SYDNEY - A remarkable eyewitness account of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly's last stand emerged Wednesday, recounting bullets "sliding off him like hail" as though he was a "fiend".
The dramatic retelling of the Kelly Gang's 1880 shootout with police in Glenrowan is contained in a letter from Scotsman Donald Sutherland to his family, donated to the State Library of Victoria where it has just gone on display.
Kelly and his men were "desperados who caused me so many dreams and sleepless nights", wrote Sutherland, a bank clerk in a town near Glenrowan who lived in fear of being robbed by the notorious band of bushrangers.
The letter gives a detailed account of the infamous siege which ended the gang's reign of terror in colonial Australia.
"The police thought he was a fiend seeing their rifle bullets were sliding off him like hail," Sutherland wrote.
"They were firing into him at about 10 yards in the grim light of the morning without the slightest effect."
Protected by makeshift armour covering his head and chest which "alone weighed 97 pounds", Sutherland said Kelly did not relent until he was shot in the legs and arms, when he "reluctantly fell, exclaiming as he did so 'I am done. I am done'."
"Ned does not at all look like a murderer and bushranger. He is a very powerful man aged about 27, black hair and beard with a soft, mild-looking face and eyes, his mouth being the only wicked portion of the face," he wrote.
"Poor Ned, I was really sorry for him. To see him lying pierced by bullets and still showing no signs of pain."
Kelly's sisters surrounded him, "crying in a mournful strain at the state of one who but the night before was the terror of the whole colony," added Sutherland.
He enclosed with the letter a lock of hair from the tail of Kelly's horse "who followed him all around the trees during the firing. He said he wouldn't care for himself if he thought his mare safe."
"This letter is a very personal account of events that have become part of Australia's folklore," said Victoria's state librarian Sue Roberts.
"We are delighted that Mr Sutherland's family chose the State Library of Victoria as caretaker for this remarkable document."
Kelly was the only one of his gang to survive the shootout at Glenrowan due to his iconic homemade suit and helmet of plate metal armour. He was hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol later that same year.
The Kelly Gang had been officially outlawed after the deaths of three policemen at a gunfight at Stringybark Creek in 1878, and at the time of the siege they could be shot on sight by anyone.
Kelly is one of Australia's most famous and enduring legends, celebrated as a folk hero and symbol of Irish-Australian rebellion against British colonial authorities. His exploits have been the subject of art, film and literature.