Time for Ned Kelly to
Have His Third Burial
When Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was living his brief and tormented life, 158 or 157 years ago, depending on who you ask, there was probably little doubt about how it all would end. His death by hanging, on three counts of murder, would have been the final act in such a short life of a hapless character.
Not for Kelly, though. His body went through quite a few adventures of its own, as it turns out. First, his bones were moved in 1929, and then exhumed 80 years later, when his DNA was identified. But his skull has been always missing until recently. Now, a self-described witch claims to have it.
By now, much of what we believe we know about this contemporary of American Jesse James, also young and outlawed, is subjected to skepticism for lack of consistent records. In fact, we may never know how much of it is even based on fact, such as the Robin Hood bit, or just pure myth.
But it makes for good copy. News about Kelly have been as hot now as they were during the 1960s, when the potential of iconic antiheroes for selling T-shirts built a few small fortunes. It helped it too that a 1970 movie based on his life, starring Mick Jagger, was a minor hit of the era.
THE IRISH BUSHRANGER
As any middle-schooler can tell you, when the British Empire was deciding what to do with the vast extension of the land ‘down under,’ its most ‘brilliant’ idea was to send to the continental-sized new country a band of convicted criminals. Let loose in the inhospitable territory, those who didn’t die, thrived.
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was the son of a first generation Irish con sent by the British to rot way down below the equator, an ‘award’ offered to him and his comrades, as an alternative to death in the northern island many had called home. It may have sounded like a good idea at the time, for both parties.
It wasn’t that great for the young Kelly, obviously. A bushranger as his dad, capable of surviving in the huge extensions and brutal geography of the Australian outback, he started getting in trouble with the law as soon as he hit his teenage years. One of the handful of known pics of his is a police mugshot of a beardless 16-year-old.
It went downhill from there. Just a few years later, he made the tragic mistake of killing three policemen, and didn’t last much longer as an outlaw. He was captured after a bloody gunfight in 1880, and a few months after, he was dead. But for some of those living in his time, he’d already become a minor local legend.
Anti-British sentiment was high even in the empire’s overseas colonies, and Australia was no different. The feats of a loner outlaw robbing cattle from rich landowners, supposedly to fund a group of Irish republicans, was simply too easy to meld with the myth of the Thief of Sherwood back in Ol’ England.
THE OUTLAW’S THREE BURIALS
The image of a fearless justice fighter, doing battle with the Goliahs of his time, had some legs, though, as many of the ‘coppers’ who arrested Ned Kelly were later found guilty of police corruption. But no one really expects records corroborating his supposed heroism to emerge, the same way that proof that Robin Hood even existed may have been lost through time.
His bones, though, curiously survived, and his body is now closer than ever to be finally laid to rest as a whole. The last piece of the er, puzzle, his skull, may have finally been located in nearby New Zealand, and the Kelly descendants may soon be able to add a final chapter to the infamous saga of their ancestor. Or something like that.
What’s curious about Kelly’s buried headless body during all these years is that it somehow places him in the rarified company of Descartes and many a king and queen of old Europe. Either because their followers, or political opponents, wanted to make a statement, or keep a grim memento, these historical figures all suffered the indignity of losing their heads, after they were already dead.
The first disturbance to Kelly’s body happened in 1929, when the gravesite, where he and his mates had rested unidentified for almost four decades, was moved to another location. Three years ago, his DNA was positively compared to one of his relatives and the Aussie ranger was on his way to be returned to his family.
Australian officials had announced, last month, that they were ready to do just that, and considered the matter settled. Except that along came a self-appointed witch (we didn’t know that people still come forward calling themselves as such anymore). Anne Hoffman, from New Zealand, claims she had it since she visited Melbourne 30 years ago.
It was in her cupboard, news reports say, along with 20 other skulls of her collection (don’t ask). Melbourne is where Kelly was hanged, by the way. But until new DNA tests are conducted and confirmed that it is, indeed, his head, it’s likely that his family will wait a little bit more before committing his body to the ground. Again. For the last time.
No one expects any fireworks and tickertape parades, even if Ned Kelly’s body matches the new found skull. After all, for all mythmaking, and good copy being generated by the global media, he, and Jesse James, and Billy the Kid, and many like them, were also killers, and it wouldn’t be fair to the memory of those they’ve killed to go around wearing colorful T-shirts.
But boiling down this sort of story to its, well, bare bones, it’s still possible to gather a heady tale of frontiersmen, their wrongful deeds, short lives and tragic deaths, all somehow stitched in the grainy pictures that outlived their fates. As they stare back at us, we wonder whether they have ever asked themselves: was it all worth?
* Bones of Contention
* He Shot the Sheriff
* Wild Wild West