Rebel Outlaws

1 jesse james1Young Jesse James

Watching a documentary on Jesse James last night reminded me of something else: Ned Kelly. There are quite a few coincidental features in each man’s life, as others have noted, and I’m interested in coincidences.

2 Ned Kelly aged 15Ned Kelly aged 15

1 Contemporaries

Jesse James was born 5 September 1847 and died 3 April 1882 aged 34, murdered; Ned Kelly was born about 1850-54 (no baptism certificate survives) and died 11 November 1880, aged 25 to 30, hung.

2 Genocide

The Plains Indians were just in the way of Westward expansion of white settlement of America through the 19th century. Treaties were violated, massacres carried out, and bison exterminated, as well as the toll taken by the white man’s diseases. The Indians’ desperate stand against white aggression would have been a potent symbol for Jesse James. His gangs scalped their opponents as the Indians did.

The Australian Aboriginal nations were Stone Age tribes, living as hunter gatherers, who could not understand white men’s land claims, and were systematically uprooted, their way of life destroyed, and confined to desert areas where they wasted away from disease, alcoholism and loss of cultural identity. The English systematically destroyed the Aborigines as they had the Irish in Ireland as Ned Kelly knew. He was born in Victoria to a Tipperary man at the height of the Great Hunger in Ireland which raged 1840 and again 1850, when Irish people all over the world cursed the very name of England.

3 James wanted poster

3 Guerrilla war

The American Civil War was an expression of deep rooted antagonism between Southern and Northern states. That antagonism lasted much longer than the period of the war. Missouri, where Jesse James was born, was a centre of guerrilla activity where abolitionists fought with slave owners, and Unionists with Confederates. Atrocities were committed on both sides. This was James’ childhood environment.

In Australia in Ned Kelly’s youth an inequitable land grant system gave vast areas to wealthy absentee selectors. Meanwhile actual development was made by squatters, who felt they had a claim on the land, and a virtual war between these different classes of settlers broke out. The Kelly family also claimed land owned by selectors and attempted to work it, but were treated as criminals by local police.

4 ned kelly 1Ned Kelly

4 Fatherless

Jesse James’ father, a prosperous Minister of religion, went to the California gold fields and died there when Jesse was aged three, in 1850. The family were harassed by authorities from then on. In 1863 Jesse’s step father was tortured to gain information about his step son Frank and so was the 16 year old Jesse.

Ned Kelly’s father John had been put in prison and treated harshly while suffering from pneumonia, on suspicion of cattle rustling. He died after release from confinement in 1866, aged 45. Ned Kelly was 12 years old. His family were harassed from then on. Ned was first arrested in 1868 when aged 14.

5 Outlaw

Between 1863 and 1868 Jesse James was a member of guerrilla bands in Missouri led by William Quantrill, and by ‘Bloody’ Bill Anderson. Both groups carried out campaigns of terror against Northern forces. In 1869 Jesse was seriously wounded while making a surrender attempt. Jesse thought he had no chance of a fair trial. He was now an outlaw, wanted dead not alive.

Between 1869 and 1878 Ned Kelly was harassed by Victorian State Police, with a total of 18 charges made against Kelly and his family. Many of these were false, and at least one trial was illegally conducted. A later enquiry censured the police for misconduct.  After a trial in 1878 Kelly went into hiding with his brother Dan and friends. The police raised a posse and set out to capture him, and he was declared an outlaw to be shot on sight. Kelly’s gang killed all posse members in a pitched battle.

5 kelly wanted poster

6 Daylight robber

In 1869 Frank and Jesse James robbed a bank in Gallatin Missouri. This, like earlier robberies the previous year, was an attack on unionist interests and part of the guerrilla conflict post Civil War. Little money was taken, the cashier was shot, and the governor declared the gang members outlaws. Now known as the James-Younger Gang, the outlaws robbed banks in nearby states, and in 1873, the Rock Island train in Iowa. Eventually the gang was opposed by Allen Pinkerton and his Chicago agency. Pinkerton detonated an incendiary device in the James’ family home in 1875, killing the youngest son and maiming Jesse’s mother, and this evoked a surge of sympathy for the James’ among locals with Confederate sympathies. An act of amnesty was only narrowly defeated in the Missouri Assembly. In 1876 a botched bank robbery in Minnesota resulted in a shootout between robbers and townsmen in which four people died. The rest of the gang were shortly later caught in another shootout and tried, but Jesse and Frank James escaped. Jesse formed another, short lived, gang in 1879, and in 1881 returned to Missouri and attempted to keep a low profile.

In 1878 the Kelly gang carried off a spectacular robbery at a bank in  Euroa Victoria. They began by cutting the telegraph wire so no alarm could be raised. They persuaded a teller to open up (the bank had just closed for the day) and cash a cheque for them. The men were all heavily armed. They secured a small fortune in bank notes and gold of about £3,000. No resistance was offered, all concerned were polite to one another, and the robbers locked the staff in a nearby homestead and rode off with the townspeople none the wiser that the bank had been robbed. The police retaliated by a persecution of all known associates of the Kellys which only raised public sympathy for the men and resulted in a movement to exonerate them. In 1879 the Kelly gang crossed into NSW to the town of Jerilderie where they robbed a bank of over £2,000. They began by arresting the town police force and locking them in the jail. The telegraph lines were again cut, and, after drinking civilly with the victims, the robbers rode off without firing a shot. Kelly attempted to explain to some of these that he was revenging himself on the police who had persecuted his family, and that the robberies were his first crime, all the other charges against him being fabrications of the police.

6 jesse james movie poster 1921

7 Public defence

The editor of the Kansas City Times, John Newman Edwards, was a former Confederate campaigning for a more equitable deal for the South. He began to publish letters in Jesse James’ name in the paper after the Gallatin robbery alleging this was James’ agenda as well. Historians doubt that Jesse James actually wrote the letters, though he would have agreed with their content, which was an attempt to represent his robberies as a gesture to secure a fair treatment of Confederate sympathisers in Missouri.

The letters written by Ned Kelly are much more authentic. In 1878 Kelly had sent a 20 page defence of his behaviour to an MP. It was not published. The so called Jerilderie letter, which Kelly attempted in vain to have published while in that town, was a 56 page hand written defence in which he saw his treatment by the police in a wider context of Anglo persecution of Irish Catholics (most Irish Catholics in Australia were there fleeing persecution by the English in their own country or as convicts).

7 ned kelly in armourNed Kelly in armour

8 End of the story

For Jesse James it was an ignominious end. Before he left his home in Missouri in 1882 for another robbery attempt Jesse, unarmed, pottered about his house, and stood on a chair to straighten a picture. His gang member Bob Ford, whom he trusted, took the opportunity to shoot Jesse in the back of the head, lured on by the offer of a reward from the State governor. Bob Ford was later murdered by supposedly a Jesse James supporter.

For Ned Kelly the end came in the town of Glenrowan in Victoria in 1880. His gang took residence in the hotel there and more or less intimidated the entire town into staying quiet. Their original intention was to derail a police train holding troops who were on their trail. One of their hostages however escaped and warned the troops. The gang was equipped at this time with iron armour which protected their heads and chests. Events happened quickly this time and Ned Kelly was caught unprepared, and his gang were soon besieged inside the hotel by a party of 30 men. The hostages were released and allowed to leave the hotel, and a fusillade of shots was exchanged. Ned Kelly escaped from the building and the barricade surrounding it, but returned, wounded and armed only with a revolver and began firing at police from the rear in order to give the rest of his gang a chance to escape. At the hotel police were reinforced by a company of militia and a cannon. There were only four gang members so this is a testimony to Kelly’s reputation. The hotel was set on fire, and burned to the ground. The charred bodies of three gang members were found in the ashes; all had been shot. Ned Kelly was bought to the ground by a fuselage of shots which hit him in the legs, the rest of his body protected by armour. He was riddled with 11 bullets, but survived and was taken prisoner. Nine people died in the capture, four killed by Kelly and his gang, five by police. Kelly was tried, convicted of murder, and hung. His last words were said to be, “Such is life!” He and the gang deserve a poem to themselves but there’s this one:

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell…

8 Jamesgang

9 The myth

It began in 1906 with a film called The Story of the Kelly Gang, followed in 1908 by The James Boys of Missouri. Both Ned Kelly and Jesse James must have been exceptionally brave, and intelligent enough to outwit their opponents. That made them heroes. The books and films continue.


It has been said that lawyers make the law so complicated that only they can deal with it; that accounts are made so intricate that you need an accountant to keep them; and that many doctors prescribe unneeded drugs for trivial ailments to profit from the state medicare scheme. Realtors have an interest in raising property values. In other words, professionals create a professional mystique so as to profit themselves. Do law enforcement officers encourage crime? Is there more crime today than there was in mid 19th century Europe when police forces were introduced?

9 Ned Kelly heath ledger

The story of Jesse James and Ned Kelly demonstrate that in their cases at least criminals were made of fairly intrepid and even admirable citizens by authorities biased by political issues of the day, which in both cases were land allotments and who should have them. The Australian Aboriginal and American Indian nations, who believed that the land was given them to care for and could not be owned by any but god, must have been amazed to learn that men fought and killed over who was to own a particular piece of land. And that settlers could be hounded into outlawry by those who felt strongly about it. It’s hard not to be biased one way or the other by the story of Jesse James and that of Ned Kelly. I think that, treated differently, both men could have become outstanding law men rather than outstanding law breakers.

More on Jesse James at

More on Ned Kelly at

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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