“I am Dan Kelly” declares aged bushman

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

Dan Kelly, 1933, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 196308

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.

John Allen, Truth, 22 December 1935

John Allen, Truth, 22 December 1935

“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.

Another busy day in sideshow alley, Brisbane Exhibition Grounds, 1933, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 203740

Another busy day in sideshow alley, Brisbane Exhibition Grounds, 1933, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 203740

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.

Dan Kelly and his dog at Toombul, ca. 1930s, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 1196305

Dan Kelly and his dog at Toombul, ca. 1930s, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 1196305

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

 

Posted in Brisbane, People | Tagged , , , , Jo Browse John Oxley Library
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  1. There were people who falsely claimed to have survived the 9/11 disaster , people who have claimed and were celebrated as war heroes till someone botherd to properly check their stories and found they were liars, and in Australia few cranks and weirdoes who claimed to be Ned Kelly long after the gal Ned Kelly had committed suicide then been incinerated at the Glenrowan Inn, in 1880.

    The imposters have been exposed time and again already by knowledgeable people, and while this could have been uninteresting article about how there are weird people who gain satisfaction about reinventing themselves as famous figures or as participants in famous events, instead all it has done is recycle nonsense . I wrote about this on my Blog last year and I would urge anyone interested in some facts about James Ryan to place visit it and learn something interesting and add to th discussion if they feel they have something to offer https://kellylegend.blogspot.com.tr/2016/01/did-dan-kelly-die-at-glenrowan.html

  2. Liz Gilbert

    My mother told the story of an old swaggie who camped in Dutton Park Cemetery in the 1920s/30s who said he was Dan Kelly. I wonder if it was the same man?

  3. James Bulger

    How would anyone in the modern day know????
    The story could well be true …. after all , the cops didn’t see Ned escape the building either did they !!!! Until he showed up behind them they all thought he was in the building too. Police wounded many people in the building .. how does anyone know that the boys didn’t take the opportunity to dress up two bodies in there armour and escape before the fire consumed the place??? And what would an old man from Ipswich gain by lying about that?? At his age would you really believe he was only after money or fame?? And how did he know from all the way up there some of the facts that no one could dispute?? It’s not like he had the internet to gain information from to be able to learn any facts to lie about his identity.. And why didn’t he come forward years earlier? some may ask, well he was a fugitive escaping the law was he not? He would of been worried about being arrested still.. And as he was nearing the end of his life he wanted the facts to be known. It’s not that implausible that he was indeed Dan Kelly when you really think about it.
    Including myself, no one from this generation can say for sure they know for a fact that the man James Ryan was not Dan Kelly and they should do a DNA test against the known remains of Ned Kelly to confirm either way to put the case to rest. After all it is the single most researched and talked about case in Australian history and money is spent on all sorts of other crap that to me it only makes sense to follow this story up properly..

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