Ned Kelly and the curious case of the missing tooth
August 31, 2011
There's an amazing chapter still to be told about the investigation into the "Kelly" skull. In order to even get to the DNA analysis, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine has to conduct an historical investigation that had more twists than a double helix.
The skull’s journey began when a bungled redevelopment of land at the gaol where Kelly was buried unearthed mass graves which held the bones of many prisoners executed years before. The bones were transferred to another location, but not before an excited crowd mobbed the site and stole some.
At least four skulls were stolen. Even though they were returned shortly after, they were not re-interred with the other bones at Pentridge Prison but ended up at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra in the 1930s where it was rumored that a skull with “E. Kelly” on the base was used by the Institute’s director as a paperweight.
It was thought the skulls had come from the bodies of two women and two men: Francis Knorr, who was paid by the State to look after children (she took the money but killed the children), Martha Needle, who poisoned family members for the insurance money, the serial killer Frederick Deeming who slit the throats of a number of wives and children (some historians have argued that Deeming, who was in England on all the right dates, was Jack the Ripper himself), and Ned Kelly.
When the Institute received the skull, it was held together with wire and carpenter’s glue, a piece of blue tac was stuck to one side, and most of its teeth were missing. It has been hidden in a number of places over the previous 35 years, like being stored in a plastic box in a hollow tree on a West Australian farm. When the nearby river flooded, skull and tree were submerged in water.
The first step in the Institute’s investigation was to compare the skull to a 1970s photo of a skull sitting next to Kelly’s death mask in the Old Melbourne Gaol museum. As best they could, they recreated the angle, the lighting, and distance from the camera. Then they looked for points of concordance between the cast and the skull, such as the shape and angle of the mandible and the point of the chin. It looked like the same skull.
Next, they discovered that in the 1930s the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra had taken its own casts of skulls. With some wrangling, they got hold of the cast of the "E. Kelly" skull. Again, they itemized the points of comparison. The morphology of the hard palate was identical. The shape, size and number of teeth sockets was identical. It was the same skull.
They turned then to the 1929 exhumation. At this point, they held a press conference and asked the public for help. In response, a man called Christopher Ott brought in a photo of a worker at the exhumation. The young worker, who has a somber expression, holds a skull up to the camera. A statement accompanying the picture states that the skull is Kelly’s, removed from a mass grave that had the initials E. K. chiseled in stone above it. But Ott didn’t just bring in an old photo, he brought a human tooth as well. He said the worker in the photo was his grandfather, and the tooth had been passed down from him. As a boy, Ott had taken it to school in a matchbox, announcing at Show and Tell that it was Ned Kelly’s.
The Institute’s forensic odontologists Dr. Richard Bassed and Dr. Tony Hill compared tooth and skull. “Each tooth is unique,” said Hill. “It can only fit into the place from which it came.” The three protruding roots of the tooth slid easily into the socket for the skull’s upper first molar. X-rays and CT-scans confirmed the neatness of the fit. So the tooth and the skull belonged together, and they had both been dug up from the Gaol in 1929, but whose were they?
More than 30 people were exhumed from the Gaol site. The “E. Kelly” skull had traveled for decades with another male skull (thought to be the serial killer Frederick Deeming), and to complicate matters further, it turned out that another man who was buried with Edward “Ned” Kelly also had the initials that had been chiseled above the mass grave: Ernest Knox.
Bassed realized that if they could find Kelly’s death mask, they might be able to rule the skull out, or in, as a possible match to Kelly. They found a copy of the death mask, and many others, including Deeming’s. Bassed made 2D images and 3D CT-scans of the masks and skulls and superimposed them on each other. Placing the skull virtually inside the heads of the long-gone men enabled Dr. Bassed to rule out almost all the prisoners they had death masks for, including Ernest Knox. The skull simply did not fit inside the heads. The only two left were Ned Kelly and Frederick Deeming.
The only way to distinguish between the 19th century superhero and the serial killer, maybe-Ripper was DNA. The investigators compared the DNA from the skull to the DNA from a member of the Kelly family. (Read about this investigation at The New York Times).
It seems Kelly has had the last laugh. The DNA didn’t match. The skull isn’t Kelly’s. In fact, there’s a good chance it belonged to Deeming. In the meantime, it was discovered that a set of bones—not including a skull—that were exhumed from Pentridge Prison do indeed match the Kelly DNA.
So, most of the bones from Kelly's body have been found, the whereabouts of his skull are still unclear, and no one knows where to go from here. I think Kelly would have loved this mess, though he’d always had clear plans himself. When the judge pronounced the sentence of death on him, saying: “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Kelly replied, “Yes, I will meet you there.”