It is hard to put your finger on exactly why the young man’s relatively brief outburst of violence, in an age and place already so violent, would result in the creation of so enduring a national icon. But we can look back now over more than of a century of countless histories, novels, films, plays, songs, poems, paintings, and even a ballet about him. On occasion, some of the country’s greatest artists have been attracted to his legend and added their gifts to the body of work.
He was born in the 1850s to a mother who had emigrated from Ireland— whom he would love dearly all his life—and to a father whom he lost well before the son had become a teenager. Growing up with a succession of men in the house, he moved from place to place as his family circumstances suffered one setback after another; but he nevertheless completed a grade-school education. He was often described as a polite youngster, was noted for his physical prowess and courage as well as for his intelligence, and indulged in reading for pleasure. Despite his Irish heritage, throughout his life he rarely touched alcohol. He did, however, appreciate women, and they reciprocated. Ultimately he turned to crime and got his start as a young apprentice to older men with experience.
At about age fifteen, he was charged with robbing a Chinaman, a “celestial” as they were then known, which landed him in jail for the very first time. In 1876 he began a horse-thieving career in earnest, which as much as single factor marks the beginning of his deadly serious trouble with the authorities. By 1878 he had killed three lawmen and become a notorious fugitive running from a murder charge. There is solid evidence—in the form of letters to the authorities in 1879—that he sought sincerely to explain himself, clear his name, and start over with a clean slate. But this was not to be.
As his reputation grew, he became popular with—and drew support from—his oppressed neighbors, who viewed him as a kind of advocate confronting the power of a corrupt establishment: the large landowners and their accomplices in the law-enforcement community. (Ironically, he had briefly been on their payroll.) The authorities became increasingly alarmed at his boldness and their own appearance of foolish impotence. They determined to bring his outrages to an end and put a high price on his head. In 1880, acting on a tip, they were finally able to surround and capture him after a spectacular gun battle. Still in his twenties, he was tried, convicted, sentenced to hang, and executed.
Of course, that was hardly the end. Today his name is so intimately bound up with that rowdy, rambunctious, and ultimately romantic period of the country’s development that you would have a hard time finding anyone there who’s never heard of him—or at least one of them. In the U.S., we know this young outlaw as Billy the Kid; in Australia, he is Ned Kelly. Their stories are uncannily similar. They lived at the same time, half way around the world from each other, and died a few months apart. And, according to definitive biographies, all of the foregoing statements—ages, dates, and other details—apply accurately and fully to both men.
Here is one qualifier and one bit of trivia. First, although Billy the Kid was in fact sentenced to hang, he subsequently escaped and was “executed” when sheriff Pat Garrett shot him on sight. Second, the letters he wrote were to General Lew Wallace, then governor of New Mexico, who in 1879 was consumed with the writing of his novel Ben-Hur and was routinely neglecting territorial business.
I am deeply indebted to Peter Carey for his extraordinary, Booker-Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, which I have read several times with great pleasure. His book propelled me into an engaging search for the authentic Ned Kelly, as well as for Billy the Kid along the way.
Here is Kelly’s famous Jerilderie Letter, in which he tried rationally to lay out his case to the authorities: http://australiafirstparty.net/feb-10-jerilderie-letter/. It goes without saying that they were of no mind to listen to anything he had to say.