Kelly letters beyond doubt
Fresh research by a Melbourne historian in the 135th anniversary year of the Kelly Gang’s capture has scuttled claims that a pair of 136-year-old letters – long stored in a backyard shed in Melbourne – is fake.
Jenny Coates’ investigations of letters, written early in 1879 by Benalla cadet bank teller George McCracken to his mother, Susannah, in Geelong, have put the authenticity of the documents beyond doubt.
The work by the Monash University honours graduate and PhD student has also confirmed the identity of the writer.
The letters’ existence was revealed by the Chronicle on January 7 after copies of them were made available to Wangaratta solicitor John Suta, who helped Kelly family descendants to secure the repatriation of Ned Kelly’s remains from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and reburial in Greta cemetery in 2013.
But within three days of the publication of the Chronicle story the letters’ veracity was questioned in the opaque world of Kelly Gang blogging – where participants’ identities often remain obscured.
In the correspondence – the first written on January 3, 1879, and the second on February 14 the same year, immediately after the gang held Jerilderie hostage for a week and leader Ned Kelly penned what has become known as the ‘Jer-
HISTORY: Darren Sutton (left) and Ned Kelly Vault cofounder Matt Shore will host what is believed to be the only event associated with this weekend’s Kelly Gang Glenrowan
But Beechworth’s Ovens and Murray Advertiser – the region’s paper of record at the time, 160 years old this year and a still-published Chronicle stablemate – reported in its January 7, 1879, edition: “A remarkable feature presented itself on the (Benalla) racecourse on New Year’s Day in the shape of a horse. The animal was the property of Ned Kelly, now outlawed…”
George Vernon McCracken was a teller in the Colonial Bank of Australasia Benalla branch at the time.
Ms Coates was able to track the McCracken family through genealogical, shipping and voter enrolment records and newspaper reports and to place in context the observations and statements made by McCracken in the letters to his mother.
Ms Coates found that his Irish-born parents, police constable Joseph McCracken and Susan Adams, emigrated to Victoria in 1859.
Son George was born in Emerald Hill – the place that became home to thousands of migrants in what is now South Melbourne – in 1860.
He had two younger brothers and four younger sisters – one of whom, Eliza, known in the family as ‘Lily’, was mentioned in the letters.
Ms Coates found an 1888 Geelong Advertiser reference to McCracken’s employment with the Colonial Bank and his later appointment as an Imperial Banking Company manager.
She also found that he went on to work as a parliamentary representative of Geelong’s Henry Bournes Higgins, afterwards a member of Australia’s maiden federal parliament and then appointed a High Court justice by second prime minister Alfred Deakin.
McCracken died in Melbourne in 1918.
“Upon seeing the top of the first letter I (had) absolutely no doubt they were genuine,” Ms Coates said.
She also matched the signature on the letters with the signature on McCracken’s 1887 marriage certificate and his 1918 will.
Ms Coates, whose work as a historian can be found at www.jcch.com.au, verified McCracken’s identity from her own interest after the Chronicle first reported the letters’ existence.
Mr Suta said that “very careful and meticulous research into letters that allude to police cowardice in the face of Kelly Gang popularity in the North East has proved conclusively that the documents are genuine”.