Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
who you callin wombat head
Or, adventures in sassy outback horse piracy with Ned Kelly.
First, quick aside: I was recently a guest on the Vulgar History podcast for an episode titled “So This Asshole: Napoleon Bonaparte,” because of course I was. If you enjoyed reading my Napoleon issue and thought “I can feel the rage radiating from my inbox, but man wouldn’t it be fun if I could hear it too,” I hope you’ll give it a listen. Subscribe to the podcast while you’re there—I heartily recommend it, and I may or may not be back later this year for Ann’s Darnley episode.
And now! The main event!
Ned Kelly, Australia’s Horse-Stealin’ Gun-Totin’ Shit-Talker!
Ned Kelly was a suggestion from my partner Kristen, so before researching this newsletter, I asked if she could tell me the story as she remembered it, to help me get in the headspace. She shrugged and said “He wore a bucket on his head once.” To which I said, “Fantastic. I’m in. Let’s go.”
The story starts in the early 1800s, when Ned Kelley’s father, John Kelly, was transported to Australia from Ireland for the crime of stealing two pigs. This sounds so ridiculous it’s like I made it up for effect, but it’s true.
John worked eight years of hard labor before marrying Ellen Quinn, getting involved in the Australian gold rush, and settling in the whimsically named town of Beveridge. This fact, of course, made me stop writing this newsletter to find the “Did someone say beveragino” video and watch that five or six times. If you’d like to pause and do the same, by all means. I’ll be here when you get back.
John and Ellen had 10 children, of which Ned was the third, born in 1854. Unfortunately, John turned to heavy drinking—either because of the PTSD of experiencing the 19th-century penal system or because he had moved to a town called Beverage—so Ned and his siblings were left to grow up a little bit feral.
Not entirely, though! There’s a famous anecdote about Ned saving a little boy from drowning in a creek when he was 11 years old, in a very It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey So-Noble-He-Couldn’t-Help-Himself kind of way. The parents of the little boy gave him a green sash as a thank-you. Personally I think we should bring back sash-based rewards and welcome any of you to send me one via my literary agent’s office.
In 1865, John Kelly was arrested again, this time for stealing a calf. Someone better-versed than me in the relative value of animals will have to tell me if this is a step up or a step down on the Livestock Crime Scale. He died of alcohol-related side effects shortly after, when Ned was 12.
Now a single mother of 10, Ellen Kelly moved the family in with an uncle in the Australian bush and started bootlegging on the side. (If you’d like to scroll up and watch the beveragino video one more time, I encourage it.)
“But Allison!” you say. “So far this is all generic 19th-century sadness! When is the dirtbagginess going to start?” Immediately, dear reader. Don’t you worry.
Sassy Outback Horse Piracy
When Ned was 14, he met Harry Powers, a 50-year-old bushranger who was roaming around the Victoria countryside stealing horses and breaking laws. For those unfamiliar, that’s the gist of what bushranging was: gangs of (mostly) former transported convicts, hiding in the bush and then springing out to steal from the colonists and make their fortune. Sort of a cross between a cowboy and a highwayman.
Aside: it seems to me like Hollywood should be cranking out bushranger movies left and right, and it baffles me that I’ve never seen one? It’s the same anti-colonial derring-do appeal as Age of Sail pirates, except you don’t have to pay for the CGI of ship battles. Where is my Black Sails in the Australian bush, is what I want to know. HBO, I am just handing you money.
Ned became Powers’ protégé, and for a few years they were a dynamic duo committing crimes across the bush. In 1870, Ned allegedly informed on Powers to the police, and his old mentor was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But by now, the student had become the teacher, &c. Ned Kelly’s life of crime was just getting started.
And what a fucking weird life of crime it was. Ned belonged to the Greta Mob, a group of bushrangers including several of his brothers who were mostly focused on stealing horses. That said, young Ned Kelly was also arrested for punching a guy in the face after handing his wife severed horse testicles wrapped in a smutty letter, which. Okay.
It’s also extremely important to me that you know the Greta Mob’s distinctive uniform included a goofy hat worn like this:
Ned was a teenage weirdo and I don’t understand a single thing he did in his life until 1878, whence began a series of events I like to call “Ned Kelly Doubles Down.”
Get ‘Im, Mom
It started when the local constable visited Ned’s brother Dan, trying to hunt down the local notorious horse thief and testicle-deliverer. Ned’s response to this? To kick down the door and shoot at the constable. He missed, but Ellen Kelly, his mom and IMO the true hero of this story, distracted the constable by hitting him in the head with a shovel so Ned could escape.
Ned and Dan were then fully on the run, with three local lawmen chasing after them. Ned and Dan shot and killed all three of those cops, thereby taking things from “testicle-based crimes” to “attempted murder” to “super successful cop murder” and making the whole situation a lot worse overall.
And then! Ned and Dan became bank robbers! Because of fucking course they did. What else are you gonna do while on the run?
They robbed several banks across Victoria throughout 1878 and 1879, including one particularly spectacular episode in which they took the cops hostage, then dressed up in police uniforms before robbing a bank, a hotel, and a post office, before delivering a speech that amounted to “fuck the police for preying on the poor” and riding out of town.
Your Mother Was a Hamster and Your Father Was an English Landlord
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ned Kelly has a complicated legacy in Australia and beyond. Yes, he was a thief and a criminal and a murderer. But, in his time and today, a bunch of people are fully on his side. And, like, I get it. I sorta love this piece of shit.
He tried to pivot pretty late in the game to a social revolutionary and man of the people, but when he did it, he really did do it with style. He published a 56-page fuck-the-police manifesto yelling at the Victorian government for persecuting the poor and generally downtrodding the people. Said manifesto called the Victoria cops, quote:
"a parcel of big ugly fat-necked, wombat-headed, big-bellied, magpie-legged, narrow-hipped, splaw-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords.”
Like, it’s not good that he’s killing people, obviously. Boo killing. But the panache.
The Victorian government was decidedly not having this, and the reward for Ned Kelly’s capture got raised to 8,000 pounds. But Ned was too good at dodging the law, and he and his brother Dan continued raising hell throughout the bush.
Until everything went to shit.
The Man in the Big Tin Can
The time: June 1880. The place: the small town of Glenrowan, where Ned had very nearly just pulled off a successful hostage-and-ransom situation. The problem: the police showed up and opened fire on the gang.
Ned was wounded, but retreated to the bush, where he prepared to make his famous last stand. By which I mean he put on a handmade suit of bulletproof armor made out of plow pieces and a bucket.
In broad daylight, the look is very Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But apparently by cover of darkness, this clanking monstrosity was fucking alarming. People freaked out, thinking that the literal devil had just risen out of the bush.
Unfortunately, Ned forgot to put a bucket on each of his legs, and when the cops shot him below the knees, he was down. Ned Kelly was captured after being shot fully 28 times and very much arrested.
Ned Kelly was sentenced to execution for multiple murders and was hanged on November 3, 1880, at the age of 26. His last words were “Such is life,” which, is it?? Is it life?? Is any of this normal?? I can’t tell anymore.
Anyway, that’s all for now. Until next time, be well, and I personally challenge each of you to find someone to call “a wombat-headed son of an English landlord” before I return to your inboxes,