Monday 10 November 2014

UPDATED(2) Book Review: Ned Kelly Under the Microscope

On November 11th 1880, 134 years ago this week, Ned Kelly was hanged and his body buried in the grounds of the Melbourne Gaol. Since then, nearly 400 books have been written about him and the tumultuous events that resulted in his untimely death at age 26, and now, yet another one has just been published.

It is a CSIRO publication, “Ned Kelly Under the Microscope” subtitled “Solving the forensic mystery of Ned Kellys remains”,  and you can order it online for $39.95. Mine arrived a couple of weeks ago in a brown paper package, a soft cover book of  265 glossy pages, 26 chapters and lots of interesting colour photographs charts and diagrams.

This new work is actually a collection of essays Edited by Dr Craig Cormick, a “science communicator and author” who most sensibly asks in the Preface “Do we really need another Ned Kelly book?” His answer was “as long as it has something new to say, Yes we do” and having now read it, I have to agree with him that this book does indeed have something new to say. It adds something that’s all too rare in the vast library of Kelly literature - much needed reason and factual illumination, as opposed to myth-making, fantasy and fabrication.

The contributors are mostly scientists and forensic pathologists of one sort or another, but there are also contributions from Lawyers, historians, a journalist, an anthropologist a real estate valuer and our own Ian Jones, described as an historian and an award winning screenwriter producer and director.

The subject under discussion is of course the story of what happened to the body of Ned Kelly after death. We know a death mask was made, but was  his body then subjected to an undignified desecration by Doctors  and medical students who souvenired parts of him, as some have claimed?  He was buried in the Labour Yard at Melbourne Prison, but since then there has been a series of burials at other sites, exhumations and reburials in 1929, pilfering of bones by souvenir hunters and eventually confusion about who was buried where, as well as various rumours about who was in possession of his skull and his brain. So many unanswered questions…

The opportunity to try to answer some of these questions arose when permission was sought from Heritage Victoria to build on and landscape the heritage-listed site of the former Melbourne Gaol Hospital, in 2002. Five executed prisoners had been buried in the Hospital grounds rather than in the Labour Yard between 1916 and 1924, but when exhumations were undertaken in 1937 so they could be reburied at Pentridge, only four were found. Heritage Victoria requested an archeological excavation before development could go ahead, the fifth coffin was found and then, realizing how poor and incomplete were the records of what had happened to the coffins reburied at Pentridge, they also recommended further work there. The site known as the Pentridge cemetery included a small memorial marking  Ned Kellys eventual resting place, and was believed to contain the coffins of  the 10 prisoners executed at Pentridge, along with those reburied there after exhumation from the Melbourne gaol.

In fact, the archeological dig found just one coffin. It contained the remains of  Ronald Ryan, the last person executed in Australia.

The search for the other coffins and then the decision to try to identify the bones of Ned Kelly, and then to negotiate the return of a skull thought for many years to be his, and the clever science involved in getting answers makes fascinating reading. Some of it is quite technical, but the writers make every attempt to make it accessible for a non scientific reader  - describing how DNA is isolated from tissues for example, Dr Dadna Hartman a molecular biologist writes “This is like fishing with bait that binds to only one type of fish, and leaves everything else behind in the water” How easy is that?

But there is more to this book than forensic science. An answer is given to the question of who might have made the armor – a real Blacksmith or the Gang out in the Bush? -  using x-ray diffraction, X-Ray fluorescence, optical metallography  and transmission electron microscopy. There are discussions about phrenology and handwriting analysis, a piece about the archaeology of Glenrowan, discussion about the guns that were used by both the Police and the Gang, a police Perspective is presented, discussion about how hanging works, who else was hanged, and numerous parenthetical discussions of a paragraph or two on related topics like the claim that Dan Kelly and Steve Hart survived Glenrowan, or explaining what mitochondrial DNA is, when was Ned Kelly born, who was Ann Jones and so on.

Ian Jones contribution is a sentimental personal reflection on how much it moved and inspired him to finally see those bones. He wrote “I had encountered a reality that overtowered the legend”.  I wonder how he would have been moved if he had been looking at the smashed skull of Constable Lonigan, or the shattered chest of Michael Kennedy?

All in all though, this is a wonderful read, a book you can dip into at any point rather than something you have to read from cover to cover. It is packed with interesting information and historical insights, fills in some vital details and provides wonderfully comprehensive answers to a few more of the many puzzles that still remain in the Kelly Story.

Its a book all Kelly students should read, but so far, the only two Kelly sympathiser references to it that I have been able to find on the internet were from people who haven't. They seem to be developing a habit of trying not to read things about Ned Kelly they might not like.  Kelly Forum Member  Lisa posted that she wont buy it because she watched a TV documentary on the subject and found it upsetting. That seems reasonable to me – certainly theres some quite gruesome descriptions in this book, and if youre one of those people who think Ned Kelly was an Icon, it could be upsetting, but I think she would enjoy reading the Ian Jones chapter. 

Brad Webb on the other hand, owner of the worlds greatest Kelly website, has this to say in a comment about the book that was "Liked" by 21 people on the sites Facebook Page:
 “Despite sounding like another academic poindexter I don't actually know who this clown Craig Cormick is. Suffice to say his research on Ned Kelly is right up the proverbial shite creek.” 

Brad Webb  clearly hasn’t read the book because if he had he wouldn’t have had to write that he doesn’t “actually” know who Craig Cormick is because his credentials and photo is there for anyone to read. Not only that, if Mr Webb had bothered to read the book he wouldn’t have ridiculed Dr Cormick and called him a “clown” when at the same time posting a link to an article he wrote  himself three years ago on the subject of Neds missing skull -  if you read Brad Webbs  “stunning Independent Australia Exclusive” from September 2011 you quickly realize whose “research on Ned Kelly is right up the proverbial shite creek” – and its not Dr Cormacks. 

For the benefit of the 21 people who “Liked” Mr Webbs article and who obviously also haven’t read the book I will point out only a couple of the many things in his “exclusive” that demonstrate who the real clown is here. Firstly, lets not dwell on  his assertion that anyone expecting a quick resolution to the question of Kelly’s remains will be disappointed.” (They were buried a mere 16 months after his article was published)

Lets also not dwell on his rehash of the now discredited idea that Medical students took Ned Kellys brain and souvenired his skull. It didn’t happen.

Lets instead look at his claim that the skull labeled “E Kelly” that Tom Baxter stole and then returned to the VIFM was actually “some poor Indians”. Webb claims that the real Ned Kelly skull was on public display until an acquaintance of his working with the National Trust, one Des Anderson swapped it with one taken from “a crate full of skulls and bones” shipped across from India in the 1960’s, and it was this substitute skull that was stolen in 1978.

What Mr Webb would discover if he had bothered to read this book is that there is an iron-clad set of forensic and other findings that prove without doubt that the “Baxter skull” was the same one exhumed from the Melbourne Gaol gravesite in 1927. Its fascinating to read how this unbroken chain of evidence was uncovered - it involved some clever detective work, some luck , a tooth and some shrewd forensics. But Mr Webbs claim is rubbish.

He also makes this somewhat patronizing assertion:
“These 'historians, pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists, radiologists, and ballistics and DNA experts' could have saved themselves a lot of time and money if someone had thought to contact the organiser of 'Ned: The Exhibition' which was held at the Old Melbourne Gaol in 2001-2002. They would have been shown a copy of a hand drawn map of the Pentridge Prison grave sites complete with all the reinterred remains clearly marked in plots, including the location of Ned Kelly’s coffin. I have a copy of that circa 1929 map with Ned's grave clearly labelled in the exact same spot they uncovered his remains in 2009.”

Again, if he had bothered to read the book he would have learned the researchers also have a copy of that map. In fact, I think its the one they reproduce in the book. But the map is like a map of a house that shows which room the body is in – the trouble was, nobody knew exactly where the house was and the Map was no help.

I am really starting to get sick and tired of the way some of these Kelly people behave. Thats two authors and two books that they haven't read in the last couple of years that they have never-the-less attacked and ridiculed because they contain facts and reason and arguments that upset their cosy mythologies about Ned Kelly. 

I wonder if Mr Webb would consider a retraction and an apology? Or is he going to continue to hide his head in the sand and hope the facts will go away, like so many of the Kelly fanatics prefer to do.

Happy Remembrance day everyone - and I am thinking about the real heroes killed in real wars, not criminals hanged for the murder of Police.

UPDATE: Theres a new comment about this book on the Ned Kelly Forum Facebook Page, posted by an NKF Member in response to another member who asked if anyone had read it. I posted a helpful reply but it was deleted immediately - No surprises there! The books Editor Craig Cormick posted a reply today that has been allowed to stand, providing a link to a newspaper review of the book, but this was followed by the following laughably immature Post from a prominent Kelly Forum member who clearly also hasn't read the book: 

"a majority of the research used by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in this book was taken from Kelly researchers after the discovery of Ned's remains in Pentridge.. as it was required by law that the remains were to be identified at the VIFM, it hardly makes any of the contributors to the book "experts", when in all fact they are just doing their job and trying to profit from Ned's story..

The idea that "a majority of the research...was taken from Kelly researchers" is utterly absurd fantasy and complete nonsense. If theres any truth to that claim perhaps the ignorant poster of that nonsense could put it up for everyone to see. He won't because there isn't any.

Today, November 17th, NKF deleted the whole thread that followed their Member "Shez" asking if anyone had red the CSIRO Book. As I predicted, the fool that made those claims about the book would not be posting any evidence because his claim was bollocks. So, no doubt after reading my comments above,  they have been shamed into removing the entire thread and are hoping nobody noticed. 

Once again no hint of an apology from Mr Jager for his outrageous slander against the forensic Scientists who donated their time and any profit to  Charity, no hint of an apology from Mr Webb for his outrageous attack on Dr Cormick, or retraction of his stupid claims about that skull - just a cowardly secret retraction -  all in all two more disgraceful examples of how these blind Kelly fanatics attack anything and everything that doesn't suit their delusional fantasies about Ned Kelly.  

With friends like these, the Mythology of Ned Kelly hardly needs enemies. 


  1. The Microscope book was reviewed in a Canberra newspaper a week ago:

    I prefer your's. Lots more!

    (Also, enjoyed your comments to the Dubbo Photo News article celebrating Ned and bemoaning his execution 134 years ago).

    What to do with the pro-Kelly website scribblers and their deliberate scorn for works they haven't read or studied or analysed?

    The booming readership stats for your blog shows there are many people searching for a more thoughtful, insightful, modern commentary about Ned than they can find elsewhere.

  2. It's mind-boggling to think how many unread books have been trashed by the pro-Kelly sites and their dopey 'keymasters' Then there are long Conga lines of lickers (Ooops, I meant Likers) who also haven't read the books but love them being trashed.

    Disliking this book is ultra weird because it doesn't criticise Ned and has masses of detailed info about how his remains were identified. Its like hating the Denhelds for leading everyone to the site of the Police Camp at Stringybark Creek. Only Kelly fanatics would attack people trying to help them. You can only lead the blind and deluded so far.

    Mr Webb and Trent are vastly unpopular in the Kelly world. The other pro-Kelly webmasters quietly go about their business. They have their prejudices too, but it is not a daily ritual of hate like on some other sites.

    This world would Oh so better be without them all.

  3. That's shocking.

    Brad Webb always boasts about the pre-school research conducted long ago by him and others into this subject. They are laughable, unqualified fools who think they are the equals of properly qualified scientists. They aren't.

  4. Here is Brad Webb spruiking about himself. Note the second paragraph which is about his publications:

    "Brad has managed some of the country's most successful web sites including which receives over 8.5 million hits per year, as well as scripting the content for which features the world's first GPS Audiobook system. As a publisher, Brad has produced a number of commercial titles through his company

    "2011 - Rediscovery of Ned Kelly’s bones only part of the story (Article) Independent Australia,, September 5"

    I'd like to see a full audit of Mr Webb's claim for 8.5 million hits on his Ironoutlaw website. I challenge him to prove his figures are in any way accurate.

  5. Both Iron Outlaw and the Ned Kelly Forum are in terminal decline. I doubt their claims for millions of hits (the easiest thing to falsify on the net). Iron Outlaw was once interesting, but is becoming obsolescent, and lacks vitality and vigour.

    This site probably is getting far more hits than both of those sites combined.


1. Moderation is back on. I haven’t got time to be constantly monitoring what comments are made and deleting the mindless rubbish that Kelly sympathisers have been posting lately. Please post polite sensible comments, avoid personal abuse and please use the same name whenever you Post, even if its a made-up name.