Australian History – Felon’s Apprehension Act 1878
In colonial Australia the families of ex-convicts and poor Irish immigrants were often on the receiving end of an unfair English justice system, which favoured the rich and powerful.
Against this background, Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne formed a gang and became bushrangers (outlaws). Much like Jesse James and his gang in America. The Kelly gang was hated by the authorities but revered and aided by many ordinary folk who thought they had been persecuted and forced into crime.
On the 26th October 1878 at Stringybark Creek, the Kelly gang shot and killed three police troopers and wounded a fourth when the police set a trap for them. After this there was a price on Ned Kelly’s head, but no-one would turn him in for the reward.
Desperate to catch the bushrangers the government of the time revived a medieval law that had been obsolete in England for centuries.
They called it The Felon’s Apprehension Act of 1878.
This Act enabled the Kelly gang to be proclaimed as outlaws. It was one of the most serious laws parliament could evoke. It authorized any person to shoot the proclaimed dead like wild beasts, without demand for surrender, or any process of arrest or trial.
On the ninth of December 1878, the Kelly gang came out of hiding in the mountains to hold up the bank in Euroa, their first public appearance since the Stringybark Creek murders. They made their way to a sheep ranch on the Faithful Creek to spend the night, having first locked up the manager and his men in the storeroom. The next day after a hearty meal they rode away.
On the day of the tenth, at the exact time the Court was in session and the town’s only policeman otherwise occupied, the Kelly gang robbed the bank. They got away with more than nineteen hundred pounds as well as thirty or so ounces of gold.
There was a siege at the Glenrowan hotel, and Ned Kelly managed to escape. In an attempt to save his brother and his friends, Ned returned to the scene wearing a suit of armour, fashioned by a local blacksmith. Only his legs and arms were unprotected, so the police shot at his legs and finally brought him to the ground and captured him. In the meantime, the hotel was set on fire and Dan Kelly, Steve Hart and Joe Byrne were killed.
Ned Kelly was subsequently put on trial, found guilty and hanged in what is now known as the Old Melbourne Jail.
The Old Melbourne Jail is now a tourist attraction and is open to the public and what a spooky place it is even in daylight. Ned Kelly’s death mask is out on display and the scaffold still stands with the rope swinging over the trapdoor.
I visited there one day when I was researching one of my novels. The stone cells are small and icy cold, and there is an aura there that chilled me to the bone. At night time not a skerrick of light would come in through the tiny window up near the roof. Once the door of the cell was shut, I swear, you would have felt as if you had been entombed.
A few years ago, remains that were suspected to be those of Ned Kelly were discovered in an un-marked prison grave. Using DNA from one of his descendants, the authorities have established that these bones are indeed those of Ned Kelly. Recently the remains were handed over to his descendants and he was buried in consecrated ground.