It’s August 1874 in the yard outside of a pub in the town of Beechworth in southeast Australia.
A mob of drunks watches a bare-knuckle boxing match between two young men.
19-year-old Ned Kelly staggers back on his feet as another punch finds his chin.
It’s the twentieth round of the fight and both men are exhausted. Their bodies shine with sweat. And beneath their matching thick dark beards, their faces are cut and swollen. Ned spits out blood as his opponent, a man named Isaiah Wright, lurches toward him once again.
Isaiah swings, but it’s a tired throw. This time, Ned manages to duck the punch… and land one of his own. Isaiah grunts in pain and stumbles. The crowd bellows. Most of them have bets on the outcome one way or the other, and those with money on Ned cheer him on.
Catching his breath, Ned raises his fists once again and lumbers after his opponent. He hits him once, twice. And he’s about to strike a third time when Isaiah drops to his knees and holds up a bloodied and battered hand. He’s had enough.
The roaring crowd surrounds the victorious Ned. He winces in pain as drunken men lift him off his feet in triumph and wheel him away toward the bar for a well-deserved drink.
In the 1870s, Australia is part of the British Empire. But the days when convicts were sent here as punishment are long gone. Australia is booming on the back of a gold rush that has seen its population and economy surge.
But little of that wealth reaches the pockets of poor farming families like Ned Kelly’s. The fight in the Beechworth pub makes young Ned something of a local celebrity in his corner of rural Australia. But as the years go on, Ned’s local fame will grow into national notoriety. He will become an outlaw, and eventually, an icon. He will outrage and enthrall the colony of Australia until his antics come to an end when he is captured and then executed on November 11th, 1880.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 11th, 1880: The Death of Ned Kelly.
Act One: Outlaw
It’s late afternoon on October 26th, 1878, two years before Ned Kelly’s execution, deep in the backwoods of rural Australia.
Ned creeps through the thick undergrowth on his hands and knees. He pushes a branch to one side, and peers down at a creek below. On its banks is a small campsite, where two policemen sit on a tree stump beside the ashes of a fire. These cops have come to this remote spot, to bring Ned to justice.
Ned has been a thorn in the side of the police since he was a teenager. He was just 14 when he took up with a bushranger, a sort of Australian highwayman. The older crook - an escaped convict - taught Ned how to steal horses and rob travelers on the remote roads of southern Australia.
Ned followed in the bushranger’s footsteps and embarked on a life of crime. He formed a gang with his younger brother Dan and a couple of friends. But after a violent confrontation with a police constable in April 1878, Ned and the rest of the Kelly gang were charged with attempted murder. To avoid trial, the young men fled into the wilderness.
But then, in October 1878, the police received a tip about the gang’s location. Four mounted officers were sent into the woods to bring Ned and the Kelly gang in. The police set up camp here, by a creek. What they didn’t know, however, was that Ned and his gang saw them coming.
Two of the officers have ridden off to scout the surrounding area. The other two remain at camp. So now, hiding among the bushes, Kelly gang close-in.
Ned pulls out his revolver, then he whistles the signal before rushing forward out of the trees. The policemen are startled to find themselves suddenly surrounded. One puts up his hands in surrender, but the other grabs his gun and dives for cover behind a fallen tree. But Ned is too quick. Shots ring out and the policeman is dead before he hits the ground.
Ned and the rest of the gang disarm the surviving policeman and then hide once again to wait for the others to return. It’s not long before they hear horses approaching.
As the two mounted officers approach, the Kelly gang opens fire. By the time the shooting stops, the two mounted officers are dead. The first policeman that surrendered manages to escape.
And when word of the gunfight gets out, Ned Kelly is declared an enemy of the law… to be taken, dead or alive.
It’s just after midnight on February 9th, 1879, three and a half months after the shootout in the creek.
At a small police station on the outskirts of the rural town of Jerilderie, a senior police constable is asleep in his quarters when he’s woken by a clatter of hooves and shouting in the street outside. Pulling on his clothes, the constable hurries out to the verandah, where he is soon joined by a second officer emerging from the downstairs office.
Outside, there’s a man on a horseback by the gate. He seems agitated and wants to know how many policemen are in the station. He explains there’s a brawl taking place at a nearby hotel and they need help. From the verandah, the constable tells him that it’s just himself and his colleague.
Hearing that, the man on horseback grins, suddenly calm he pulls out a gun. He tells the two officers that his name is Ned Kelly and they’re now his hostages.
Since murdering the three policemen in the forest, Ned has become infamous in Australia. Hundreds of police are on the hunt for his gang, but the vast and sparsely populated landscape offers plenty of hiding places for the fugitives. And while on the run, the Kelly gang has become bolder. It’s not just horses and cattle the outlaws are targeting anymore; instead, they’re after bank vaults.
Now having stormed the police station in Jerilderie, Ned and the rest of his gang lock the two officers in a cell and steal their uniforms. Early the next morning, disguised as policemen, the Kelly gang head into the sleepy town. Their target is the local branch of the Bank of New South Wales, located next door to the Royal Mail Hotel.
Ned and his gang secure the hotel first, corralling the staff and guests into its parlor. Then, Ned leaves two of his men to keep guard over the hostages and goes next door to the bank.
The sight of Ned’s revolver quickly convinces the tellers to cooperate. The outlaw seizes more than £2000 in cash as well as jewelry and other valuables. But the loot isn’t the only reason Ned has come to Jerilderie.
Ned has written a kind of manifesto, or jurisdiction for his crimes which he hopes to get printed. But when he can’t find the editor of the local newspaper, Ned gives the bundle of handwritten pages to an accountant from the bank he’s just robbed. He orders the man to get it printed before riding away with his gang.
The Jerilderie Letter, as it comes to be known, is controversial. Some dismiss it as the rantings of a maniac. To others, it’s a declaration of rebellion against the corrupt and repressive colonial government. The letter is suppressed by the authorities, but that only adds to the growing mystique surrounding Ned Kelly. He’s becoming more than just an outlaw. Ned is becoming a legend.
After the Jerilderie raid, the Kelly gang won’t be seen again by police for almost a year and a half. When they do surface, Ned will attempt his most ambitious and violent heist yet; a plan he boasts will “astonish not only the Australian colonies but the whole world”. This time though, the infamous outlaw’s luck will finally run out.
Act Two: Capture
t’s the early hours of June 27th, 1880, on the railway line north of Glenrowan, a tiny rural town in southeast Australia.
By torchlight, two railroad technicians struggle to pry up a section of tracks with picks and crowbars. Standing close behind, with his gun trained on them, is 25-year-old outlaw Ned Kelly. Ned’s given these two clear instructions: sabotage the track to stop any train passing through here. And if they don’t do what he says, Ned also made it clear that he’ll put a bullet in their backs.
Finally, there’s a rusty shriek and a clank of metal as the rail breaks free of its ties. Ned grins. Now, he can finally put his audacious plan into motion.
The Kelly gang has spent months hiding in the mountains and marshes of southeast Australia. A reward has been posted for their arrest, and the police are desperate to catch them. But despite their best efforts, the Kelly gang has remained elusive.
Today, though, Ned decided to come out of hiding and show his face to lure the police into a trap. He's certain the moment they learn he’s hiding out here, just north of Glenrowan, police from all over this part of Australia will leave their small towns and come rushing to help bring him to justice.
Ned also knows the police will travel by train. And that’s why he’s here now, forcing these two technicians to destroy the railway line. The spot has been carefully chosen. It’s on a sharp bend beside a deep ravine. Any train passing over here will derail and tumble down the embankment. Ned and his gang will then kill any survivors before riding to the nearby city of Benalla. With the police out of the way, the city’s banks will be easy prey for the Kelly gang. After they hit the banks, they’ll set fire to the courthouse, blow up the police barracks, and release anyone imprisoned in the jail before disappearing back into hiding.
So now with the railway sabotaged, Ned retreats to a nearby inn to wait for the arrival of the police train. His gang has already taken everyone inside the inn prisoner. But the police prove slower to respond than Ned expected.
They wait all day at the inn for the train to arrive. Anyone who comes in looking for a drink or a place to stay is taken captive. And with each passing hour, the number of hostages grows. By early evening, there are more than sixty packed into the tiny hotel.
They’re mostly people just like Ned - poor, rural folk with hard lives. And to many of them, the Kelly gang are heroes, and at times, the tone inside the inn feels more like a party than a hostage situation. Ned hands out drinks from the bar. He plays music and sings songs with his prisoners. But not everyone being held at the inn sympathizes with Ned Kelly.
One hostage, a local schoolmaster, tricks Ned into thinking he’s on his side. Convinced the man is no threat, Ned lets him leave the inn. But it’s a fatal error. As soon as he’s outside, the schoolmaster runs to the railway line. When he sees the light of the police train approaching, he dashes onto the tracks and waves his arms. The train stops barely in front of the sabotaged tracks.
Back at the inn, Ned is growing increasingly frustrated by the delay and he’s on the verge of abandoning the plan altogether. But then, a member of his gang burst in to tell him that the police have arrived, but that they managed to stop before they hit the trap. Now, they’re heading this way. Ned groans with frustration. The plan is ruined. But he’s still confident they can shoot their way out and survive.
Ned and his gang have been working on something during their long months of hiding. They’ve been stealing sheets of metal from local farms, and reshaping and forging them into bulletproof armor. As the police close in, the gang help each other into the cumbersome metal suits and ready their weapons. Then they take up positions on the inn’s verandah.
Soon, the night is lit up by the flash of gunfire as the police and the Kelly gang exchange volleys of bullets. Through the slits in his crude helmet, Ned can just see the armed police scurrying through the moonlit darkness, popping up from behind concealed positions to fire at the outlaws.
Ned’s iron armor is effective. But it doesn’t cover his whole body. His legs are still exposed. And it’s not long before the police exploit this vulnerability. One by one, Ned and the others are wounded in the legs and forced to retreat inside. Cautiously, the police advance on the inn. Ned, bleeding and exhausted, stumbles through a back door of the hotel and out into the woods beyond.
But Ned knows escape is impossible. He’s too weak. As first light creeps through the trees, and a low mist rises from the forest floor, Ned prepares to make his last stand. He loads his weapons one final time. Then, pulling himself up, he lurches through the trees toward the police, guns blazing.
Ned Kelly fights on for another half hour, until at last, two shotgun blasts to his legs bring the outlaw down. The police swarm forward to disarm him.
If Ned Kelly hoped for a heroic death, he will be disappointed. The police carry him to a local doctor where his many wounds are treated. The other three members of the gang, including Ned’s brother Dan, do not survive the battle with the police. Only Ned is taken away, south, to Melbourne where he will face trial and a sentence of death.
Act Three: Execution
It’s the morning of November 11th, 1880, in a jail in the city of Melbourne, Australia.
The notorious outlaw, Ned Kelly, wakes early in his cell to pray. Today is the last day of his life and he wants to make peace with God.
Ned’s trial was delayed while he recovered from the wounds he suffered during the battle with the police. When proceedings finally began, in late October 1880, he was tried on a single charge of murdering one of the police constables shot in the forest creek two years earlier. The trial lasted two days. Ned was found guilty and sentenced to death.
And although some 32,000 people signed a petition urging the government to spare his life, pleas for mercy were dismissed by the authorities. Now, early on November 11th, 1880, a guard leads two priests to Ned’s cell in the Melbourne jail. He tells Ned it’s time before opening the cell door and leading Ned down the hall. One of the priests carries a large crucifix. Ned fixes his gaze on the cross as they walk in procession short distance to the gallows.
There, an executioner binds Ned’s arms, positions him over the trapdoor, and loops the noose around his neck. Ned glances down at the dignitaries gathered below the scaffold who have all come to watch him die. Ned mutters, “Such is life”. And then the executioner pulls the white hood over Ned’s face and removes the bolt from the trapdoor at the condemned man’s feet. Ned plunges downward and the rope cracks taut.
Within seconds, Ned’s life on earth is over, but his existence as an Australian icon is just beginning. In the years after his death, the story of Ned Kelly is transformed into a national myth. To many, he is seen as an Australian Robin Hood, a handsome and daring maverick, and the hero of countless books, poems, and films. But to others, he remains a violent thug, a thief, and a murderer. Whatever the verdict, the growing myth of Ned Kelly began with his execution in Melbourne, Australia on November 11th, 1880.
Next onHistory Daily: November 14th, 1889. Reporters Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland begin a race to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional journey around the world in 80 days.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.