Allen Barra: In Wanted, you cite a friend of Billy the Kid declaring, “He was a good kid, but he got in the wrong company.” Does that accurately describe the Kid? Does it also apply to Ned Kelly?
Robert M. Utley: Others who knew Billy the Kid in boyhood had much the same opinion. I believe that sentiment is essentially true for his boyhood years in Silver City, New Mexico, but he was an entirely different adolescent when he became prominent in Lincoln County.
As for Ned Kelly, yes, he was a good boy, devoted to his family—until the age of 14, when he fell in with the bushranger Harry Power. As an apprentice bushranger, Ned embarked on a sometime life of outlawry. When the 23 year old killed three policemen at Stringybark Creek in 1878, he became a full-time outlaw on the run.
You point out a number of uncanny similarities between the Kid and Kelly, beginning with their Irish heritage. The Kid lived from 1859-1881; Kelly, from 1854-1880. Both were outlaws, both became legends in their own time (and remained so) and both died at the hands of the law. But temperamentally, were they alike?
Ned’s Irish heritage was a dominant influence in his life. He was proud of it, boasted of it and fought for it. He had good reason to be resentful of British law as his father was transported to Australia from Ireland for an English crime.
In Billy’s case (he was born Henry McCarty), I have seen it said that, though his heritage was Irish and he often reflected what we would call an Irish temperament, he did not cherish his Irishness and may not even have known of it.
And here’s something else: to be Irish in Australia meant to be Catholic. Ned Kelly was a lifelong Catholic, though his religion seems to have meant little to him until he was near death. But his Irish Catholic identity involved him in quarrels with many British Protestants.
As was the case with his Irish heritage, as far as I’m able to see, religion meant nothing to Billy.
As for a temperament, the two were different. Billy’s temperament was limited to whatever gratification the moment offered—without regard to the consequences. By contrast, Ned was smarter, more thoughtful and riveted to the long-term objective of freeing the Irish of English domination. He dedicated his life to that goal, while Billy dedicated himself to the pleasures of the moment.
Does Ned Kelly have strong similarities with any other American outlaws?
Yes, Ned Kelly’s war against the British overlords of the Australian Irish can be compared with Jesse James’s bitter hatred of Union domination of Southerners during and after the Civil War. I would venture, however, that Ned Kelly may have been more of a patriot than Jesse James—or Billy the Kid, for that matter.
In one letter that was made public, Ned pledged that, if the government would not grant the Irish liberty, he would “open the eyes of not only the Victorian Police… but the whole British army.” He constantly spoke at gatherings of liberating the Irish from the “English yoke.” He loved to sing patriotic songs in public.
Billy also loved music and dancing, but I can’t recall any instance where Billy sang in public songs like “The Wild Colonial Boy” and “The Wearing of the Green.” The latter touched on a particularly sore spot, since the British had forbidden the Irish from wearing green.
You could sum it up this way: Ned took quick and heroic action, at age 12 in saving a friend’s life, that revealed him, even as a youth, to have intellectual power, courage, awareness of the value of human life and personal substance more so than Billy possessed.
If you had a chance to observe some of the significant events in the lives of either Kelly or the Kid, which would you chose?
Well, both had a style for doing things in public that people remembered. I think Ned, though, had more of a flare. As I wrote in my book, “Cocky showmanship…would define Ned whenever he had an audience.” Ned dressed in a way that observers tended to remember, even donning a red sash as a symbol of leadership.
I would choose to observe Ned Kelly. If my characterization of Ned is correct, he wins hands down against Billy. Billy was an immature adolescent. Even as an adolescent, Ned was a mature adult. And Ned had a definite quality of generosity. Robin Hood Ned was not, but he was known to distribute money—stolen money—among working people who needed it.
Though it is undeniable that Ned had a brutal side, I found plenty of people who testified in his lifetime and shortly after he died that he had certain admirable qualities. For one thing, he treated the wives and children of his enemies, when captured, with the utmost courtesy and respect, things that could not be said about the Victorian police he was fighting against.
How important of a role did Kid biographer Walter Noble Burns play in creating the Kid’s legend and shaping our perception of the real person?
A Billy the Kid legend scarcely took root until Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid. On the few occasions Billy was mentioned before 1926, he was simply a noted young outlaw. With Burns’s gripping prose and sacrifice of any truth to make a good story, he created a “real” Billy the Kid, although a fictional one.
In Burns’s rendering, Billy became a likable youth, fighting corruption and injustice, and befriending the Hispanics. For generations of Americans, Burns’s Billy was the only one they knew. And the emergence of “talkie” motion pictures about the same time launched a film industry of Billy dramas, almost all taking their inspiration from Burns.
Even though Burns’s Billy bore little resemblance to the historical Billy, Burns ensured that Billy would live on. Without Burns, Billy would be scarcely more than a footnote to history.
Why is the world so familiar with Billy the Kid, while the name of Ned Kelly remains in obscurity?
The root answer, I believe, is that the two are half a world apart. Hollywood has filmed Ned Kelly with two very well known people, Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, but Ned hasn’t had the same kind of P.R. as the Kid has enjoyed, with roughly 50 Kid movies made. But you are right that Hollywood is obsessed with Billy, because Americans are obsessed with Billy. Australia just doesn’t have a big enough film industry for an Australian outlaw’s fame to challenge an American bandit’s fame.
Robert M. Utley is the author of Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid & Ned Kelly (published in November 2015 by Yale University Press). An award-winning author of more than 20 books on Western American history, the retired chief historian and assistant director of the National Parks Service lives in Scottsdale, Arizona