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What has become of Ned Kelly's
body and skull?
introducing the discussion of what happened to Ned's remains, it is
useful to revisit why the question exists at all.
After his execution on the 11th of November 1880, the remains of prisoner
Edward Kelly were placed in a grave within the confines of the Melbourne
Gaol in Russell Street in Melbourne, Victoria (now known as 'The Old
Melbourne Gaol'), but not before his organs and head were removed.
Shortly after Ned was cut down from the gallows, various doctors and
medical students subjected his body to the not uncommon practice of
dissection. At this time his head was removed, a plaster 'death mask'
made and it is believed that his body was then buried without his head
and other organs. His skull was allegedly kept and for a short time
used as a paperweight by the police, or some minor public official.
Why was the post mortem dissection
(NB. In answering this question
I have specifically chosen to use the term 'dissection' rather than 'autopsy'.
Autopsies are generally carried out to determine the 'cause of death',
whereas those who performed such examinations on hung criminals obviously
had little doubt as to the specific cause of death.)
In Victorian times it was socially acceptable, and indeed common practice
for a dead criminal to be dissected. This was mainly done in order to
search for physical characteristics that would distinguish 'scientifically'
between the 'criminal' and an otherwise 'civilised' man or woman (and
thus 'explain' why he or she had turned to a life of crime). The 'scientific'
techniques of the day included dissecting, weighing and studying of the
brain and other removed internal organs. Phrenology was practiced on the
head in the belief that the shape of the skull indicated the individual's
mental powers. To facilitate a 'diagnosis', a plaster cast was taken after
the hair and/or beard were shaven off. Once this irreverent and ghoulish
process was completed, various body parts may or may not have joined the
rest of the body in being deposited in the mass graveyard of the gaol.
In line with the attitudes of the day, there was no reliable system in
place to record the fate of a condemned person's body or body parts. The
bodies were owned by the crown and considered of no value (apart from
'scientific') and what happened to them was therefore regarded as immaterial.
In the case of the Melbourne Gaol, matters are further confused due to
the gaol's closure and the subsequent transferring of bodies in its graveyard
to Pentridge Prison in 1929.
Why is there more than one
To date there have been 3
skulls presented to the general public, each with the claim that it is
the skull of Edward Kelly. Unfortunately the authorities that could determine
with certainty which of the skulls (if any) are that of Ned's - do not
currently have access to any of them. To limit the confusion, listed below
is a brief outline of the presented historical claim for each skull.
Skull number 1: This
skull we will track from Ned's execution, where it was removed from
his body and given briefly into the hands of a phrenologist for study.
Once this was done, the phrenologist returned the skull to the police
and from there, it is alleged to have been used rather flippantly as
a paperweight. The trail of this skull is undocumented between this
point and when it was believed to have been sent to The Institute of
Anatomy in Canberra. From there it was acquired by the National Trust
in 1971. It was put on display at the Old Melbourne Gaol (OMG) in 1972
and remained on display until it was stolen in December 1978. Its current
location is unknown.
Skull number 2: The
historical claim for this skull presumes that after Ned's body was dissected,
his skull was buried along with the rest of his body in the OMG graveyard
in 1880. In 1929, work commenced on the new Workman's College (one day
to become RMIT). This was next door to the gaol and on the part of its
land that included the graveyard. Convicts' bodies were therefore exhumed
for relocation to Pentridge. Carved on a wall above a grave site were
the initials 'EK', (these initials seem more likely to be those of prisoner
Ernest Knox, executed in 1894). The workmen believed these initials
were an indication of the location of the grave of Edward Kelly. When
this coffin was being lifted, it fell and smashed open. Many people
ran forward to claim souvenirs. Amongst the bones that were retrieved
was a skull from which, in the frantic grab for souvenirs, many of the
teeth were pulled. A foreman was disgusted at this act and retrieved
the skull. It is believed that the skull was then sent to The Institute
of Anatomy in Canberra. In 1971 it is believed it was given to the National
trust and put on display at the OMG the following year. It was on display
until December 1978 when it was stolen. Its current location is unknown
(but could possibly be in the hands of Tom Baxter).
Skull number 3: Tom
Baxter is the possible thief and self-proclaimed "custodian"
of Ned's missing skull. In 1998 a West Australian farmer claimed he
had the skull stolen from the OMG in 1978. He also claimed to have Ned's
best interests at heart and took the skull as a protest. He says he
considered its display as showing a lack of respect, and said it was
being used wrongfully as a "police trophy". Mr. Baxter also
claims he wants to see the skull in his possession given a dignified
burial in consecrated ground as per Ned's last request. However has
consistently refused to hand over the skull for identification, or for
burial. Despite attempts, as yet the police have been unable to locate
and seize the stolen skull.
Note: On the
8th August 2004, ABC's TV show 'Rewind' aired an investigation into
this claim and concluded that the Baxter skull is not
Ned's skull. A forensic expert (with little knowledge of
Ned Kelly's appearance) did a facial reconstruction based on a cast
made from the skull in Tom Baxter's possession. It was then assessed,
and the determination made, that the face reconstructed from the skull
did not resemble either photos of Ned, or his
'death mask'. It was thereafter compared to other 'death masks'
of criminal's executed at the gaol, and is now believed it is probably
that of hanged criminal Ernest Knox, (who notably shared the same initials
as Ned, i.e. E.K.). Knox was executed in 1894 for murder, after the
shooting death of a jeweler's son during a bungled armed robbery.
Which (if any) is the genuine skull?
This is a difficult and complicated
question, and one impossible to answer with absolute certainty - unless
the skull or skulls are recovered and tested by an impartial expert. What
is able to be determined however is the probability of which one of the
skulls is the genuine article.
Firstly, it is clear that
at some point the historical claims for skulls 1 and 2 were intermingled,
since it is not possible for both to be the one skull displayed at the
OMG and stolen in December 1978. What is possible however, is that both
skulls have been on display there at some point - but at different times.
One plausible scenario is that skull number 1 was on display originally,
but was (for any number of reasons) taken off display at some time and
thereafter replaced by skull number 2. Therefore skull number 2 could
be the one stolen in 1978, and is possibly that of Ernest Knox (in Mr.
Baxter's possession). Another possibility is that skull number 2 was not
the one sent to Canberra, or acquired by the OMG, which means its location
cannot be traced further than 1929. If this is the case then skull number
1 was the skull stolen in 1978. As to which of these two skulls (1 or
2) is actually Ned Kelly's, is another matter entirely. We cannot determine
absolutely, which skull is Ned's without one or all them, being studied
by forensic pathologists and/or DNA tested.
The question however, of which
skull is likely to be genuine, all hinges on whether Ned's skull was in
fact buried with his body in 1880. What we do know is that after his death
Ned's head was shaved, and a plaster cast made for study. After this was
completed his head would have been stripped of skin and all soft tissue.
Then doctors and phrenologists would have examined his skull. This process
would have taken some time and probably more time than lapsed between
his execution and the burial of his body. Thus it is most likely that
his skull was not buried with his body. Assuming that it was kept and
not buried, skull number 2 could not possibly have been his.
Also, if Ned Kelly's body was treated in a similar fashion to the rest
of his gang, those responsible for his burial (in his case the police
and gaol authorities) would have ensured that no form of identification
or marking was made at his gravesite. This was because there was concern
that attempts would be made (be it by a sympathizer, family member or
souvenir hunter) to exhume his body. It would also have been part of the
reason his body would have been covered in quick lime to speed up the
decomposition process. This fact would mean that when the body was dug
up and the coffin opened, the skull and 'souvenir pieces' taken by the
workmen in 1929 were actually not those of Ned Kelly.
The skull in Mr. Baxter's custody is in comparatively poor condition and
bears little resemblance to either the skull photographed in Canberra
in 1969, or the displayed and photographed OMG skull. Based on the recent
evidence (above) it is clear that the 'Baxter' skull
is not Ned's.
Do we have any other evidence
to support these assertions?
Yes. By comparing various
photographs taken of the skulls we can see some anomalies.
A photograph (first image shown) from a tourist postcard printed* for
the OMG, shows a skull that was on display and is thought to be that of
skull number 1. This skull has been the most documented photographically.
It appears to be the same as in the photo of the skull taken in Canberra
in the 1969, and the skull with the death mask printed by the 'Sun News
Pictorial' 20/11/1978. From these pictures it is possible to determine
that the skull shows a number of traits consistent with skull features
of Ned Kelly's death mask and portrait photographs. It is also fairly
evident that this skull has at no stage been buried.
As we know, the 1929 skull (no.2) had been in the ground. As skull number
1 had not been buried, we can therefore say with some confidence that
these two skulls are not the same.
Next we take a look at photos taken of the skull in Mr. Baxter's possession
(second image shown). This skull shows signs of having been buried. It
is smaller overall and the cheekbones are not as prominent. Skull number
3 also has the inexplicable fact of having more teeth than the original
skull (number 1).
A forensic radiographer has
studied photographs of skulls 1 or 2 (OMG) and 3 (Baxter's) and reported
happened to Ned's body?
this point in time, this is a question for which we have no definite answer.
However we can say with some certainty that his body will be in one of
two places, either the OMG or Pentridge graveyards. Unfortunately we cannot
be more specific than this. It is plausible that his body was not the
one buried below the initials 'EK' as believed, but was another one entirely
(probably Ernest Knox). If this is the case it is therefore likely that,
along with the remains of other prisoners, it was transferred unidentified
in 1929 to the graveyard at Pentridge. It is also possible but somewhat
less likely, that Ned's body remains unidentified where it was buried
at the OMG in 1880.
Ned's grave site is apparently marked
on a map of Pentridge graveyard made after the 1929 grave relocation,
however this does not prove that his remains lie under the spot identified.
The map identifies a position where Ned's body is believed to be buried.
It is possible, however as the gaol officials who provided the information
for the map would not actually have known with absolute certainty which
body was which when transferred from the OMG and reinterred at Pentridge,
particularly if they relied on the 'EK' initials to identify the grave.
Given the likely identification of the 'Baxter' skull, it seems likely
that the body, currently presumed to be Ned's, is also actually that of
Ernest Knox, and that Ned's body remains unidentified amongst the
other prisoners. (No scientific testing was performed to verify
the identity of the remains, and the gaol officials and mapmakers could
only work from the information they had available to them at the time.)
The only true way to say with certainty where Ned's body is, would be
to exhume whatever remains are left and DNA test them. This however
would be done for curiosity only, and therefore simply not justified.
The exact location of Ned's body therefore unfortunately remains almost
as mysterious as the location of his skull.
to the mystery of what became of Ned Kelly's skull is currently one that
requires more research. What can be determined from the available evidence
a) Skull number 1, as mentioned above is most likely to be the
genuine skull. Its location is presently unknown;
b) It is doubtful that skull number 2 is that of Ned Kelly. It is
also doubtful that this skull is the same skull as that shown in the
available photographs. The location of this skull is also presently
c) The skull in the hands of Mr. Baxter (No.3) is not Ned Kelly's.
Note: Regardless of whether or not the
authentic skull was the one dug up in 1929, it has since been stolen
from the OMG and privately kept or buried.
Of course there are alternative explanations to those we explored here,
however at this stage we are looking at only the most probable. Some other
possible scenarios include the following:
OMG has a small collection of skulls in its archives. There is a small
possibility that Ned's skull has been mistakenly put amongst them
and is either misidentified or left unidentified entirely.
ii. Although unlikely, it is also possible that Ned's head
was buried along with his body and transferred to Pentridge unidentified.
Ned's body is most probably buried at the former grounds of Pentridge
prison (Coburg, Victoria), but the exact site of his remains has not
yet been identified specifically.
the rest of the Kelly gang buried?
The grave of
gang member Joe Byrne is in Benalla
The graves of Dan Kelly and Steve
Hart are both in Greta Cemetery, but unmarked.
latest News on the skull in Mr. Baxter's possession go to Skull
*Copy of OMG tourist postcard provided by D. White
The forensic radiographer who kindly analysed the
skull photos wished to remain unnamed.
researched by N. Cowie & D.White
Data tabulated, written and presented by N.Cowie
Published 23rd March 2002
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