This post is in response to Constance’s comment recently, asking about that (possibly) most confusing of Aussie icons, Ned Kelly.
“…I know that Ned Kelly is a folk figure as Jesse James or Billy the Kid might be in the USA… I see that the bones of Ned Kelly have been undeniably identified… What happened to his head? Was he shot, put into chains, jailed, hanged and then ALSO beheaded? And why was his head separated from the rest of him?”
Great question. And only a TINY bit grotesque in nature. Lucky we are all tough with very strong stomachs here, isn’t it? Heh.
To give overseas readers a bit of background first:
Most Australians have grown up with the legend of bushranger Edward (Ned) Kelly permeating our culture – it is a story with all the elements of intrigue and tragedy required of a legend. I don’t recall ever studying him directly at school (although I am sure he was mentioned) but when sayings (“He’s as game as Ned Kelly‘) and famous last words (allegedly “Such is Life”) and the general understanding that Ned Kelly was some kind of ‘Robin Hood’ character more than made up for it.
Of course, I am not sure it was ever proven that Ned, the bushranger/outlaw who lived large in regional Victoria, ever actually GAVE his ill-gotten gains to anyone in need. He certainly took from those he who had more than he. He was one of eight children to poor Irish immigrants, he was first arrested at the age of 14 for horse stealing.
Ned at age 18.
He went on to form a gang and get into all kinds of trouble (including killing police officers) finishing with a shoot-out with police where most of his gang perished. He was jailed and hung for his crimes.
Even before he died, he seemed to strike a chord with everyday Aussies, with a petition failing to hald his execution. It seems we have always tended to ‘forgive’ his illegal activities and lift him into a strange kind of immortality ever since. The Kelly’s believed they were victims of unfair police attention – and so painted themselves (some would argue, quite successfully) as that Aussie idiom: The Underdog.
Photo of Ned taken the day before he was hanged.
I do know one thing for sure: Ned had an impressive beard.
ASIDE: I have a vivid memory of our Dad, after he won a prize in a local beard-growing contest (when we were kids) for being ‘The Most Like Ned Kelly’. We weren’t sure whether to be proud or not. He looked wild and scary enough, I remember!
There are many internet references to the legend of Ned Kelly (such as here) with some simply climbing on the notoriety (see how makers of pain-killing drug Nurophen climbing on the bandwagon here), though I’d say that the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ANU) possibly provides the best source here:
Noted Melbourne journalist Clive Turnbull claims that ‘Ned Kelly is the best known Australian, our only folk hero …
Popular instinct has found in Kelly a type of manliness much to be esteemed—to reiterate: courage, resolution, independence, sympathy with the under-dog’. The legend brought into being the phrase, ‘As game as Ned Kelly’, for describing the ultimate in bravery, inspired numberless imaginative tales and folk-ballads, and has taken new life in Sidney Nolan’s series of Kelly-gang paintings. The legend still persists and seemingly has a compelling quality that appeals to something deeply rooted in the character of the ‘average’ Australian.
Now I am no historian or social analyst, but I believe three major things have ensured Ned Kelly’s continuing popularity Down Under, some 130 years after his death.
This amazing piece of rough craftsmanship was immortalised on canvas by artists such as the renown Sir Sidney Nolan
Nolan became obsessed with myths; the most notable being the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. Nolan painted Ned as a comic book character, a magician, a leader and a martyr. He blended into Ned images of the landscape and even titled the paintings with newspaper commentary. Whether Kelly was a good man or bad was always ambiguous, and therefore contributed to the intrigue in his work.
Although it was not Nolan’s intention to turn Ned Kelly into an icon, that was the consequence of his work. Before Nolan, Ned Kelly had his supporters, but was relatively ignored. After Nolan, the Kelly helmet became one of the most replicated symbols of Australia and Kelly himself immortalised as an Australian legend. It was an outcome that did not please everyone. Frank Devine of the Australian newspaper wrote in 2000:
“It was a continuing shock to watch somebody with a name like Nolan more or less validating Nedophilia with a series of paintings of the wretched horse thief and cop killer.”
2. He possessed a raw brand of courage. He refused to be intimidated, was daring in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and believed vehemently in his own reasoning for the events that saw him jailed (and eventually hanged). Whether or not he was justified in his actions (in killing policemen who were shooting at him) the fact remains that his actions appeared for the most to be self-defence and he that he went on to face his death without apparent fear. This attitude was captured in some of the many film pieces about him – the very first moving picture ever made, the one starring Mick Jagger and the one starring Heath Ledger.
3. The ongoing mystery surrounding his remains. We are a morbid lot, us Aussies. We like a good scary nighttime story… and the mystery of the headless body of Ned Kelly fits the bill fabulously. Here is the Wikipedia take on this condundrum:
Following his execution it was reported in a newspaper that Kelly’s body was dissected by medical students, with his head and organs removed for study. Dissection outside of a coronial enquiry was illegal, and as public outrage at the rumour raised real fears of public disorder, the commisioner of police wrote the Goals governor who denied such a dissection had taken place. In line with the practice of the day, as no records are kept regarding the disposal of a condemned person’s body or body parts, Kelly’s remains were buried in Melbourne Gaol’s unmarked graveyard. Kelly’s head was allegedly given to phrenologists for study then returned to the police, who used it for a time as a paperweight.
Kelly’s remains (well the bits below the neck) have recently been confirmed as being buried at Pentridge Prison (apparently with many other crims in a wooden axe box).
But the mystery remains as to the whereabouts of Ned’s head. And the hunt for that head – which really began long before his death - continues unabated.
And – with each development – his legend just seems to grow .
So there you are. Ned’s head explained. Kind of.
Anyone have any further tales on our shady Aussie icon?