No other bushranger conspiracy theory has had as much traction as the theory that Dan Kelly and Steve Hart escaped from Glenrowan and survived into full adulthood whereupon they became soldiers in the Boer War. The truth is that these stories were almost always peddled by swaggies or other such entities who would spin yarns as entertainment. Very few of the people claiming to have had an intimate enough understanding of the the people or events to prove the identities of these men actually did but – as they say – why let the truth get in the way of a good story? To this day there are towns throughout Australia who cash in on these oral histories as a way of helping put themselves on the map. This article, published in 1902, is one of the earliest recorded accounts of the stories about Dan and Steve’s escape.
Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, Are They Alive or Dead?
Some weeks ago it was reported by cable that the bushrangers Dan Kelly and Steve Hart, who were supposed to have been killed at Glenrowan in the final encounter between the police and the Kelly gang, were in South Africa. Mr. W. B. Melville writes a detailed account from South Africa regarding the alleged outlaws, whom he says he met and from whom obtained a particulars of their escape, Dan Kelly told the story as follows: —
‘Steve here, and me, and Ned and Joe Byrne, was in that pub alright. Ned got away, and we was to foller him, but Joe was boozed, and we couldn’t poll him together. When we wasn’t watching him he stepped outside and was shot. After that two drunken coves was shot dead through the winder. They would have a go at the police, so we gave them rifles, revolvers, powder and shot. The firing where they fell wus too hot for us to reach them, so our rifles and revolvers was found by their remains. This was why they thought we were dead ‘uns. I’m sorry these coves didn’t take my tip and get out with a flag of truce. But they’d drink and the devil was in them, and I think Jo Byrne’s recklessness maddened them. Well, Steve and me planned an escape. We was in a trap, and had to gut out of it. We had the traps’ uniforms and their caps, which we used at times to disguise us. We put them on, and you couldn’t tell us from the blooming troopers. Steve, in a joke, wanted to arrest me, and I wanted to arrest him. Didn’t we, Steve? The next thing was how to leave the pub. A few trees and bushes and logs at the back decided us. We hung along the ground for a few yards, and then blazed away at the pub like the bobbies. We retreated from tree to tree and from bush to bush, pretending to take cover. Yes, cover from Steve and me! Soon we wus among the scattered traps who, no doubt thought we wus funking on it. But we banged away at the blooming pub more’n any of them. The traps came from a hundred miles miles around and only some of them know’d each other. They, didn’t know us anyhow. They couldn’t tell us from theirselves. We worked back into the timber and got away. Soon afterwards we saw the old shanty blazing, and we thanked our stars we was not burnt alive. Well, we got to a friend’s — a shepherd’s hut. We stayed there days, and the shepherd brought us the papers with whole pages about our terrible end, burnt up bodies, and all that sort of stuff. And we heard of Ned’s capture, and was fer taking to the bush again ; but the old shepherd made us promise to leave Australia quietly. He found us clothes and money. We got to Sydney, and shipped to the Argentine. We’ve had a fairly good time since, and ain’t been interfered with. We don’t want to interfere with anybody either. A few years ago we crossed to South Africa. The war broke out and being out of work we went to the front. We’ve had some narrer escapes, but nothing like the narrer escape from the Glenrowan pub.’Mr. Melville adds that they said they were Ieaving South Africa for come place which they kept a secret, and they had no objection to their story being published in a few weeks after they got away. Some weeks afterwards he met them in Capetown, and they said they were off next day. A resident of Sydney who knew the Kellys well states that shortly after the arrival of the Drayton Grange he was standing at the corner of Bathurst and Pitt streets, when he noticed three men in khaki quarrelling. There was an old woman there who was endeavoring to act as a peacemaker. One of the men said to the other with an oath, ‘You —, you thought you were — clever, acting the goat as Dan Kelly,’ and the other answered, ‘ I had to do it, Jim, it was a joke first, and got to be serious.’ Besides, I were in that other trouble.’ The passer-by was naturally attracted by such words, and turning saw before him a man who in every way tallied with Daniel Kelly in appearance, and with the added 32 years to his 18 (his age at the time of the capture of the gang), would wear the same aspect. And as the bystander caught his eye there was a marked expression of interest centred in it, with that peculiar look coming of a mutual recognition. This gentleman also stated that there was an idea prevalent in the Kelly country at the time that Dan and Steve had made their escape. And some months after wards, when it was supposed that they were clear away, and the £8000 reward had been split up, most of the old hands in the disturbed district winked a knowing eye and laughed.