Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Ned’s Head

Saw a documentary on the weekend about a skull that was supposedly undergoing a scientific and historical investigation to see if it was Ned Kelly’s. In some ways it seemed more sensationalist than scientific.

The first question to be answered was whether it was the skull that had been on display as Ned Kelly’s that had been stolen. This was quickly answered as a replica of the displayed skull had been made while it was still on display and the one being tested was an exact match to that replica.

The first test to determine if it was Ned’s wasn’t exactly scientific. There were 12 desth masks that had been made of those executed at the gaol and they determined that of those 12 the skull was too big to fit in 10 of them leaving just Edward Kelly and Frederick Deeming’s death masks being big enough to fit the skull inside. What they didn’t mention was that there were in fact 153 executions at the gaol and the skull could therefore have also belonged to any of the others where a death mask wasn’t made. This led to a large part of the show dealing with Fred Deeming including speculation that he might have been Jack the Ripper. No mention was made of the fact that Fred Deeming’s skull is on display in a museum in England nor of the fact that he was known to be resident in South Africa at the time of the ripper killings. When they finally got proof that the skull was not Ned’s it was implied that it must therefore be Fred’s.

Just before the end of the show they obtained proof that a particular skeleton belonged to Ned Kelly. Now that skeleton had a small section of skull with it and therefore no intact skull on display anywhere could be Ned’s.

Based on the conclusions they reached at the end of the show there was no reason whatever for including Deeming at all. The skull obviously belongs to one of the more than a hundred other’s who were executed at the gaol where no death mask is available. It was used in place of Ned’s because Ned’s skull was no longer intact and the skull was approximately the right size. Who it belonged to may never be known.

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One Response to “Ned’s Head”

mark Says:

I believe the researchers knew more details than was presented in the documentary you mention. These may address some of the discrepancies that you point out. The old cemetary was spread into more than one area. Some for different time periods. Some for different causes of death, such as government executions vs deaths in custody. Death masks and studying skulls also narrow the timeframe because frenology was not a respected science for the entire duration that executions occurred at the jail. They are able to reduce the number of missing skulls through these details. It is also quite realistic that Deeming and Kelly were buried next to each other as claimed because they were both hanged so would be buried in the same area. The time difference between the two is because after someone is buried, they allow a settling time of several years before they dig another grave next to it.

You mention that Deeming’s skull is in an England museum. This skull was on display there but this is no longer the case, and is one of the skulls shown in the documentary. It is the one that they showed cut into halves. A photo from when it was on display at the Scotland Yard Black Museum may interest you. The skull marked as Deemings front left, and Deeming death mask (more than one was made because he held interest in both Australia and England, one was sent to England as a gift) also shown in the centre of the photo.