Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880, ending a two-year crime spree across northern Victoria that captured public imagination in a way not seen before or since. 25-year-old Kelly, together with his gang, a group of bushmen larrikins, all crack shots and expert horsemen, were greatly admired in many Victorian rural areas as champions of the downtrodden Irish settlers of the time. But on the other side of the coin they were also seen by others as murderous criminals who thoroughly deserved the rope that was intended for them.
As the years rolled by after his death, the so called “Kelly Outbreak”, together with the “last stand” at Glenrowan, in which Kelly confronted Police in a suit of armour, gradually achieved legendary status. “As game as Ned Kelly” is high praise today for personal courage – an old saying still used in modern times.
Ned Kelly has also been depicted in many works of art, with the most famous being “The Ned Kelly Series” by Sidney Nolan in 1946-7. This consists of a number of paintings depicting the life, ultimate capture and trial of Ned Kelly, in a series now recognised as classics of Australian art.
In more modern times this artistic tradition continues – but in a very different media – that of tattoos. “Ned Kelly tatts” have become an increasingly popular genre amongst young men with a well known example being former champion West Coast Eagles footballer Ben Cousins who has “Such is Life”, tattooed on his abdomen. These were purportedly Kelly’s last words before he was hanged.
However Kelly tattoos have achieved a dubious history with a recent investigation conducted by the University of Adelaide revealing the bizarre statistic that people with tattoos of this type are nearly eight times more likely to be murdered. This study began after it was noticed that there appeared to be an unusually high number of Kelly tattoos on men’s bodies in the Adelaide morgue.
Whatever the reason, the Kelly legend continues to roll on, leaving an indelible mark on Australian history with each succeeding generation continuing to tell the story in many different ways.
Image: Photograph of Ned Kelly, taken at Melbourne Gaol, the day before his execution, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.