Ned’s head

This post is in response to Constance’s comment recently, asking about that (possibly) most confusing of Aussie icons, Ned Kelly.

She asked:

“…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.

1. His ingenius (if extremely heavy) suit of armour.

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.[31] 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?



19 Responses to “Ned’s head”

  1. The Old Melbourne Gaol is awesome to visit. Great story on Ned Bush Babe :)

  2. The old Police station in Beechworth NSW, is where they first held Ned after he was caught after the shoot out down the road at Glenrowan, NSW. Beechworth is one of my most favourite towns in Australia because of it’s (Ned) history and it’s beautiful sandstone buildings, including the police station, the court house etc. It also has a gaol one side of town and a mental institution the other side of town….I know, weird, but all part of it’s history. The interesting part is that the mental home was intitially established there because of the side effect of gold mining days… the lead used in the mining process leeched into the local water supply, leading to lead poisoning which in turn, led to mental health issues for the locals…. There you go, that’s my bit said for the night. xox

  3. Wow this is a fascinating story. You should really write more of these I could not even blink as to miss something. Great story. Ned good or bad? We will never know.
    Leonie fascinating scary story also.
    Oh I love history I am sort of a junkie you could say. Thanks for the great read. B
    Buttons´s last blog post ..Treasures and Joy!

  4. Wow this is a fascinating story. You should really write more of these I could not even blink as to miss something. Great story. Ned good or bad? We will never know.
    Leonie fascinating scary story also.
    Oh I love history I am sort of a junkie you could say. Thanks for the great read. B
    Buttons´s last blog post ..Treasures and Joy!

  5. Best blog post ever! I didn’t know who Ned was until this morning. Fascinating. A bit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
    A Novel Woman´s last blog post ..An Epic Pig

  6. This is the first time hearing about Ned, but being a Yankee must be the reason. Ned is a very interesting character, very Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Dillinger type guy. Reading your blog I have learned lots of new things for instance, Boomers, especially Santa’s Boomers.(heard about kangaroos lol, never knew they were called boomers). Oh btw, why Boomers? Do they make a booming noise? Anywho love your blog it is great!

  7. Aren’t we always fascinated by the bad boys?

  8. Oooh. I know! I know! He was reincarnated as the local ‘folk hero’, Bucky Phillips, who crashed his car just down the road from us, taking off on foot, and being captured less than 6 miles from our house as the crow flies.
    debby´s last blog post ..Maybe I sniffed too much glue?

  9. Very handsome man without the beard eh! Seeing that he was an irish lad (being of irish desent myself) I think he was misunderstood, was defending himself and was a Robin Hood type of fellow.

  10. Have you read ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey? (

    A very compelling read, and a human view of Ned Kelly and his forbears.
    jeanie´s last blog post ..My me day (in list form)

    • No – that would be WAY too studious for me. I do pick up that the Kelly family was incredibly poor and his father (an ex-convict) had died a couple of years before he started his bushranging ‘career’. Don’t think he was EVER going to walk a different path. Tragic story really.

  11. Yep, you summed it up perfectly and in a fab post, BB :)
    Jayne´s last blog post ..Food, food, and even more food…with some gratuitous nudity

  12. So poor family, ex-convict dad, equals never going to be good? Sounds like a familiar story. I think you did a great job Bush Babe, in telling the story. I think everyone secretly admires the larrikin bushie that gets away with so much, take Captain Starlight for instance!! Cattle thief extroadinaire!! but the path that he took was a challenging one so who could not admire his skill in cattle droving???

    • Gosh I hope I don’t assume that every person who has a criminal ancestor and endures poverty becomes an outlaw… however I DO imagine it was a lot harder to avoid that fate back then, than it is now.
      PS I shall chase up Captain Starlight soon. We had a bushranger up here called The Wild Scotsman. Maybe he deserves a run too? :-)

  13. They used to cut off the heads of crims in those days to study . They were trying to establish a link between head shape and criminality. They took plaster casts of their heads which are now on show in the Old Melbourne Gaol.
    diane´s last blog post ..ANOTHER ONE

  14. The number of responses on “Ned’s Head” indicates I was not the only one with questions concerning him. Diane’s final comment that the head was used for study is … uh, grotesque but chances are uncomfortably accurate.

    One more observation is that the photo allegedly done the day before he was executed shows him to be more handsome than in the other photo . One wonders if the top photo could have been sketched or derived from a death mask as the severe eyes and eyebrows seen there are not evident in the bearded one, and somehow look contrived — as if done by an artist that saw no good in Ned. Beyond that, the bearded photo shows almost a twinkling kindness in the eyes that is not evident in the other one.

    One wonders if it is even the same person.

    Perhaps in death as in life, Ned was in fact two different people? One that robbed and killed but also allegedly had a fine sense of humor and often a kind heart. No one is 100% good, nor is anyone 100% bad.

    Ned is fascinating. Thank you for answering the questions, and to other readers thank you for the comments that added even more information.

    I hope they find his head …

  15. I hope I find my own head…
    debby´s last blog post ..New Place

  16. I hope I find my own head… I’ve lost it.
    debby´s last blog post ..New Place

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge