Several reasons have been given for this event; some say that Kelly was a victim of police harassment and falsely arrested, while others say that the witnesses were intimidated by the Kelly family to make sure that Kelly wasn’t identified.
Yet another explanation offered has been that some witnesses claimed that Power’s accomplice was biracial in appearance because Kelly had been so scruffy and unwashed at the time.
35. Feature Presentation
Incredibly, Kelly was the subject of the world’s very first full-length feature film! The Story of the Kelly Gang was first screened on December 26, 1906, less than 30 years after he was killed! In 2007, this film’s incredible achievement was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Registry.
34. I Want That Money!
At the height of Kelly’s notoriety, he and his gang had a price of 8,000 pounds on their head. It was the highest reward ever offered for bushrangers in Australian history.
Ironically, all that money would undermine efforts to bring Kelly down, as authority figures quarreled amongst themselves over how that money would be divided up if and when the Kelly gang was captured!
33. Reading Material
Several books have been written about Kelly and his life, some factual, some semi-fictional. Several of these books, specifically Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine and Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, have also been directly adapted for the big screen.
32. How Can Kelly Sleep While the Beds Are Burning?!
It stands to reason that Kelly’s legacy has inspired countless songs ever since the man still drew breath. Among the many bands and individual musicians which have produced songs about Kelly are Johnny Cash, Redgum, Rolf Harris, Waylon Jennings, and, fittingly, the left-wing Aussie band Midnight Oil.
31. Please Prove Me Innocent, Officer!
Kelly’s mentor, Harry Power, was eventually arrested while he was on property belonging to Kelly’s maternal grandfather. This led to local rumors that Kelly had betrayed and informed on Power, which he hotly denied—it had actually been Kelly’s uncle, Jack Lloyd. Kelly even wrote to the police and begged them to clear his name!
30. Can I Have Your Autograph?
One falsehood that’s cropped up about Ned Kelly is that he was an illiterate man. However, there are several preserved documents which include writing that has been confirmed to be Kelly’s.
29. Have We Met Before?
Kelly was baptized by Charles O’Hea, an Augustinian priest. Incredibly, O’Hea would also be the man who would administer Kelly’s last rites before Kelly’s execution!
28. Any Last Words?
Kelly allegedly uttered the simple phrase “Such is life” as his final statement while he was alive. However, as much as this has been embraced as being fact, there is some cause for uncertainty. One reporter who bore witness to Kelly’s execution declared that Kelly actually said “Ah well! It’s come to this at last.”
Meanwhile, the prison warden had been standing closer to Kelly than almost anyone there and his diary entry claimed that while Kelly said something, it was impossible for the warden to hear him.
So either the warden was practically deaf, or people invented a lie which had Kelly give one of the most laconic last words in human history.
27. Use Your Head!
As you can imagine, the huge iron helmets that Kelly and his gang wore were incredibly heavy, so you might wonder how anyone could wear those helmets without crushing their collarbones in the process.
It turns out that each helmet had holes in them for leather straps to go through. As a result, the majority of the weight wasn’t taken by the collar bones, but the top of the head. Admittedly, that’s going to be a strain on your neck, though!
26. “A Sergeant and Three Constables Set Out From Mansfield Town…”
During the Kelly Outbreak, as it was called, several poems were written in honor of the Kelly gang’s exploits. One particularly popular ditty was called “Stringybark Creek” and it incensed the authorities so much that anybody who was caught singing it was fined.
Many years later, music groups such as the Bushwackers would adapt their own songs of the ditty. We can only hope they didn’t have to pay the fine to do it!
25. A Poster Boy Through and Through
Such is Kelly’s legacy in Australia that he was invoked during both World Wars in entirely different contexts.
During the First World War, when Australians were dying by the millions for the British Empire, a strong resentment began building amongst the population which was being dragged into a costly and destructive war because of the British. In 1915, a left-wing Australian paper released a cartoon depicting Australians getting robbed by war profiteers while a caricature of Kelly remarks, “Well well! I never got as low as that, and they [hanged] me.”
Perhaps ironically, Kelly was later used to arouse patriotic feelings in Australians during the Second World War. Japan was threatening to invade Australia, and so Clive Turnbull used the introduction of his biography on Kelly to rally his countrymen to defend themselves to the last.
Believe it or not, Kelly has been used in a few television advertisements! In the 1990s, Kelly was used to sell the cereal known as Weetabix for a British ad. In the ad, Kelly threatened the police cornering him with a bowl of Weetabix that he threatened to eat, as if it would make him an Australian Popeye or something. The joke was that he couldn’t get the spoon through the slit in his iron helmet, and so had to surrender instead. We can just imagine what Kelly must have thought about that kind of cultural representation!
23. Necessity is the Mother of Invention
The famous suits of armor that the Kelly gang wore were constructed from plow moldboards which were either gifted to them by their allies or stolen by the Kelly gang from farms.
Although crude, the iron suits of armor were strong enough to repel bullets fired by the guns of the time. However, they were incredibly heavy to wear, which proved a problematic disadvantage.
22. Kangaroo Court
Following the Fitzpatrick incident, a trial was held against Kelly’s mother Ellen Kelly, brother-in-law Bill Skillion, and neighbor Bricky Williamson. Fitzpatrick was reported to be drunk at the trial, and the doctor couldn’t confirm that his injury was due to gunfire. Of course, it didn’t hurt Fitzpatrick that the jury was made up of ex-police officers and people who disliked the Kelly family.
Ellen received three years hard labor, while Skillion and Williamson received six. An attempt to pay Ellen’s bail was refused, condemning her to the prison sentence. As for Fitzpatrick, he would later lose his job with the police for perjury and drunkenness. Suddenly we’re not surprised that Kelly went rogue!
21. Stringybark Creek
Kelly and his brother Dan weren’t arrested with their mother, and when they heard about how the trial went down, they disappeared into the bush along with Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. In order to root them out, two groups of policemen went into the area where the Kelly gang was supposed to be hiding.
Of course, trying to hunt down Kelly in the bush was a bad idea. While both sides told different versions of what happened, the end result of the confrontations was that three police officers were killed.
20. Crikey, Let’s Crack Down!
Because of the policemen killed at Stringybark Creek, the parliament of Victoria outlawed the Kelly gang with the Felons’ Apprehension Act, which went into effect on November 1, 1878. Not only was it now legal to kill the outlaws, but anyone who aided them faced a sentence of at least 15 years prison or hard labor.
19. We’ve Seen Better Days…
In 1970, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones starred as Kelly in a British film of the same name. While it was made in Australia, it was shot nowhere near where the real Kelly lived.
This earned a lot of complaints from the Kelly family, while Australian actors complained about Jagger being brought in to play the role and essentially taking a gig from one of them. It didn’t help that the film was disowned by the star and its director by the time it was released, despite the fact that Jagger had missed former bandmate Brian Jones’s funeral to make the movie. Safe to say that nobody got any satisfaction from that film adaptation!
18. Money Under Pressure
In December 1878, the Kelly gang entered Youngblood’s Station just outside the town of Euroa. Holding up the people inside, Kelly was quick to reassure them that no harm would come to anyone so long as Kelly and his men were given food and supplies.
Reportedly, one of the employees was in the middle of a meal at the time of the robbery, and when he heard Kelly’s demands, he responded, “Well, of course, if the gentlemen want any refreshment, they must have it”—we’d like to take a moment and give a golf clap for that employee’s impressive nonchalance.
While the outlaws were there, Kelly saw a nice-looking watch on one of the men he held at gunpoint and demanded it. The man protested, saying it was a gift from his mother before she had died. Kelly changed his mind and allowed the man to keep it.
17. I Can Explain!
In 1879, Kelly dictated his manifesto to his fellow gang member Joe Byrne. Later known as the Jerilderie Letter, this ambitious document was 56 pages long! Kelly attempted to explain his choices of action within the letter, and also decried the poor treatment of low-class families by the police.
Kelly claimed that he was pushed into a life of crime by police corruption and persecution of his family. The original letter has survived to this day, and is currently kept in the State Library of Victoria.
One of the more recent films about Kelly’s life came out in 2003. Starring Heath Ledger in the title role, Ned Kelly also co-starred Naomi Watts, Orlando Bloom, and Geoffrey Rush.
Sadly, despite receiving a lot of praise for the performances, Ned Kelly was ultimately a critical and box office bomb, with many critics taking umbrage over the fact that the filmmakers decided to give Kelly a fictional love interest and also fudge up several historical facts to make the movie more exciting—although, to be fair, many movies are guilty of doing that.
15. The Australian Showdown of the Century
In 1880, the Kelly gang embarked on their most ambitious plan of all; after murdering Aaron Sherritt on the suspicion that he was a police informant, the Kelly gang rode to the town of Glenrowan. They knew that a police train would be arriving from Benalla when the alarm was sent out.
As a result, Kelly and his gang planned to derail the train, killing everyone aboard, and then raise hell in Benalla by freeing the prisoners from the jail, robbing the bank, and so on.
However, when a townsman warned the police of the trap, the plan was foiled. Police forces opened fire on the outlaws, who were pinned down in McDonnell’s Railway Hotel.
14. What Became of the Outlaws
The problem with Kelly’s bulletproof armor was that the outlaws had no protection for their legs. This proved Kelly’s undoing and he was badly injured in the legs and groin—however, he was still taken alive.
Fellow gang members Joe Byrne was shot to death by the police, while Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were also found dead, but it remains unclear whether they killed themselves to avoid capture or whether they were killed by the police as well.
13. Push the K Button!
A video game known as Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel features a caricature of Kelly as one of its antagonists. Dressed up in the same armor that Kelly and his gang wore, the video game character goes by the name “Red Belly.”
We can assume that this was either a joke or done out of fear that Kelly’s vengeful spirit would go after them.
12. Exhibit A
Kelly’s Snider Enfield rifle, his boot, and his famous suit of armor are currently on display at the State Library of Victoria. No fewer than 18 bullet marks can be seen on the armor to this day.
11. Priorities, Lady
Kelly’s mother, Ellen, was permitted to see him one last time before her son was executed. Reportedly, her last words to her condemned son were “[Make sure] you die like a Kelly.” She herself would live until 1923, dying at the ripe old age of 95.
10. Stay Tuned!
As of fall 2018, a new Australian film is coming out about Kelly. The production will star George Mackay as Kelly, Russell Crowe as Harry Power, and will also include Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult in as-of-yet unspecified roles. Here’s hoping it’s good!
9. Overshadowed by Remembrance Day
Kelly stood trial on October 19, 1880. His judge was Sir Redmond Barry, the same man who had sentenced Kelly’s mother to three years hard labor. Barry was in no less a lenient mood, and he sentenced Kelly to hang.
This sentence was carried out on November 11, 1880. Not even a petition with 32,000 signatures on it was able to convince the authorities to give Kelly any clemency.
8. Joke’s on You!
Despite his grisly end, Kelly did end up getting a sort of last laugh. In 1881, a Royal Commission identified rampant corruption amongst the Victorian police forces. Dozens of officers were “reprimanded, demoted, or suspended.”
7. Police Brutality
In 1871, an incident over a mare led Kelly to become embroiled in criminal charges mere weeks after he’d come back from jail! Things began innocently enough; a man named Isaiah “Wild” Wright visited the Kelly family, riding a particularly fine mare that he’d allegedly borrowed.
The mare went missing, but Kelly’s brother-in-law, Alex Gunn, loaned Wright another horse and promised to find and hold onto the mare until Wright returned. Kelly and Gunn found the mare, and while they waited for Wright to return, Kelly used the mare to ride to Wangaratta.
While there, however, Kelly was accosted by a police officer who suspected Kelly of having stolen the horse. Kelly reacted with violence when he was first deceived and then attacked by the officer. Bystanders came to the officer’s aid, who proceeded to pistol-whip Kelly until his head was “a mass of raw and bleeding flesh.”
6. Well-Mannered Young Man
Following his brutal arrest, it was revealed that Isaiah Wright had stolen the mare. Kelly and his brother-in-law, Alex Gunn, were sentenced to three years hard labor. However, this was reduced for Kelly due to good behavior.
5. Time for Fisticuffs!
Naturally, Kelly was furious with Isaiah Wright for having gotten him arrested for being involved in the theft of the mare. To settle things between them, Kelly challenged Wright to a bare-knuckle boxing match.
The bout took place on August 8, 1874, at the Beechworth Imperial Hotel. After twenty rounds, Wright was defeated and later became one of Kelly’s allies, because that’s how Australians become friends, apparently.
4. Fitzpatrick Said
In April 1878, a constable named Alexander Fitzpatrick traveled to the Kelly residence, claiming that he had a warrant for Kelly’s brother, Dan. Despite a special police policy of having at least two constables go to the Kelly residence to act on warrants, Fitzpatrick went alone.
According to Fitzpatrick, he arrested Dan, but allowed him to have dinner with his family before they left. Sitting next to his prisoner at the dinner table, Fitzpatrick was allegedly attacked by Kelly himself, who shot the constable in the arm. The family, including Kelly’s mother and his brothers-in-law, incapacitated Fitzpatrick and extracted Kelly’s bullet out of Fitzpatrick’s arm to avoid creating evidence.
Fitzpatrick claimed that he was permitted to leave once he’d promised to forget the incident and make no reports. Naturally, this promise was cheerfully broken once Fitzpatrick was safe.
3. Kelly Said
Kelly later claimed that Fitzpatrick was guilty of lying about the incident. According to Kelly, Fitzpatrick only had a telegram rather than a warrant, which caused Kelly’s mother, Ellen, to claim that Dan didn’t have to go with the officer.
Fitzpatrick threatened to shoot Ellen if she interfered with the arrest, while Dan was able to wrest the constable’s gun out of his hands on his own without anyone’s help. Kelly, meanwhile, was supposedly nowhere near the family residence when this incident happened. Fitzpatrick’s injuries were supposedly self-inflicted.
2. Class Act, Dude…
One of the more bizarre run-ins with the law that Kelly was involved in began when his friend, Ben Gould, was accused by Jeremiah McCormack of stealing his horse.
In revenge, Gould wrote a coarse note to McCormack’s wife and, because that wasn’t crude enough, wrapped the note around two severed calf’s testicles. Kelly passed the note, testicles and all, to a cousin of his who made sure that McCormack’s wife got the note.
When McCormack later confronted Kelly for his part in what happened, Kelly assaulted McCormack. This assault, coupled with the indecent note, led Kelly to several months of hard labor.
1. A Pox on You!
During his trial, Kelly made a grim promise to his judge, Sir Redmond Barry. He swore that they would see each other again after death. Hauntingly, Barry would follow Kelly into the grave less than two weeks after the latter’s execution.
While the cause of death was reported to be “a combination of pneumonia and septicemia from an untreated carbuncle,” there were some who embellished the story to describe Kelly successfully cursing his judge to die a painful death.