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Ned Kelly:  Hero or Outlaw?

(Reprint from News: March 1, 2002)

February 19, 2002



After dropping down the west side of the Great Dividing Range on a narrow, winding road, I drove into the town of Bright, which had a pleasant name and seemed like a nice place so I got a motel room there.  After chatting with the friendly owner and checking in to my room, I walked around town and spent a half-hour at a pretty downtown park watching some kids play in the river that cuts through town.  On the way back to my room, I stopped at a corner cafe to get some fish and chips, and that evening watched the Winter Olympics on TV.


I really love the Olympics, especially the smaller and more casual Winter Olympics and Salt Lake City is only a two-day drive from Portland, so I wish I could've gone there to watch the Olympics in person.  I'm pretty familiar with Salt Lake City since I've worked there over the past few years on their new Light Rail Transit system, which they built partly because of the Olympics.  Now that I think about it, though, Salt Lake City isn't the most exciting place in the world, so maybe it's just as well that I didn't go. 


I was reluctant to leave Bright the next morning but I had to make tracks.  An hour after leaving, I stopped in Beechworth, a historic mining town in central Victoria.  Beechworth is in the heart of the Victoria gold mining country and reminded me of the California gold-rush towns that dot the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  In fact, with the rolling foothills, golden grasslands, and scattered trees, this whole area reminded me of the Sierra foothills.  A lot of miners from California came to Beechworth in the 1850s after the California gold played out and, considering the surroundings, I bet they felt right at home here.  


Beechworth is probably best known as the site of the 1880 trial of Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous outlaw, who was either a hero or a bandit depending on whom you talk to.  After the trial in Beechworth and one in Melbourne, the 24-year old Kelly was found guilty of robbery and murder and was hung in the Melbourne Prison.  His legend grew shortly afterwards and about a week later, I'm sure, the first "Ned Kelly" t-shirts and bumper stickers were printed up... a prolific marketing endeavor which continues to this day.


A lot of Aussies glamorize Ned Kelly, comparing him to Jesse James or Billy the Kid in the U.S.  That's not a very favorable comparison in my book, because those two American outlaws were simply cold-blooded killers and there was very little "noble" about them, despite the misplaced idolatry which lingers in their wake.  After visiting Beechworth for a few hours and visiting the court room where Kelly was tried, I couldn't decide for myself whether Kelly was really a hero unjustly accused for crimes he didn't commit or was simply a cold-blooded killer.  As you might say, "The jury is still out."


An hour after leaving Beechworth, I stopped in the small town of Glen Rowan, which is where Kelly was captured by the police during his last battle.  Glen Rowan really milks the Ned Kelly thing to death with lots of mugs, t-shirts, and even a play about Kelly using computerized mannequins, which performs every hour on the hour.  The Mannequin Play was pretty expensive and from the pictures it reminded me too much of wax museums, which I generally detest, so I didn't see it.  Well, o.k., it also looked pretty scary.


After walking around Glen Rowan for a while, I headed back to my car when I heard “Waltzing Matilda” playing over the loudspeakers of a nearby café.  "Waltzing Matilda" gets me every time so I popped into the cafe, chatted with the friendly owner, a woman in her 50's, and bought the CD.  As the owner told me, the CD was recorded by a famous Australian folk singer named Lazy Harry (seriously, that's his name) who lives nearby.  For the next hour as I drove across the hot, flat farmlands of northern Victoria, I listened to Lazy Harry belt out “Waltzing Matilda,” “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” “A Pub With No Beer,” and 22 other Australian favorites.  


2-2218_Beechworth.jpg (40851 bytes)    2-2220_Ned_Kelly.jpg (53917 bytes)    2-2226_Kelly_Statue.jpg (52304 bytes)

Above left:  Beechworth is in the heart of the Victoria Gold Country.  The buildings here have been well preserved and it's an interesting place to walk around.  

Above center:  Australia's most famous criminal was Ned Kelly who, some say, made money the old-fashioned way:  he stole it.  After being captured in nearby Glen Rowan, Ned was brought to trial in Beechworth in 1880.

Above right:  A larger-than-life version of Ned Kelly in Glen Rowan, complete with his famous helmet and body armor.  During Kelly's last battle, a short ways from here, he was shot 29 times by the police but thanks to the armor he survived... only to meet his fate at the end of a rope. 



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