In colonial Australia, families of ex-convicts and poor Irish immigrants were often on the receiving end of an unfair English justice system which favoured the rich and powerful.
Against this background, Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and their friends formed a gang and became bushrangers (outlaws). They were hated by the authorities but revered and aided by many ordinary folk who thought Ned Kelly had been persecuted and forced into crime.
On the 26th October 1878 at Stringybark Creek, the Kelly gang stumbled into a police ambush. They shot and killed three police troopers and wounding a fourth. This event put a price on Ned Kelly’s head.
Desperate to catch the bushrangers the government revived an obsolete medieval law called the Felon’s Apprehension Act of 1878.
This enabled the Kelly Gang to be officially proclaimed as outlaws. The law authorized any person to shoot the proclaimed dead like wild beasts without demand for surrender or any due process.
In December 1878, the Kelly Gang came out of hiding to hold up the bank in Euroa, their first public appearance since the Stringybark Creek murders. They made their way to a sheep station on the Faithful Creek.
The next day, at the exact time the Licensing Court was in session and the town's only policeman otherwise occupied, the Kelly gang robbed the bank and got away.
Later, at the Glenrowan hotel, Three of the gang were killed when the hotel was set alight. Ned escaped but returned clad in heavy armor to save his brother. limited in movement from the armors weight, Ned was brought down by shots to his legs, the only part of his body still exposed.
Ned Kelly was put on trial, found guilty and hanged in what is now known as the Old Melbourne Jail.
There are many myths and legends about Ned Kelly and his gang. For years it was whispered that Dan Kelly actually escaped the hotel at the height of the siege, before the hotel was set ablaze. Even though three charred bodies were later found in the ruins, one did not belong to Dan. Rumour has it that a catholic priest who went into the hotel before it was sent on fire, to give the men the last rites, discovered that Dan wasn’t there, and that Joe Byrne and Steve Hart were already dead. Fact or fiction, the priest would never confirm it one way or the other.
I visited the Old Melbourne Jail, now a tourist attraction and is open to the public. The stone cells are small and icy cold, holding an aura that chilled me to the bone. At night not a skerrick of light comes in through the tiny window near the roof. When the door of the cell shuts, I swear, you feel entombed. Spooky even in daylight, Ned Kelly's death mask and scaffold still stands with the rope swinging over the trapdoor.
Stolen Birthright, the sequel to Savage Utopia are both availabe at http://www.whiskeycreekpress.com/