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Outlaw's bones under scrutiny

The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the remains of one of Australia's notorious outlaws, Ned Kelly, could finally be solved thanks to DNA from a distant relative.

Father Peter Norden, pictured in the Old Melbourne Gaol, is lobbying for tests on the remains to prove they are those of the outlaws.
Father Peter Norden, pictured in the Old Melbourne Gaol, is lobbying for tests on the remains to prove they are those of the outlaws.

SYDNEY // The mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the remains of one of Australia's most notorious outlaws, Ned Kelly, could finally be solved thanks to DNA from a distant relative. The son of an Irish immigrant, Edward "Ned" Kelly was hanged in the southern state of Victoria in 1880 after an epic struggle against the law. To many Australians, he was a rebel spirit who fought an oppressive colonial government, while others regard him simply as a violent bank robber who murdered three police officers and plotted the death of many others. After years of conjecture as to where his remains might lie, archaeologists are convinced they unearthed parts of his skeleton at a disused jail in Melbourne last year, although conclusive scientific proof has yet to be established. To solve the riddle, a grandniece of Ned Kelly has come forward, offering to provide genetic samples so the question can at last be resolved.

The case has been championed by a former prison chaplain, Father Peter Norden, who is convinced that a forensic examination will prove the remains, which are with the coroner, are those of the bandit. He has been lobbying state authorities for the tests as a matter of urgency and for what is left of the outlaw to be returned to relatives, along with the bodies of other condemned prisoners found during excavations. "I met with the relevant government minister to urge that a proper memorial and burial should be given to Ned Kelly," Mr Norden said. "This is not to make heroes of these characters, not at all. It acknowledges the fact they were convicted criminals but it is a way of treating their human remains with respect."

After his execution on Nov 11, 1880, Ned Kelly was buried in a mass grave at the Old Melbourne Gaol. It is widely thought that his bones were transferred during building work along with those of about 35 fellow inmates to Pentridge Prison on the outskirts of the city in 1929. Last year's exhumations at Pentridge showed that the bodies had not been buried individually but had become a decomposed tangle. "There wouldn't have been a whole lot of Ned actually remaining because some went to hospital experiments and the head was kept by the governor of the jail as a paperweight," said Chris Gerrett, the owner of a Ned Kelly souvenir shop at Glenrowan, the scene of his final confrontation with the police. "I don't think there would be enough for anyone to identify," Mrs Gerrett added. In life, as in death, Ned Kelly, who along with other bandits was known in Australia as a "bushranger" - a man who used the vast Australian bush to evade the authorities - has been elusive.

In the 1870s, he evaded arrest for several years and used rudimentary home-made armour in a last shoot-out with police. His disregard for the law, a string of brazen bank robberies and audacious escapes helped to cement his reputation, and establishing the location of his remains almost 130 years after he was hanged would bring to a close another part of his extraordinary story. Kelly's last stand was at Glenrowan, 180km north-east of Melbourne, where his gang stormed a local hotel, the Ann Jones Inn, where they took hostages and tried in vain to fight off the advance of heavily armed police officers. In a further sign of the enduring power of the Kelly legend, the site was excavated last year at the request of the local community by a team led by Tim Murray, professor of archaeology at La Trobe University. "Picture, if you will, the place being turned into a colander, a fire breaking out and people on the floor. It must have been frenetic," Mr Murray said. "We didn't find any bits of helmet or any bones but they must have unleashed a fair bit of stuff at the Ann Jones Inn itself," he said. Simon Dalton, programmes development manager at The Old Melbourne Gaol, believes the reason such a violent criminal became a cult figure was because of his fierce anti-establishment views.

"Australians seem to like people who buck authority and Kelly fitted into that," Mr Dalton said. "We still have people who come in on November 11 and put flowers outside the jail and we have seen people in tears. His legacy is very strong." pmercer@thenational.ae