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Did you know that Ned Kelly’s body may have been illegally dissected?

Identifying the remains of this ruthless criminal

To some, Ned Kelly was a hero who challenged authorities for mistreating the poor, but to others he was an outlaw that murdered three police officers. Even more than 125 years after his hanging, the mere discovery of the remains of Australia’s most infamous outlaw was enough to stir up old tension within the nation. This is the story of the fate of Ned Kelly’s remains and how DNA tests were used to distinguish them from a pit of skeletons at the former Pentridge prison.

Ned Kelly, the last of the “bushrangers” was an infamous Australian outlaw. Yet, he is also considered as a legend and a folk hero, and his life has been memorialized by painters, poets and filmmakers. To understand the reason behind his fame and his legacy, we need to know a bit about the life of Ned Kelly.

Edward “Ned” Kelly was the eldest son of an Irish Catholic couple. Ned’s father, John “Red” Kelly was an ex-convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) for stealing two pigs. When Ned was around 11 years old, Red was convicted for unlawful possession of meat. He was sentenced to six months in prison with hard labour, because he couldn’t pay the fine. Red died in prison, leaving young Ned the primary bread winner of the family. His father’s death and how his father had been treated by the police, left a lasting impression on young Ned. There’s also evidence that Kelly’s family may have been unfairly targeted from the time they moved to northeast Victoria following Red’s death.

Historical records indicate that Ned’s first criminal offence was at just 14 years of age, when a local pig and fowl trader claimed that Ned had assaulted and robbed him. Although Ned’s story differed, he was arrested the following day. He was held in custody for more than 10 days (likely due to the Sergeant’s personal vendetta against the Kelly family), until the charges were eventually dismissed. Needless to say, Ned’s offences escalated from there on. At 16 years, he was imprisoned for stealing horses and at 23 years he was indicted for the attempted murder of a police officer. Ned fled to the bush with his brother, Dan, and together they formed the Kelly gang. Over the next two years, the gang was involved in several bank robberies and murders, including three police officers that had been sent to apprehend the group.

Ned Kelly's "bulletproof" armour
Ned Kelly’s “bulletproof” armour worn during his final showdown

How did a murderer, one who had killed a police officer no less, manage to evade the authorities for so long? It was because Ned had many sympathizers – other poor Irish ‘rebels’ who saw Ned as their heroic anti-establishment figure fighting against the British authorities. Some historians claim that the independence the Irish believed they had from the authorities contributed to the final showdown between the Kelly gang and the police in 1880. At this encounter, all of the gang members were killed, apart from Ned. However, even with his so-called bulletproof armour, Ned was severely wounded and sentenced to hanging at the Old Melbourne Gaol, where he was buried in the “old men’s yard”. At the time, it was also reported that medical students had illegally dissected his body, although this was strongly denied by the gaol’s governor.

In 1929, multiple bodies in the graveyard were uncovered during demolition work. These remains were reburied in three pits at Pentridge prison, but not before several skeletal parts were stolen, including the skull from the grave marked with the initials “E. K.”, believed to belong to Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly. Seventy years later, the Pentridge prison was sold for a commercial development, and the skeletons of the prisoners were once again uncovered. According to records, Ned’s remains were with 14 other skeletons in Pit C. A multidisciplinary team of scientists (anthropologists, pathologists, geneticists), historians and legal experts was formed to identify and catalogue the prisoners’ remains.

The accurate identification of old skeletons relies on genetic analyses and the ability to compare the skeletal DNA profile to a reference DNA profile, such as somebody related through the direct paternal or maternal line. In this case, the researchers were able to identify a maternal descendant of Ned’s mother, meaning that maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) could be used. The mtDNA profiles for multiple different skeletons were determined, until they discovered a skeleton with a mtDNA profile that matched perfectly to the descendant of Ned’s mother. Anthropological analysis of this skeleton also identified several pathological features that correlate with the severe wounds inflicted upon Ned Kelly during his final confrontation with the police.

Ned Kelly's cervical vertebrae with arrows indicating the cut marks
Ned Kelly’s cervical vertebrae with arrows indicating the cut marks. (Figure from Blau S et al. (2014) Forensic Sci Int.)

Only limited parts of Ned’s skull were recovered with his skeleton, agreeing with historical records that Ned’s skull had been stolen in 1929. Luckily for the present-day researchers, this skull had subsequently been recovered. However, the skull actually had a completely different mtDNA profile to Ned’s remains and Ned’s maternal relative. So, what did actually happen to Ned’s skull? Interestingly, the scientists had also observed several saw cuts at the third and fourth cervical vertebrae on Ned’s skeleton, providing strong evidence that the rumours of an illegal dissection were true, and maybe that is when the skull of this infamous outlaw was lost forever.

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In 2013, more than 130 years after his death, Ned’s remains were reburied in a small cemetery among his relatives. His grave remains unmarked to minimize vandalism, because while to some Ned Kelly represents the maverick spirit of early Australia that appeals to the individuality of Australians, others (like the police in Victoria) strongly believe that Kelly should not be revered as a hero. Either way, the mtDNA profile of Ned Kelly has been determined. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against Ned Kelly to see if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage as this infamous Australian outlaw.

Reference:

Blau S et al. (2014) The contributions of anthropology and mitochondrial DNA analysis to the identification of the human skeletal remains of the Australian outlaw Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly. Forensic Sci Int. 240:e11-e21.

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