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Remus Rudd Hanged Horse Thief Hoax

by Brett M. Christensen


Circulating story claims that then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s great-great Uncle Remus was hanged as a horse thief and train robber in 1889 and that the Prime Minister’s staff answered a query about this politically unfortunate ancestral connection with a piece of classic political spin that attempted to present Uncle Remus’s nefarious activities in a positive light. 

Brief Analysis

The claims in the message are false. Kevin Rudd has no such ancestor and no such “political spin” reply was ever sent. In fact, the message is just one more version of an old joke that has been used to target several public figures in the United States and Canada. The condemned man shown in the gallows photograph, is Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, a murderer and train robber who was hanged in Clayton, New Mexico in April 1901.




AUSTRALIAN WAY No matter what side of the AISLE you’re on, THIS is FUNNY and VERY telling! It just all depends on how you look at same things.

Judy Rudd an amateur genealogy researcher in southern Queensland’s, was doing some personal work on her own family tree. She discovered that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd great-great uncle, Remus Rudd, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Melbourne in 1889. Both Judy and Kevin Rudd share this common ancestor.

Man at the Gallows

The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows at the Melbourne Gaol:

On the back of the picture Judy obtained during her research is this inscription: ‘Remus Rudd horse thief, sent to Melbourne Gaol 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Melbourne-Geelong train six times. Caught by Victoria Police Force, convicted and hanged in 1889.’

Kevin Rudd

So Judy recently e-mailed Prime Minister Rudd for information about their great-great uncle. Remus Rudd:
Believe it or not, Kevin Rudd’s staff sent back the following biographical sketch for her genealogy research:

“Remus Rudd was famous in Victoria during the mid to late 1800s . His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Melbourne-Geelong Railroad.

Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad.
In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the Victoria Police Force. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honour when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

NOW That’s how it’s done, Folks!



Detailed Analysis

According to this humorous tale, which circulates via email and social networking websites, an amateur genealogy researcher recently discovered that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s great-great Uncle Remus was hanged as a horse thief and train robber at the Melbourne Gaol in 1889.

According to the story, staff at the Prime Minister’s office replied to a query from the genealogy researcher about this politically regrettable ancestral connection with a canny piece of spin that presented the roguish Remus as a businessman whose “empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Melbourne-Geelong Railroad” and who died “when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed” as he was attending an “important civic function held in his honour”. 

It is certainly an entertaining tale. And, among a long-suffering public resigned to enduring sometimes quite outrageous spin from politicians and their advisers, the supposed response might not be considered particularly surprising or improbable.

However, somewhat disappointingly, there is not even the tiniest shred of truth in this oft-told tale. In fact, the story is nothing more than an old joke that has been bandied around for decades. A number of versions have circulated, many of which target other prominent political figures that live in the United States and Canada. Previous US versions have variously named George Bush, Al Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Biden, Ted Stevens and Harry Reid, as having “Remus” the hanged horse thief and train robber as their great-great uncle. Another variant targets Canadian political leader Stephane Dion.

Variants of the story also circulate purely as jokes that do not name any well-known figure at all and are sometimes billed as “an exercise in creative wording”.

A version of the quip about a hanged ancestor who died “when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed” was published in the 1986 book The Sunny Side of Genealogy by Fonda D. Baselt:

A family historian who was writing his family history was dismayed to find that an ancestor had been publicly hanged. In a moment of inspiration he wrote ‘He died during a public ceremony, when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed beneath him”.

Thus, it is clear that some prankster has decided to give this old joke an Australian flavour by plugging in Prime Minister Rudd’s name before sending the message on. Tony Wright, National affairs editor of The Age put it thusly in a June 5th, 2010 article about the “Remus Rudd” version:

If you transpose a couple of names and places, the ”Remus Rudd” story is a facsimile of the tale about ”Remus Rodham”, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fake great-great uncle, the famous Montana cowboy.

Indeed, it’s been whirling around about a whole bunch of different politicians and public figures for ages, believed by thousands of the gullible.


The brilliance of these apocryphal tales is that they tap into the mood of the times.

A politician like Rudd? Why, of course he’d use fancy language to place a gloss on the most embarrassing of revelations.

As would plenty of other pollies I could name.

So who is the hapless individual shown standing on the gallows in the old photograph that circulates with the story? That would be none other than the infamous Thomas Edward “Black Jack” Ketchum, Texas cowboy turned outlaw. Ketchum was a train robber, thief and murderer who carried out his crimes with a gang of others in the American states of Texas and New Mexico during the 1890’s. He was finally hanged in a public ceremony on April 26, 1901, in Clayton, New Mexico. The hanging was a significant event for the town and the photograph of “Black Jack” Ketchum on the gallows. – the very same that now travels with the “Remus Rudd” story – was actually sold as a postcard after the hanging.

Ketchum reportedly uttered the words “Hurry up boys, get this over with” as the hangmen placed the hood over his head. Words we may often be inclined to direct at many of our political leaders as they publicly illustrate their finely honed ability to endlessly spin the facts to suit their own agendas.