(Reuters) – Australian authorities have identified the remains of bushranger Ned Kelly, 131 years after the iconic outcast was hanged for murder and his body buried in the yard of a Melbourne gaol.
But mystery remains over the location of Kelly’s skull, which was last thought to have sat on the desk of a Victorian state police detective in 1929.
Scientists have used DNA from Kelly’s great great nephew to identify the bushranger’s bones from others in a mass prison grave.
“To think a group of scientists could identify the body of a man who was executed more than 130 years ago, moved and buried in a haphazard fashion among 33 other prisoners, most of whom are not identified, is amazing,” Victoria’s state Attorney-General Robert Clark said on Thursday.
Kelly, known for wearing home-made armor in a shootout with police, is an iconic figure in Australian history. Kelly and his gang symbolized social tensions of the time, particularly between poor Irish settlers and the wealthy establishment.
He was sentenced to death for murder over his gang’s killing of three policemen, and he was hanged in Melbourne Gaol on November 11, 1880.
After his death, Kelly’s body was buried in the grounds of the old Melbourne Gaol and a death mask was made from his head.
When the gaol closed in 1929, Kelly’s remains and the bones of other prisoners were exhumed and re-buried in a mass grave at the newer Pentridge Prison. Kelly’s skull may have been separated from his skeleton during the transfer.
The mass grave was excavated again in 2009, sparking the quest to identify which bones belonged to Kelly.
“Kelly has remained a consistent icon of Australia and Australian bush life, so therefore it has a high level of significance from the Australian community because it’s part of its cultural heritage,” Deputy Director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine David Ranson told Reuters.
“From a point of view of Australian culture there’s always been this dichotomy of Ned Kelly the police killer and the folk hero at a time of unrest and tensions.”
Ranson said DNA now proved a skull, which had been on display alongside the Kelly death mask at Melbourne Gaol, did not belong to the bushranger.
“Did that get lost in the transfer from prisons or was it souvenired? We don’t know,” he said.