Ned the day before his execution.
Ned was born in Beveridge, Victoria just north of Melbourne, probably in December, 1854. As a boy he attended school and risked his life to save another boy who was drowning. As a reward he was given a sash, which he would wear under his armour during his final show down with police.
Ned's father died when Ned was only 12, and he was forced to leave school to help take care of his family. It was at this time that the Kelly family moved to the Glenrowan area of Victoria, which to this day is known as Kelly Country. Ned grew up in poverty in some of the harshest conditions in Australia, and folk tales tell of his sleeping on the ground in the bush during the Victorian winter.
In 1869, when he was 14, Ned was arrested for assaulting a Chinese pig farmer named Ah Fook and for being an accomplice of bushranger Harry Power. He was found not guilty for both charges, but in 1870 he was arrested again for assault and sentenced to six months of hard labour. Three weeks after his release, he was arrested again for being in possession of a stolen horse. This time he was sentenced to three years of hard labour.
After his release he became involved in a cattle rustling operation with his brother Dan, which attracted the attention of the local police. Ned's sister Ellen also attracted the attention of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick, who assaulted her on a visit to the Kelly home in 1878. Fitzpatrick accused Ned of attempted murder, and Ned went into hiding; in October, when the police eventually found him, he and his accomplices killed three of the policemen and escaped once more.
He robbed two banks at Euroa and Jerilderie in February, 1879, as he needed money to make suits of armour which he believed would protect him from the police.
At this time, he dictated a lengthy letter for publication describing his view of his activities and the treatment of his family and, more generally, the treatment of Irish Catholics by English and Irish Protestant police. The Jerilderie letter, as it is called, discusses the possibility of an uprising, not only in Australia but in the United States and Ireland itself, against what he regarded as a gross injustice. Some accounts of the Kelly story see Ned as ultimately planning armed rebellion, but his actions give little indication of such a role.
The police caught onto his trail again in July, 1880. Ned arrived in Glenrowan on July 27 and took hostages in the local hotel. In the subsequent shootout with the police, Ned was wounded. He survived to stand trial, and was sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 11.
One of the jails in which he was incarcerated has become the Ned Kelly Museum in Australia, and many weapons and artifacts used by him and his gang are in exhibit there. Some people have referred to him as the Billy the Kid of Australia.
Since his death Kelly has become part of Australian folklore, and the subject of a large number of books and several films. To some, he is a folk hero, to others a common thug whose crimes were brutal and entirely for personal gain. The distinctive homemade armour he wore for his final unsuccessful stand against the police was the subject of a famous series of paintings by Sydney Nolan.