This is a feature aimed at mature readers.
Subject of much speculation is the nature of the death of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart at Glenrowan. Conspiracy theories aside, it’s incredibly difficult to piece together what happened due to the lack of witnesses and the fire that decimated the inn destroying all evidence. Still, there are clues to perhaps piece together what may have happened. In the following two part feature, part one will look at the known events surrounding the deaths and discuss three key theories as to how the boys died, while part two will provide an overview of the folklore and conspiracy theories about the pair surviving the fire as well as an overview of the evidence that disproves these popular legends. The subject matter is not for the squeamish and will feature sensitive material as well as imagery some might find upsetting, but this is all in the pursuit of understanding what really happened at Glenrowan and bringing closure to this enduring mystery.
As It Was Reported
“THE FIRE SPREAD RAPIDLY.
Still no sign of life appeared in the building, and when the house was seen to be fairly on fire Father Gibbey, who had previously started for it, but had been stopped by the police, walked up to the front door and entered it. By this time the patience of the besiegers was exhausted, and they, all regardless of shelter, rushed to the building. Father Gibbey, at much personal risk from the flames, hurried into a room at the left, and there saw two bodies lying side by side on their backs. He touched them, and found life was extinct in each. There were the bodies of Dan Kelly and Hart ; and the reverend gentleman expressed the opinion, based on their position, that
THEY MUST HAVE KILLED ONE ANOTHER.
Whether they killed one another, or whether both or one committed suicide, or whether both, being mortally wounded by the besiegers, determined to die side by side, will never be known. The priest had barely time to feel their bodies before the fire forced him to make a speedy exit from the room, and the flames had then made such rapid progress on the western side of the house that the few people who followed close to the rev. gentleman’s heels dared not attempt to rescue tho two bodies. It may be stated that after the house had been burned down these two bodies were removed from the embers. They presented
A HORRIBLE SPECTACLE,
Nothing but the trunk and skull being left, and those almost burnt to a cinder. Their armour was found near them. About the remains there was apparently nothing to lead to positive identification, but the discovery of the armour near them, and other circumstances, render it impossible to be doubted that they were those of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart. The latter was a much smaller man than the younger Kelly, and this difference in size was noticeable in the remains.”
– “A DISTRESSING INCIDENT.”
Evening News (Sydney). 29 June 1880: 3.
Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate.
17 July 1880: 8.
The Final Hours
We pick up the story on the morning of Monday, June 28 1880. The Kelly Gang have been besieged by police in the Glenrowan Inn since 2:00am. Around 5:00am Joe Byrne was shot dead in the bar room by a police bullet. Dave Mortimer would recall:
“…shortly after 5 o’clock in the morning Byrne was shot. He had just walked into the bar and was drinking a glass of whiskey when a ball struck him in the groin. I heard him fall, and saw the blood spurting from him. I think he died very soon. This seemed to dishearten Dan Kelly and Hart. They had been calling for Ned all night, and they renewed their calls for him. […] Dan and Hart went into the inside room, and I heard one say to the other, ‘What will we do?’ I did not hear the reply; but Reardon said he thought they intended to commit suicide.”
At around 7:15am Ned Kelly was captured 100m away from the inn and taken into custody. A considerable number of the gang’s prisoners remain trapped in the inn by almost unending and indiscriminate police fire, despite numerous attempts to evacuate them. Since Joe’s death Dan Kelly and Steve Hart have been despondent, Ned’s capture has entrenched this feeling of hopelessness.
Now, at 2:00pm the prisoners are released. They are forced to lay belly-down in the grass where they are searched by police. Some of the prisoners are identified as Kelly sympathisers and arrested.
At 2:30pm, from the north window of the hotel near the chimney a shot rings out. Constable Dwyer and Constable Arthur unload their guns in the direction of the shot. They are close enough to hear a sound from inside – a heavy thud and the rattle of armour. “There is one of them inside shot,” Dwyer would boast.
At 3:00pm Dwyer and Constable Dixon hear another thud in the same room and presume the other is shot.
At 4:00pm Johnston sets fire to the inn under a cover of heavy fire. Upon the fire being lit, it spreads very quickly inside. Father Gibney, who had been agitating for some time to gain access to the premises in an effort to encourage Dan and Steve to surrender, rushes the inn and enters the bar room with his hands above his head and his crucifix held aloft, calling out to anyone who may hear.
“In the name of God, men, will you let me hear your confession?”
The canvas lining of the ceiling is aflame and Gibney finds Joe Byrne’s corpse on the floor in a pool of blood, he is quite dead. He rushes into the bedroom and sees Dan Kelly and Steve Hart laying next to a greyhound with their heads on what appears to be bunched bags. They are dead as well. He does not recognise them as he is not acquainted with the gang’s appearances, though he would describe them as “beardless youths”.
“Come up, men, these men are all dead,” Gibney hollers to the police who have rushed in after him.
Constables find Joe Byrne’s body being licked by the flames. The corpse is dragged outside before it can be consumed in the fire. Constable James Dwyer then moves through the building to the bedrooms. Dwyer would later recall during the Royal Commission:
“The four of us ran up, and Constable Armstrong and I took Joe Byrne, who was at the far end in the passage. I took Joe Byrne by the shoulders, and Armstrong by the feet, and lifted him out. At the door Mr. Sadleir, Mr. O’Connor, and others met us, and the priest, in the crowd, said, “Go back, constables, the other two men are on the beds.” We dropped Byrne and went back to the passage. The blaze of fire was coming and we put up our hands. Steve Hart had his feet up on the bed. He was burning down to here—[pointing to his waist]—and his feet were on the bed, and his hands in that position—[indicating the same]—; and his face all burnt and his blood was passing and frizzling like a steak in a pan. Looking again to the left of us, the north end near the chimney, Dan Kelly was lying in this position—[indicating the same]. The left knee was crippled and his hand outstretched. His helmet was off; he had the armour on—the breast-plate; and on his neck and thighs and hand there was blood. I knew him to be Dan Kelly from the low forehead, and the description of them, and that the other must be Steve Hart. […] I knew the man I saw in that position, with the black hair and sallow complexion, was Dan Kelly. […] [They were] about six yards [from each other], the length of the dwelling house, one at one end and the other at the other end. Dan Kelly was at the chimney side, with his feet on the bed, opposite the window. […] The blood I saw along the arms and neck and thighs led me to believe they were shot by the police, and that the heavy thuds we heard was their being shot. Armstrong said, “Come out,” and I said “Yes, we will have to leave them to their fate,” and we had only just left the place where we were standing when the ceiling fell down.”
Theory One: Suicide Pact (death by bullet)
The most popular theory is that when faced with capture by police the boys shot each other to avoid capture. This was an idea that quickly gained traction around the turn of the century and immortalised in the majority of films about the gang. It is certainly a plausible theory insofar as the behaviour of the boys after the death of Joe and the capture of Ned indicated a sense of hopelessness and despondency that may have interacted with a defiance to allow the forces of law and order to do with them as they wished. Some have even gone so far as to suggest a suicide pact was in place so that should they find themselves in a situation without hope of escape from the police they would die before being captured. This romantic idea is certainly not without precedent in bushranging history, with Mickey Burke of the Hall gang doing just this after being mortally wounded in a gun battle. He shot himself in the head multiple times without effect before slowly dying of his wounds. It was a popular idea that the boys would have grown up with when bushranger stories were told to them, but what evidence is there to support the idea?
Alas, there is nothing concrete to base the idea of a suicide pact upon so we must go back to the initial assertion that it was an act of desperation. It must be noted that the descriptions of the bodies make no mention of head wounds or body wounds that would correlate with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Moreover, no firearms were seen within reach of the bodies, which would indicate that they did not shoot themselves or each other.
Another key problem with this theory is the positioning of the bodies. When Father Gibney located the bodies he described them as looking serene, their heads resting on sacking or bags that had been made into makeshift pillows. The bodies were also witnessed by Constable Dwyer and Constable Armstrong as well as sketched by Thomas Carrington as the room they were in was consumed by flames. None of the descriptions or the illustration indicate death by shooting each other or themselves based on the position of the bodies or the paraphernalia surrounding them in the burning room.
Theory Two: Suicide Pact (death by poison)
The position of the bodies and the makeshift pillows implies a slow death that was somewhat prepared for. This would make sense in the event of voluntary poisoning. It is known that Joe Byrne carried poison on his person as a brown paper packet of poison was found in his jacket pocket. In probability this was laudanum, which was a pain killer made from opium and morphine that had been declared poisonous in the 1860s after overdoses became common. Joe likely used laudanum to replace the opium he smoked. Laudanum was highly addictive and as a strong opiate probably brought about a better high than opium smoke would. It was relatively cheap and easy to procure as well, so it’s little wonder that they would have had this in their possession. The “paper packet” is unusual though as laudanum was usually sold in bottles as a tincture, though it was also probably sold in packets unmixed.
Another potential poison would be carbolic acid, which was used as a disinfectant and when watered down was applied to mouth ulcers. This was common in many households and no doubt a woman with many health problems (and boisterous young boys) as Ann Jones did would have some on standby. The effect of ingesting carbolic acid is horrendous, burning the throat and causing the victim to vomit blood and fall into a coma. If either of the boys had been inclined to poison themselves, no doubt this was the most effective way and reasonably easy to find.
The evidence supporting this theory is strong but does not account for the descriptions of the bodies heard hitting the floor after police fired into the inn, nor does it account for the blood on Dan’s neck as described by Dwyer who, apart from Father Gibney, was the closest person to the bodies before the fire took hold.
Theory Three: Two Deaths
The “Two Deaths” theory is essentially that Dan and Steve died separately from each other rather than a murder-suicide or a suicide pact. In this theory Dan Kelly is felled by a police bullet and Steve Hart is left to find his own way out of his situation. This theory is one that has not been presented with due consideration to date, yet based on the descriptions of the events and the bodies is perhaps the most likely.
Police reported that the last shot was fired from a window in the back room of the inn at 1.00pm and was shortly followed by a burst of police fire and a heavy thud from inside the back room. The sound was described as being accompanied by the clatter of armour, which would indicate that, as with Joe Byrne, a police bullet may have struck one of the outlaws in a spot unprotected by the armour. When Constable Dwyer saw the bodies in the back room he described Dan Kelly as wearing his breastplate still, which matches Carrington’s illustration, although some witnesses stated that the armour was found next to the bodies. This is a good indicator, if Dwyer’s description is accurate, that it was Dan Kelly who was shot while still wearing his body armour. Dwyer also described Dan as having blood all over his neck, which is feasibly where he could have been shot if his helmet was off and obviously has a high chance of resulting in a fatal wound between the spine and arteries and the various other pipes and nerves etc. in that small region that can cause death when damaged. These point to the fate of the youngest Kelly brother being that he copped a shot in the neck while his helmet was off, which killed him. Steve may have tried to get Dan comfortable by putting sacking under his head as he died.
So, what became of Steve Hart? Judging by his positioning and the lack of any visible trauma of note it might be fair to say that he committed suicide with poison. Whether he used laudanum or carbolic acid is impossible to say definitively. Potentially a laudanum overdose may have allowed Steve to go peacefully as the opiate high put him to sleep, but without knowing how much he would have ingested we can’t guarantee that he even had access to enough to kill himself. More likely a belly full of carbolic acid would have been fast acting and potent enough to induce a coma. In this case the reality is even more horrendous as it opens up the possibility that he was still alive, though unconscious, when the fire consumed him. In some descriptions Steve’s feet were on a bed, which may indicate that after consuming a fatal dose of poison he fell off the bed, which may account for the second thud Dwyer described.
It seems unlikely that Steve and Dan could be confused for each other, especially as Dwyer was well acquainted with Dan Kelly’s appearance. In the Carrington illustration we see a body encased in body armour (resembling Carrington’s depiction of Joe Byrne’s body in armour – it should be here noted that Dan’s suit was the only suit other than Joe’s to incorporate side plates to join the breastplate and backplate) and a body in shirt sleeves and a vest with a sash poking out from underneath that closely resembles the outfit worn by Steve in the only known studio portrait of him. This helps us to narrow down the identities of the bodies and identify who was likely to have been the one responsible for the thud heard by police outside the inn.
Based on the available evidence it would appear that theory three has the most credibility, based on available evidence. Of course, we can never know for sure as the bodies were effectively cremated (which will be examined in greater detail in part two) thus rendering the bodies unidentifiable and any traces of poison or bullet wounds long gone. Even if the bodies were exhumed there is no way to determine a cause of death from the fragments of bone left in the coffins so we can only judge based on eyewitness accounts and available imagery, as outlined above. As it stands, witnesses reported that Kate Kelly was only able to identify her brother’s remains due to his distinctive teeth and no doubt this is as clear an indication as any that had the police undertaken an inquest as intended the results would have been inconclusive. Had the fire continued even twenty minutes longer, no doubt the bodies would have been reduced to ashes.
In trying to ascertain what had happened, the Royal Commission asked Superintendent Sadleir for his interpretation of the events. He reported:
“It took some time before the remains of the others could be seen, and still longer before we could get them out. It was, perhaps, close upon half-past four when we got the charred remains of Hart and Dan Kelly out on the platform. […] Their armour was lying immediately beside them. I think they died in armour. It is only my impression, and from reflection on the subject since. The armour being beside them was simply that the thongs that held them were burned, and the armour fell off. […] It depends upon how they lay; they would lie on the side, and it might fall off. They were altogether in a lump; the armour and the two bodies were as close as this—[describing by spreading his hands]. I saw the bodies as soon as they were to be observed by anybody. The smoke rose again for a moment I was with Senior-Constable Johnson, and he said, “There they are,” and we could see them, and my impression was that the armour was on them then, but I found that was a mistake—the armour was lying close to them. […] The bodies were brought down to the platform. After the bodies were removed on to the Glenrowan platform, I offered to Isaiah Wright, if the friends wished it, to give them over the bodies of Steve Hart and Dan Kelly. This seemed to please them very much, as an unexpected favor.”
The aftermath of the siege saw Superintendent Sadleir turn the bodies over to the families, Maggie Skillion taking Dan, Dick Hart taking Steve. Tom Lloyd acted as undertaker and two handsome coffins were promptly purchased for the boys who were interred in Greta cemetery in unmarked graves during a secret funeral. Oral history also suggests that the coffins buried in Greta were filled with stones and that Dan was buried on the Kelly farm on 11 Mile Creek and Steve was buried on the Hart farm on 3 Mile Creek. Regardless, the secrecy of the burial location was of extreme importance to the families as the police were endeavoring to get the bodies back and moreover it has become a sad reality that the graves would be vandalised or molested in some way by thoughtless individuals with a chip on their shoulder or a bit too much alcohol in their system as demonstrated by the various items stolen or damaged in locations life Glenrowan.
In recent years there has been controversy when it was discovered that someone had been walking around the purported site of the graves and plunging stakes into the earth in the hope of finding the coffins. No doubt this enterprising researcher had some ideas about how to prove that Dan and Steve had escaped the fire and the bodies were not really buried in Greta at all. Regardless of intention it was ghoulish and disrespectful and further highlights the continued silence on the location of the graves.
Of course, no discussion of the fate of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart is complete without a discussion of the various survival stories and conspiracy theories. To find out about these you will need to stay tuned for part two where we will examine the stories and the evidence that will disprove them.
“THE KELLY GANG.” Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907) 10 July 1880: 6.
“GENERAL NARRATIVE.” South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900) 29 June 1880: 6.
“A DISTRESSING INCIDENT.” Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 – 1931) 29 June 1880: 3.
“THE GLENROWAN TRAGEDY.” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) 17 July 1880: 8.
Police Commission : Minutes of evidence taken before Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria, together with appendices. NK9833. Melbourne : John Ferres, Government Printer, 1881