Ned Kelly’s skull

1. The farmer finds a skull

On 11 November 2009, on the anniversary of Ned Kelly’s hanging, Tom Baxter, a farmer from Western Australia, handed in to Victorian authorities a skull inscribed on the right temple ‘E. Kelly’. Baxter claimed it was the skull of Ned Kelly stolen thirty-one years earlier from the Kelly exhibit at the Old Melbourne Gaol.1

The skull had a long history.

In 1929, the Victorian government had called contractors to demolish parts of the Old Melbourne Gaol, including the flagstoned area beneath which executed prisoners were buried. The remains were to be exhumed and reinterred in a common grave at Pentridge Prison. On 13 April, the Argus reported that a week earlier ‘Mr. H. Lee, of Lee and Dunn, the contractors for the building, had his attention directed to the name “E. Kelly” carved in a stone in the wall, together with the imprint of a broad arrow’. The contractors – and interested bystanders – expected Ned Kelly’s grave to be uncovered. The Sydney Morning Herald explained that ‘the bones were exposed when the lip of a steam shovel tore the lid from the rough wooden coffin in which Kelly had been buried … Immediately the discovery was made there was a rush to the grave.’ The Age described ‘extraordinary scenes’ when ‘a crowd of boys from the neighbouring Working Men’s College scrambled with workmen for portions of a skeleton supposed to be that of the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly’.

Mr Lee secured what was thought to be Kelly’s skull. ‘There was a complete set of teeth in the upper jaw,’ the paper reported, ‘but morbid souvenir hunters removed most of them.’ According to the Argus, Lee said he intended ‘to hand the skull to the police for the medical school at the University’.2

The skull ended up in the collection of a retired orthopaedic surgeon, Sir Colin MacKenzie. In 1943 Erle Cox, a feature writer for the Argus, described how MacKenzie had shown him the skull: ‘It was a splendid specimen, with a broad, high forehead and a large cubic capacity. Sir Colin remarked that it was about the best-formed human skull he had examined. He expressed the opinion that its owner must have possessed great gifts of leadership. So that, if skulls count for anything, Ned, in another environment, might have been a credit to the country, instead of being our only folk hero.’3

MacKenzie became first director of the Australian Institute of Anatomy in Canberra, home to ‘one of most complete illustrations of the life cycle of a platypus in the world’,but in the 1930s it was Phar Lap’s pickled heart and Ned Kelly’s skull (with ‘E. Kelly’ written on one temple) that drew the crowds.4 Sometime in the 1940s the skull was removed from public display.

In December 1952, the Institute of Anatomy announced it had ‘rediscovered’ Ned’s skull after it had been ‘missing for some time’. The Sydney Morning Herald said the skull was found ‘when junk was being cleared from an old safe’. Questioned as to why it would not be put on public display, the Institute’s curator, RP Stone, compared Ned’s cranium unfavourably to Phar Lap’s heart: ‘Phar Lap’s heart is displayed because it is much bigger than the heart of an ordinary horse … But there is no reason to display Ned Kelly’s skull. So far as we are concerned it is just another skull. We have cases of them in the basement.’5

In 1973 the skull went on display at the Old Melbourne Gaol, from where it was stolen five years later.

2. Victoria’s Attorney-General calls for public help

Tom Baxter never explained how the skull came into his possession. But on 20 June 2010, the Age ran an article headed ‘Help sought to identify Ned’s head’. The skull Tom Baxter had handed in as Ned’s had been ‘CT-scanned and examined by pathologists, but forensic specialists still need more information’. Victoria’s Attorney-General Rob Hulls ‘appealed to the public for help identifying the skull’. The paper listed six types of information the public might provide ‘to compare the scan with historical records and artefacts’.6

Victoria’s Attorney-General was not averse to solving a historical mystery: indeed the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) received special funding to put together a project team of eight (including a media consultant), devoted part of its website to ‘The Ned Kelly Project’, and ultimately produced a video of its forensic scientists in full CSI mode intercut with silent film footage and popular culture references against the soundtrack of Mick Jagger, that other Ned Kelly, performing ‘Street Fighting Man’.

On 1 September 2011, the VIFM announced that its experts had identified Ned Kelly. In fact, the team had found that the skull handed in by Baxter did not belong to Ned, so they had turned their attention to the bones that had been removed from Old Melbourne Gaol to Pentridge in 1929 and exhumed again in 2009. ‘Through a series of CT scanning, X-rays, pathology, odontology, and anthropology expertise plus extensive historical research,’ the VIFM’s media release said, the team had identified a set of bones that could be Ned’s. A DNA sample taken from his sister Ellen’s great-grandson Leigh Olver, a Melbourne schoolteacher, found a match. On 4 September, Ned’s Head, a documentary outlining the VIFM’s investigation, was broadcast in prime time on SBS One at 7.30 pm.

3. The death mask

In June 2008, in a dimly lit corridor of the State Library of Victoria, I came face to face with Ned Kelly, his eyes closed and expression frozen. On a nearby plaque was the explanatory text:

This death mask is one of several, and was taken from a mould made shortly after Kelly’s execution. It is attributed to the model maker Maximilian Kreitmayer, who had an established business in Melbourne, making masks for the many followers of phrenology. Although in decline by the mid-nineteenth century, phrenology, or the pseudo-scientific analysis of character based on the size and form of the human head, was still commissioned by the colonial government and a select group of private collectors. Within days of his execution Kelly’s mask appeared on public display at Kreitmayer’s waxworks in Bourke Street.

I turned my eyes to Ned’s naked head and imagined it delineated with thin black lines to show the size and location of his cerebral organs. Of course Professor Hamilton would have done a phrenological reading of Ned Kelly’s head, I told myself. Of course he would. His 27-year-old wife Agnes might even have been present, filling in the chart as he composed his ‘written character’ of Ned.

4. A short biography of Mr Hamilton

There is only one photograph in existence of Archibald Hamilton. Taken in Ballarat in the 1860s, it shows an elderly man with a bushy white-flecked beard holding a less than life-size bust of Prince Albert like a baby. Although the photograph is unlabelled, its subject possesses the ‘colossal forehead’ that Agnes Hamilton describes, before adding that she had overheard her husband singled out as ‘the cleverest man in Australia’.7 Less handsome and slightly shabbier than I imagined, he is pointing his right index finger at a particularly interesting bump on Albert’s temple.

The photograph is the carte de visite of a phrenologist, a member of a profession associated with royalty (Prince Albert had his children’s heads read), the sort of man parents would entrust with their children’s futures. The photograph comes from an 1871 divorce file in the Tasmanian Archives, and it identifies Professor Hamilton (as a public lecturer he styled himself ‘Professor’) as the bigamist husband of 18-year-old Emily Ellis.

By the time Mr Hamilton and Agnes, the third Mrs Hamilton, met in Sydney in 1876, he had been working as a practical phrenologist and lecturing in Australasia for twenty-two years, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, but also in Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart and New Zealand and in the more prosperous country towns of NSW and Victoria. His public lectures complemented his private consultations (primarily vocational advice for the young), but his overriding passion was the abolition of the ‘barbarous doctrine and blood-for-blood practice’8 of capital punishment.

Prison authorities granted him the privilege of interviewing condemned prisoners, witnessing their executions, taking casts of their heads and, sometimes, keeping their skulls. In his consulting rooms he kept a collection of these as illustrations for his lectures and as a public attraction during school holidays. ‘Aboriginal, New Zealand and Hindoo skulls; the criminal skulls of murderers, bushrangers and burglars; and busts, casts, and transparencies of eminent and notorious men,’ he spruiked in the Sydney Morning Herald.9

5. Mr Hamilton’s role in agitating for a reprieve

By Christmas Day 1879, the Hamiltons were in Melbourne where, on 9 January, Alfred Deakin had his ‘written character’ done by Mr Hamilton, while Mrs Hamilton filled in the chart. As well as private consultations, the couple added phrenology classes to their repertoire, with Mrs Hamilton instructing the ladies while Mr Hamilton taught the gentlemen.10 Both were available to lecture at schools and institutions. In January, they reprised a series of lecture-entertainments titled ‘Essays on Love’, which they had previously presented in Sydney, opening at the Melbourne Athenaeum with ‘Conjugal Love’.

‘Mrs Hamilton confined her remarks to the affections,’ reported the Argus. ‘Professor Hamilton lectured on the intellectual and moral qualities. The lecture was listened to with attention, and both speakers were applauded.’11 Lectures on ‘Parental Love’, ‘Fraternal Love’ and ‘Social Love’ followed, with the last ‘entertaining an appreciative audience’.12

As the author of two published lectures against capital punishment, Mr Hamilton would have followed Ned Kelly’s trial for murder on 28 and 29 October with professional interest and, no doubt, viewed the sentence of death with dismay. At the Robert Burns hotel, Ned’s solicitor David Gaunson, MLA, his brother William Gaunson, Ned’s sister Maggie Skillion, cousin Kate Lloyd and other supporters immediately formed a Reprieve Committee. Separately, a Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was swiftly but not, it seems, formally constituted: indeed, it might have consisted solely of Mr Hamilton.13 He describes himself as president of the society but no other members are named, no public notices of its meetings are advertised, no records exist and, after Kelly’s execution, no further mention appears in the press. The society may have been Mr Hamilton’s attempt to elevate himself both morally and in the eyes of the public above the Reprieve Committee.

On Friday 5 November, Guy Fawkes Day, Mr Hamilton chaired a mass meeting at the Hippodrome that attracted 4000 people, according to the Argus, while 2000 thronged nearby streets, separated from the proceedings by a high wall. Hamilton opened with the words: ‘I am glad to act as chairman not merely on behalf of Edward Kelly, but as an advocate for the abolition of capital punishment’, and implored the audience to ‘listen as if your own lives depended on it’. As David Gaunson gave a detailed recital of the Kelly case, ‘mischievous spirits’ lobbed fireworks at the platform where they exploded ‘with reports as loud as pistol shots’. One went off so close to Mr Hamilton that he clapped his hands to his head, stunned, and yelled that a revolver had been fired. Gaunson pressed on and finally put the resolution: ‘That this meeting, having considered all the circumstances of Edward Kelly’s case, believes it is one fit for the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy, and therefore earnestly presses His Excellency the Governor in Council to favourably regard the prayer of this meeting – namely, that the life of the prisoner be spared.’

Next morning Mr Hamilton, William and David Gaunson, Ned’s sister Kate Kelly and a Mr Caulfield caught a cab from the Town Hall to Government House where Mr Hamilton presented the meeting’s resolution to the Governor, whose response was courteous but firm: ‘[He] said he would be deceiving them and acting cruelly towards the condemned man if he held out any hope of mitigation,’ the Argus reported.14 After David Gaunson started arguing the case, and William Gaunson begged for more time for a monster petition – it would eventually be signed by 30 000 people, some more than once – to come in, Mr Hamilton, in what historians have described as a ‘farce’, ‘an embarrassing gesture’ and ‘hysterical’,15 brought Kate Kelly forward, saying ‘it might have some effect if she went down on her knees and begged the Governor for mercy’.16

It did not.

The night before the execution, Mr Hamilton and William Gaunson led another delegation to Government House to present a fresh petition ‘in the names of three female [Kelly] relatives’17 asking for seven days to allow the petition to be collected. When the Governor declined to meet them, the delegation walked to Parliament House where Mr Hamilton presented the petition to Chief Secretary Graham Berry and spoke to him on behalf of the delegation.18 Later, back at the Robert Burns hotel, Mr Hamilton delivered ‘an inflammatory address’ to the crowd after announcing that neither the Governor nor the Chief Secretary would intervene.19

With all avenues for a reprieve exhausted, Mr Hamilton found himself in a sticky situation. After lobbying so energetically to save Ned’s neck, he now wanted to do a phrenological examination of the condemned man’s ‘living head’ or, failing that, his skull. Complicating matters, he might not have known that the government had given the nod to Maximilian Kreitmayer, the proprietor of Melbourne’s waxworks museum, to take the cast for a Kelly tableau he was preparing.20 From his consulting rooms at 21 Collins Street, Mr Hamilton wrote to the Chief Secretary stressing the scientific nature of his request, pointing out that similar privileges had been extended to him in the past, and admitting the ‘peculiar circumstances’ of his request:

On behalf of science, and in my avocation of phrenologist, I have been privileged to interview criminals under sentence of death in New South Wales, Victoria, New Zealand, and Tasmania. The privilege has extended to the examination of the heads of the condemned and to the taking of casts of their heads after execution. With regard to the taking of a cast of the head of Edward Kelly after his execution I shall willingly do so at the request of the Executive but have no desire to do so on my own account. The opportunity to make a phrenological examination of the living head as a means of throwing the light of science upon the character of the condemned man is all I petition for, and hope you may deem it right to grant my request – even if you make an exception in my favour under present very peculiar circumstances.21

Berry scrawled his response: ‘The request cannot be complied with.’

6. What happened to Kelly’s body

Legal historian Alex C Castles describes what happened to Ned’s body after death: ‘With the bodies of executed prisoners … regarded as the property of the Crown … had come official acceptance that it was permitted to subject human remains to a variety of ministrations that these days would be seen as barbaric.’22 He conjures a scene in which Kreitmayer ‘hacks off’ Ned’s hair and makes his cast. After he finishes, the body is taken to ‘hospital’:

There the head was severed from the body in the presence of students from Melbourne University so that its contents could be examined. This was of special interest as there was a strong theory circulating among doctors at the time that certain physical attributes of the brain could explain why some individuals had a predetermined propensity to commit serious crimes. Whether this theory was borne out by the examination of Ned Kelly’s remains was never documented.23

Even at the time, the indignities meted out to Ned’s corpse attracted criticism from the Bendigo Independent’s correspondent, in an item published in the Herald:

Ned Kelly’s body … was given over after the execution to the medical men, and a nice mess, I am told, they made of it. The students particularly went in heavily taking part of his body, and generally examining every organ. It was a ghastly sight – indeed, hardly ever paralleled. I am told that portions of the corpse are now in nearly every ‘curiosity’ cabinet in Melbourne medical men’s places. The skull was taken possession of by one gentleman, and it is possible that he may hereafter enlighten us upon the peculiarities of the great criminal’s brain.24

Next morning, the remains were placed in a coffin, covered with quicklime and buried in an unmarked grave under the flagstones by the bluestone wall of Melbourne Gaol.

7. Mr Hamilton’s examination of Kelly’s skull

Kreitmayer may have taken the cast, but Mr Hamilton did not let the Chief Secretary’s refusal prevent him being present: ‘To Mr Kreitmayer I am indebted for the opportunity of making a phrenological analysis as he took the cast,’ he wrote.25 Casts were taken as soon as possible after death, while the face was still natural, and took several hours to complete. In New Zealand, Hamilton had employed the services of a skilled plasterer, who had worked from around midday until 8 pm on the heads of the Maungatapu murderers.26

Kreitmayer had made a death mask of Joe Byrne, a member of the Kelly Gang, in Benalla a few months earlier. Castles describes how Byrne’s body was kept in a cell overnight where visitors ‘viewed it by candlelight’ while an artist on ‘the most miserable assignment I ever had’ did an illustration for the Sydney Evening News and how Kreitmayer ‘spent several painstaking hours making a cast of Byrne’s head and body parts for his forthcoming exhibition’.27

While Kreitmayer laboured, Hamilton would have had several hours to jot down measurements and notes for his reading of Ned’s character. Kreitmayer was responsible for the ‘correctness’ of the cast, and Hamilton said that he ‘never saw a more perfect work, especially of the face, forehead and temple’.28

Mr Hamilton’s ‘Phrenological Character of Ned Kelly’ appeared in Melbourne’s Herald a week later. He included the measurements taken from the cast:

Measurements with tapeline. Circumference of the head 22 inches; length over the head from occipital spine to root of nose, 13 1/3 inches. From opening of ear to ditto over the head, 13 1/4 inches. From cautiousness to cautiousness, or from centre of parietal bone to ditto over the crown of the head, 5 1/2 inches. Across the head from acquisitiveness to ditto, 8 inches. From constructiveness to ditto over benevolence 9 1/8 inches. From opening of ear to centre of individuality, 6 inches. From opening of ear to comparison, 6 1/4 inches. From self esteem to comparison, 7 inches.29

Knowing that the Herald’s readers would have formed their own view of Kelly’s character, the phrenologist stressed that his analysis was drawn entirely from ‘phrenological data’. These were a ‘remarkable’ set of numbers, in his opinion: ‘The head is scarcely of medium size for so big a man’ – not the ‘large cubic capacity’ of MacKenzie’s skull. The relative sizes of Kelly’s ‘cerebral organs’ were rated on a scale with intervals of two down from twenty (‘very large’) through fourteen (‘feeble’) to eight (‘very small’).

A glance at these numbers will show that all the organs which impart a spirit of opposition, destructive fire and passion, love of gain, love of praise, love of power, and amorous desires are all very strong; and that cautiousness, affection, friendship, justice, love of offspring, benevolence and reason are all very weak; hence the danger to society of a man whose social affections are not strong enough to make him value the humanities of society, whose leading motives are utterly selfish, and whose spirit of revenge is aroused to a murderous extent towards those who resolve to apprehend him for his lawless conduct against society.

Hamilton’s written character of Ned ran to several thousand words. He followed it next day with a persuasive argument for the abolition of capital punishment.

8. Historians have small organs of benevolence

As a class of men, Kelly historians, Mr Hamilton might find, have small organs of benevolence. Castles refers to the ‘hysterical nature’ of Mr Hamilton’s desperate plea to the Governor; John Molony dismisses him as ‘a gentleman learned in the ways of foolishness called phrenology’; Dean Wilson demotes him to a ‘travelling phrenologist’ who ‘sens[ed] the considerable commercial potential of reading Kelly’s skull’.30

In 1880, though, only a few doctors regarded phrenology as questionable. In 1875, an editorial in the New South Wales Medical Gazette suggested that the reasoning behind phrenology was fundamentally flawed.31 The same year, a prominent Sydney doctor lectured that phrenology could not be reconciled with science, and casually dismissed its proponents as ‘itinerant pretenders and ignorant charlatans’.32 Popular attitudes, however, lagged behind medical opinion. For Melbourne’s social and intellectual elite, phrenology held its appeal. Alfred Deakin, as mentioned, had his head read. So, too, in the late 1870s, did another future prime minister, George Reid. Newspapers advised parents to take their children to Mr Hamilton and promoted the Hamiltons’ lectures as moral and intellectual entertainments ‘full of beautiful passages and poetical images, and quotations’ suitable for a genteel audience of men, women and children. 33

By turning Mr Hamilton into a comical figure – embarrassing, foolish, farcical, hysterical – historians have, I think, diminished his role in agitating for a reprieve, his fervour in advocating the abolition of capital punishment and, perhaps, his agency in the disappearance of Ned Kelly’s skull.

9. The paper-weight theory

Although historians differ on the sequence of events immediately after Kelly’s death, they seem to agree on one thing: Ned’s head was not buried. Thus, the skull exhumed in 1929, stolen in 1978 and returned in 2009 was not his. Max Brown writes: ‘A gaggle of doctors and students then set to work, severed head from trunk, and Ned was buried in the gaol yard’.34 According to Graham Seal, the head was removed so Kreitmayer and Hamilton could do their work: ‘Before burial within the walls of Melbourne Gaol, the head was severed for the casting of a death mask. A phrenologist also examined the skull’.35 Perhaps because there are only so many uses to which a skull can be put, some speculate that it was employed as a desk ornament. John Molony writes that the phrenologist ‘passed it back to the police who used it as a paper weight’.36 Ian Jones elaborates: ‘The head was sawn off and the brain removed – a pointless atrocity that has been common knowledge for many years. The brain would be given some spurious scientific value, preserved in a jar; the head, stripped of flesh, would be kept purely as a curio, supposedly as a paper weight on the table of some minor public official.’37 None seems to have seriously considered that Mr Hamilton might have kept the skull.

10. The hypothesis

‘He had his faults,’ admitted Agnes Hamilton of her husband.38 Archibald Hamilton might have been ‘the cleverest man in Australia’, a friend of judges, journalists and actors, but his collection of skulls had been acquired through sometimes nefarious means. He made no secret of how he came into possession of them: ‘Some he had assisted to dissect immediately after their execution; others were given to him by men in high office under Government; and the remainder he disinterred in the bush.’39

Gaol authorities rarely refused his requests for the skulls of executed prisoners, but when permission was not forthcoming, he did not hesitate to act. His more public faults included in Maitland, NSW, inciting a person to disinter corpses and cut off their heads and in New Zealand the theft of three casts of human heads. In both cases he believed not only that he had done nothing wrong, but that he was entitled to the heads.

When the heads of murderer John Jones and rapist Jim Crow were denied him in Maitland in 1860 because, according to the prison governor, ‘too many people were in the gaol yard’, Hamilton bided his time before approaching the church sexton, who knew the location of the graves. ‘I want to get the natural heads of those two dead men,’ Hamilton told him. ‘If you take the earth out of the grave, and unscrew the coffin lids and take off their heads and give them to me, I will give you £1.’ When the sexton demurred, Hamilton pressed him: ‘Any moonlight night you could go and get them … the earth will work soft, their not being in long.’40 Charged with ‘inciting one William House to disinter and cut off the heads’, he conducted his own defence, arguing, essentially, that he didn’t consider it illegal and that if the sexton did, he should have said so rather than going to the minister, who should have communicated his displeasure to Mr Hamilton rather than going to the police. He was found not guilty.

Six years later, in October 1866, the Colonist reported that Mr Hamilton had been charged with ‘head stealing’, the heads being casts of the heads of the Maungatapu murderers. Mr Hamilton had supervised the making of the casts and believed ‘he was to have the first three’. Instead, the makers delivered them to Mr Rout, secretary of the local phrenological society, to use in its classes, after which they planned to sell thirty sets at £3 a pop. ‘Mr A. S. Hamilton, the phrenologist’, the paper reported, ‘labouring under a singular impression, which, perhaps, his phrenological development can best explain, that these casts were his, and not the makers’, quietly entered the office of Mr Rout on Wednesday last while Mr Rout was absent, and carried away the casts of the heads of Burgess, Kelly, and Levy in the presence of Mr. Rout’s clerk, with whom he left a remarkable letter.’41 In the letter Mr Hamilton asserted that he had ‘a moral right’ to the casts. Again he defended himself and was discharged, the magistrate finding that ‘it is very likely that the defendant may have had an idea that he was entitled to a set of the casts’.42

When Ned Kelly was hanged fourteen years later, times, attitudes and the application of the law had changed. Mr Hamilton, however, had not. That his opposition to capital punishment remained steadfast is not in doubt; that he was determined to take the measure of Ned’s head, before or after death, is not in doubt; that he was present when Kreitmayer made his cast is not in doubt; and it is also not in doubt that he considered the famous bushranger’s skull – like Jim Crow’s – ‘remarkable’.

Mr Hamilton might even have been the direct source for the Bendigo Independent’s correspondent, who wrote: ‘The skull was taken possession of by one gentleman, and it is possible that he may hereafter enlighten us upon the peculiarities of the great criminal’s brain.’

11. Kelly relics

Mr Hamilton had enlightened the public with his reading of Ned’s character, but it was soon clear that entertainments exploiting Kelly relics would be quashed by the authorities. The afternoon of Ned’s death, handbills had advertised a ‘Kelly family’ appearance at the Apollo Hall that evening. Ned’s sister Kate, brother James and Steve Hart’s sister Ettie sat on the platform engaging with the audience and, according to one paper, making ‘sociological curiosities’ of themselves. Two days later the Chief Secretary threatened the theatre’s licence if the spectacle continued. A week later Kate was billed ‘to appear on horseback in the dress she wore while acting in concert with the outlaws, and carrying information to them’, and the Chief Secretary threatened to withdraw the licence from any theatre staging the exhibition.43

Later that month, in Sydney, Kate and James appeared on horseback – Kate on her pony Oliver Twist and James seated on Ned’s saddle on Ned’s grey mare Kitty – in a backstreet exhibition swiftly closed by the police.44 Neither in Victoria or NSW was specific legislation enacted to ban entertainments based around Kelly relics – Ned’s horse and saddle, Kate’s dress – the authorities instead relying on charges such as obstructing the footpath, creating a nuisance and outraging public morals.

If Mr Hamilton had Ned Kelly’s skull, he might have thought twice about using it to illustrate his lectures. He continued working in Melbourne for six months and then he and Mrs Hamilton commenced a series of lectures in country Victoria. Over the next three years they lectured on their stock subjects – parental love, conjugal love, fraternal love and social love, all from a phrenological perspective – to audiences of up to 600 in Bendigo, Ballarat, Stawell, Hamilton, Horsham, Geelong and Portland.45

From extensive newspaper reports, it was not until Easter 1882 that Professor Hamilton displayed his collection of human skulls to a paying audience. Of the Hamiltons’ lecture-entertainment on Good Friday at the Mechanics’ Institute, the Ballarat Courier reported: ‘Mr Hamilton illustrated a short lecture on physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual nature of man, with practical observations of a number of human skulls, a portion of a very large collection of his own’. Of the same lecture, the Ballarat Star wrote: ‘These skulls were scanned with much interest by those assembled in the hall, and a little commotion took place when the heads of some notorious European [i.e. white] murderers were produced.’ The last mention of skulls came on 21 November 1883, when the Hamilton Spectator advertised the Hamiltons’ lecture on Parental Love ‘illustrated by diagrams and by real skulls of remarkable men’.

In March 1884, the couple returned to Sydney, where Mr Hamilton died on 10 July, three weeks after suffering a stroke. Agnes Hamilton, 31, had already commenced a solo career lecturing on the poetry of Henry Kendall at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts. Two or three weeks later she announced that she ‘would practice her profession’ as a phrenologist in her husband’s consulting rooms at 27 Hunter Street,46 but she soon abandoned phrenology in favour of public lectures, a planned biography of Kendall and, in the early 1890s, political agitation for children’s criminal law reform. While the fate of Professor Hamilton’s collection of skulls is not known, it can be assumed that Agnes Hamilton disposed of them before she left for France and the UK in 1895. They may have ended up in the collection of another phrenologist, or been acquired by a museum (‘We have cases of them in the basement’) or simply discarded as worthless, but it’s an intriguing possibility that the sale of Ned Kelly’s skull funded her passage to Europe.

  1. The Ned Kelly Project, Forensics, VIFM website, downloaded 9 October 2012.
  2. ‘Ned Kelly’s Grave. Discovery in Old Gaol. Schoolboys Seize Bones’, Argus, 13 April 1929. p. 20. See also Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 1929, p. 18.
  3. ‘Ned Kelly as a National Hero. Romance Hangs Round an Executed Murderer and Convicted Cattle Thief’, Argus Week-end Magazine, 27 February 1943, p. 7S.
  4. Argus, 22 July 1939, p. 4S.
  5. ‘Ned Kelly’s Skull Not For Display’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December 1952, p. 3.
  6. There was no mention of comparing the CT scan of the skull with the measurements of Ned’s head taken from the cast on the day of his death. I rang the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, spoke to David Ranson, the deputy director, and faxed him copies of three items: Mr Hamilton’s ‘The Phrenological Character of Edward Kelly’ in the Herald; an enlargement of the ‘Measurement with tapeline’ section of the same article; and the Herald item on Ned Kelly’s body that stated that the skull was taken by ‘one gentleman … he may enlighten us upon the peculiarities of the great criminal’s brain’.
  7. AM Hamilton-Grey, ‘A Few Reminiscences’, Hamilton-Grey Papers, Box 1 (ii) (c).
  8. AS Hamilton, Practical Phrenology, Nelson, New Zealand, 1866, p. 9.
  9. Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 1876, pp. 1, 2 and 15.
  10. Bendigo Evening News, 4 August 1881.
  11. Argus, 5 February 1880, p. 5.
  12. Argus, 19 February 1880, p. 5.
  13. Mr Hamilton had no role in the short-lived Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment formed in Sydney in 1869.
  14. ‘The Condemned Bushranger’, Argus, 8 November 1880, p. 7.
  15. Alex C Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days: Setting the Record Straight on the Death of an Outlaw, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005, p. 208; Ian Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, Hachette, Sydney 2003, p. 387; Castles, p. 208.
  16. ‘The Condemned Bushranger’, Argus, 8 November 1880, p. 7.
  17. AS Hamilton, ‘Capital Punishment’, Herald, 20 November 1880, p. x.
  18. ‘The Condemned Bushranger’, Argus, 11 November 1880, p. 5.
  19. ibid.
  20. Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days, p. 15.
  21. AS Hamilton to Chief Secretary, 10 November 1880, VPRS 4969, Unit 1, Item 18, Ned Kelly Collection Part V, Public Record Office of Victoria.
  22. Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days, p. 219.
  23. ibid., p. 219–20.
  24. Herald, 19 November 1880, p. 2.
  25. AS Hamilton, ‘The Phrenological Character of Edward Kelly’, Herald, 18 November 1880, p. 2.
  26. ‘A Phrenologist Accused of Head Stealing’, Colonist, Nelson, New Zealand, 26 October 1866, p. 3.
  27. Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days, p. 219.
  28. AS Hamilton, ‘The Phrenological Character of Edward Kelly’, Herald, 18 November 1880, p. 2.
  29. ibid.
  30. Castles, Ned Kelly’s Last Days, p. 208; John Molony, Ned Kelly, MUP, 2001, p. 199; Dean Wilson, ‘Explaining the Criminal: Ned Kelly’s Death Mask’, La Trobe Journal, no. 69, Autumn 2002, p. 55.
  31. M John Thearle, ‘The Rise and Fall of Phrenology in Australia’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 27, 1993, p. 524.
  32. ibid., p. 524.
  33. Bendigo Evening News, 20 August 1881, p. 3.
  34. Max Brown, Australian Son: The Story of Ned Kelly, 2nd edn, Chester Eagle (ed.), Network Creative Services, Montmorency, 2013, p. 259.
  35. Graham Seal, Tell ‘Em I Died Game: The Legend of Ned Kelly, Hyland House, Flemington, Vic, 2002, p. 105–6.
  36. Molony, Ned Kelly, p. 199.
  37. Jones, Ned Kelly: A Short Life, p. 398.
  38. AM Hamilton-Grey, ‘A Few Reminiscences’.
  39. Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August 1860, p. 3.
  40. Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1860, p. 5.
  41. ‘A Phrenologist Accused of Stealing Heads’, Colonist, 26 October 1866, p. 3.
  42. ibid.
  43. Brisbane Courier, 20 November 1880, p. 5.
  44. ‘Kate Kelly Exhibition’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 November 1880, p. 3.
  45. Information on the Hamiltons’ lectures was located in advertisements, press notices and reviews in these newspapers: Ballarat Courier, 10 April 1882, p. 3; 13 April 1882, p. 3; 14 April 1882, p. 2; 15 April 1882, p. 3; 28 April 1882. p. 2; 29 April 1882, p. 2; Ballarat Star, 7 April 1882, p. 3; 10 April 1882, p. 3; 15 April 1882, p. 2; 29 April 1882, p. 3; Bendigo Advertiser, 2 August 1881, p. 2; 20 August 1881, p. 2; Bendigo Evening News, 1 August 1881, p. 2; 2 August 1881, p. 2; 4 August 1881, p. 2; 4 August 1881, p. 3; 9 August 1881, p. 2; 19 August 1881, p. 2; 20 August 1881, p. 3; 5 August 1881, p. 2; 7 September 1881, p. 2; Pleasant Creek News and Stawell Chronicle, 31 August 1882, p. 2; 2 September 1882, p. 2; Portland Guardian 4 January 1883, p. 3; 9 January 1883, p. 2; 9 January 1883, p. 3; 16 January 1883, p. 2, 23 January 1883, p. 2; 25 January 1883, p. 3; Hamilton Spectator, 21 November 1883, p. 3; 25 November 1883, p. 2.
  46.  Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 1884, p. 2.

Jill Dimond

Jill Dimond received the Library Council of NSW honorary fellowship in 2008 to research a biography of Mrs AM Hamilton-Grey. ‘Ned Kelly’s skull’ was an unexpected outcome of that research.

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