Councillors Bruce Casos, Paul Tully and David Pahlke with John Harris (centre right) at the Dan Kelly memorial in Ipswich General Cemetery. John Harris has unearthed new evidence that may verify Dan Kelly's existence in the Ipswich area in the 1940s.
Councillors Bruce Casos, Paul Tully and David Pahlke with John Harris (centre right) at the Dan Kelly memorial in Ipswich General Cemetery. John Harris has unearthed new evidence that may verify Dan Kelly's existence in the Ipswich area in the 1940s. Claudia Baxter

Mystery of Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly as a youthful bushranger.
Dan Kelly as a youthful bushranger.

JOHN Harris is convinced that the man with a bushranger's beard that he knew as a young boy at Fernvale was the real Dan Kelly, brother of the infamous Ned Kelly.

Dan is said to have died in the Glenrowan pub fire of June 28, 1880 as a 19-year-old. But when a man, who lived his life under the assumed name of James Ryan, walked into the Brisbane offices of the Sunday Truth in 1933 claiming to be the real life Dan Kelly, it unleashed questions that have remained unanswered to this day.

Ryan, who died when hit by a train in 1948, is buried in the Ipswich General Cemetery and the story relating his link to the real life bushranger is recorded at the grave site.

The bodies of the two bushrangers retrieved from the Glenrowan fire, believed to be the dead Steve Hart and Dan Kelly, were both unidentifiable. So who were they? Ryan used to tell the Harris family they were drunks in the pub.

Dan's sister, however, did identify one of the corpses as her brother after the Glenrowan fire due to the peculiar formation of his teeth. But Ned himself did not hold the same view.

In court at his murder trial, the judge said to him that "your unfortunate and miserable companions have died a death you might rather envy". Ned replied, tellingly: "I don't think there is much proof that they did die."

Harris says the man claiming to be Dan Kelly had "no teeth" in later life so there was no way of knowing more about his sister's claim by then.

Harris, of Fernvale, was a young boy when Ryan lived in a makeshift hut on a nearby property owned by Henry Erich. Harris brought into the QT a photo of the shelter taken at the time in the mid-1940s. Ryan was a frequent visitor to the Harris household and explained how he escaped the fire at Glenrowan.

"Dan and Steve Hart were in the hotel in Glenrowan when the police set fire to it to flush them out," Harris recalls. "He and Hart got down in the basement and it was slabbed. They were nailed so well they couldn't get them off and they were getting burned from the heat above them. They eventually got a slab off and got out.

"They were then befriended by an old German family and they stayed there until the wounds were healed enough to leave. Then they went to western NSW initially... and Dan made his way later on to Queensland.

A photograph that former councillor John Harris alleges was Dan Kelly’s hut on Harris Street in Fernvale circa 1950.
A photograph that former councillor John Harris alleges was Dan Kelly’s hut on Harris Street in Fernvale circa 1950. Contributed

"Dan's shelter near our house was made of opened up bitumen drums that they had used to seal the Brisbane Valley Hwy.

"He came onto our property and picked wild tobacco along the river. He would take it back to his hut and dry and mix it with the tobacco he bought in Fernvale to make it go further. I started school in 1945 and he was still there then.

"My parents used to give him morning tea and got to know him well. He used to nurse me on his knee and, boy, was I scared. He had a long beard and drooping eyelids that were bloodshot. I'd cry like a baby."

He used to nurse me on his knee and, boy, was I scared. He had a long beard and drooping eyelids that were bloodshot. I'd cry like a baby.

Harris recalls the time the old man "dropped his tweeds" and showed his father the brand marks of DK on his body that old man Kelly had given him as a youngster as a punishment.

"I saw the brand marks on him and I saw the horrendous burns on his shoulder.

"They used to break out and get ulcerated and, when he couldn't stand the pain any longer, he would go to Brisbane General Hospital and get them healed."

Cr Paul Tully, who has been fascinated by the Kelly story for decades, says "pretty well everyone" who met him was convinced by his story.

"He was living under the name of James Ryan when he walked into the Brisbane Sunday Truth offices claiming to be Dan Kelly. That was a front page story the following week and it ran for four consecutive weeks.

"The following year in 1934 he was at the Brisbane Exhibition at sideshow alley answering questions about the Kelly family.

"People paid money to question and quiz him but no-one was able to successfully challenge him on his knowledge of the Kelly gang or family.

"He had an intimate knowledge of names and families. That would have been hard to do in those days. They didn't have Google or the internet.

James Ryan's tomb stone in Ipswich General Cemetery.
James Ryan's tomb stone in Ipswich General Cemetery. Claudia Baxter

"But we know that the man who is buried in the Ipswich General Cemetery was the same man that claimed to be Dan Kelly. He had lived the life of a tramp. It was reported that he had lived at Woolloongabba, Annerley, under the old Toombul Bridge and around Rosewood and Ipswich.

"He claimed to be Dan Kelly publicly and privately and his story has never been disproved.

"He came forward in 1933 because he believed the statute of limitation after 50 years prevented him from being prosecuted for murder. That wasn't true but almost all, if not all, of the key witnesses were dead so he didn't face prosecution."

He came forward in 1933 because he believed the statute of limitation after 50 years prevented him from being prosecuted for murder.

Harris recalls how the bearded stranger told his father stories "about how the bushranging started".

"When he was 19 years of age, Ned got the blame for stealing horses. They took him into the police station to get a confession and he said he didn't steal them," Harris says.

"The policeman that he later shot was the same one that got him down on the floor and screwed his testicles to get a confession out of him.

"Ned said, 'I've never hurt anybody in my life but if I do you'll be the first to go.' Then years later he shot him."

Only an exhumation of the body and DNA testing would prove once and for all who the man buried under the name of James Ryan truly was.

John Harris stands at the Dan Kelly memorial in Ipswich General Cemetery. John has unearthed new evidence that may verify Dan Kelly's existence in the Ipswich area in the 1940s. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times
John Harris stands at the Dan Kelly memorial in Ipswich General Cemetery. John has unearthed new evidence that may verify Dan Kelly's existence in the Ipswich area in the 1940s. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times Claudia Baxter

Cr David Pahlke, the council's tourism chairman, says if he is Dan Kelly then "it becomes one of the most important resting sites in the country, linked to an Australian legend".

"There must be more information out there, so we are calling for those whose families had contact with him, or may have old photographs, to come forward," he says.

Cr Bruce Casos, chairman of the council's heritage committee, says the story "provides our city with a link to some very significant historical events".

"It is extremely important to our city's heritage that we even had somebody here that so many people passionately believe was the brother of Ned Kelly.

"So it is important to our city's history to see if we can uncover whether it was really true or not."

As for Harris, he would "dearly love to know".

"But I am 99.9 per cent sure he really was Dan Kelly," Harris says.

But I am 99.9 per cent sure he really was Dan Kelly.



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