Updated 8 August, 2004

This section focuses on the most disputed events in the Kelly story. Much oral history is involved which may possibly be accurate - yet elements of the widely 'accepted history' cannot be substantiated. Here we sort fact from fable.

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Ned's missing grave . . . Quick link to - Conclusions

What has become of Ned Kelly's body and skull?

In 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 done?

(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 skull?

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 the following:

"The two skulls are of two different people, they are not the same. The first skull (No.1, i.e. OMG's) could be that of Ned Kelly. The prominence of the cheeks (malar bones) is consistent with the prominence of the cheeks in the death mask and in keeping with the cheeks in the photo of Ned himself.

The second skull (No.3, i.e. Baxter's) is not the same as the first skull - they are of two different people.

The features of the second skull (Baxter's) are smaller and less dominant than those of the first skull (OMG's). This
might suggest that the second skull (Baxter's) is that of a female. The second skull (Baxter's) has lower teeth, which are absent in the first photo. They could not have reappeared in the time lapse between photos. The second skull (Baxter's) is also in bad disrepair, consistent with having been buried."


Old Melbourne Gaol Skull (No.1)

Baxter's Skull (No3)

What happened to Ned's body?

Again, at 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.

Note: 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.


The answer 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 is that:

Ned's Skull
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 unknown; and
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.

N.B: 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:
The 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 Grave
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.


Where are the rest of the Kelly gang buried?

The grave of gang member Joe Byrne is in Benalla Cemetery.
The graves of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart are both in Greta Cemetery, but unmarked.


For latest News on the skull in Mr. Baxter's possession go to Skull News.
*Copy of OMG tourist postcard provided by D. White

The forensic radiographer who kindly analysed the skull photos wished to remain unnamed.

Article researched by N. Cowie & D.White
Data tabulated, written and presented by N.Cowie

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First Published 23rd March 2002


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