The mystery behind the cult of Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly

The armoured suit worn by Ned Kelly, which is on display at the State Library of Victoria. Picture: Aaron Francis
Source: Herald Sun

AFTER 131 years of myth and legend, Ned Kelly’s remains finally have been positively identified.


HE was smart, brave, cocky, handsome, charismatic, and also a cold-blooded killer.

Why is Ned Kelly a national hero, rather than another bushranger and desperado, who should remain dead and buried?

The latest chapter in the grisly story of his remains has done nothing but add to the popular mystique.

In 1880, after Kelly was sentenced for execution, the final petition for reprieve, with 32,000 signatures, was presented to the governor of the day, George Phipps, on the steps of Melbourne’s Treasury Building in 1880. It was turned down, and Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880.

But surely killers don’t get 32,000 signatures for their reprieve.

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Waxworks owner Maximillian Kreitmayer was one of the first to start the cult of Ned Kelly. Waxworks, based on Madame Tussauds in Paris, were the popular entertainment of the day, and Kreitmayer’s Melbourne studios started work immediately after the Glenrowan shoot-out in 1879 on a recreation of the scene. Kreitmayer spent weeks at Glenrowan and took casts of Kelly gang member Joe Byrne’s lifeless body in Glenrowan Gaol. After Kelly’s execution, Kreitmayer took the death mask of Kelly as well, so the tableau, shown at exhibitions around Australia, would be as close to the actual event as possible.

Ned Kelly, like his legend, was never able to rest in peace. He was buried at Melbourne Gaol, but the remains of those executed there were dug up and moved to Pentridge Prison in 1929. At some stage, his head was removed from his body, and doubts began to emerge about his final resting place.

He was exhumed in 2009 to begin a two-year and sophisticated and expensive examination by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. The forensic examination used DNA profiling from Ned’s sister Ellen’s grandson, Melbourne school teacher Leigh Olver. The institute announced this week there was no doubt it was Kelly’s body.

That just leaves the mystery of the missing head, and the debate over how he turned out to be a national hero.

For many years Diane Gardiner managed the Old Melbourne Gaol, and witnessed the mysterious arrival of wreaths of flowers every year on the 11th day of the 11th month, as a memorial to the prison’s most famous inmate. More recently she has been the manager of the Old Treasury Building in Melbourne, where she can rummage through the Public Records Office of Victoria to create exhibitions from the many files on Kelly.

She is an expert on Ned Kelly, and also a confessed promoter of his cult.

“It would be churlish of me not to like him,” she said. “He keeps me in a job.”

She said Kelly was a victim of his circumstances. “He was a bit doomed really. It was like being in the Moran family (today’s infamous Melbourne crime family). All of his uncles are in prison. His father’s an ex-con. The male modelling is not good. And they are dirt poor.

“But I had lots of poor Catholic relatives living in the country and they didn’t go out shooting and kidnapping whole townships.”

As manager of historic buildings whose fame is tied to the Kelly story, Gardiner admits to being part of the myth-making.

“I shamelessly, shamelessly, showed the hanging beam, and the scarf that Curnow waved in front of the train to stop it, and exhibited the guns and so on. You can always get the press out to do something.”

Gardiner has been producing T-shirts, pamphlets, pins and pencils.

“The best thing we did was a fabulous Ned Kelly helmet fridge magnet, which has become a collector’s piece,” she said.

In her view Ned Kelly was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. “He was obviously quite a leader, he was obviously charismatic, good-looking with Irish charm. He had it all going for him,” she said.

Kelly’s lasting claim to being a champion of the people rests with the Jerilderie Letter, the letter dictated by Kelly in 1879 before he and his gang held the whole town of Jerilderie to ransom. The letter has been interpreted by many as a call to arms, and one of the few instances of inciting rebellion in Australia’s history.

Gardiner said it was amazing to think Ned Kelly could produce such a document.

“It says everything everyone wanted to say about the police, really,” she said. “It was a pity he hadn’t done it when he was on the right side of the law.”

SOCIAL analyst David Chalke said Ned Kelly became a hero because he met the Australian archetype of the lovable larrikin.

“Let’s forget that he was a thief and murderer,” he said. “It’s part of the beautiful paradox of Australia.”

He cited the case of another great larrikin, footballer Ben Cousins, who has Ned Kelly’s famous last words before his execution, “Such is life,” tattooed across his chest.

Chalke said that Australia’s communitarian ethics had created an egalitarian society that promoted ordinariness and did not like individuals to get too far ahead or fall too far behind. Such a society had a flip side that called for folk heroes such as Kelly.

Associate professor Paul Sendziuk from the University of Adelaide’s History Department says Kelly was always a folk hero.

“From the time he was tried and executed in 1880 he was a hero to the people,” he said. “It’s not been romanticised over time.”

Sendziuk said Kelly was a Catholic and Irish and stood up for his rights at a time when Irish Catholics were being denied rights and privileges by the Protestant authorities.

He said when the Kelly Gang raided the Euroa Bank they burned the title deeds of landowners in a political act. Kelly’s family were among the many poor selectors, or small land owners, who had been done out of all the good land by the manipulations of the wealthy squatters.

Now that the mystery of Kelly’s body has been resolved, the question of his skull remains. Now that it has a means of positively identifying it, the Institute of Forensic Medicine has renewed calls for the return of the missing skull.

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