Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly, was sentenced to death on 29 October 1880, ending a long saga of lawlessness and murder that held much of Australia spellbound across the previous two years.
Opinion was sharply split about Kelly and his gang – to many he was a murdering horse thief but to others a victim of persecution amid issues of conflict generated by land ownership and selection.
Interestingly a petition for a reprieve of Ned’s death penalty was circulated before his execution and attracted some 30,000 signatures, indicating the depth of feeling the situation generated at the time.
Ned Kelly was born in 1854 into a poor family of selectors in northern Victoria. He showed early criminal tendencies being charged with assault and robbery at age 14, and then robbery in company two years later. Further serious charges of horse theft followed – together with a gaol sentence – and then his criminal career escalated rapidly, culminating with a charge of the attempted murder of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick in April 1878. He escaped into the bush soon after, accompanied by his brother Dan.
Hiding out in the Wombat Ranges they were joined by friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart – becoming collectively known as the Kelly Gang. In October 1878 the gang ambushed a pursuing police party, shooting and killing three of them, after which they were declared outlaws with a sizeable reward on their heads.
The gang responded with two large bank robberies, one at Euroa and the other at Jerilderie in NSW. It was here that Kelly presented a lengthy document for publication – a document explaining the reasons behind his actions. This became known as the Jerilderie Letter.
Time finally ran out for the gang in June 1880 when they were surrounded by a large police force at the Glenrowan Inn in northern Victoria. Ned achieved immortality when he attacked the police wearing armour made of iron plates and firing his revolver. He was wounded and then captured while Joe Byrne, Steve Hart and his brother Dan were shot and killed.
Following his sensational trial and death sentence for murder, he was sentenced to death on 29 October 1880 and went to the gallows at Melbourne Gaol just 13 days later. His mother’s last words to him were “Mind you die like a Kelly”.
Image: Ned Kelly, clad in armour plate, attacks the police at Glenrowan on the morning of 28 June 1880 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.