Sunday 25 February 2018

Think again about what Ned Kelly said in court

The Kelly Trial---The Scene in Court

In the Central Criminal Court on Friday October 29th 1880 Ned Kelly was found guilty of the murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan. Immediately after the Jury Foreman had made the announcement, the Clerk of the Court asked Ned Kelly if he had anything to say ( was there ever a moment when Ned Kelly DIDN’T have something to say?)

“Well, it is rather too late for me to speak now. I thought of speaking this morning and all day, but there was little use, and there is little use blaming any one now. Nobody knew about my case except myself, and I wish I had insisted on being allowed to examine the witnesses myself. If I had examined them, I am confident I would have thrown a different light on the case. It is not that I fear death; I fear it as little as to drink a cup of tea. On the evidence that has been given, no juryman could have given any other verdict. That is my opinion. But as I say, if I had examined the witnesses I would have shown matters in a different light, because no man understands the case as I do myself. I do not blame anybody   neither Mr. Bindon nor Mr. Gaunson; but Mr. Bindon knew nothing about my case. I lay blame on myself that I did not get up yesterday and examine the witnesses, but I
thought that if I did so it would look like bravado and flashness, and people might have said that I thought myself cleverer than Counsel. So I let it go as it was”

Redmond Barry then placed the traditional square of black cloth onto his wig and addressed Ned in the dock:

Barry : “Edward Kelly the verdict pronounced by the Jury must have been one that you fully expected

Kelly: “Yes, under the circumstances”

Barry: “No circumstances that I can conceive could have altered the result of your trial”

Kelly: “Perhaps not from what you can now conceive, but if you had heard me examine the witnesses it would have been different”.

The conversation didn’t end there, and Ned Kelly went on to declare that his mind was “as easy as the mind of any man in this world”. He also claimed to be “the last man in the world that would take a man’s life. Two years ago, even if my own life was at stake, and I am confident if I thought a man would shoot me, I would give him a chance of keeping his life, and would part rather with my own.

Now, in the Kelly legends, these encounters are claimed to be demonstrations of Ned Kellys indomitable spirit, his refusal to be intimidated by authority, evidence of his courage and readiness to stand up for the truth right to the very end. But there is more to it than that - these encounters are little more than egotistical self promotion and bombast and they expose the deep flaws in Ned Kellys personality. 

For one thing, I am unable to imagine how any normal human being in his position would be able to declare his mind to be ‘as easy as the mind of any man in the world’. To know that his criminal activity has resulted in the incarceration of his mother and the suicide of his brother, the death of his friends Sherritt, Byrne and Hart, and two innocent people  at Glenrowan, to have completely failed to achieve whatever it was he was attempting to achieve at Glenrowan, to have been found guilty of the murder of Thomas Lonigan and be responsible for the deaths of Scanlan and Kennedy, and to now be weeks away from his own execution, and to have a mind that’s ‘easy’?  I am afraid I don’t see it as normal, or admirable or in any way re-assuring to have him declare his mind to be as ‘easy’ as anyone’s after that horrendous catalogue of violence and disaster, not just for himself but for his family. That remark I am afraid betrays his complete failure to be able to respond as a normal human being, to have  normal human feelings and emotional responses to events that to ordinary, normal people are highly emotional and stressful. Either that or else he was just lying. 

As for claiming to be the last man in the world to take a mans life - who is he kidding? He killed Lonigan within a few seconds of ordering him to bail up, and without the slightest hesitation, and then lied about what happened ever after. He made a similar claim in the Jerilderie letter : "I would have scattered their blood and brains like rain, I would  manure the eleven mile with their bloated carcases - and yet, remember, there is not one drop of murderous blood in my veins" What these statements tell us, I think is that Ned Kelly was so convinced of his own virtue that he was unable to imagine that anything he did , even killing a man, could be regarded as anything but meting out righteous justice. In his own eyes, he could do no wrong. This of course is indicative of a seriously  disordered personality. Its more than a lack of humility, more than towering arrogance - its delusional.  

It is also chilling to observe that when given an opportunity to speak at the end of this appalling saga, the only thing he wants to talk about is himself. No mention of the mother he is supposed to have been devoted to, no mention of his brother Dan, now dead, or the rest of his family, no mention of anything high minded like a Republic, or the rights of the poor , no personal regrets, no remorse, no shame, no apology, no acknowledgement of any kind of sorrow or disappointment even, not even one word – just endless completely delusional nonsense about how if the Defence had been up to him, he would have been able to do what Bindon and  Gaunson couldn’t do, and persuade the Jury he was innocent. This is not the robust self-confidence of a man who knows he has truth on his side, or what Ian Jones supposed Republican visionary would have said, but an entirely self-centered and misplaced grandiosity that has him boasting to the Court, seemingly completely in denial that he has screwed everything up completely. It would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.

Ive been wondering what would have happened if he was indeed given the opportunity to conduct his case. He seemed to have forgotten in Court that he had already made his case in the Jerilderie letter, writing a self-serving account that claimed the policemen were to blame for their own deaths because they didn’t do as he told them to. His account of Lonigans death claimed Lonigan got behind logs and raised his head above them to take aim at Kelly, who shot him in self-defence. This was a lie that would have been exposed in Court, and Ned Kelly’s self-defence argument wrecked the moment he was asked to explain how it was that Lonigan had a bullet wound in his left leg that passed from the outside to the inside. Quite apart from that leg being protected behind logs when Kelly claims he shot at Lonigan, the trajectory of the bullet was the opposite of what it would have been if somehow the bullet had got through the logs. If Kelly had presented a description in court of what happened at SBC that differed from his Jerilderie letter account – again, he would have discredited himself and lost. The forensic facts show that when Lonigan was killed he was out in the open, totally exposed, and before he had time to even turn, let alone run and get behind logs.

Ned Kellys  belief that it would be easy to bail up armed police at SBC and rob them was delusional. His belief that if he wore armour he could take on and defeat an entire trainload of police was delusional. His belief that he could have changed the Jurys decision was delusional. His speeches in Court disprove the claims that are made for him, that his campaign at Glenrowan was about a noble political cause, a Republic of North East Victoria, because the only thing he wanted to talk and brag about was himself. 

Redmond Barry was spot on when he went on to say:
“The facts are so numerous, and so convincing, not only as regards the original offence with which you are charged, but with respect to a long series of transactions covering a period of 18 months, that no rational person would hesitate to arrive at any other conclusion but that the verdict of the jury is irresistible, and that it is right.” 

Sunday 18 February 2018

Criminals who kill Police

The Four Police killed by the Clarke Gang in 1867

“Towards evening on 8th January 1867 Special Constable Carroll and his men set out on foot from Jinden, in the midst of the Jingeras, south of Braidwood, intending to visit the house of a man named McGuinness, whom they suspected of harbouring the Clarkes. The property was 6 kilometres from the hamlet, the last kilometre of the road passing through thick scrub.

At around 8.30 pm the residents in the McGuinness house heard shots coming from the vicinity of the scrub. Some time later other shots were heard. Nobody thought to leave the house to investigate.

The following morning, stockmen found the bodies of special constables Phegan and McDonnell lying on the road. Both had suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Three revolvers lay near Phegan’s body. A kilometre away, the bodies of Carroll and Kennagh were found by a police patrol from Ballalaba. Carroll had been shot in the head and through the heart. He was lying on his back with a neatly folded handkerchief and a pound note pinned to his chest. Kennagh had been shot in the throat. None of the men were robbed of their valuables.

It was thought that all four men were ambushed in the scrub – Phegan and McDonnell being hit and falling almost immediately. Carroll and Kennagh managed to run but were forced to surrender. They were then executed. Powder burns on Carroll’s face suggested he was shot at close range

This is an extract from “Bushrangers : Australia’s greatest self made heroes” by Evan McHugh, published in 2011 by Penguin Books. It describes the worst single act of police murder in Australian history, the killing of four police in 1867.

Ive posted it here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it horrified me. The thought of  those four police walking into that trap and being slaughtered, executed like criminals by the Clarke Gang is almost unimaginable, it turned my stomach. Then I wondered why it is that I don’t have the same reaction to an almost identical horror –  the killing of three police at Stringybark Creek by the Kelly Gang. I’ve concluded that in all our discussions about SBC, about exactly where it took place, who told lies about what happened, how there could be four wounds from one shot, what the police motivations were, what the Gang really intended when they went there, why Kennedy was hunted down, and so on – all those deliberations have caused me at least, and I think many Kelly apologists as well to lose sight of the horror that SBC actually was. These merciless killings were undertaken by a gang of delinquent youths – Kelly and Byrne were 23 and 22, Hart was 19 and Dan Kelly 17 – and their victims were adult men in their 30’s, two married with children to support. Kennedy was hunted down and executed. Lonigan and Scanlon were shot the moment they attempted to resist. It was an appalling inexcusable slaughter, and there simply cannot be any excuse for it, though of course, many have been made. The self defence excuse has been thoroughly debunked, another nail going into that coffin as recently as the Lawless TV miniseries last year. The description of these murders by apologists as a ‘shoot out’ or as ‘a fair fight’ is a blatant falsification. This outrage, by itself ought to have long ago ended any idle chatter about Ned Kelly being any sort of hero.

What happened I think was that the inexperienced  Ned Kelly, feeling tough because he had a gun in his hands , full of bravado and rash thoughtless youthful anger and police hate, imagined he could do what he had seen his former teacher Harry Power do : disarm people, take what he wanted and disappear. Harry Power, much older and much wiser knew how to threaten with a gun but not be forced to use it; that was the subtle skill and critical lesson Ned Kelly never learned.  Powers victims were ordinary citizens on the road – Ned Kelly took on armed police! They were out there specifically charged with the task of bringing him in, a completely different prospect to travellers just wanting to stay alive. Kelly obviously never thought about that - what a fool! And so seemingly without hesitation he blundered into the police camp, never having properly thought out what possible responses there might be and how he might react, and from the very first minute it all went disastrously wrong. Three good men dead and the Gang on the run. 

The other reason I posted this description was as a reminder that the Kelly Outbreak didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a considerable history of bushranging in the Colonies, and when men joined the police they would have known these stories of police murder, and of the other atrocities committed by bushrangers against them. It made me realise again that many police, indeed I am sure the majority of them even then, as today were decent brave people, very far from deserving of the disgraceful abuse they get still from people who admire Ned Kelly. I really couldn’t care what people believe about Ned Kelly but what I really find offensive is when they use that belief as some sort of excuse for police hate.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Understanding Ned Kelly

The undisputed facts seem very clear: Ned Kelly was a notorious criminal, a multiple police killer, and yet there are people who think he was a hero. How is that possible? How can some people believe Ned Kelly was a hero and others that he was a villain?

Well, one thing that makes it easier for someone to believe that Ned Kelly could be a hero despite what everyone else says, is that Ned Kelly wouldn’t be the only personality who arouses strong and sincere but opposing viewpoints. Politicians are the obvious example: to Republicans Donald Trump is making America great again, to others he's an appalling buffoon. Soldiers are another example –  hated by one side while the other side is determined to decorate them as heroes. A spy is a brave patriot to one General, a treasonous scum to another. Both descriptions seem to be valid – it just depends on where you’re coming from. One mans hero CAN be another mans villain, right?

So  if someone can be patriot and traitor at the same time, depending on where you’re coming from, then couldn’t Ned Kelly be a hero and a villain at the same time, depending on where you’re coming from? Or has one side simply got it wrong? 

Aidan Phelan and Matthew Holmes, and the Historian on the Lawless documentary series refuse to say. They think asking if Ned Kelly was a hero or a villain is asking the wrong question. Like the Beechworth tour guide, and like Peter Fitzsimons the journalist they  believe Ned Kelly was somewhere in the middle, somewhere between ‘villainous hero and heroic villain’ Phelan thinks that there’s nothing to be gained by trying to decide if Ned Kelly was a villain or a hero because all that happens is that "the debate about Ned Kelly ceases to be about Ned Kelly at all and simply becomes a contest about the moral superiority and respective intelligence of the opponents.

Phelans thesis is that people whose moral values lead them to condemn a person who would chase a wounded policeman through the bush and kill him, or plot to wreck a train and kill any survivors are people with hang ups about moral values.

“Ned Kelly becomes the scapegoat upon which society heaps its hang-ups about moral values."

I don’t know if he realises it but that’s a very ‘post-modern’ approach, an approach that shies away from value judgements and the idea of objective truth, and favours a moral relativism in its analysis of history. People who are critical of Ned Kelly’s murders and plans to murder are using him as a scapegoat, according to Phelan, making themselves feel better, and morally superior, by loading on to Ned Kelly their own ‘hang-ups’. To Phelan, there are no real villains, just complex individuals who we shouldn’t judge, because we are all in the same boat:

“its very easy to forget that Ned Kelly was a living, breathing human being. He had loves, hates, family, friends, skills and talents just like all of us. He loved horses, he was an excellent tradesman and his favourite book was Lorna Doone. Do these qualities negate the fact that he killed people and held people hostage? Certainly not, but they help to remind us that Ned Kelly was not some cartoon character or a black hat wearing outlaw in a cowboy movie.” 

Matthew Holmes and Aidan Phelan seem to want to argue that there is no such thing as a truly bad man, just men who are misunderstood, and this is how they want us to view Ned Kelly, not as a hero or as a villain, but as someone not unlike ourselves. This I think was the sort of Ned Kelly Holmes and Phelan wanted  to portray in his movie, a sympathetic portrayal that refused to make a judgement about him. But I cant help wondering how many Kelly sympathisers would be happy about Martin Bryant  and Charles Manson getting the same treatment that Ned Kelly gets from these post-modernists? They certainly wouldn’t tolerate it if Holmes and Phelan applied that approach to Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick : imagine the outcry from Kelly sympathisers if Phelan and Holmes tried to argue that Fitzpatrick “was a living, breathing human being. He had loves, hates, family, friends, skills and talents just like all of us.”
But if someone like Ned Kelly shouldn’t be labelled  a villain,  because that would just be making a scapegoat of him, and a reflection of our own hangups,  then this must mean they don’t think there are truly good men either, and that all of us are roughly the same clustered about a mean for moral rectitude. 

The reality I think is that this ‘post-modern’ approach breaks down at the margins, at the extremes, like many theories of human behaviour do. We are indeed mostly much the same, clustered about the mean with just a different collection of loves and hates, skills and talents, strengths and weaknesses – but some of us are clearly very different.  Martin Bryant is one such person - hugely different from most of us -  a mentally deranged, damaged and deeply disturbed individual with obsessions and thoughts and behaviours that place him close to the extreme end of the spectrum of human behaviour that ranges from Saint to Sinner, from Hero to Villain. Yes, we are all the product of a unique mix of influences from within and without, capable of exhibiting greater or lesser quantities of good and bad behaviour but in a rare few the mix produces behaviour that is almost all bad and very little of the good. Such people used to be called evil. Now we know some of them have personality disorders and character traits that identify them as deviants, psychopaths, narcissists and sociopaths. Some of them have brain damage. Some of them are suffering the affects of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, limited intelligence.  

So when it comes to Ned Kelly, where should we put him? The post modernists think their approach avoids value judgements and they decry attempts to ‘put him’ anywhere – and yet they have put him in the middle. Phelan unfortunately mischaracterises the debate by making it about the extremes, writing that people who say Kelly was a villain believe “he is a murderous psychopath, a pathological liar and the figurehead for some kind of quasi-cult. To these people he represents everything that is wrong with human kind and should be used as a kind of bogey man to make people walk the straight-and-narrow. He is irredeemable to those that see him as nothing more than a glorified thug. This is a typical ‘straw man’ argument, in which the argument about Ned Kelly being a villain is converted into something that’s easy to demolish, a mere cartoon character, yet demolishing a straw man achieves nothing.

The point I want to emphasise is that calling someone a villain, or a hero does not require or imply in any way a denial of the persons humanity, or a denial of the complexities of human development and character, or a denial that there may be some good in even the worst of men, and some evil in the best. But calling someone a villain, or a hero is a statement of what you believe to be the truth about a person after weighing up all the evidence, all the good and all the bad, all the influences and the circumstances of the life being examined, like a Star rating for a movie or an ATAR rating that is an attempt to sum up a persons ability with a single number. I’m old fashioned enough to still believe such scoring systems have a use, but not so blind as to be unable to see that a person is a whole lot more than just a number or a label, and sometimes that number or a label can be thoroughly misleading.

Equally, with Ned Kelly. If we are not going to simply abandon the attempt to understand who Ned Kelly was, we are going to have to put him somewhere. And its very clear to me that he does not belong in the middle – Ned Kelly was not Mr Joe Average.

My assessment of everything about him, his background, his personality, his influences, his behaviour and his writing leads me to the conclusion that in those last few mad and chaotic years of his life he was most definitely a villain. What I see is a decline that started not long after his father died and the family moved to Greta, a slow but accelerating decline into criminality and villainy. I don’t see an icon. I don’t see a role model. I don’t see someone to be admired but a narcissistic and violent criminal, who it would be wrong to portray as just like all of us.