Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Final Resting Place of an Outlaw

The Baxter/ Kelly skull

The Baxter/ Kelly skull was stolen from the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1978, and handed in to authorities by Tom Baxter in 2009. A tooth, which had been in the family of a workman present at the gaol in 1929, fitted the skull perfectly. Credit: VIFM

By Samir S. Patel

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

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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 polarising figures in Australian history. He is the most famed of Australia’s bushrangers, some of whom, in their day, personified revolt against the colony’s convict system and against the excesses of wealth and authority. To some, particularly Australians of Irish descent, he’s a populist hero. To many others he’s a cop-killer, and his lionisation 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 rumour, 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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.