Update on Ned Kellys DNA


Ned Kelly was an infamous Kelly. His story as an Irish-Australian bushranger is well known. His father John ‘Red’ Kelly hailed from Tipperary. Details of Red Kelly’s life are also well known. Red was transported to Australia for pig stealing when he was aged 20. Eventually freed from prison aged 30 he married Ellen Quinn and together they had 8 children (five girls and three boys – Mary, Anne, Ned, Maggie, James, Dan, Kate and Grace).

How does Ned’s family fit into the Kelly Y-DNA study? The answer is not clear. The whereabouts of any living direct male relative is currently unknown BUT all available leads have not been exhausted. I like to think we will get to find out what Y-DNA Ned Kelly belonged to one day after more work. Based on the limited data we have at the moment, being from Tipperary, the Kelly family line of Joseph Arthur Kelly is one of the leading contenders (that is the L21+, L226+ line of Brian Boru); and John, Pat, and Noel Kelly who attended the Tipperary Kelly Clan Gathering in 2013.

After execution, Ned was buried in a common grave at Victoria’s Melbourne Gaol. There his remains may have quietly and invisibly decomposed but for some inefficiencies by the grave-diggers. They used a type of lime that slowed decomposition instead of quickening it (so, slow-lime not quick-lime). Workers found the site littered with skeletons when the grounds were dug up for re-development in 1929. Officials then began to move the remains to the other prison – Pentridge. As the story goes, in a scene of chaos that became a minor local scandal, a crowd of schoolboys and on-lookers raked amongst the bones taking souvenirs. The bones were then re-buried at Pentridge.

Excavations at Pentridge uncovered the re-buried bones in 2008. At least 3,000 bone fragments were exhumed and sent to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. It was thought high likely that Ned Kelly’s bones might be among them but the forensic scientists faced some great difficulties to identify an individual skeleton let alone confirm that it was Ned’s. DNA is well preserved in bone (but better in teeth of which none of Ned’s teeth were expected to be found because after the execution his head was removed to make a death mask) and it is acutely vulnerable to cross-contamination from other individuals. Therefore the scientific team had to do more than extract DNA and record the results. They had to be lucky enough to find uncontaminated remains, avoid mixing skeletal remains and cross-contaminating DNA fragments in the process and then somehow match that DNA with a sample that was known to be related to Ned.

The first requirement was to isolate the bone samples and carefully categorise them to reduce the level of cross-contamination during DNA analysis (avoiding cross-contamination was made even harder by the various acts of past re-burials). The Victorian forensic scientists also sent a range of the sorted and catalogued bone samples to a specialist forensic laboratory in Argentina that uses state-of-the-art techniques for handling and analysing DNA from degraded and aged remains. The Argentine lab successfully extracted DNA from almost all of the samples. Even so, the DNA meant little in isolation. The investigators needed something, or someone, to match it against.

There were two obvious approaches. The first was to find some of Ned’s own DNA from things he had left behind. Hoping to find DNA in Kelly’s dried blood, they located the boots, bag and sash he wore the night he was shot. Dried blood or flesh specimens on cloth can preserve DNA for hundreds (even thousands) of years. But the boot and the bag had no usable DNA. The sash, which they found in a country museum, may have been washed before it was put on display as no usable DNA was sampled from the sash. Having found no other DNA that was likely to be Ned’s own, the next port of call was to sample from known relatives.

They found Leigh Olver, an art teacher, who is a direct descendent from Ned Kelly’s mother through a direct maternal line (Ned’s mum Ellen Quinn, Ned’s sister Kate, Kate’s daughter who is Leigh’s mum, then Leigh Olver). Leigh Olver is the grandson of Ned’s sister Kate. So Ned was his Great Uncle. He donated his DNA for analysis. Because he was related to Ned through Ned’s maternal line the DNA matching for Ned focused on matching Leigh’s mitochondrial DNA with the mitochondrial DNA of the targeted bone samples. This was as good as it was going to get because no adequate quality somatic cell DNA (that is non-mitochondrial DNA) had been isolated from the exhumed bones that would have allowed a Y-DNA profile to be determined.  The forensic scientists have indicated that isolation of Y-DNA may still be attempted at a later date.

In 2011 the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine announced that a definite match had been found between a set of bones recovered from the Pentridge burial ground and the mitochondrial DNA provided by Leigh Olver. The matching bones included a palm-size fragment of skull. The matching mitochondrial DNA was classified as mitochondrial Haplogroup Jc1 (the same as King Richard III). Ned’s remains were then re-buried in a family cemetery plot after a church service which attracted a lot of media coverage and publicity. The media mainly centred on the debate about whether Ned was a noble outlaw or murderer and what would constitute an appropriate burial?

Finally, is there some hope to confirm Ned’s Y-DNA Kelly line? There is none unless some adequate quality somatic cell DNA can be isolated from Ned’s remains or from one of Ned’s male relatives (dead or alive). Further work to isolate a Y-DNA sample from Ned’s known bone fragments may be successful once better techniques are developed. The alternative of using Ned’s known male relatives to source a sample of Kelly Y-DNA also presents significant challenges. There are several possibilities.

One is to locate and isolate a sample from a living male relative of Red’s. Is there one in Tipperary today? I think there would be but who knows that for sure?

Two is to identify a relatively recently deceased individual that was a relative of Red’s and locate a sample from human remains or objects left behind (as they did with Ned’s sash – perhaps a hair brush).

Three is to sample from Red’s remains in Australia. Red has a known grave in country Victoria – Avenel from all accounts.  Not in the cemetery where the headstone is but for some reason just near it. And less known is that, he also had two brothers James (buried Benalla) and Edward (buried Berrigan) – these were Ned’s uncles and would also be useful sources of Y-DNA.

Four is to sample from Dan’s remains. Dan has a known grave in country Victoria at the Greta cemetery where he was buried in 1880 after the siege at Glenrowan.

Five is to sample from James’ remains. James has a known grave in country Victoria – near Glenrowan. He died there in 1946 of natural causes.

James or Dan would be the pick of the bunch because their DNA could be simultaneously sampled and possibly used to confirm a match with the known mitochondrial DNA data that has been proven for Ned (to avoid mistaken identity). Given the more recent age and less punishing death of James Kelly it seems his remains are more likely to yield a viable Y-DNA sample than any of the other options.

If so, Ned’s Y-DNA line could be confirmed by comparing the sample with the data so far accumulated in the Kelly family Y-DNA study. It could be that easy BUT how hard should we try?

Aidan Kelly (aidan.kelly@iinet.net.au)