The following is aimed at mature readers.
We continue our two part feature on the mysterious deaths of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart with an overview of the folklore and conspiracy theories about the pair surviving the fire as well as a summary of the evidence that disproves these popular legends. You can read part one here. 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 speculation.
The Conspiracy Theories
Many people have peddled the barely credible stories of Dan and Steve surviving Glenrowan. Most of these people were old swaggies who traded their stories for food and shelter. The basic tropes of the stories are as follows:
1. The boys hid (usually in a cellar) where they avoided being burned.
2. The bodies from the fire were swaggies or some other strangers to the area. Random unidentified casualties in the fire appear in various incarnations of the story.
3. The survivors headed to Queensland and beyond (usually South Africa) but never returned to their families.
4. The claimant insists on the legitimacy of the claims despite deviation from recorded facts.
Here we will look at some of the more notable stories that have done the rounds over the past century.
The South Africa Legends
The earliest legend of the boys escaping stated that they subsequently fought in the Boer War in South Africa. Travelling under assumed names they fought in the war and upon the war ending returned to Australia. Variations of the story are plentiful. In one account the pair used Ned Kelly’s last stand as a diversion for their escape from the fire. They then took a coach to Melbourne, stowed away to India, joined the Imperial Indian Army and were engaged in service in South Africa. Later Dan returned to Australia where he was questioned by police, whereas Steve had drowned in Calcutta harbour around 1917. This version asserts the bodies found in the inn were tramps.
Another variation states that the pair escaped the inn dressed as troopers using uniforms they carried around to use as disguises. They fired back at the inn and avoided detection because no police knew what they looked like. In this version an old shepherd puts them up then they head to Sydney where they take a ship to Argentina, then later fought as soldiers in South Africa before returning to Australia. The Dan Kelly in this rendition was later seen arguing, drunk, in the street alluding to it all being a ruse.
It is claimed by one alleged witness, Ralph Merton, that they worked in a Kimberley hotel where he recognised them and called them out. They subsequently admitted their identities and produced an article about Ned Kelly’s execution as proof. This claimant asserted than Steve Hart was a master pugilist and could hold his own with the best of them. He stated that the pair escaped from Newcastle in a cattle boat headed for South Africa where they were determined to live out the rest of their days but eventually Dan died in South Africa and Steve Hart in California.
Ambrose Pratt even compiled the “memoirs” of one of these impostor Dans in a book simply titled Dan Kelly Outlaw in which Dan survives Glenrowan and sails to America. As can be expected it is riddled with inaccuracies and clear fabrications. These are just some of the variations on the tale reiterated by tramps and swaggies at the turn of the last century. It was estimated that there was no less than a dozen people claiming to be Dan Kelly doing the rounds that time, but none would gather as much attention as the enterprising “Dan” who took his story straight to the press.
“I am Dan Kelly”
The most infamous Dan Kelly impostor was James Ryan, a swaggie from Queensland who used his dubious credentials to gain popularity in rural communities. Before his unfortunate demise on the receiving end of a coal train, he approached the press in Queensland where his story was covered by The Truth in the 1930s and widely accepted as fact by a public not terribly aware of the facts of the story, eager for any kind of juicy controversy that could distract from the harsh existence they eked out during the Great Depression.
Ryan would boldly claim:
Through the thick smoke that was filling the bar I saw Ned jump for a small window, carrying his rifle. Us three were nearly suffocated. Hart and Byrne were encumbered with their armor, which was their undoing. They couldn’t get out and were burnt alive. It all happened in a flash. As Ned got through the window I heard a crackle, of shots, and realised that the place was covered by many rifles. I had already been scorched by the flames, and I ran into a room off the bar, where the smoke seemed less dense. It turned out to be a bedroom.
A baby was lying on the bed, screaming with fright and pain. Somebody had left it there in the confusion. Flames were filling the room, and I thought the end had come.
The wall of the room suddenly began to bulge, and I saw a chance. One of the boards — It was only a single board place — began to go, and I pushed it outwards with the strength of a madman.
You get pretty excited when you look to have a good chance of being burnt alive. Already I was being caught by the flames, and there was no hope at all for the kid. The fire must have burnt around the board where it was secured to the post for it suddenly gave way as I pushed.
I stuck my head out for air. I thought I might be able to push other boards out and get through. I found instead that my head was caught, and that I couldn’t move it.
The fire gave me some hurry-up for the short time I was stuck there helpless. I writhed in agony as my legs and back and sides came within the range of the flames. Luckily for me, the police were in the front of the place; otherwise I’d have been potted off like a sick dog. I struggled and pushed for all I was worth, and when I was just about ready to give up another board gave way. That will give you an idea of how hot it was in the room!
I got into the open. Pains were shooting through me like the fires of hell. I had no chance of walking. But I could crawl. I crawled slowly down into a bit of a washout beyond the hotel.
Every moment was torture such as I never knew could be possible. I still had ideas of helping Ned. I could see him in the moonlight about 50 yards away from where I lay behind a clump of scrub. He was standing behind a big bloodwood log. I still wanted to help him, but I had no gun.
Ned called out to me to surrender. He could see me, but the police couldn’t. They were firing at him, and he was replying towards their rifle flashes. I couldn’t help him so I shut my mouth. If I had started calling back to him I’d have taken his attention off what he was doing.
They were firing at him at intervals. They started about midnight and kept it up until dawn. He was still wearing his armor, and now and then, when a bullet hit him on a protected part, he’d thump his chest and call them skunks, and cowards. By dawn there must have been a hundred weight of police lead at his feet — bullets that had flattened on his steel coat.
I saw them break Ned’s wrist with a bullet. The revolver dropped out of his hand. I heard him call them again a lot of curs, and then I heard no more I suppose I lost my senses. It was still day when I came to, and the place was quiet.
Nobody came to look for me. The ruins of the pub were still hot. I laid there in the scrub groaning with agony. The pain was almost unbearable. I was there for five days without water or food. It was a hard time. I was burned on the legs, the hips and the back. Of my clothes, all had been burnt off except the collar of my shirt and the waist band of my trousers.
They say Dan Kelly never escaped from the fire! During those five days there were times when I wished I hadn’t. On the fifth day an old cocky came in sight, and I called out to him. I hardly recognised my own voice, and it was so weak that I was surprised that he heard me croak.
He came to me. I told him who I was. He turned out to be a German, Schultz by name. He tended me and put me into his cart.
He was a fine old fellow. Knowing that he would never ‘crack a lay’, I took him right into my confidence. He got me back to Victoria and left me at a farmhouse just outside Benalla. I don’t remember the name of the farmer. If I did, I wouldn’t disclose it, because they did me the biggest turn any man could have asked for, and they may have descendants living around there now.”
How anyone even vaguely familiar with the truth could consider there to be any shred of credibility in this ludicrous tale is beyond comprehension. There is not the slightest chance that this man was who he said he was and a companion piece published by The Truth that attacks the arguments against the assertion that this elderly huckster was Dan Kelly makes for infuriating reading. The utter absurdity of this circus of lies leaves one feeling that even a short summary as this gives the delusion more air than it ever deserved, though there are still some out there who believe it to be true so it warrants inclusion.
In order to adequately address the notion of a miraculous escape from the fire we must examine the likelihood of survival in a fire of such a magnitude by hiding in a cellar. The following images of the body of one of the outlaws, likely Dan Kelly, illustrates the gruesome sight that confronted the family and spectators:
As can be clearly seen, the extremities had burned off, the bones had fragmented and there were no identifying marks as a result. While this inability to identify the remains after the fire was seemingly enough to fuel the rumours, it actually demonstrates the number key reasons why such an escape would be impossible. In the event that a cellar did exist, and the boys hid inside it during the fire, the fire would have been too hot to allow survival. The Black Saturday fires demonstrated that hiding in a cellar or underground shelter may seem like a sound idea, and in a few cases it worked, but the deaths from smoke inhalation, suffocating and overheating prove that burning is not the only way an inferno can kill you. The fire in the inn was so hot it liquefied glass bottles putting the temperature of the fire around 1400 – 1600° Celsius (2522 – 2912° Fahrenheit, or 1673.15 – 1873.15° Kelvin). For days after the fire the ruins were still seen smouldering. Two people hiding in a cellar under the inn would have likely suffocated as the fire sucked all the air out to feed itself if the radiant heat hadn’t already killed them through hyperthermia, that is extreme overheating, which starts to become fatal when the body temperature exceeds 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit, 313.15° Kelvin) meaning that the fire in the Glenrowan Inn would have been more than 30x hotter than the temperature needed to cause death. However, if by a miracle the cellar was deep enough and provided enough shelter to protect from the radian heat, they would have suffered severe burns attempting to exit the ruins that consisted of molten glass, hot metal and embers, which were observed almost constantly over the next few days by rubberneckers and souvenir hunters.
The state of the bodies after the fire demonstrates that they had been partially cremated. The descriptions of the flesh bubbling and sizzling, and the fists clenching, and limbs contracting are perfectly in line with the effect of the first ten minutes of cremation in a modern crematorium. Temperatures in modern cremation chambers reach around 1000° Celsius (1832° Fahrenheit, 1273.15° Kelvin). The final product that we see in the photographs of the corpse on a sheet of bark are alike a cremated body would be at fifty minutes into the process (which would usually take a little over an hour) indicating that the back room at least was slightly cooler than the bar room would have been.
But let’s put aside the science for a moment and consider that maybe there was a cellar that they hid in, is it not bizarre that at a site surrounded by dozens of police and locals as well as the scores of onlookers that had come to gawp and fossick over the course of the siege and following days, that not a single person a) noticed a cellar and b) saw anyone emerge from the wreckage.
Beyond the grisly nature of the deaths, there is the inescapable tragedy of two young lives wasted, their potential snuffed out before it could ascend and two families with nothing to mourn over but the semi-cremated remains. Steve Hart in his youthful ignorance pursued adventure but ended up in Hell. Dan Kelly, ever the subordinate to his impulsive brother, seems to have been led away from a life that could have seen him step away from the difficulties of life as a Kelly and make something of himself, but as instead doomed to barely reach his majority.
The core of this examination is to put an end to the rumours of an impossible escape from the Glenrowan Inn so that the memory of these young men, little more than boys, can be respected, despite their criminality, and the truth be seen for the tragic waste of life it was. Moreover, it is to impart the importance of examining stories with a critical eye or else risk being taken advantage of and made to be a fool. To perpetuate the idea of an escape is to peddle poppycock that has no value beyond the believer’s own satisfaction that the police didn’t win against the gang, which is obviously what the death or capture of the outlaws would have meant. The notion that two of the gang escaped is no more than an extended middle finger to the authorities. The issue was famously raised to Ellen Kelly in an interview and her reaction is telling:
“Don’t I know that he’s dead? Haven’t I proof of it all these weary years? Do you think I don’t know? I tell you Dan’s dead and gone, many years ago. […] Dan is dead. No one knows it better than I do. Yes; I have the proof. Look! If Dan Kelly was alive all these years, wouldn’t he have come to me? Would he let me want and go hungry, as I have done? Would he have seen me ending my life in this misery and done nothing to help me? Wouldn’t he have told Jim?”
To those family members still alive while the rumours were gaining traction it was a big slap in the face. Not only had they had to endure the loss of loved ones, but now they had strangers claiming that they were not dead or, even more tastelessly, claiming to be them. Regardless of your stance on their criminality, it would be cruel and inhumane to posit that they and their families were not entitled to be treated with some basic humanity. While Superintendent Sadleir was reprimanded for turning the bodies over to the family at the conclusion of the siege, it was this single act of humanity that stopped further escalation at Glenrowan. Tensions were high that day and a refusal to allow the bodies to be claimed for burial could have tipped the scales. If the man who was leading, at least in part, the hunt for these young men who were wanted dead or alive can understand the power of such an act of goodwill, despite what they were known to have done, surely it is acceptable for us as outsiders to respect the families as well, without condoning acts of criminality.
The secret burials in unmarked graves, construed by some as proof of a cover up, was a practicality. These families wanted closure, privacy and to protect the bodies from further indignity. It must be remembered that Dr. Hutchinson had procured a foot from the inn, supposedly Dan Kelly’s, and kept it in a private collection in South Africa (along with a lock of Ned Kelly’s hair). If a respected medical man could not be expected not to stoop to such ghoulish behaviour, what hope was there that the general public would respect the family’s desire to mourn in peace?
In the end, the perpetuation of the survival stories is symptomatic of a bigger issue – the triumph of fiction over fact. When a romantic idea takes a grip on the imagination, reality is often the first casualty. A story such as those proposing the survival of Dan and Steve only gain traction through ignorance. By examining the facts and laying the falsehoods to rest we can observe the story for what it really was, a horrific tragedy, rather than merely an exciting yarn to tell your drinking buddies at the pub. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by fiction on matters of history, how well does that bode for our critical thinking about current events? Conspiracy theories peddled by people such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook “truthers” have the ability to cause more harm than good. Incinerating the legend of Dan Kelly’s and Steve Hart’s survival is a step in the right direction – towards the truth.
“When the KELLY GANG RODE OUT” Truth. 13 August 1933: 1.
“Kelly gang’s Last Stand at Glenrowan” Truth. 27 August 1933: 13.
“RECOGNISED DAN KELLY IN SOUTH AFRICA” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 5 December 1930: 7.
“Dan Kelly and Steve Hart in South Africa.” Queanbeyan Age (NSW : 1867 – 1904) 23 July 1902: 2.
“DAN” KELLY. (1919, February 14). Canowindra Star and Eugowra News (NSW : 1903 – 1907; 1910 – 1911; 1914 – 1922), p. 4.
“THE KELLY GANG” The Charleville Times (Brisbane, Qld. : 1896 – 1954)1 October 1948: 6.
“DAN KELLY SOLVES THE MYSTERY.” The Corowa Free Press (NSW : 1875 – 1954) 19 September 1902: 3.
“THE KELLY GANG FROM WITHIN” The Sun (Sydney) 27 August 1911: 9