Ned Kelly
Updated May 23, 2003

Ned Kelly This section focuses on the most disputed events in the Kelly story. Much oral history is involved which may possibly be accurate - yet elements of the widely 'accepted history' cannot be substantiated. Here we sort fact from fable.

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Was Dan hanged?
and What did Ellen Kelly mean when she said 'Mind you die like a Kelly'?

Ned KellyWho was hanged on 11th of November 1880?

Did Dan take Ned's place in the noose?

The mystery of whether Daniel (Dan) Kelly was executed, instead of his older brother Ned, is one theory amongst many in Kelly mythology. Fortunately it is one that has been resolved with a simple and conclusive answer. Edward (Ned) Kelly was the man executed by hanging on the 11th of November 1880, and not his brother Dan. Yet this story somehow still remains part of the Kelly mythology. Some people continue to speculate that it might be possible, despite contradictory evidence, mainly because they suspect it explains the rationale behind Mrs Kelly's apparently odd words to her son Ned before he was hanged, 'Mind you die like a Kelly'.

What is the theory?

The 'Dan was executed in place of Ned' theory is one of the newer ones that do occasionally tend to surface in Kelly mythology. In 1998, a schoolteacher (presumably seeking publicity for his novel), claimed publicly to have discovered that Ned had in fact escaped at Glenrowan, and that Dan had been captured instead and taken Ned's place thereafter. The rationale offered for this dubious claim is that Dan was originally mistaken for Ned at the siege and captured, but when the mix-up was recognised by the police and others, no one said anything in order to cover their mistake. Dan then willingly assumed Ned's identity and was put on trial and executed in his place. Dan's motive for this act of martyrdom has been explained as a desire to protect his brother from being searched for.

Is there any supportive evidence for this theory?

Dan KellyNo hard evidence whatsoever has ever been presented to support this theory. It was based entirely on limited anecdotal evidence and hearsay from the 1940's (see memory section), and thus has been given only cursory attention by serious Kelly researchers.
However there is much to contradict it (see below). Speculation was sparked by anecdotes from shearers, who provided hearsay evidence that, during the 1940's, Jim Kelly had only inferred Dan was hanged and that Ned had escaped. The hearsay continued and was passed on, its proponents claimed that their theory is supported by three main points of corroboration, yet we can see that all of these have simple and contrary explanations that make the claimed evidence unconvincing. (Dan picured left)

The following are issues that have been claimed to be supportive evidence: (and which shall be addressed below):

  1. Ned Kelly learned to write at school, and we have two known documents in his handwriting. Yet when he was imprisoned and awaiting execution in 1880, he dictated letters and signed them with an 'X', (which is the universal signature of the illiterate).
  2. Ned's horse was reportedly seen at Glenrowan, but despite a two-week police search, was not recovered thereafter.
  3. Ned's mother Ellen was recorded as saying 'Mind you die like a Kelly' in her final words to her son on the day before he was hanged. The claim is that the words were actually said in code to Dan, that he should die in his brother's place 'like a Kelly', as well as being an instruction to die as bravely as Ned would have. Thus the code translated would be 'Make sure you die like another Kelly'. (Ned's bravery was well known, thus to observers since, it has seemed a strange thing to say to a courageous person. This idea does also infer that Ellen believed Dan was not brave).

Examining the suggested 'evidence':

  1. Ned Kelly certainly could write prior to the injuries he received at Glenrowan. The reason Ned was himself unable to write and sign his name to the letters he dictated in prison, was simply that his arm and hand had been injured by shrapnel in the shoot-out four months earlier. He had thereafter lost the necessary dexterity in his hand required to hold and control a quill.
  2. Anyone could have taken Ned's horse from Glenrowan, therefore an unsuccessful police search for the missing horse, indicates nothing by way of evidence. Ned had many family members and sympathisers who easily could have taken the horse; or alternatively, an unknown person may have stolen it as a souvenir. It would have been very easy to hide a horse in the vastness of country Victoria thereafter, particularly throughout the relatively short search period. Notably, the police would have been relying merely on a description of the animal, and also it is unlikely that the locals would have been helpful to them in their inquiries. (Relations between police and many of the settlers in the northeast were somewhat hostile and tense at that time, particularly since the unlawful imprisonment of farmers during the search for the Kelly gang in the previous year.) (see link outlaws)
  3. The confusion seems to be in the meaning of the words themselves, 'Mind you die - like a Kelly'. Proponents of the 'Dan vs. Ned' theory suggest that because Ned was known to be brave Ellen would never have doubted his bravery and therefore never called into question his courage by raising the issue, (whereas Dan was presumably not known to have the same courage). This justification is easily challenged. It needs to be highlighted that Ned's reputation for bravery was mostly earned at Glenrowan, when he returned to fight against the odds despite being able to escape. If the identity switch theory were true, then it would in fact have to have been Dan and not Ned who had made the remarkably brave 'last stand' at Glenrowan. If it were true then Dan had also, theoretically, for some months resolutely put himself in his brother's place, unnecessarily and silently agreeing to take his punishment for him, which would have been a truly brave and selfless act. Ellen would therefore have been well aware of Dan's bravery and had no need to question his courage. Thus the justification that Ellen did not believe her son Dan to be brave enough to go through with it, without firm encouragement, is plainly flawed.
    If further following this theory one can see another obvious defect. It is very apparent that it is extremely improbable that any mother would stand silently by while one son is executed in place of another, without attempting to prevent the death, let alone personally encouraging the innocent substitute to die un-protesting, like a martyr. Had Ellen exposed the supposed identity exchange, her disclosure would most probably have prevented the execution. Therefore one of the more obvious failings in this theory is that, by claiming her words were for Dan, Ellen would have to have been indifferently telling her son to martyr himself for the sake of his brother. This, in turn, implies that Ellen was totally lacking in maternal feeling for her younger son Dan, and perfectly content to see him die in the hope of preventing a police search for her elder son Ned (a search that may not even have been successful). This aspect of the theory is far-fetched and even somewhat irrational, for we have no evidence to suggest that Ellen did not love Dan as much as she loved Ned. It is also obviously inappropriate to make such a serious accusation of callous indifference about anyone without offering credible proof to support it. In reflection, it really does not do justice to the memory of a widow who had raised a large family with little help. (See below for further examination of what Ellen may have meant.)

Dan KellyNed KellyNed Kelly
Left, Dan Kelly (circ.1877). Centre, Ned Kelly 'boxer' (circ.1874). Right, Ned Kelly (1880).

If it were a conspiracy who knew about it?

The proponent of this theory suggested that all who knew the Kelly's (both family, friends and adversaries, as well as the police) kept quiet. Family members and Kelly sympathisers, presumably wanting to protect Ned, seemingly were content to see his brother executed in his place. Ned's adversaries didn't seem to mind him escaping. The police are said to have kept quiet, both in order to prevent embarrassment, as well as to claim their portion of the offered reward. (see Felons Apprehension Act).

Examining the plausibility of a successful conspiracy:

For a conspiracy to work it must depend on complete and committed secrecy. In order to keep Dan's true identity a secret, by so many people would have made the situation a very extensive and complicated conspiracy. Yet no hint of this rumour emerged publicly during the 4 month imprisonment, or in the decades immediately following Ned's execution. For such a significant secret to be kept successfully by such a considerable number of people, over such a long time, is extremely improbable. After Dan's supposed capture at Glenrowan 'he' had been seen publicly on a number of occasions and chance of recognition was therefore high. 'Dan' was seen in the public eye at his capture at Glenrowan, at his committal hearing in Beechworth (a town where Ned was well-known), and at his trial and imprisonment. Numerous people from different parts of society would have seen the man claimed to be Ned Kelly. It is therefore unbelievable to imagine that absolutely no one recognised him, or if he had been recognised, there is still no explanation as to why no one bothered to say anything about the 'mistake', (even if to simply to query the identity of the man presented as Ned but not looking like him).

The idea that the police and other claimants (such as police informants) had all kept quiet in order to share in the reward money, and also to prevent themselves from being embarrassed by Ned's supposed escape, is highly questionable for a number of reasons. This theory disregards how much more embarrassed they all would have been had Ned shown up days, weeks or years after they had publicly claimed he was dead. They would also have had to trust each other implicitly to so steadfastly keep the charade and not to confess to the conspiracy singularly, which is unlikely as many of them would not have known each other, not to mention the fact that some of the senior police openly disliked each other. Additionally, this theory suggests that all involved were corrupt and comfortable about supporting illegality. It infers the serious accusation that people lied under oath during Ned's trials, and many more lied under oath at the Royal Commission in 1881, thus putting themselves at risk for prosecution and potential imprisonment for perjury.
All family members and friends privy to the conspiracy would have to have had no sympathetic feeling or affection for Dan. Yet we know this is not the case because of Maggie (nee Kelly) Skillion's reaction at Glenrowan when the body of her brother was raked from the ashes. She was distraught with grief and candidly angry with the police. She grieved openly over her beloved brother Dan's death and such impulsive and genuine distress cannot easily be manufactured. Theoretically, if later she had then discovered Dan was in fact alive and taking Ned's place on the gallows, then it begs the question as to why she would not have tried to prevent his hanging? No doubt Maggie was not the only person with affection for Dan, or the only one who would not have wanted to see him die, at such a young age, for something he did not do.

What does a preliminary enquiry indicate?Ned Kelly

  • As well as Ned's inability to write after Glenrowan due to injury, it should be noted that photographic evidence (as well as oral history) indicate that Dan was considerably shorter, and slighter in body frame, than his brother Ned. The man hanged in 1880 did not correspond with physical descriptions and photos of Dan, whereas he did match both the size and physical description of Ned, including the details and 1874 photos taken of Ned, (i.e. the gaol portrait just before he left Pentridge Prison (pictured right), and the 'Boxing' photo).
  • Dan was 6 years younger than Ned.
  • What we understand of Ned's character from his behavior prior to Glenrowan is that he was very devoted to his family and highly protective of them, thus the suggestion that he would let his younger brother die in his place, while he cowardly hid, is extremely implausible.
  • Additionally, it has been reported that Ned sang when incarcerated as a teenager, which was probably not usual behavior for a prisoner, and the man in the Melbourne Gaol awaiting execution in 1881 also sang in his cell.
  • (In regards to Ellen's words that some claim indicates her lack of faith in Dan, it should be noted that there is no known evidence that suggests Dan was not courageous.)

Ned Kelly deathmaskHow can we be certain that the theory is not possible?

Apart from the obvious lack of evidence, and all the flaws of reason and probability, to support the claim (as outlined above), experts have recently disproved this theory with science. Computer images of the 1880 death mask have been digitally overlaid against various photographs of Ned Kelly, including the 1874 'Boxing Ned' photo, and the skull and facial features have been compared and matched. They are quite certain that it was Ned whose photo was taken in gaol the day before he was hanged in November 1880, and not his brother Dan. (Ned's death mask pictured right)


There was no identity swap made with Dan and no conspiracy to cover up the lie. It was Ned Kelly who was hanged on 11th November 1880.

What did Ellen mean?

How then can we understand Ellen Kelly's last words to her son?

It should first be noted that the quote was recorded by an eyewitness who was present at the time. They are therefore not 'hearsay', and very likely to have been recorded accurately, so we may treat them as reliable.

Ellen KellyEllen Kelly's words to Ned, "Mind you die like a Kelly", are interesting and over the years have prompted a number of researchers to try and understand what she may have meant by them. It is not surprising that the meaning of Ellen's words to Ned prior to his execution are not clear to people other than Ellen and Ned, particularly as we have no idea of the tone in which they were said, or the nature of the relationship between mother and son.
Despite the witnesses present, Ellen's parting words to her son were private. Only Ellen could really know what was in her mind and heart when she uttered them, just as Ned is the only person who truly could have known how to interpret them. The words do seem to have a somewhat harsh ring to them if read in print over a century later, but we don't know in what tone they were spoken, and cannot accurately guess. Therefore analysing them is not only difficult, but no verifiable conclusion can be drawn. If we review Ellen's words, while keeping in mind what we do know, we can however hypothesise. Following are some explanations, none, some, or all of which may explain her choice of words, and none, some, or all of which may be accurate.

  • We know that during that era execution by hanging carried with it an extreme public disgrace for not only the convicted criminal, but also reflected shame on his, or her, family. Ellen's words may have been, not only a motherly reassurance and encouragement to her son, but also an expression of her own faith that he was about to die bravely and proudly despite the method of death - just like they both knew someone from a proud family like the Kellys would, and thus explaining why the term 'like a Kelly' was used.
  • We do know Ellen was speaking to her son for what they both knew was the last time, yet they were not alone and possibly even knew their conversation was being recorded and thereafter reported in some form. It would have been entirely reasonable for them to therefore speak with some reservation, and they most likely felt unable to be candid and demonstrative. Thus Ellen's apparent brusqueness was very possibly simply an attempt to be stoic in what was a time of severe grief.
  • If the Kelly's background of a strongly resentful relationship with the authorities is taken into account, as well as the physical environment they were in at the time (i.e. a government gaol, which for them was 'enemy territory'), one could possibly interpret Ellen's words as an encouragement and support of his ongoing defiance toward the government that was about to execute him. For, even though they both now knew he could not win - he could nonetheless keep his dignity in the face of the gallows by showing no fear of death. As it happened Ned was brave on the gallows, however had he not been his executioners (the government) would have been given a chance to further mock and shame him. The public could then have been told he died like a coward and the shame of hanging would have been greater. (It should be remembered that spectators were able to watch a prisoner's execution, in particular the press, so had Ned actually broken down at the gallows, or resisted in some way, the public would have been told, of what would be interpreted as 'cowardice', in the evening newspapers.) Thus it would have been very important to both Ellen and Ned that either show no weakness, and by doing so, demonstrating that their dignity as a family had not been taken away despite their circumstances and what was said against them.


It is highly reasonable to therefore suppose that Ellen's choice of words to Ned, had far more to do with emotion - than any spectacular and unlikely conspiracy. The comment that has inspired so much conjecture and analysis could simply have meant 'be strong, keep your chin high' and 'be proud to be a Kelly'.



Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak1881
McQuilton, John 'The Kelly Outbreak 1878-1880' Melbourne University Press 1987
Meredith, John & Scott, Bill 'Ned Kelly After a Century of Acrimony' Landsdowne Press 1980
McMenomy, Keith 'Ned Kelly The Authentic Illustrated Story' Currey O'Neil Ross Pty Ltd 1984
Brown, Max 'Australian Son' Georgian House Pty Ltd 1948
Jones, Ian 'Ned Kelly, A short life' Lothian Pty Ltd 1995

Walvin, James 'Victorian Values' Andre Deutsch Limited 1987 pages
felons apprehension act

Photos (with thanks to)
White, Dave (private collection)
Balcarek, Dagmar & Dean, Gary 'Women and bushrangers' Glen Rowen Cobb & Co 2002 'Ned the exhibition' NCS Publishing 2002
Molony, John 'Ned Kelly' Melbourne University Press 2001

Sunday Herald Sun May 1998
Sunday Herald Sun Nov 1999
The Age (various) May 2002
The Daily Telegraph May 2002

BBC News May 2002
ABC News May 2002
The Border Mail May 2002

Researched, tabulated, written and presented by N.Cowie


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First Published May 22, 2003


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