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Why the curious mystery of Ned Kelly’s skull remains unsolved

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, Australia's most notorious outlaw was shuffled to the first-floor gallows of what is now the Old Melbourne Gaol. Ned Kelly knew his fate — he had taken the lives of three police officers, and now the authorities would take his.

But, more than a century since that day in 1880, a curious mystery remains unsolved — what happened to Kelly's head?

It's a question that has puzzled scientists and historians for decades, and the story of what happened to the bushranger's remains after his death is as fascinating as the story of his life on Earth.

The 'free-for-all' at Ned Kelly's resting place
After he was executed, Kelly was buried alongside 40 or so other prisoners in a narrow graveyard, their initials etched into the wall above each plot. For Edward “Ned” Kelly, “EK” would be a reminder for all of his fate.

In April 1929, after the closure of the Old Melbourne Gaol, part of the site was being developed for..

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today, Australia's most notorious outlaw was shuffled to the first-floor gallows of what is now the Old Melbourne Gaol. Ned Kelly knew his fate — he had taken the lives of three police officers, and now the authorities would take his.

But, more than a century since that day in 1880, a curious mystery remains unsolved — what happened to Kelly's head?

It's a question that has puzzled scientists and historians for decades, and the story of what happened to the bushranger's remains after his death is as fascinating as the story of his life on Earth.

The 'free-for-all' at Ned Kelly's resting place

After he was executed, Kelly was buried alongside 40 or so other prisoners in a narrow graveyard, their initials etched into the wall above each plot. For Edward "Ned" Kelly, "EK" would be a reminder for all of his fate.

In April 1929, after the closure of the Old Melbourne Gaol, part of the site was being developed for the new Melbourne police headquarters. Contractor Harry Lee signed up for what he thought would be a relatively simple job.

When he arrived on site, however, he noticed the initials carved in the wall and was told they marked the graves of some of the old prisoners — including Kelly's.

Ned Kelly in chains

Lee was assured there weren't any actual skeletons down there, just old rotting coffins, probably filled with dirt. No bones. Because, as was common practice at the time, coffins were packed with quicklime — a white, powdered chemical compound.

Tried and tested, quicklime had been used as far back as Roman times and during the plague was caked over corpses as a handy tool in speeding up decomposition, preventing odours and, apparently, disintegrating bones. So, it was assumed any skeletal remains would be completely gone.

The 1929 dig at Melbourne gaol revealed prisoners' remains and became a 'free-for-all'

But that wasn't the case.

According to Lee's grandson, Lee Franklin, when his grandfather and the foreman on site began to dig the area thought to be where Kelly was buried, bones tumbled out of the coffin.

Crowds of people swarmed from all directions, grabbing whatever they could get a hold of. Lee jumped down, retrieving the skull before anyone else could run away with it.

The whole scene was described as a "free-for-all", with souvenir bones making their way to homes all across Melbourne.

Disgraced at what had unfolded, the premier of Victoria ordered an investigation into this "public horror". A plea was made to the public to return all remains taken from the site, and an undertaker began putting returned remains in new coffins and boxes for reburial.

The new burial site was the grounds of Pentridge Prison out in Coburg and the remains of the prisoners, including Kelly, were transferred and put into two mass graves.

The skull had made its way back to the gaol but, instead of being reburied, it was kept around.

After all, it was believed to be Kelly's and had become quite the talking point. Some say it was kept on a detective's desk before being donated in 1931 to the newly established Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra where it came in and out of display for 40 years.

Then, in the 1970s, the skull was given back to the National Trust's Old Melbourne Gaol. School groups and tourists would line the freezing, bluestone walls just to catch a glimpse of Kelly's head in a purpose-built glass cabinet.

The skull believed to be Ned Kelly's before it was removed in 1978

The display thrilled curious onlookers, but in 1978 the skull went missing from its cabinet in the old Melbourne Gaol.

Eventually it came into the possession of a Ned Kelly enthusiast called Tom Baxter, who became its unlikely custodian for decades. Baxter kept the skull in a tupperware container in a hollow log at the bottom of his remote farm in the WA Kimberley.

The skull makes a comeback

Over the years, the journey of Kelly's remains involved many red herrings and rabbit holes for investigators.

According to Jeremy Smith, Heritage Victoria's principal archaeologist, Kelly's remains were likely moved up to four times after the day he was first buried.

In 2008, Mr Smith and fellow archaeologist Catherine Tucker found themselves nine kilometres away at Coburg's Pentridge Prison. They were searching for the mass graves of dozens of prisoners moved there 80 years earlier from the Old Melbourne Gaol.

Smith, Tucker and their team realised no-one actually knew where these mass graves were.

"This is the value of archaeology," Mr Smith explained.

"You can have the historical evidence, you can have people tell you things but that is susceptible to inaccuracy or even intentional bias. When you dig a hole and you find something, well, then you know. This is where the remains are … it's undisputable."

Archaeologists Jeremy Smith and Catherine Tucker

Because of extensive construction on the Pentridge property, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) would not be helpful in locating the graves. GPR is only really useful on relatively undisturbed earth. So, the team were forced to go by sight, scraping away the dirt inch by inch in search of any sign.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in 2009, the team finally hit something below the surface. Three distinct areas of white substance, standing out against the black clay. They then uncovered the timber boxes and coffins all covered with white, hardened quicklime.

The burial pit at Pentridge Prison

More than 40 partial and complete skeletons made their way across Melbourne to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) to be examined and possibly identified. Crudely buried more than once, there was a high chance that DNA had degraded and results would be limited.

With public interest high, the custodian of the skull, Tom Baxter, came out and agreed that, if Kelly's remains were positively identified, he would return the skull so it could be reunited with the rest of the bones. On November 11 2009, on the anniversary of Kelly's death, Baxter handed the skull over to the forensics team. He never doubted for one moment the skull he had was Kelly's.

Then began a 20-month journey of identification by a team led by VIFM's molecular biologist and DNA manager, Dadna Hartman.

Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine's molecular biologist and DNA Manager Dr Dadna Hartman

The skull proved difficult to match with bones from the mass graves. After 30 years in a swampy log, attempts to recover DNA from the skull proved fruitless. Also the team had established that the bone structure closely matched another prisoner called Frederick Deeming.

In a stroke of luck, a tooth was brought into the lab by local Melbourne man Chris Ott. His grandfather had worked for the 1929 contractor Harry Lee and, in a strange twist, the tooth fitted perfectly into the skull. This find proved definitively that the skull from Baxter was the one taken from the grave back then, but there was still no proof it was Ned Kelly's.

One thing the tooth had which the skull didn't was DNA. Buried deep inside the tooth, Hartman was able to retrieve mitochondrial DNA.

The discovery meant the scientists now needed to find one of Kelly's living relatives. Luckily, Leigh Oliver, Kelly's great-grandnephew, was able to have his DNA tested against the tooth.

It wasn't a match.

The skull Tom Baxter took in 1978

After all those years, it was clear that the skull — once exhibited at the Gaol museum and traipsed all across the country and celebrated as Kelly's — was never his to begin with.

"It was good to be able to put an answer to that question," Dr Hartman said. "Was it Ned's skull? No, but … where is is it? Where is Ned's skull?"

Kelly's skeleton emerges

In 2011, almost three years after Ms Tucker and Mr Smith's archaeological team began the search for the prisoners' remains, VIFM announced they had finally identified a near-complete skeleton as Kelly's.

After a mind-boggling series of CT scans, X-rays, anthropological testing and historical research, the team sought further expertise for obtaining DNA. The world-renowned Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, experts in the DNA testing of co-mingled, degraded and ancient remains, took up the challenge.

With their assistance, Kelly's remains were identified from an almost complete skeleton found at the Pentridge site by the archaeologists.

A few of the bushranger's bones showed clear evidence of the injuries he received during the Kelly Gang's 1880 Glenrowan shootout, including the infamous gunshot wounds to the left arm and right foot.

It was then, during an examination in VIFM'S forensics lab, that members of the team looked on as two metal gunshot pellets rolled out of a round hole in his right tibia and onto the table. It had been in his leg from the day he was shot.

A bullet hole in Ned Kelly's right tibia bone

As the task of identifying Australia's most famous bushranger was nearing its end, it had become clear who the skull might have belonged to — another prisoner. That man's skeleton, although pieced back together, was never able to be matched to a name. His DNA remains on file in the hope that one day a family member might come forward to claim him.

There is still no sign of Kelly's head, but there is a clue as to how the story might end. In the small box that contained Kelly's remains, one piece of the back of his skull was found, likely to have been removed during a routine autopsy.

So, the search is still on for a perfect match — a skull with a piece missing. The final twist in a mystery that has lasted 138 years.

The Twist is an animated short form documentary series that brings to life some of Australia's most intriguing true crime stories. Five brand new episodes are available now.

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Bitcoin overtakes iTunes vouchers as most common payment demanded by tax scammers

Australians have reported more than 28,000 'scam' attempts to the Australian Tax Office (ATO), since July 1, and paid almost $1 million to scammers, the ATO says.

The agency said payments through Bitcoin ATMs had overtaken iTunes vouchers as the most common method of scam payment reported to the ATO.

A Bitcoin ATM is a method of transferring cash into and out of the cryptocurrency.

“November is a prime time for scammers as they know lots of people have tax bills to pay,” Assistant Commissioner Kath Anderson said in a statement.

She said scammers were becoming more sophisticated and exploiting vulnerable people, often using aggressive tactics to swindle people out of their money or personal information. They were known to impersonate tax agents too.

“Be wary if someone contacts you demanding payment of a tax debt you didn't know you owed,” Ms Anderson said.

“Your identifying information like tax file numbers, bank account numbers or your date of birth are the keys t..

Australians have reported more than 28,000 'scam' attempts to the Australian Tax Office (ATO), since July 1, and paid almost $1 million to scammers, the ATO says.

The agency said payments through Bitcoin ATMs had overtaken iTunes vouchers as the most common method of scam payment reported to the ATO.

A Bitcoin ATM is a method of transferring cash into and out of the cryptocurrency.

"November is a prime time for scammers as they know lots of people have tax bills to pay," Assistant Commissioner Kath Anderson said in a statement.

She said scammers were becoming more sophisticated and exploiting vulnerable people, often using aggressive tactics to swindle people out of their money or personal information. They were known to impersonate tax agents too.

"Be wary if someone contacts you demanding payment of a tax debt you didn't know you owed," Ms Anderson said.

"Your identifying information like tax file numbers, bank account numbers or your date of birth are the keys to your identity, and can be used by scammers to break into your life if they are compromised," she added.

External Link: ATO scam audio

The ATO would never ask a taxpayer to make a payment into an ATM or via gift or pre-paid cards such as iTunes and Visa cards, or direct credit to be paid to a personal bank account, Ms Anderson said.

But since July 1, the ATO had seen almost 6,000 taxpayers give away their personal or financial information to scammers through things like phishing scams.

"If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a call, hang up and call us on 1800 008 540," Ms Anderson said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has also reported more scams by people impersonating well-known businesses and the police.

In August, the ACCC said its Scamwatch website had recorded a significant spike in remote-access scams, with more than 8,000 reports recorded in 2018 (to August) and losses totalling $4.4 million.

Australian Taxation Office assistant commissioner Kath Anderson on the phone

The ACCCs Targeting Scams report said more than 200,000 scam reports were submitted to the ACCC, Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) and other federal and state-based government agencies in 2017.

Australians lost $340 million – a $40 million increase compared to 2016, and more than in any other year since the ACCC began reporting on scam activity, it said.

ATOs tips to spot a scammer:

  • Scammers are often aggressive or abusive
  • They will often threaten you with immediate arrest
  • They request payment via unusual methods such as iTunes gift cards or other prepaid cards
  • They request personal security information such as your tax file number or bank details via email or SMS or social media sites
  • They ask for money in order to process a refund or other payment

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Get your childs immunisation history or else face risk of exclusion: health authority

Western NSW Local Health District (WNSWLHD) is encouraging parents and carers to download their childs immunisation history statement before the start of primary and secondary schools in 2019.

A WNSWLHD spokesperson said principals of primary and secondary schools must request an immunisation history statement when children enroll.

“If children do not have an immunisation certificate on file, or whose certificate shows they are incompletely vaccinated, they may be excluded from school in the event of a serious vaccine preventable disease outbreak, for example, measles,” the spokesperson said.

However, parents are not required to show the certificate if their children are transferring straight from a public primary to a public secondary school.

“The immunisation history will transfer with their other records, so parents do not need to show the certificate again,” the spokesperson said.

Parents of other students are encouraged to download their childs statement from the Australian I..

Western NSW Local Health District (WNSWLHD) is encouraging parents and carers to download their childs immunisation history statement before the start of primary and secondary schools in 2019.

A WNSWLHD spokesperson said principals of primary and secondary schools must request an immunisation history statement when children enroll.

“If children do not have an immunisation certificate on file, or whose certificate shows they are incompletely vaccinated, they may be excluded from school in the event of a serious vaccine preventable disease outbreak, for example, measles,” the spokesperson said.

However, parents are not required to show the certificate if their children are transferring straight from a public primary to a public secondary school.

“The immunisation history will transfer with their other records, so parents do not need to show the certificate again,” the spokesperson said.

Parents of other students are encouraged to download their childs statement from the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR).

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WNSWLHD provides health services in most of the Central West cities, including the Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo local government areas.

NSW Health director of communicable diseases, Vicky Sheppeard, said the new requirements are crucial in stopping the spread of diseases.

“It's important for schools to have an immunisation history statement for each enrolled student to help manage disease outbreaks,” Ms Sheppeard said.

The immunisation history statement includes all vaccines given to the child and reported by the provider to the AIR.

All children registered with Medicare can obtain their immunisation history statements, including those who have had no vaccines, or those who have medical exemptions to certain vaccines.

Parents and carers can obtain their childs immunisation history statement by:

• using their Medicare online account through myGov

• using the Medicare Express Plus App

• calling the AIR General Enquiries Line on 1800 653 809.

NSW Health said it has achieved its highest vaccination rates through the immunisation programs.

It will spend a record $22.75 million on state-wide immunisation programs in 2018-19.

This story Get your childs immunisation history or else face risk of exclusion: health authority first appeared on Western Advocate.

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West Busselton public house left trashed

West Busselton public house left trashed
A public housing home in West Busselton was left trashed after tenants vacated the property several weeks ago leaving the home in disarray.

An old mattress, doors, junk, and rubbish littered the property with items sprawled across the front lawn and backyard, including a destroyed bicycle which had been hung from a tree out the front of the home.

Neighbour Steve Sewell said it was unacceptable the tenants were allowed to live in the home in such an unkept state and it was frustrating the Department of Communities did not conduct more regular inspections.

“It is a typical case of the department not doing their job, it is the only house which has not been looked after in the whole street, as you can see,” he said.

Mr Sewell said several complaints had been made to the department against the tenants including the number of people who lived at the home.

“If they were having regular house inspections, which we pay for, it would not be the way i..

West Busselton public house left trashed

A public housing home in West Busselton was left trashed after tenants vacated the property several weeks ago leaving the home in disarray.

An old mattress, doors, junk, and rubbish littered the property with items sprawled across the front lawn and backyard, including a destroyed bicycle which had been hung from a tree out the front of the home.

Neighbour Steve Sewell said it was unacceptable the tenants were allowed to live in the home in such an unkept state and it was frustrating the Department of Communities did not conduct more regular inspections.

“It is a typical case of the department not doing their job, it is the only house which has not been looked after in the whole street, as you can see,” he said.

Mr Sewell said several complaints had been made to the department against the tenants including the number of people who lived at the home.

“If they were having regular house inspections, which we pay for, it would not be the way it is today.”

In a letter, obtained by the Mail, from the Minister for Housings office about the property it stated that the department expected public housing tenants to maintain properties to a standard consistent with the community.

The letter, dated July 13, stated routine inspections were conducted at the property from 2016 to 2018 and the department found the property to be neat, tidy and undamaged with no cause for concern.

“The department does not consider that the property would require significant maintenance work that is beyond general wear and tear should it become vacant in the future,” the letter stated.

Department of Communities acting assistant director general regional and remove service delivery Brad Jolly said inspections for public housing were conducted annually or more frequently if a problem was identified.

“Where a tenant vacates a property, inspections are conducted shortly after and any cleaning and maintenance works will generally be completed within 28 days,” he said.

“The department does not condone tenants damaging properties. Where damage can be attributed to the actions of tenants, they are billed for repairs and carry that liability even after they vacate a property.”

Mr Jolly said terminating was a last resort and was decided by a Magistrate.

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