Stella Prize Shortlist 2015


The Invisible History of the Human Race has made the 2015 Stella Prize shortlist. Here's what the judges had to say:


The sciences and the humanities are traditionally thought of as separate, or even as opposite, fields of study and endeavour, but Christine Kenneally moves on from this kind of thinking in her fascinating exploration of DNA and what it tells us about our individual, social, and anthropological pasts, bringing genetics and history together via the concepts of ancestry and inheritance. At every stage of this book, the data, the facts and the ideas are illustrated and enlivened by personal stories of individual lives and discoveries.

Kenneally uses the contemporary enthusiasm for genealogy and family history as an accessible entry point for the general reader, giving us a wonderful assortment of insights into the meaning and value of the past. To read this book is to be in the company of a dynamic, ardent mind, talking in a friendly authorial voice and never talking down.


Stella Prize Longlist 2015

Stella Longlist

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)

The Strays by Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin)

This House of Grief by Helen Garner (Text Publishing)

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin)

The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally (Black Inc)

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna (Allen & Unwin)

The Golden Age by Joan London (Random House)

Laurinda by Alice Pung (Black Inc)

Nest by Inga Simpson (Hachette)

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven (UQP)

In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)

The Stella Prize

The Invisible History Review Wrap-up


“[A] smart, splendid, highly entertaining look at how DNA, increasingly visible to us since we first sequenced the human genome in 2000, can ‘open up tracts of human history that had been entirely obscure.’ . . .While DNA may now be visible, however, it remains more hint than history. Kenneally, a journalist and linguist, shows that just as a gene usually delivers its genetic message only in conversation with an incoming chemical messenger, so our DNA tells its tales most fully only in light of the history of the people who carry and interrogate it. It takes all those threads to get the whole story. And Kenneally wants it all. . . . [W]hat will prove lasting is her evocation of how much perspective and even wisdom can be extracted from some determined digging and a bit of spit. The breadth of this book; its abundance of enthralling accounts and astonishing science; its adept, vivid writing; and Kenneally’s exquisitely calibrated judgment make it the richest, freshest, most fun book on genetics in some time.” The New York Times Book Review


"This book is a trailblazer because it’s the first one I’ve ever read that examines how biology, psychology, and history come together to shape each one of us as individuals. I’ve only just started reading this book, but already, I’m hooked." The Guardian

“[Questions about genealogy] can upend lives, particularly those of adoptees or descendants of slaves . . . But what receives far less attention is how genealogy can reveal secrets about all of us, at once: the emergence of our species, the political history of the world, and the origins of the social structures that dictate modern life. As Christine Kenneally writes in this engrossing new book, genealogy’s boom gives us “historical transparency” as never before. The Invisible History of the Human Race is packed with stories that make this point . . . . Ms. Kenneally points out, the categories we use to talk about race — black, white, Asian, Hispanic — are in large part cultural. Genetic differences among populations don’t fit into clear-cut boundaries.In fact, if the genome has taught us anything, it is that our DNA has far less influence on our lives than the culture we are born into. And here lies the best argument for genealogy: It unearths nature and nurture, to make our invisible histories visible, free for all to know and to judge.” The New York Times

“In the current fad for omnibus histories of absolutely everything, designed to replace ancient metaphysics, perhaps, or answer some marketing brainwave, no one has succeeded in quite the way Christine Kenneally has. She approaches her task with a very specific enquiry: what is the interplay between genetics and human history? Searching for an answer, she uncovers worlds within worlds. Kenneally brings the old nurture–nature debate into updated focus.” Australian Book Review (Subscription necessary)

“A family mystery—a gap where her father’s father should be—goaded science writer Christine Kenneally into exploring the phenomenon of identity. Kenneally goes at it full tilt, taking a machete to a jungle of genomics; reassessing the contentious practice of genealogy; unravelling the knotted realities of adoption; and pondering DNA testing. This sparkling, sometimes harrowing read is packed with intriguing interludes, such as still-speculative findings on the dark-skinned Melungeons of Appalachia.” Nature (Subscription necessary)

“Genealogy gets a bad rap, author Christine Kenneally writes, because of its hint of elitism, its whiff of self-absorption, and its slightly queasy associations with the concepts of breeding and eugenics. (This view of the project is borne out when she looks at a Nazi genealogical book, with its list of approved German names and essays on race hygiene.) But, she argues, wanting to understand the story of one’s ancestors is understandable and human; it just doesn’t go far enough. If there’s any overarching theme in this sprawling, entertaining look at genetics and genealogy, it’s that we are always more than the sum of our biological parts.” Boston Globe

“The construction of identity is the concern at the heart of this original and provocative book, which employs the approaches of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and Mendelian genetics. Case studies of ethnic groups point to a complex, reciprocal relationship among DNA, culture, and environment . . . . Genetic traits, Kenneally shows, are modified by factors such as other genes, noncoding DNA, and chemical changes in the body. She suggests that one’s understanding of one’s identity is at least as deterministic as one’s genetic inheritance. When it comes to our knowledge of DNA, Kenneally writes, ‘there is still more dark matter in this particular universe than not.’” The New Yorker

“Sci­en­tists and schol­ars of human­i­ties have sep­a­rately made remark­able advances in under­stand­ing links between chro­mo­somes and health — or race, cul­ture and spe­cific traits, Kenneally writes. “But DNA does what it does with­out regard to any of the con­cep­tual silos,” and so does she.” Misadventures Magazine

“Kenneally’s book offers a . . . judicious view of what gets ‘passed down' . . . . [She] offers example after example of how the work of amateur genealogists and professional geneticists is rewriting history both in academia and the popular imagination.” Salon

“Shudder, all ye Daughters of the American Revolution, then pick up a copy of Christine Kenneally's entertaining stew of a book . . . [T]he title is a mouthful, and the topic turns out to be both tantalizing and unruly. . . . Kenneally treks through research and tracks down experts in economics, psychology, history and genetics. Very pointedly, she crafts a love letter to genealogy. . . . Kenneally has a gift for explanatory journalism.” Newsday

“In captivating prose . . . Kenneally examines the impact environment can have both on a person’s immediate conditions and the long-term influences exerted by cultural factors over many generations. She interviews molecular biologists working to understand how genes influence physical traits, population geneticists attempting to reconstruct the genetic configuration of centuries-old populations, genealogists looking to create family lineages (as well as the principals of companies promoting such searches), and those in charge of the Mormon archive of personal demographic data, the largest of its sort in the world. Kenneally ties these fascinating strands into a complex, powerful, and engaging narrative. She superbly compares and contrasts the related concepts of race and lineage while tackling the ways in which eugenicists and Nazis misunderstood and misused the data available to them. With those abuses in mind, she also confronts the premise that simply making use of such information may be problematic. Kenneally offers a rich, thoughtful blend of science, social science, and philosophy in a manner that mixes personal history with the history of the human species” Publishers Weekly

“Kenneally, a freelance journalist whose essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and New Scientist, successfully attempts a ‘synthesis between the ways we consider genes and health, genes and culture, genes and history, genes and race and genes and special traits’ . . . . Kenneally illustrates how the intersection of genetic information with family histories and census data can engender surprising (and sometimes unsettling) results—e.g., the identification of a modern American descendant of Genghis Khan.” Kirkus Reviews

"...a bold and absorbing work." The Australian


"Written for the layperson, this is still a dense and fascinating study of humankind's recent and historical ancestry with regards to DNA determinism. A confluence of history, science and culture, it argues that there's more than just biological information encoded, there's also cultural inheritance passed down in our genes..." Sydney Morning Herald


"What the author has crafted is a narrative of approachable science especially since advances in DNA testing and research have occurred so rapidly over the past 15 years." GeneaBloggers 



Best of


The 19 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2014 

"...a fascinating and wide-ranging investigation of our obsession with ancestry and genetics" BuzzFeed Books


Christmas Gift Guide 

Local writer Christine Kenneally is winning rave reviews, including in The New York Times, for her book on how DNA shapes our lives, The Invisible History of the Human Race. The Australian


The Best Science Books of 2014 

"...a tale that braids cultural and scientific insight together, to explore what it means to have ancestors — and how the human past reaches into our future." io9's Best Books of 2014


Authors and critics select their best books of the year 

"Christine Kenneally’s marvellous The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures is one of those mind-tilting books that makes the reader look at everything anew, including sticky questions of religion and race." The Australian


Our Favorite Science Books of 2014 

"The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally—Like her book, The First Word, The Invisible History of the Human Race is thoroughly researched and masterfully executed." Work in Progress


Top five science reads of 2014 

With police dramas such as CSI, it seems there is nothing that can't be discerned from a tiny bit of DNA. But really, how much can this tiny building block of life tell us about ourselves? ABC Science


The best popular science books of 2014: Biology 

The Guardian


The Best Science Books of 2014 

Science Friday


5 books for your holiday list 

The Charlotte Observer


The WSJ on the seven best books about science to give for the holidays 

"Ms. Kenneally’s approach is suitably global, stretching from the racially ambiguous Melungeons of the American South to the genetically bottlenecked Samaritan community in Israel, and she is storyteller enough to get us through the acronym-strewn fields of contemporary biology without losing sight of the big themes of identity and history." Wall Street Journal 


Editors’ Choice

 New York Times Book Review


Influences in the Reading Newsletter


Great writing can be a beacon in the fog for a writer in the middle of their own book, even if the subjects are very different. As I wrote The Invisible History, I would sometimes stumble on a great idea or canny manoeuvre in a newspaper article. Sometimes writers influenced me because I already knew of their work and I knew them to be good at what they do. Others, I intentionally sought out – I wanted to see how they solved the kinds of problems I was facing. How do you move from the fine-grain of a story to the coarse and back again – from the description of a single document to the arc of history? Read More at Readings

Q&A with National Geographic


"In her early 20s, Christine Kenneally discovered something about her Australian forebears that upended her sense of identity and family history. In her new book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, she explores the power of DNA to reveal secrets in our past and predict our future.

Talking from ...New York, she explains how even the moistness of our earwax is encoded in our genes, why our decisions are not entirely our own, and how the genetic imprint of distant historical events like slavery can shape attitudes today." Read more at Book Talk, National Geographic

World Science Festival SmartReads Q&A


"Our ancestors pass along their beliefs, their stories, and their DNA—and we are only just beginning to understand the impact of genes passed down through generations. In her rich new book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, Christine Kenneally explores the history of genealogy and ancestry, and what we’ve learned about ourselves through advancements in genetics. We had a chance to speak to Kenneally recently about the many legacies of our ancestors." Read more at World Science Festival

The new records of history

Every day our DNA breaks a little. Special enzymes keep our genome intact while we’re alive, but after death, once the oxygen runs out, there is no more repair. Chemical damage accumulates, and decomposition brings its own kind of collapse: membranes dissolve, enzymes leak, and bacteria multiply. How long until DNA disappears altogether? I wrote about what DNA tells us about the past for MIT Technology Review.

Deep history and the robot future


I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI. 

On Lying: My School of Life secular sermon


It has been a thrill to put together a secular Sermon for the first School of Life series here in Melbourne. Under the rubric of lying, I had permission to pull together a lot of interests that I don’t usually get to explore in one piece: apes, evolution, the worldwide flood of information, bad journalism, good journalism and the idea of the witness. To make it more perfect, the Sermon took place at the Melbourne Zoo.

For anyone interested in exploring these ideas further:

If you want some more examples about the exponential rise of information in the world, start here.

I spoke about apes and deception. Here’s a description of the experiment I mentioned, plus some pages about other amazing ape behavior, like complex tool use, puzzle-solving and cooperation. Click tab 7 for deception.

Here’s a link to a Monthly article I wrote about real estate. As part of my reporting for the article I called to confirm that the young first time home buyer mentioned in the piece did in fact work for the real estate firm also mentioned in the piece—she did. Neither she nor her boss were happy to talk to me. This blog post is about another first home buyer who also happens to be a real estate agent—even though his profession was not mentioned in the original article. Two of the "lies of omission" mentioned in the Sermon were, to the best of my knowledge, first reported at this blog.

This article from Canada's The Globe and Mail details an investigation into realtors posing as buyers. It includes links to the Canadian blogs that first uncovered the lie.

I came across many other examples of this phenomenon in a variety of blogs and traditional media. Check out for some trenchant, non-traditional analysis of real estate, as well as many other aspects of our financial lives. Bubblepedia has an occasionaly lively forum. Note that because much of their content is commentary, some blogs have wild language and awful manners, including distasteful sexism of a kind you'd be hard-pressed to find in the traditional media. These blogs link to similar sites in other countries.

Not sure where to look for guidance about the biggest financial decision in your life? Why not consult the movement of the planets. Luckily Jupiter is in Cancer in 2013 making "the property market boom again." Click the byline of this piece in The Australian. It will take you to "The world's leading luxury astrology company," and in case you missed it, same thing again at

Here’s a few surveys which show how much journalists are not trusted. Here in Australia, journalists are only slightly more trustworthy than real estate agents. In the US, a Gallup Poll found that journalists are thought to be more honest than Members of Congress and stockbrokers but less honest than dentists and psychiatrists. In the UK, journalists rank lower than bankers--that hurts, guys.

This is a great article from the Columbia Journalism Review about shrinking word counts.

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, published 256 stories longer than 2,000 words last year, compared to 1,776 in 2003—a drop of 86 percent, according to searches of the Factiva database. 

When it comes to stories longer than 3,000 words, the three papers showed even sharper declines. The WSJ’s total is down 70 percent to 25 stories, from 87 a decade ago, and theLA Times down fully 90 percent to 34 from 368.

The Wall Street Journal, which pioneered the longform narrative in American newspapers, published 35 percent fewer stories over 2,000 words last year from a decade ago, 468 from 721. 

I couldn't find similar surveys for Australian journalism, but my experience working in Australia has been very similar to my US experience—word length is being cut across the board, and on the reader side, there’s a lot of anger connected to the perception that the media doesn’t care to get its facts right.

You can read longform by purchasing pieces from The Atavist for a small sum. Also look at Australia's The Monthly is one of a handful of magazines in the world that run true, longform journalism. Also read long at The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine in the US, and Granta, based in the UK.

"Psychopathy may be an equal opportunity personality disaster"

What kind of person calls in a bomb threat after the Connecticut tragedy?  I lived in New York in 2001, and in the shaky days following September 11, a plague of hoax threats and prank calls washed over the city and then spread out over the world. I wrote about it for Salon after I heard about this incident:

The unnecessary evacuation of Grand Central Station began for Tom Petrella of Oren’s Daily Roast at 9.15 a.m. last Thursday when a police officer ran into his store yelling, “Get the fuck out of the terminal. Now!” A few minutes earlier, Petrella realized that something was wrong when a crowd of 50 people surged up the subway stairs next to his coffee bar. At that time of day, he said, people should have been heading down. But the crowd moved up and out, making a sharp U-turn to take a nearby exit onto 42nd Street. Shortly afterward, police officers ran into the terminal to evacuate it. Petrella sent his frightened staff out straightaway, locked up and then joined the huge crowds on the streets outside. The terminal was later closed for the rest of the day. Petrella spoke to MTA police who said someone had placed a package on one of the platforms and immediately run away from it.

Continue at Salon.

Not a dog


On a windy autumn day on a green hill near Gisborne in Victoria, Lyn Watson, the co-founder of the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre, calls out to Snapple, a male dingo. The red-blond canine trots over and sits patiently as Watson demonstrates all the ways a dingo is not a dog. First, she puts a hand under the animal’s chin and one at the top of its head, then – as if it has a hinge at the back of its neck – she pushes back until the top of the dingo’s skull touches its spine. Upright again, she turns its ears like radar dishes. When dingoes hunt, one ear points directly forward and one directly back. Next, Watson rotates Snapple’s head from side to side, and it travels at least 200 degrees each way. It’s like the famous head-spinning scene in The Exorcist, except it’s adorable. Why do dingoes have hinged heads? 

I wrote about an amazing dingo sanctuary in The Monthly, subscription only.

Below a video I shot at the Sanctuary. It's a small demo of the dingo's startlingly non-dog-like abilities. Most of the people I showed it to gasped aloud.



If you don't build it...


A case study in sport has a lot in common with case studies in medicine or scientific discovery. It follows a standard arc even as it tells an individual tale. All the classic tensions are there: the individual versus the world, the expertise of the old versus the ambition of the young, the beauty of hard-won skills, and the poignant value of leaving home. Plus, there's throwing and hitting things. I wrote about the sought-after Australian rookie Lewis Thorpe for the Good Weekend. 

Stolen lives

In the August issue of The Monthly, I write about the half-million Australian children who were incarcerated in "orphanages" in C20th Australia.

The issue is now on newsstands. It's available online to subscribers, and will become free in a month.

Who are the half-million?

Many Australians today are familiar with the Stolen Generation and the Child Migrants but they don't realize that these groups are a portion of 500,000 children (many not 'orphans' at all) who were separated from their families and experienced great cruelty in government and religious institutions and small group homes.

Typically, if their stories get any attention, they are presented as long ago tragedies. But the story of Forgotten Australians is still unfolding. "Homies," as many call themselves, want crucial information about their identity that was taken from them, but neither the federal nor state governments will take responsibility for giving all of it back. Homies also seek a justice that was withheld from them, but no Australian government will hold a Royal Commission. Meanwhile, the legacy of long-closed institutions lives on in the health, housing and family lives of these now grown-up children.


The most comprehensive book about homies is "Orphans of the Living" by Joanna Penglase, which came out of Penglase's Ph.D. research. It's a gripping account, and an extraordinary example of investigative research. Penglase's subjects were in many ways invisible; they didn't talk about being homies in public and they weren't in touch with each other.

When Penglase's book was published, it received the same treatment that the homies did. It was mostly ignored. The only figure in the Australian media who paid attention was, surprisingly, Bert Newton. He flew Penglase interstate and interviewed her on his TV show. Newton grew up near an orphanage, he said, and he had always wanted to know what went on behind its walls.


I had never heard of "Forgotten Australians" before I started work on this article, and when I mentioned it to family and friends, none of them had either. I asked Penglase how such a large demographic could still be so invisible. She said:

The indifference to our history now is rather similar to the indifference to our fate when we were children. Any care was good enough and it didn't really matter what happened to us in Homes, we were lucky to be looked after. It was as if once you did (undeservedly) get cared for, you just had to put up with whatever else went along with that. People often say in excuse, "Oh, but times were different then, people thought differently," and of course that's true. We can't judge the past on today's standards. But what I say to that is, that the staff in Homes, and the managers, and all the various people associated with 'child welfare' as it was known then, all of those people would never have considered that type of care good enough for their own children.

The memoir "An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a lost childhood" by Frank Golding is a beautifully written account of life in an institution.


Another book (recommended to me though I didn't get a chance to read) is After the Orphanage by Suellen Murray from RMIT. Murray interviewed many care-leavers about their life after the instititution.

Senate report

The Forgotten Australians report from the 2004 Senate Inquiry, an incredibly readable account, can be found here.


Each state has dealt with the issue of records in different ways, some better than others. The March 2012 Victorian Ombudsman's report into the storage and management of ward's records states that Victoria's measures were "piecemeal and ultimately unsuccessful."

In their investigation, the ombudsman's representitives examined a selection of records from a large group of previously un-indexed boxes. They found numerous documents about specific allegations of sexual assault of children by home staff, with statements from the police, wards and home staff. The boxes that held these files were marked for destruction.

The ombudsman's report can be downloaded from this page.


In a public hearing for the Senate Inquiry, Senator Andrew Murray interviewed Peter Quinn, who had worked at DoCS from 1951 to 1992, and was at that time researching a Ph.D. on the history of juvenile corrections in New South Wales. His remarks pertained to juvenile correction, but he said he was also very familiar with child welfare homes. Quinn said:

...the priority for both politicians and officials was not the wellbeing of children but cost cutting and economy. That in my view was essentially because it was believed that there was a delinquent class which was criminal, self-perpetuating, beyond redemption and therefore not worth spending money on.


... institutional forms of care persisted because they were cheaper even though they were known to be damaging to children.

The transcript of this interview can be downloaded from this page (select 03/02/2004 Parramatta).

Andrew Murray, who played a crucial role in driving the inquiry, has since been active in placing the history of homies on the national curriculum.


To learn more about Forgotten Australians visit CLAN. Victorians can also visit Open Place. CLAN has a list of related groups in different states.

Find and Connect can be found here.


Even as the number of hours in the day remains fixed, the number of decisions we must make grows. Organic versus non? Public versus private? Paper versus digital? Modern adults must navigate real and virtual worlds, and if they have children, they need to keep an eye on their increasingly complicated worlds as well. Indeed, there is now a well-established body of science showing that there are only so many decisions you can make in a day before all your choices become bad ones. Decision-making doesn’t just feel exhausting, it really drains us.

Continue reading "" »

Man bites dingo



     On a stormy day in January 1925, before a crowd of hundreds, a nine-foot-tall polar bear was transferred to a new enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. As lightning flashed and thunder cracked, the bear raised itself to its full height and surveyed the thrilled crowd. Was it safe? A watching keeper assured a spectator that bears cannot leap. Barely had he finished the sentence when the bear leaped. It jumped its moat, scaled the barrier wall and, like a tightrope artist, walked along the top till it reached the now screaming crowd. Zoo workers yelled "Run," parents and children fled, one spectator walked into the bear's enclosure and pulled the steel door shut behind him.

        A group of keepers quickly assembled. They threw the bear hunks of horse-meat, whacked at it with crowbars and tried to lasso it, to no avail. The bear went after one man, threw him to the ground and ripped through his scalp. Streaming with blood, the prone man told his mates to shoot the bear. "Shoot quickly." One of the keepers shot at the bear's shoulder from behind, and—improbably—killed it.

        I say 'improbably' because in another polar-bear-leaps-into-crowd incident at a 20th century Australian zoo (not the only other time it happened), yet another group of keepers surrounded the escapee with guns, shooting at it over and over. The bullets bounced off the enraged beast, until one man placed the muzzle of his gun right up against the bear's head and pulled the trigger.

        An article in The Argus about the 1925 incident concluded that Melbourne was lucky; the most significant consequences were only one casualty and the loss of a bear worth £200. Today, by contrast, the pointless death of a polar bear would cause great sorrow and shame, even more so that the species is endangered, and the Zoo itself would be in significant trouble. But there was a fantastic blamelessness around the event. The design of the enclosure was from the US and Europe, the article explained. Clearly, the walls should be raised. Indeed.

        It's tempting to look back and judge the zoos ignorant, and of course they were, but no one born today would have done any better a hundred years ago. Much of what we know about zoo animals feels like truism now—Do not throw coins to the seals, Do not give the orangutans matches, Do not assume polar bears can't jump—but it's been a long process of trial and error. We have learned a lot from our mistakes over the last 100 years.

        Among them, the Zoo no longer keeps snakes by the hundreds in a pit or lets the dingoes roam free. It does not display its deceased orangutans in a glass cage, no matter how popular they were. Nor does it take in kangaroos from the public, ex-pets that surprisingly grew big and nasty.

            In 2012, the Zoo is undergoing another major evolution, and this time it is leading the world. I spoke to Jenny Grey, current CEO of Melbourne Zoo, for The Monthly. She told me about the changes and introduced me to the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, an unlovely but charismatic creature that despite its renaissance-meets-special-effects-from-“The Mummy” look, was thankfully only 15-cm-long.

Best Australian Science Writing 2011

BestAustSciWritingThe idea that science writing can be important, entertaining and even literary is long overdue in Australia. Great thanks to the University of New South Wales Press for blowing preconceptions away with the nation's inaugural volume of Best Science Writing, which I am thrilled to be in.

The Jerilderie Letter

Jerilderie_letter_w250 Ned Kelly’s legend is all the more glorious for the power of his voice, which you can still hear loud and clear if you read the 1879 Jerilderie letter, a 7400-word account of his actions and a plea for better treatment of Irish settlers in his State. Kelly dictated this almost-manifesto to his friend, Joe Byrne. He begins mildly:

“I wish to acquaint you with some of the occurrences of the present past and future.”

But soon winds up into a blistering attack upon the corruption and feeble character of the men who claimed to dispense justice at the time.

“The Queen must surely be proud of such herioc men as the Police and Irish soldiers as It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half starved larrakin to a watch house.”

“...and is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police who some calls honest gentlemen.”

The bumps on Ned's and Fred's heads

MuttermuseumskullsIt wasn't that long ago that scientists believed they could read your soul in the lumps on your head. Here are phrenology reports for Ned Kelly and Frederick Deeming (Thank you Michael Newcity for the latter).

To start, Ned's phrenologist strikes a note of modesty: "Of course, perfect clearness of judgment upon matters of such magnitude and complexity is not to be expected..."

Yet on he goes: "The measurement from caution to caution is fully an inch less than it should be in a well-proportioned head; and in the moral regions there is a deficiency of 1 inch."

Fred fares worse. Colin MacKenzie, director of the Australian Institute of Anatomy, the man rumored to have the "E. Kelly" skull on his desk, found "in Deeming, by an extra-ordinary lapse of nature, a prehistoric man of the earliest primitive type known to science had been born in the nineteenth century." He went on: "A cast of the oldest human relic known to science, the Java skull, when placed upon Deeming's fits it like a cap," and concluded that Deeming's "knowledge of right or wrong was similar to that of a cat or a dog."

The rest of Ned

GreenSashkidsbook Mark Greenwood wrote a wonderful book for children called Ned Kelly and the Green Sash.

Dr. Jeremy Smith, Senior Archeologist at Heritage Victoria, wrote about his investigation into the skeletal remains found at Pentridge Prison for Providence, the journal of the Public Records Office, to be published in September/October.

The scientists and researchers at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine have also written about their investigation into the old skulls and bones.

Ned Kelly and the curious case of the missing tooth


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. 

Continue reading "Ned Kelly and the curious case of the missing tooth" »

The Complete Inner History of the Kelly Gang and their Pursuers



My great-grandfather, J.J. Kenneally, wrote the first pro-Kelly book. J. J., who grew up in the same country town as the Kellys, was ten when Ned Kelly was hung, so he is surely writing from experience when he says local children at the time used to play “the Kellys and the police.” The Kellys always won.

On a much darker note, in his introduction to the story of the Kelly gang and the awful events that led to Ned Kelly's execution, he wrote:

"Irish patriotism was such an unforgiveable crime in the eyes of British Government officials in the Colony of Victoria, that even the serving of a savage sentence would not wipe out the campaign of anti-Irish hatred so well organised in the Colonies."

Two posts down, a photo of J.J. himself.

Speech bubbles

Speechbubbles Illustration by Jeff Fisher for The Monthly.

If a property bubble pops but no one reports it, does anyone know it has happened? I wrote about the property market and real estate journalism in Australia for The Monthly in May. For the piece, I spoke to bloggers like Delusional Economics and the Unconventional Economist. If journalism is the fourth estate, these guys are the now apparently necessary fifth. They pull no punches, publish real data, unspin the sales pitches and declare their interests.

This is belated but I was reminded to post today by the (surely) world first spectacle of a highly successful reality TV series accidentally imploding in a prime time slot, while at the same time, breaking actual news.

"The Block," an Aussie show in which four couples compete to renovate and then sell a house at auction aired its finale on Sunday August 21. In previous seasons, the action on The Block has mimicked the real-life fever-dream that is the Australian real estate market of the last five+ years. Houses sell fast and high, credit is cheap, auctions make people crazy, and most people who don't yet have a house are driven by terror that they never will. Underlying all of this is the religious belief that property always goes up.

But last night The Block unintentionally revealed on national TV that property-as-pathology is over. In a crowded private auction where bidders had to pre-register (and were sworn to silence for 24 hours), only one of the four houses was sold.

One can't help but wonder what the show's sponsors and advertisers are talking about this morning. McDonalds, Mitre 10, and other companies ran ads in every break, many featuring couples from the show. What about the design companies whose beautiful furniture was featured in the houses that couldn't sell? What does it feel like to have one's products prominently displayed in such a debacle? What about the auctioneers from well-known real estate companies who stood up in front of the cameras to show off their fast-talking trade? They failed in front of three million people.

Most newspapers ran the story with a photo of the winning couple--that is, the only couple to sell a house, not the couple whose house sold for the most money. But there were surely many shots from the show that they could have used instead, pictures that told the actual story. Maybe a shot of the two sisters who barely saw their husbands or small children for weeks as they worked like indentured renovators. As their house failed at auction, their expressions went from stunned to sour. One turned to the other, either forgetting or no longer caring that she was being filmed. That, she said, was "a waste of time."

The Peril Network

TIMEApril11coversmall If you get into trouble in the Murcia region of Spain and you call 112 (Europe's 911) from your 3G phone, the dispatcher may remotely switch on your cell phone's video camera, microphone and speaker and give you a simple directive: point your camera at the emergency. First responders watching the feed will assess the crisis. If you are about to be mugged, you will find it useful to point your camera at your mugger and say--as residents of Murcia have begun to do, “The police are watching you right now.” (En Espanol: “La policía te esta viendo.”)

I wrote about next generation 911 in this week's TIME magazine, on newstands today.

Move over Rico

In "The First Word," I wrote about Rico, a German border Collie who could identify about 200 objects his owners had taught him. Now, in South Carolina, another border collie has been taught to understand 1022 nouns. His name is Chaser, and he was trained by his owner, a retired psychology professor. Nicholas Wade writes about Chaser in this week's New York Times Science section.