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Jerilderie letter

Jerilderie letter

A widow's son

Murderer and self-confessed stock thief, Ned Kelly is arguably Australia's best-known historical character. Born at Beveridge in about December 1854, he first came to public notice when, in 1865, he saved seven-year-old Richard Shelton from drowning in Hughes Creek at Avenel. By 1866, his widowed mother had moved her family to north-eastern Victoria. Ned had become the family breadwinner. He took on general bush labouring work, timber-cutting and even served a brief apprenticeship with bushranger Harry Power. Kelly's trouble with the law quickly escalated through indecent behaviour, assault and stock theft to police killer.

Three policemen were shot dead at Stringybark Creek in October 1878. The Victorian Government responded by outlawing Ned and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. This meant they could be shot on sight by anybody at any time. For two years the gang roamed freely through north-eastern Victoria and the Riverina, robbing the banks at Euroa and Jerilderie in December 1878 and February 1879, respectively. Finally, at Glenrowan in June 1880, they donned suits of armour to make a dramatic but doomed stand against the Victorian police. Dan Kelly, Hart and Byrne were killed and Ned Kelly was taken prisoner. Tried and found guilty for the murder of Constable Lonigan at Stringybark Creek, Ned Kelly was hanged at Melbourne Gaol on 11 November 1880.

Ned Kelly is the only bushranger known to have left a detailed written justification of his actions, and his 'manifesto' is regarded by many as an early call for a republican Australia. The 56-page document he tried to have published at Jerilderie in February 1879 appears to be the final working of one that was first circulated at Euroa in December 1878. It reflects the voice of a man who feels he has been deeply wronged. He admits to crimes but claims he was forced into them by a corrupt police force. He demands that squatters share their property with the poor. The document ends with a violent threat against all who oppose him: 'I am a Widow's Son, outlawed and my orders must be obeyed'. Copies of the document were made by the police and by publican John Hanlon. John Hanlon's transcription of the Jerilderie letter was purchased by the National Museum of Australia at a Christies auction.

Death masks were common in Australia from the early 1800s. They were mostly of criminals, including convict absconders and bushrangers, and were used for both exhibition purposes and for phrenological analysis. Immediately after Kelly's body was taken down from the gallows, his hair and beard were shaved off and a mould was taken of his head by Maximilien Kreitmayer. This was used to produce a death mask that went on display in Kreitmayer's Bourke Street waxworks the day after the execution. Phrenologist AS Hamilton used the mask for a detailed phrenological analysis of Kelly that was published in the Melbourne Herald on 18 November 1880. In part, he concluded:

... there are few heads amongst the worst that would risk so much for the love of power as is evinced in the head of Kelly from his enormous self-esteem.

This death mask was purchased from a private collector. Both the mask and the Jerilderie letter form part of a significant collection of 'Kellyana' that is being developed in the National Historical Collection.

Denis Shephard

Handwritten ink transcription of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, 1879 - page 1.
John Hanlon's transcription of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, 1879 - page 1. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia.
Handwritten ink transcription of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, 1879 - page 2.

John Hanlon's transcription of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie Letter, 1879 - page 2. Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia