Consider the case of Ned Kelly’s skull.
In Australia, Kelly needs no introduction; for Americans, it may help to think of him as Jesse James, Thomas Paine and John F. Kennedy rolled into one.
Born about 1854 to an Irish convict exiled to Australia, Kelly became a folk hero as a very young man. He took up arms against a corrupt British constabulary, robbed banks, wrote an explosive manifesto — and in a final shootout in which he wore homemade metal armor, he was shot, arrested and hanged in 1880 by the Anglo-Irish establishment he despised.
As with any semimythical hero, Kelly’s public has always hungered to get closer to the legend. His armor, cartridge bag, boots and a bloody sash became state treasures.
But perhaps the most priceless among them is his missing skull — the subject of a tangled forensic drama that was finally resolved on Wednesday, at least in part, after decades of investigation, debate, tantalizing leads, stalemates, false starts and what can only be called skulduggery.
So when the grounds were dug up for development in 1929, startled workers found the site full of skeletons. Officials began to move the remains to another prison. But in a scene of chaos that became a local scandal, a watching crowd of schoolboys and onlookers ran amok between the coffins, seizing bones — including, it was thought, the skulls of Ned Kelly and Frederick Bailey Deeming, the notorious British serial killer who may have been Jack the Ripper.
While the gaol remains were reburied at Pentridge prison, the skulls were recovered soon after they had been stolen. They then embarked on a separate, winding journey through the back doors of a number of institutions.
In the 1970s, one skull was put on display in a gaol museum alongside Kelly’s death mask, a plaster cast impression made shortly after his execution. (It is unknown whether that mask was the original or a copy.)
But in 1978 the skull was stolen again, and a man named Tom Baxter told journalists that he had it.
Mr. Baxter held onto the skull for over three decades, promising to return it if the government gave Kelly a Christian burial. The government did not respond, and the stalemate continued until 2008, when yet another excavation uncovered more prisoners’ remains. At least 3,000 bone fragments were exhumed and sent to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. It was thought that Ned Kelly’s bones might be among them.
Shortly after that, Mr. Baxter handed over a fragile, sun-bleached skull to the authorities.
The forensic institute conducted a 21-month investigation of the skull, mixing historical detective work with an array of innovative scientific analyses.
Scientists used historical photographs, cranial plaster casts and a copy of the Kelly death mask to make sure that the skull from Mr. Baxter had indeed been unearthed in the 1929 exhumation. When it came to the skull’s genetic material, however, the scientists faced some serious obstacles. DNA is well preserved in bone but highly vulnerable to contamination. Furthermore, they could not simply cut a square out of the skull, grind it to a powder and extract DNA from that; Joy Beyer, a molecular biologist at the institute, says she was told that the skull could not be damaged.
Finally, the institute sent samples from the skull and other remains to a forensic laboratory in Argentina that specializes in degraded and aged remains. That lab successfully extracted DNA from almost all of the samples.
Even so, the DNA meant little in isolation. The investigators needed something, or someone, to match it against.
Hoping to find DNA in Kelly’s dried blood, they located the boots, bag and sash he wore the night he was shot. “Dried specimens on cloth can preserve DNA for hundreds, even thousands, of years,” said David Ranson, a pathologist at the institute.
But the boot and the bag had no usable DNA. The sash, which they found in a country museum, had been thoroughly washed before it was put on display. And a search for the original of the Kelly death mask — which might hold a stray eyelash or some skin — came up empty.
On Wednesday, the forensic institute announced the disappointing results of that analysis. It appears that after all this time, after being abducted more than once, placed on display for the world to see, hidden for decades, cherished, handled, sought after and tested, the skull is not Ned Kelly’s. “Mr. Olver’s DNA and the DNA from the skull do not match,” said Fiona Leahy, a legal adviser at the institute who conducted research for the project.
There was one rather powerful note of consolation. The investigators found a match between the Olver DNA and one set of bones dug up at Pentridge, including a palm-size fragment of skull. So while most of Kelly’s skull is still missing, the rest of him appears to have been found.
As for the stolen skull, it could belong to the serial killer, Frederick Deeming, who died in 1892. The forensic institute is seeking a maternal relative to test DNA.
What of Kelly’s skeleton? Should it be returned to the extended family? Or should there be a public grave? Many Australians regard Kelly as a national hero. Countless books and movies tell the story of his life. But others see him as a villain.
“You can’t just bury the man,” Mr. Olver said. “Someone is going to dig him up again in half an hour.”
By CHRISTINE KENNEALLY
Published: August 31, 2011
A BRIEF STORY OF NED KELLY
Kelly was born in Victoria to an Irish convict father, and as a young man he clashed with the Victoria Police. Following an incident at his home in 1878, police parties searched for him in the bush. After he killed three policemen, the colony proclaimed Kelly and his gang wanted outlaws.
A final violent confrontation with police took place at Glenrowan on 28 June 1880. Kelly, dressed in home-made plate metal armour and helmet, was captured and sent to jail. He was hanged for murder at Old Melbourne Gaol in November 1880. His daring and notoriety made him an iconic figure in Australian history, folklore, literature, art and film.