Historic outlaw still one step ahead


PROFILE: NED KELLY:A MAN WHO has been dead for 131 years made headlines around the world this week. The whereabouts of the remains of the Irish-Australian renegade Ned Kelly had been a mystery ever since he was hanged in Melbourne at the age of 25. It had been thought that his body had been buried among those of33 other executed men. These bodies had originally been buried in the grounds of the Old Melbourne Gaol, before being transferred in 1929 to Pentridge Prison.

Enter the time-travelling miracle of DNA testing. For the past couple of years, a team from Australia’s Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine have been trying to locate the bones of Ned Kelly. They used DNA from a descendant of Kelly’s, Leigh Olver, a great-grandson of Kelly’s sister Ellen. For many years, it was believed that a skull on display at the Old Melbourne Goal was that of Kelly. DNA tests have revealed it was not.

However, Olver’s DNA was a perfect match for bones that had been exhumed from Pentridge Prison along with the 33 other sets of remains. Kelly’s skull was not among the bones discovered. By the time the remains had been moved to Pentridge, Kelly was already a folk hero in Australia, and some bones and skulls were stolen by a mob.

Edward “Ned” Kelly’s parents were Irish, and he was the eldest of eight. At that period of Australia’s history, possession of land resembled the Cromwellian system that once operated in Ireland. The best and largest plots of land were given to a wealthy few – known as squatters – by the government, and the rest was set aside for those of little means. Those small plots were of poor soil, and it was almost impossible to support large families from them. Kelly’s family had one of these plots.

There are many stories about Ned Kelly, and it’s probably impossible to now separate the facts from fiction. For a man who spent much of his short life either in prison or in hiding, he appears to have caused all kinds of extravagant troubles.

From the age of 14, Kelly was having run-ins with the law. His first recorded crime appears to be the assault of a Chinese pig farmer named Ah Fook. From then on, he was constantly battling the authorities, thieving horses, rustling cattle and robbing banks. At 15, he stole a horse and got three years in jail.

Once he got out of jail, he set about forming what was known as the Kelly Gang, with two brothers and two friends. While in hiding from the police at Wombat Ranges, gunfire was exchanged and three policemen were shot dead. The gang claimed it was in self-defence, but from that day on, it was only going to be a matter of time before the enraged police force tracked him down.

A law was even passed by the Victorian parliament permitting authorities to shoot the gang members on sight.

Kelly dictated a letter that was to become famous long after his death. Known as the Jerilderie Letter, it ran to some 7,000 words and placed on the record his opinions about how his family had been treated by society, about the unfairness of the land allocations, and about how he was driven to become an outlaw. It was published in 1930 by the Melbourne Herald.

During the time the Kelly Gang remained at large, they robbed a number of banks. They wore distinctive home-made armour, made out of metal farm machinery. On their heads, they wore bucket-like objects, with slits for eyes. The result, which could have been amusing, was apparently terrifying. A price of $8,000 was put on their heads; it was a staggering sum of money for 1880s Australia.

Time finally ran out for Kelly in a shoot-out with police at Glenrowan. The irony is that he was the only person in the gang to survive the shoot-out. He was put on trial for the murders of the three policemen, with some 30,000 people petitioning for his death sentence to be dropped. Many people had identified with the lawless gang, whom they saw as protesting against an unjust society.

One of the many myths about him is that his final words were “Such is life”. Kelly’s story has been told many times by writers, documentarymakers and film-makers. Peter Carey wrote the Booker-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang. Heath Ledger starred in the 2003 movie Ned Kelly.

At the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, some of the performers wore Kelly Gang-type armour. Whether perceived as a folk hero or a ruthless outlaw, Ned Kelly is famous throughout Australia. The team who finally identified his bones are hoping that someone, somewhere, will now come forward with his missing skull.

Curriculum vitae

Who is he?The Australian bank-robber and folk hero, dead since 1880.

Why is he in the news?This week, his long-lost bones were eventually found, minus the skull.

Most appealing characteristicHis fashion sense, featuring home-made armour made of pieces of farm machinery, and bucket-like helmets.

Least appealing characteristicHe murdered people.

Most likely to say“Such is life.”

Least likely to say“My good friends the police are coming round for afternoon tea.”