In August 1933 an old bushman entered the offices of the Truth, a Brisbane newspaper, and claimed to be none other than Dan Kelly, brother of Ned Kelly, and a key member of the Kelly Gang, who had supposedly died in the fire at the Glenrowan Hotel in 1880. The Truth published a series of reports over five weeks in which the man, then known as James Ryan, who claimed to be Dan Kelly told his story.
Out of the lurid past he claims to step, heavy-jowled, bullet-headed; the strength of an ox in his stocky frame and the tang of nearly four score of perilous years in his iron-clad philosophy. With a gnarled but steady hand he rakes over the ashes of a shock phase in the history of the colony, more than half a century ago, when red terror reigned in the bush and outlawry was a momentous, critical problem for the forces of law and order.
“I am Dan, brother of Ned,” he declares. “I rode with Ned. For 53 years I have been a fugitive, with murder on my head. I am here now to prove that I didn’t die in the fire at Glenrowan, and to tell the whole truth before it is too late.” Truth 13 August 1933
My earliest memories are of Benalla, but I cannot think back further than when I was about 10 years old. My memory is a bit hazy as to my earlier years. It is 53 years since I had to clear out from Victoria, after Glenrowan, and I am now in my eightieth year. We were outlaws as kids. Neither Ned nor myself ever spent a day in a schoolroom. I cannot read or write, and the nearest I ever went to getting education was one night when I slept in a deserted schoolhouse. It was too late then to worry about education; the police were after us.
The reporters at the Truth certainly seem to have believed that this man was Dan Kelly. Two years later another man came forward to corroborate the story. John Allen claimed to have known the Kelly boys before they became bushrangers.
“I knew Dan Kelly as soon as I saw his photograph in “Truth,” two years ago. I knew both the Kellys well, and you can take It from me that there’s no doubt at all about him.” … “In those days, before they went out,” says Mr. Allen, “Ned had Ideas about making a name for himself as a fighter. I ate with them and talked with them many a time, and Ned often said he would like to go to America to try his luck with his fists.” Truth 22 December 1935
John Allen’s grandson also knew the man claiming to be Dan Kelly and has written a book Burnt to a cinder, was I? The escape and life of outlaw Dan Kelly, member of the notorious Ned Kelly Gang published in 2002 and a revised edition with the title Game as Ned Kelly? His brother Dan was! published in 2003.
Long serving Ipswich Councillor Paul Tully has taken considerable interest in James Ryan’s claim to be Dan Kelly. According to Councillor Tully’s History Queensland blog, Ryan appeared in Sideshow Ally at the EKKA in 1934 where he told his story and answered questions. None could conclusively disprove his claim to be Dan Kelly.
Ryan lived for a time under the old Toombul railway bridge but eventually came to live in a hut at Fairney View near Fernvale. In 1941 he appeared in court charged with having indecently dealt with a girl under the age of 12. James Ryan, also known as Dan Kelly, an 86 year told pensioner, with a flowing beard, was accompanied by his dog when he appeared in the Police Court, before Mr. Johnstone Smith, J.P. Courier-Mail 12 March 1941 Ryan was found not guilty of the charge.
James Ryan was run over and killed by a coal train at Ipswich on 29 July 1948 while making his way home after a short stay at Brisbane General hospital where he was treated for dermatitis. Apparently the old burn scars on his back, which he claimed he received at the Glenrowan Hotel, gave him trouble from time to time. A witness testified at the inquest that Ryan had cataracts in both eyes and his night vision was poor which may have led to him straying onto the tracks. The Truth maintained that the inquest had done nothing to solve the mystery of Ryan’s true identity. The furthest police were able to go was lo make the negative statement to the court that the old chap had never produced anything to substantiate his claim that he was Dan Kelly. Ryan was buried in a paupers grave in Ipswich General Cemetery. On 11 November 1998 a memorial was erected on the site. There have been calls for the body to be exhumed so that DNA tests could be carried out but this has not been done and the mystery remains.
Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland