Leo Kennedy’s grandfather, Jimmy, had the saddest eyes Leo had ever seen. Jimmy was barely a year old when his father, Sergeant Michael Kennedy, was killed by Ned Kelly in 1878 during a thwarted police mission to capture and arrest Kelly, and over the course of his lifetime, Jimmy had been forced to watch despairingly as his father’s mission and murder were twisted by history, and as Ned Kelly moved in the public’s imagination from villain to victim, from career criminal to loveable larrikin.
Growing up, Leo too felt the long-reverberating effects of his great-grandfather Michael’s murder. In his small country hometown, his family’s connection to Ned Kelly was well known, and at school Leo was teased for having an ancestor who was by then portrayed in the history books as just another authoritarian enemy of the heroic, Robin Hood-like Kelly.
But after 140 years of the Kelly myth dominating the Australian psyche, Leo Kennedy believes it’s time that the truth is known. Rather than a roguish man of the people who defended his family and local farmers from the wicked authorities, Kelly was in reality the head of a sizeable stock-thieving operation, and the unofficial leader of an unruly band of outlaws who terrorised locals and derided those more downtrodden than themselves.
The true history of that fateful day in 1878, obfuscated through the power of the Kelly myth, also deserves to be known. The Stringybark Creek shoot-out that killed Michael Kennedy and two other policeman is often thought of as taking place after a brutal police manhunt, but eyewitness accounts and autopsy reports show that Kennedy and his companions were caught unawares by the Kelly gang, and were mostly unarmed when they were killed. One slain policeman even had his hands raised in an act of surrender.
So how did the events of that day become so twisted by history? Why were the sacrifices made by Michael Kennedy and Ned Kelly’s other police victims so distorted and diminished? And how did the Kelly myth flourish for over a century, when there is so much historical evidence indicating the exact opposite of what it claims?
Written with Mic Looby, Leo Kennedy’s Black Snake investigates and powerfully challenges the legend of Ned Kelly, and gives voice to those killed by the outlaw. Through chapters that alternate in focus between Michael Kennedy and Kelly himself, Kennedy and Looby masterfully tell the stories of both young men, chronicling their upbringings and tracing the life trajectories that finally brought the policeman and the bushranger into contact in the late 1870s.
Thoroughly researched, Black Snake draws on a wide range of historical sources that serve to present an extremely credible case, and although they are compelling in themselves, this book is much more than just a collection of facts. With its clever use of dialogue and its evocative, scene-setting descriptions (‘It was a Saturday morning in early 1873 in the dusty little town of Doon, a hundred miles north-east of Melbourne. Summer was peaking and the place was baked brown as a biscuit.’), Black Snake reads like a novel, and a truly captivating one at that.
Author Leo Kennedy’s personal connection to the events recounted in Black Snake lends emotion and heart to the book. As Kennedy says, ‘This all began because I cared about the effect the myth had on my grandfather and his family, as well as on my own children,’ and the book ultimately serves as a powerful reminder of the real human consequences that stem from blurring the lines between historical fact and fiction.
An engrossing, important and well-written read, we wholeheartedly recommend Black Snake.
About the authors:
Leo Kennedy is the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy and was raised in the shadow of his great grandfather’s murder. Leo is a member of the Blue Ribbon Foundation, which supports police families and honours the memory of police killed in the line of duty. He lives with his family in Melbourne, where he works as a lawyer. In his spare time he enjoys working on other history, conservation and permaculture projects.
Mic Looby is a writer, editor and illustrator. He is the author of the novel Paradise Updated, a co-creator of six children’s books, and a scriptwriter for television including the ABC’s award-winning natural history documentary The Great Australian Fly. A former columnist for The Big Issue magazine, Mic was also a senior digital wordsmith at The Age for many years, and a Lonely Planet guidebook writer at large. A father of two, Mic lives in Melbourne with his family and other wildlife.