October 26, 2017 marks the 139th anniversary of the police killings at Stringybark Creek, widely regarded as the worst single incident of police killing in Victorian history. Three police officers were killed in the line of duty hunting for Ned and Dan Kelly in dense forest and to this day there remains much controversy surrounding the event. Alas it is impossible to know exactly what happened, but by using testimony from Ned Kelly and Constable McIntyre as well as forensic evidence reported on at the time and analysed since, it becomes easier to piece together a narrative that makes sense. What follows is a condensed narrative of what occurred, not an authoritative account.
After an incident at the Kelly house on 11 Mile Creek on April 15, 1878, involving police officer Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, Ned Kelly and his youngest brother Dan were wanted for attempted murder. Their mother, brother in law and a family friend had been arrested, tried and imprisoned for their part in the assault while the brothers had fled to the bush. Ned Kelly had allegedly sent correspondence to the authorities stating that he and Dan would give themselves up in exchange for their mother’s release. This offer, if it was received, was rejected out of hand. The Kellys were in no position to bargain.
Meanwhile, in Mansfield Senior Constable Michael Kennedy was engaged in the hunt for the pair, regularly riding through the district and canvassing locals, assisted by Constable Thomas McIntyre. It was on one of these rides that Wild Wright seemingly warned McIntyre that Ned Kelly was not to be trifled with.
[Wright] told me on one occasion that I mentioned the matter to him that he would not betray Ned Kelly for all the money in Australia. He also several times said to me “Ned Kelly is mad.” I pressed him to explain what he meant but he only emphatically reiterated his statement.
It was during this time that the Kelly brothers were living in a hut on Bullock Creek in the Wombat Ranges looking for gold and distilling bootleg whisky in an effort to raise money for a solicitor for their mother. They were joined here by Steve Hart and Joe Byrne for a time, presumably they had been assisting Dan with his digging. The Kellys must have clung to the vain hope that by laying low that the dust would settle, the opposite proved true.
In October Kennedy, now a sergeant, was informed by Superintendent Sadleir that he was required to take charge of one of two search parties that would try to snare the Kellys in a pincer movement. Kennedy had been selected for his renowned prowess with bush work as much as his leadership qualities. Unfortunately he had no experience with Ned or Dan Kelly at all. Kennedy requested that he be accompanied by McIntyre and his good friend Mounted Constable Michael Scanlan. Sadleir agreed but stipulated they would also be accompanied by Mounted Constable Thomas Lonigan from Violet Town as he could identify Ned Kelly from experience. Kennedy was unimpressed but had no choice. He promptly prepared for the mission by getting information on the forest the gang were supposed to be hiding in from as many people as possible.
When Lonigan received news that he had to join the party in Mansfield he did not welcome it. The incident with Fitzpatrick in April as well as an earlier incident he was involved with in Benalla had asserted just how dangerous Ned Kelly was. Ned Kelly had been arrested for being publicly intoxicated and fled from custody in the Benalla police station, hurtling down the road and around the corner before seeking refuge in the boot maker’s shop. A fight between Ned and the local Constables broke out and in an attempt to control Ned, Lonigan had used an old trick he probably learned during his time in the artillery called “blackballing” wherein he roughly grabbed Ned’s scrotum and held tight, resulting in the trousers ripping at the crotch. Lonigan’s grip on Ned’s testicles was not enough to subdue him but it was clearly enough to cause some damage to Ned’s ego if not his most private parts and gave Ned fuel for yet another in a long line of grudges against policemen. No doubt this was playing heavily on Lonigan’s mind as he set off to Mansfield, leaving behind his adoring wife and four children. It is telling that he returned after a few minutes to say goodbye again, something the normally stoic Irishman would not do.
The police came together in Mansfield and collected supplies as well as practiced bush skills that the majority of the party were unacquainted with. On the morning of the party beginning their mission Kennedy asked McIntyre to fetch the Spencer repeating rifle they had acquired. McIntyre was quite concerned that the rifle was far more overpowered than the task warranted, but Kennedy simply pointed to a copy of Ned Kelly’s mugshot they had been provided and stated “I do not like the look of this man.” As Kennedy and McIntyre packed their bags in the police station, Michael Scanlan was taking breakfast in a nearby establishment with his faithful dog by his side. As he dabbed his voluminous moustache with a napkin he asked a friend to look after the canine in his absence, going on to state “If I don’t come back, you can have my dog.” The party convened outside the police station, Lonigan arriving late for undisclosed reasons, then began on their fateful journey. It was October 25, 1878.
Kennedy had assembled much information from locals about the area they were travelling through including waterways and crossings. However, Kennedy played his cards close to his chest despite frequent inquisition from McIntyre.
Some way into the journey McIntyre spotted a tiger snake on the track. With his revolver he blasted the reptile’s head off and gloated to his comrade “First blood Lonigan!” – a comment that it would not be hard to imagine going down like a lead balloon. McIntyre noted that Kennedy seemed agitated as they travelled through the forest. Could it be that his knowledge of the bush allowed him to sense that they were being followed?
Indeed, Ned had been patrolling the forest as a matter of course and had come across the police horses’ hoofprints in the soil. Perhaps thinking of information that had been given to him via the bush telegraph about three police parties on their way to take out he and his brother, even equipped with special straps designed to facilitate carrying corpses on a pack horse, Ned resolved to track the troopers. His intimate knowledge of the terrain and scrub enabled him to follow the police close enough to see what they were up to without being spotted.
When the police reached a clearing near an old hut by the banks of Stringybark Creek, Kennedy grabbed the Spencer repeater and stalked wordlessly off into the bush where they had just been while Lonigan and Scanlan set up the tents. McIntyre was befuddled but did what he could to give the others a hand. Kennedy was gone for some time and was quite perturbed upon returning when McIntyre gave him the third degree about wandering off alone. Kennedy thrust the Spencer into McIntyre’s hands and told him to go and find some kangaroos to shoot.
With the camp set up the police established a fire and began to eat. The bread was unfortunately too sour and the men were unanimous in their distaste. McIntyre offered to hunt some fowl and kangaroos in the morning to supplement their supplies. They all slept that night fairly soundly, exhausted from their trek. Little did the men in their tents realise that they were within a mile of their targets.
The next morning Kennedy elected to take Scanlan on a scout nearby but stated not to panic if they weren’t back before dark. Scanlan equipped himself with the Spencer repeater and the two friends left in a jovial mood with a packed lunch and quite probably Scanlan, a devil for drink when given the opportunity, had a flask concealed about his person to keep their spirits up figuratively and literally. Lonigan busied himself by reading The Vagabond Papers wherein Harry Power was interviewed in Pentridge, in part stating ominously that he believed that due to his temper Ned Kelly would have committed murder if he hadn’t stopped him. No doubt this did nothing to alleviate Lonigan’s fear and he was noticeably skittish throughout the day. McIntyre proceeded on a hunting mission as promised the previous night. McIntyre clearly considered something of a black-powder-wielding William Tell after the incident with the tiger snake. Heading close to the creek, McIntyre used a double barrelled shotgun to kill a selection of parrots and attempted to nab a couple of flighty kangaroos. His inexperience in bush work was never more evident than at this point for the sound of the shots travelled far quickly thanks to the awesome acoustics at Stringybark Creek. It would appear this allowed the Kelly brothers, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart to pinpoint the location of the police camp with ease.
After McIntyre had returned to camp Lonigan was even edgier than before. He made comment to McIntyre that he could hear movement in the undergrowth but McIntyre dismissed it as animals. In fact the Kelly Gang (as they would later be known) had found the camp and were laying low in the scrub to scope the site out, using the scrub for cover. McIntyre decided that billy tea was the solution to calm Lonigan’s nerves and he hoped the smoke from the fire would help guide Kennedy and Scanlan back. Lonigan strapped on his pistol belt and tended the horses then moved back across the camp. The two officers stood at the intersection of two logs by the fire. At this moment the desperadoes presented themselves.
Emerging from the tall grass and ferns surrounding the camp, Ned strode forward with his brother and companions and bellowed “Bail up!” while leveling a shabby modified carbine at the troopers. McIntyre put his hands out and Lonigan, behind McIntyre, jogged backwards, clutching at his revolver with his eyes on the new arrivals. As Dan, Joe and Steve covered McIntyre, Ned turned to his right and fired. In a flash Ned Kelly’s carbine discharged. McIntyre flinched but did not dare take his eyes off the bushrangers. Out of the warped muzzle sped what seems to have been a lead ball quartered into tiny pieces of deadly shrapnel. The largest piece of shrapnel pierced the outside of Lonigan’s left thigh, as the rest sliced into his left forearm, right temple and right eye. Lonigan reeled and staggered, tumbling to the ground gasping “Oh Christ! I’m shot!” as hot, jagged shrapnel and bone fragments bored its way into his brain. The immeasurable agony caused Lonigan to breathe with hideous, laboured breaths as he rose and plunged into the dirt until finally his body flopped belly up and all movement ceased. Within a moment Mounted Constable Thomas Lonigan was dead, aged thirty two years leaving behind a widow as well as a son and three daughters. Ned strode over and inspected the corpse muttering “What made the fellow run?” as if unaware that seeing a man approaching with a gun could instill enough fear to cause flight. Dan said in disbelief “He was a plucky fellow, did you see how he went at his revolver?” McIntyre was overwhelmed but would later state that he did not believe the bushrangers had descended upon the camp with the intention to take life, however Ned’s actions had forced a situation that would result in death as an inevitability.
The gang proceeded to raid the tents and Joe Byrne sat and smoked a pipe with McIntyre. Ned seemed incredibly agitated, pacing around and rambling. Joe drank the billy tea with McIntyre, making sure that the constable drank first in case it was poisoned. The gang made short work of McIntyre’s fresh bread, which gave him a slightly perverse sense of happiness to have his culinary skills appreciated. Ned spoke at length with McIntyre who asked many questions about his motives and made a point to mention that his life was insured as he had no beneficiaries in Victoria in the event of his death. Ned instructed McIntyre to force Kennedy and Scanlan to surrender so that no further blood should be shed. McIntyre agreed and Ned refused Dan’s suggestion to cuff McIntyre believing that the policeman’s word was enough to entice his colleagues to surrender. This would prove to be flawed logic at best.
The scouts return
Late in the afternoon as storm clouds rolled in, the gang had raided the tents and were taking advantage of the new weapons and ammunition they had acquired, Ned taking a particular liking to the double-barrelled shotgun. Suddenly McIntyre could hear voices approaching the camp. Kennedy and Scanlan were returning from a fruitless scout but were in good spirits. Before their horses reached the clearing the Kelly Gang hid themselves, Ned dropping down behind the log McIntyre was seated on the others using the tents as cover and training their guns on McIntyre. As the riders appeared McIntyre tried to remain calm and walked to them and stated “You’d better surrender, the Kellys have got us surrounded.” Kennedy was skeptical as he glanced around the camp for signs of anything amiss. Placing his hand on his holster he began “Well, in that case…” but never got to finish the thought.
Ned Kelly rose from cover and demanded the police throw down their arms. Kennedy drew his revolver and dismounted. Scanlan tried to unsling the Spencer repeater from his upper body but only managed to get it part way. The police opened fire, Kennedy firing his pistol over the rump of his horse, Scanlan firing from the hip. The gang, now fully equipped, fired back. A shot to Scanlan’s right side knocked him off his horse, the bullet shattering his rib and decimating his lung before lodging in his sternum. He hit the ground hard and struggled to get up, shakily getting on all fours as a flurry of bullets hit him in the right hip and shoulder. Kennedy’s horse broke away in the chaos and McIntyre grabbed it as it bolted in terror, leaping onto its back. Speeding away from the camp, he could not see the drama unfolding. In that moment the jolly 34 year-old County Kerry native collapsed into the dust, dying from internal haemorrhaging. Scanlan died as a bachelor with no next of kin in Australia.
As McIntyre fled the scene in an attempt to get help Dan Kelly could be heard shouting “Shoot that fellow!” and in a torrent of hot lead the horse was shot, causing McIntyre to be flung off the creature’s back. McIntyre regained control over the wounded beast and pressed on. Branches struck McIntyre mercilessly as the horses galloped through the forest until a particularly hefty branch caught McIntyre by surprise and hurled him out of the saddle. Covered in gashes and bruises and bleeding from just about every outlet on his head from the reckless flight he proceeded on foot. Ned Kelly would later joke that McIntyre was cowardly for his escape. As darkness descended upon the Wombat Ranges and storm clouds unfurled, McIntyre sought temporary refuge in a wombat hole where he wrote furiously in his notebook and would stay for part of the night aching from his injuries.
Meanwhile at the police camp, Ned was chasing Kennedy on foot in the same direction McIntyre had fled. Armed with the shotgun, Ned tried to take Kennedy down, but the sergeant was full of fight. Ducking behind trees for cover, Kennedy fired at Ned with his Webley, one shot passing through his opponent’s beard, another passing through his sleeve close to his ribs. A blast from Ned hit Kennedy in the right arm, and blood began pouring down his sleeve. Kennedy’s fingers lost strength and he could no longer hold his revolver. It fell with a quiet thud in the scrub. The pain from the shot was almost paralysing as he staggered on short of breath. He could hear Ned’s footsteps growing closer. Was he still running? Was he bothering to take cover? Kennedy turned to see where his pursuer was and a blast from Ned Kelly struck Kennedy under the arm. Kennedy hit the ground hard. As Ned approached he found the Webley, the grip slick with blood. Wordlessly he realised what he had done. He would later recount that moment in the Jerilderie letter:
I fired again with the gun as he slewed around to surrender, I did not know he had dropped his revolver. The bullet passed through the right side of his chest and he could not live or I would have let him go. Had they been my own brothers I could not help shooting them or else let them shoot me, which they would have done had their bullets been directed as they intended them.
Back at the camp the others inspected the body of Scanlan, Joe taking the ring from Scanlan’s lifeless hand. Was this symbolic? Was this a trophy? Or was it just a matter of stealing jewellery he liked the look of? Dan and Steve seemed not to have had any real interest in raiding corpses. Their accounts of the day were never to be recorded.
What occurred between Ned and the dying sergeant is subject of much speculation. It would be reasonable to imagine with the little life he had left Kennedy spoke to Ned of his family and his fears about what might happen to them. It seems that, at least in some accounts, Kennedy had enough time and strength to write a letter to his wife and entrust Ned with taking the letter to his wife with his watch. Perhaps such a moment may have provided Ned with enough time to resolve and prepare to finish him off. Ned placed the muzzle of his weapon to Kennedy’s chest and fired. Satisfied that Kennedy was out of his misery he trudged the half mile back to the camp and fetched one of the police cloaks, which he took back and draped over the corpse.
As night enveloped the forest, McIntyre tried to navigate through the wilds using the stars and a compass. In crossing a stream his boots had become waterlogged and he was forced to remove them for the remainder of the journey. The next day he was delirious from exhaustion and injury to the point of hallucination and sought refuge in a hut for a time before continuing on to Mansfield.
At the police camp the gang finished raiding the tents and corpses and set fire to all they could not carry before leaving. Clearly Ned Kelly considered the outcome to have been justified by the apparently murderous intentions of the police. Convinced right to his dying day that the police had not meant to apprehend the brothers but to put them down like rabid wolves he would remonstrate:
It would not be wilful murder if they packed our remains in, shattered into a mass of animated gore, to Mansfield. They would have got great praise and credit as well as promotion, but I’m reckoned a horrid brute because I had not been cowardly enough to lie down for them under such trying circumstances and insults to my people. Certainly their wives and children are to be pitied, but they must remember those men came into the bush with the intention of scattering pieces of me and my brother all over the bush and yet they know and acknowledge I have been wronged and my mother and four or five men lagged innocent.
McIntyre would return with a party led by Sub-Inspector Pewtress to reclaim the corpses of Lonigan and Scanlan. Kennedy’s heavily decomposed remains would not be found until five days after the massacre. The widows of Lonigan and Kennedy would be given a pension but it was hardly compensation for losing their husbands and the fathers of their children. The three men are buried in Mansfield cemetery, a quiet spot comfortably away from the main thoroughfares of the town. In 1880 a monument was unveiled to the memory of the policemen. In the unveiling of the monument Captain Standish, chief commissioner of police, remarked:
…in the Police department there was not a better or truer, or more trust-worthy and energetic member of the force than Sergeant Kennedy ; and it was with sincere sorrow that he received the announcement of his sad and untimely fate. It was well known that in his encounter with the outlaws he behaved most gallantly, and fought to the bitter end against overpowering odds. Constables Scanlan and Lonigan were also good and deserving men ; and the brutal and revolting manner in which they were shot down naturally sent a thrill of terror through the whole community. It was therefore the more surprising that the perpetrators of the fearful crime had met with so much strange sympathy and material assistance from many persons of that district. It must of course be satisfactory to fellow colonists to know that the legislature had made substantial provision for the widows and orphans of these brave fellows who lost their lives in the discharge of their duty. He sincerely hoped that the mellowing hand of time would soothe the great affliction which had befallen Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Lonigan. (Hear, hear.) He could not omit gratefully to acknowledge the warm-hearted sympathy of the New South Wales police in subscribing so liberally to the memorial inaugurated that day. It was a proof, if need be, of the cordial feeling which, he trusted, would always exist between the police of the two colonies. Once more he desired to convey to the residents of the Mansfield district his earnest appreciation of their generosity and sympathy.