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Archaeological and forensic detective work lead to the remains of Ned Kelly, one of Australia’s most celebrated, reviled, and polarizing historical figures

Ned Kelly

Edward “Ned” Kelly, Australia’s most notorious bushranger and outlaw, sat for a portrait the day before his execution in 1880. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)

shootout excavationAnatomy of a Shootout

In the photo taken the day before he was hanged in November 1880, Ned Kelly’s eyes are fixed in a firm, defiant gaze. Though much of his face is hidden beneath a thick beard, it is possible that a little smile plays about his lips. But it’s hard to tell for sure.

Kelly is one of the most iconic and polarizing figures in Australian history. He is the most famed of the guerilla bandits known as bushrangers, some of whom, in their day, personified revolt against the colony’s convict system (“Australia’s Shackled Pioneers,” July/ August 2011) and against the excesses of wealth and authority. There’s no real non-Australian analogue for Kelly—he was part Clyde Barrow, part Jesse James, part Robin Hood, but with media savvy and a strong political sense. To some, particularly Australians of Irish descent, he’s a populist hero. To many others, he’s a cop-killer, and his lionization is distasteful at best. He is, at the very least, an enduring subject of fascination.

For all that is known about his life and the crime spree that ensured his immortality, theories have long abounded about what happened to Kelly’s remains after his execution. “Whilst he was an outlaw, there’s a lot of interest in how he was treated by the police, the courts, and judicial systems,” says David Ranson, a pathologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. In the place of certainty, there was rumor, supposition, and endless questions. Had his skeleton been taken apart by trophy hunters? Was his skull put on display and then stolen in the 1970s? Had doctors conducted a clandestine autopsy and taken his remains away for study? It has taken a decade of archaeological, forensic, and historical sleuthing to understand the convoluted story of Kelly’s remains—and those of more than 40 other executed criminals—and learn that everything we thought we knew about that history was wrong. Finally, many of the mysteries surrounding Kelly’s bones can be laid to rest. But not all of them.

In 1929, construction had begun on a school that would become the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) at the site of the recently closed Old Melbourne Gaol. It was known that around 30 executed criminals had been buried there between 1880 and 1924. The graves were located in a long, narrow yard at the base of a wall that held markers for each burial, including one grave marked “E.K.” with an English broad arrow, signifying the grave of Edward “Ned” Kelly. The construction workers expressed misgivings about digging through a graveyard, but were told that the remains had been covered with quicklime and would have disintegrated. Even though some of the remains had been in the ground for only a few years, workers were still shocked when bodies started turning up.


Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly

His most audacious and iconic moment came during his final shootout, when he donned makeshift metal armor (top) and attempted to flank the police. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)

Plans were made to exhume and rebury the bodies at Pentridge Prison, about five miles away. On April 12, 1929, the first graves were opened, including the one thought to contain Kelly. Onlookers were seized with desire for a souvenir from the great outlaw. “As soon as this gruesome discovery was made a crowd of boys who had been standing around expectantly while eating their luncheons rushed forward and seized the bones,” read a story in the newspaper the next day. Authorities retrieved most of the bones that were taken, reports said, but the process can charitably be described as disorganized. The remains in the graveyard were moved to a series of mass graves at Pentridge in 1929 and, in 1937, four more were relocated there from the jail’s hospital grounds.

In 2002, archaeologists from La Trobe University were monitoring landscaping work at RMIT when they were surprised to find a grave—one had apparently been missed in 1937. Archaeologists believe this was the only body that had been left behind. But they also knew the reburial of the others had been haphazard, leading them to speculate whether these remains moved from the old jail were where they were supposed to be—including the remains of Kelly, if there were any left. Pentridge, where they were reburied, was used as a prison from the 1850s until 1997, but the precise location and layout of the cemetery within its sprawling grounds had been forgotten, and the government had recently sold portions of the site to private developers.

“We decided we really needed to be confident that we knew everything about [Pentridge]—particularly about its archaeology, and particularly about the burials,” says Jeremy Smith, an archaeologist at Heritage Victoria, the state’s historical authority, which oversaw a series of excavations there between 2006 and 2009. Somewhere at this site, unmarked amid the remains of dozens of other criminals, might be the remains of Kelly himself.

Ned Kelly was born in Beveridge, north of Melbourne, in 1855, the son of an Irish convict. Young Kelly ran afoul of the law throughout his teens, but his bushranging career didn’t really begin until April 1878, when a constable arrived at the family home to arrest Ned’s brother Dan, and afterward claimed that the Kelly family had attacked him. The brothers, who denied the accusation, took to the bush. Their mother, Ellen, was charged with attempted murder for the incident and sentenced to three years, fueling Ned’s hatred of the police and distrust of government. Ned and Dan joined up with friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, forming the Kelly gang, which consistently tried to one-up itself over the next 21 months.

In October 1878, Ned killed three constables at Stringybark Creek. The reward for the gang’s capture went from £100 to £500 per man, dead or alive. In December, they took 22 hostages at a sheep station and then robbed the National Bank in Euroa of £2,000. The reward doubled. In February 1879, the gang took over a police station in Jerilderie, locking up two officers while they robbed the Bank of New South Wales (wearing police uniforms) of another £2,141 pounds, after which they rounded up 60 people at the Royal Hotel next door. There, Ned dictated a fiery, quasi-political, 8,000-word manifesto about his Irish roots and the injustice of the courts and convict system. The reward was doubled again and Aboriginal trackers were brought in to find them. In late June 1880, the gang took over the Ann Jones Inn in Glenrowan (see “Anatomy of a Shootout,” page 31), holding another 60 people hostage, and attempted to derail a special police train sent to bring them in. Surrounded by police at the inn, the gang donned armor made from metal plows. Ned fled the hotel and flanked the cops, coming out of the shadows in his mailbox-like, but no less intimidating for it, armor. His legs weren’t protected, so Ned was taken down with low shots. In the hotel, Byrne was killed in the shootout and Dan Kelly and Hart took poison before the police set fire to the building. On November 11, 1880, Ned, the last surviving member of the gang, was hanged at Old Melbourne Gaol. Reportedly, 8,000 fans and sympathizers turned out at a rally for his reprieve. His last words are said to have been, “Ah well, it has come to this.” It’s the stuff of legends. (And movies—both Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger played him on screen.)


Ned Kelly

During construction at the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1929 workers uncovered the bodies of some 30 executed criminals, including Kelly’s, which were then relocated to nearby Pentridge Prison. (Courtesy RMIT University)

According to historical records, 44 bodies had been buried at Pentridge—30 moved there in 1929, another four in 1937, and 10 prisoners executed at Pentridge between 1932 and 1967. One version of the Pentridge cemetery plan showed that the remains moved in 1929 were buried in three mass graves, but wasn’t clear on where they were actually located.

In 2006, Heritage Victoria had private company Terra Culture conduct test excavations at what was thought to have been Pentridge’s cemetery, but they found only one set of remains— those of Ronald Ryan, the last man to be executed there in 1967. “I remember thinking that day,” says Heritage Victoria’s Smith, “we’ve got more than 40 bodies unaccounted for, including some of the most notorious and infamous Australians that there are, including the most famous of all Australians, Ned Kelly.”


Ned Kelly

A 1955 aerial photo was used to locate mass graves containing the remains of Kelly and more than 40 other executed criminals. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)

The team then found a 1955 aerial photograph that showed a rectangular, overgrown, fenced yard that appeared to match the dimensions of the cemetery plan. Archaeologists found the area muddy, covered in weeds, and surrounded by the prison’s massive, intimidating bluestone buildings. “As an archaeological site, it’s quite unusual. It almost had echoes of a Bronze Age site. You had these large monolithic structures looming over these equally large open areas,” says Smith. “It still very much had that sense of isolation and remoteness even though it’s only 10 kilometers [six miles] from the center of Melbourne.”

The excavations first uncovered the more recent graves, and later located two of the three mass graves from 1929—roughly where the plan indicated they might be. But the last and largest of the mass graves, containing the remains of 15 more men, probably including Kelly, was not where the plan indicated. In February 2009, the owners of the site phoned Heritage Victoria to say they had uncovered a deeply buried box. Archaeologists investigated and found the third mass grave, 100 feet from where it was indicated on the plan. It contained two layers of burials, with 24 coffins and boxes that held the remains of 15 men (some spread across multiple boxes). It is thought it might have been relocated—without documentation—during drainage work in the 1960s. Somewhere among this jumble of bones and boxes may have been evidence of Ned Kelly himself. “Kelly’s important,” says Smith. “If it wasn’t for the notoriety, the significance, the profile of Ned Kelly, probably the project would have trickled along.”


Ned Kelly

The site was excavated between 2006 and 2009. (Courtesy Heritage Victoria)

Most unidentified human remains in Australia go to the coroner, who must determine whether an inquest is required. With so many sets of remains, an inquest would have been lengthy and costly, so it was incumbent on the archaeologists to establish a clear history of the site. “It was all about demonstrating to the coroner, through the archaeological processes, that we were confident that these were late-nineteenth-century executions that had been done as part of the judicial process, and that the stratigraphy showed no signs of recent disturbance,” says Smith.

The oldest remains were sent to the coroner at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM). “This is a very unusual case. It was old skeletal remains and they are difficult to examine, but in addition, there was a very large amount of historic interest among the general public and also at a political level,” says Fiona Leahy, Senior Medico-Legal Officer at VIFM. While the excavations were taking place and the remains were being examined by forensic pathologists, anthropologists, and odontologists, another mystery was unfolding. “We had the long-standing, quite interesting, scandalous story of the alleged Ned Kelly skull,” says VIFM pathologist David Ranson.


Ned Kelly

The remains of executed criminals from the Old Melbourne Gaol were relocated to Pentridge Prison in 1929 and 1937, and then exhumed from 2006 to 2009. In one grave, 15 men, including Kelly, had been haphazardly reburied in 24 coffins and boxes. (Courtesy Heritage Victoria)

In 2008, Heritage Victoria reached out to a man named Tom Baxter who claimed to know the whereabouts of Kelly’s skull. A complete cranium thought to be Kelly’s had a long and checkered history. This skull was apparently not reinterred at Pentridge, but was given to government officials and then passed to Colin Mackenzie, first director of the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra. The institute made a cast of the skull, and eventually turned it over to the National Trust in 1972, which put it on display in the museum of the Old Melbourne Gaol, next to a Kelly death mask (a postmortem plaster cast). This skull, which had been labeled “E. Kelly” at some point in its history, was stolen in 1978.

Baxter, without saying how he came into possession of it, agreed to return the skull on November 11, 2009, 129 years to the day after Kelly’s execution. With it in their possession, the experts at VIFM had any number of questions, and a sophisticated arsenal of techniques by which to answer them. Was this the skull held at the Institute of Anatomy? Was it the one on display and stolen from the Old Melbourne Gaol? And, perhaps most importantly, was it Kelly’s?

Researchers at the VIFM took photographs, X-rays, and CT scans, and conducted craniofacial superimposition—layering the new images of the skull over the replica made at the Institute of Anatomy and photos of it on display later at the old jail. All the images matched up. They also located a tooth—kept by the grandson of a workman present at the 1929 exhumation— and it fit perfectly. The pathologists then superimposed the CT scan of the skull over CT scans of death masks from the executed men. While this process cannot provide conclusive evidence, and not all the executed prisoners had death masks, it helped reduce the number of possible candidates. These comparisons eliminated all but two men: Frederick Deeming, a serial killer who was suspected of having been Jack the Ripper, and Ned Kelly.


Ned Kelly

A skull labeled “E. Kelly” was thought to have belonged to the notorious bushranger. Examination and DNA testing revealed that it was not his— leaving open questions about the fate of Kelly’s cranium. (Courtesy Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine)

By September 2010, the coroner had determined no inquest was necessary. The VIFM, working with the experienced Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, subjected the left clavicles from 30 sets of remains from the mass graves to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing. The Baxter skull was also tested, as was a sample from the living great-grandson of Kelly’s sister. “It’s about delivering certainty,” says Smith.

The mtDNA from the surviving Kelly ancestor was a match to a set of remains from the third pit—and not a match for the Baxter skull. Surprisingly, the matching remains were among the most complete of any of the Pentridge burials. They were missing only a few cervical vertebrae, some small bones, and the skull, except for a palm-sized fragment—further proof that the intact Baxter skull could not have been Kelly’s. “The Kelly remains are almost complete. It’s one of the best sets of remains from the entire site. That I did not expect at all,” says Smith. “It contradicted the historical evidence that Kelly’s burial had been targeted by trophy collectors.”

Closer examination of the bones showed unmistakable evidence of Kelly’s injuries from the shootout at the Ann Jones Inn. Injuries to the top of the right tibia, the left arm, and the right foot all matched those documented by prison surgeon Andrew Shields when he examined Kelly after arrest. Using an otoscope and dental instruments, Ranson even removed two lead pellets from the tibia. “We had genetic evidence and a lot of anthropological evidence, and then when we looked at the historical evidence as well, it really tied it all together,” says Soren Blau, the forensic anthropologist who examined the remains. Smith describes the outcome as “staggeringly conclusive.”


Ned Kelly

DNA was used to identify the mostly complete skeleton of Ned Kelly. (Courtesy Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine)

Ned Kelly

The remains included a bullet hole in the leg consistent with his injuries. (Courtesy Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine)

As for the Baxter skull, it actually matched another set of remains, one that was in the fragmentary condition that Smith expected of Kelly’s. A closer look at plans from the original cemetery at the Old Melbourne Gaol suggests that Deeming— whose death mask is consistent with the skull—may have been buried close to Kelly. This raises the possibility that the trophy seekers in 1929 simply raided the wrong coffin. But without Deeming family DNA, “we haven’t been able to prove that conclusively,” says Leahy.

If the Baxter skull does not belong to Kelly, and the mass grave contains only a palm-sized fragment, what happened to the rest of Kelly’s head? A lurid account from 1880 refers to rumors that Kelly’s remains were dismembered and taken away by “medical men” after execution. It is now known this didn’t happen, and it is also known that Kelly told the prison surgeon Shields that he did not want his body dissected. Helen Harris, a historian working with the VIFM team, found evidence of a letter from the prison governor, John Castieau, stating that there was no truth to the dissection rumors. But Kelly’s remains have a story of their own to tell, somewhere between rumors and official record.

The skull fragment with the Kelly remains came from the back of his cranium, and shows saw marks across the top and down the sides. The cuts clearly continue on the cervical vertebrae below. A physician had explored the remains of Kelly with more than his eyes. In that era, authorities were concerned with whether hanging was indeed an instantaneous, humane form of execution. Hangings were known to have been botched, resulting in long, drawn-out choking rather than death from a hangman’s fracture— a quick, decisive snap of the neck. “This piece of skull suggests the individual had been subject to a limited autopsy, probably to investigate the interior back half of the neck following an execution,” says Blau. “That was probably not uncommon given that there was interest in whether hangings were effective or not, and it was important for the jail to say that it was a successful hanging.”


Ned Kelly

A fragment of skull (left) and several vertebrae (right) show evidence of saw marks, suggesting that Kelly’s body had been examined postmortem to determine the effectiveness of his hanging. (Courtesy Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine)

It is impossible to say what became of the rest of Kelly’s skull, beyond the fact that any complete skull couldn’t possibly belong to him. “Unfortunately we only have part of the answer,” says Leahy. “It could be sitting in someone’s garage or it could simply have gotten lost, discarded, or disintegrated. We don’t know.”

“The mystery continues,” she adds. “What exactly happened in the jail after his hanging has not been fully explained. We have our theories.”

And theories are the coin of the realm for a figure as nearmythic as Kelly. The stories and speculation will continue— some even refuse to believe the definitive findings from Heritage Victoria and VIFM. Mythos notwithstanding, archaeology and forensic work have provided knowledge about the end of Kelly’s life: The back of his skull was opened, he was buried at the Old Melbourne Gaol, his grave was not looted, and his remains were reburied at Pentridge Prison mostly intact. Almost all the remains of the executed prisoners will be reburied again in an official cemetery at Pentridge. But probably not Kelly’s. Officials are still trying to decide his final resting place.

“It’s introduced certainty,” says Smith, “into a project where 10 years ago everything we knew about this was wrong.”

At press time, authorities were still undecided about the final resting place of the remains of Ned Kelly. In early August 2012, it was determined that they would be turned over to his descendants for burial.

For more information on Australia's convict period, go to archive.archaeology.org/convict

Samir S. Patel is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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