The Adventures of Ned’s Head

Ned Kelly shortly before his execution. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Update: Ned Kelly finally had a funeral, 132 years after his death. The Guardian posted a video on the subject with some great background. But his skull is still missing–read on below.

It’s not every day the news talks about a witch returning a skull. And not just any skull: the skull of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, one of the best-known characters in Australian history.

In late August 2012, various news outlets reported that Anna Hoffman, a 74-year-old New Zealander and self-proclaimed witch, had come forward claiming to possess Ned Kelly’s head. Hoffman is only the latest in a line of colorful characters who’ve made the same statement, and so far they’ve all been—let’s just say—not entirely in touch with reality. I tell the full story (or at least the story so far) in Rest in Pieces, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Ned Kelly was a bushranger, a criminal who used the Australian outback as the base for conducting robberies of stagecoaches and small-town banks. His daring escapades and defiance of the British establishment made him a folk hero, and after he was captured in a police shootout in 1880 wearing homemade armor, nearly 30,000 people signed a petition asking for a stay of execution. But the authorities were determined to end his life, and Kelly was hanged at the Melbourne gaol on November 11, 1880. His last words are said to have been “Tell ’em I died game.”

As a Roman Catholic turned newly devout in prison, Kelly wanted his remains be given to his family for burial in consecrated ground. But as an about-to-be executed criminal, his had little say in the matter: his body was the property of the Crown. His corpse was buried on the grounds of the Melbourne gaol, where it stayed until renovations in 1929. That year, part of the gaol grounds were turned over to a nearby college to create a new engineering school. When the skeletons were exhumed, local schoolboys plundered the graves. That’s when Kelly’s skull disappeared—for the first time.

Things get pretty weird from here, but an object said to be Kelly’s skull was returned to police shortly after the exhumations in 1929. However, this skull never made it back to Kelly’s grave. Instead it was kept at a variety of Australian institutions, and casts of it went on display in the 1940s at the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, where it kept company with aboriginal artifacts and preserved koala bear hands. Later the skull was moved to the Old Melbourne Gaol Museum, where it was on display next to Kelly’s death mask. But in 1978, the skull was stolen again, this time out of a locked cabinet.

The theft has never been solved. In the years since, several lively characters have come forward claiming to have the skull, including an eccentric activist named “Fast Buck$” and former Australian Marijuana Party Senate candidate known as J. J. McRoach. For years, Ned’s missing head has been a ghostly character in Australian politics, known only by its absence.

In the later 1990s, a sandalwood farmer named Tom Baxter from a remote region of western Australia came forward saying he had the skull. Baxter refused to say whether or not he himself had stolen the skull, but said he was taking care of it because he objected to its display as a “police trophy.” After a decade of negotiations, Baxter returned the skull to authorities in 2009 on the anniversary of Kelly’s death.

But as it turned out, Baxter never had Ned’s head. Forensic analysis in 2009 showed that Baxter’s skull, the same one stolen in 1978, probably belongs to another character from Australia’s history: Australia’s first serial killer, Frederick Deeming, who some think could be Jack the Ripper.

As for the “witch” Hoffman, who is something of a folk hero herself, she claims that she was given the skull by a security guard thirty years ago while on a vacation in Melbourne. A report in the Telegraph says:

Ms Hoffman, who courted controversy as a witch in the 1960s and 1970s, told the Herald on Sunday newspaper that she has cared for the skull, one of more than 20 she has in a collection. “I have treated it with respect, I haven’t lit candles in it or drunk red wine out of it or anything bohemian like that.”

Goodness gracious, nothing like that.

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