A recent news item from Australia draws attention to the field of forensics, a speciality of our own Prof. Moira McLaughlin, in relation to Australia’s greatest folk hero (or villain), Ned Kelly, whose remains were recently identified.
Our students here at STU may not be familiar with Ned Kelly. He was the best-known “bushranger” (a kind of outlaw) in Australian history. The son of an Irish convict transported to Australia, Kelly was born in 1855 in the Australian state of Victoria . His criminal career began at age 14, and he was involved in assaults, theft, and cattle rustling. He eventually became the leader of a gang on the run from the Victorian police for the murder of several police constables, in addition to a string of daring bank robberies. While on the run, he justified his actions in a lengthy manifesto now known as “The Jerilderie Letter,” thought by some to be an early call for an Australian republic. Ned Kelly was finally apprehended after an infamous shootout at Glenrowan (which included the outlaws wearing homemade armour for protection), during which the other members of the Kelly Gand were killed. He was tried, sentenced, and hanged in the Melbourne Gaol in November 1880. He now has a kind of Robin Hood status among some Australians, and is seen as representative of a defiant anti-authoritarian and republican aspect of the Australian character.
The forensic science angle of all of this concerns Ned Kelly’s skull. Kelly was buried in a mass grave at the Melbourne Gaol. In 1929 the area around the gaol was dug up for urban development, and a skull reported to be Kelly’s was stolen as a keepsake. Decades of speculation about the whereabouts and authenticity of the skull ensued. In 2008 more human remains were uncovered and sent to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine for analysis, and many were positively identified as the remains of Ned Kelly through a variety of forensic techniques, especially DNA analysis. The skull reported to be Kelly’s, however, has been proven not to be his, and so his real skull is still on the run.