REBECCA ROBERTS, host: For the last couple of years, Stephen Cordner has been sorting through a big jumble of human bones. Juggling skeletons is just another day at the office for the director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Victoria, Australia, but these bones were unusual. For one thing, there were a lot of them.
STEPHEN CORDNER: We've saved the remains of approximately 29 executed prisoners, many of whom's remains were mixed up together. And we had to try and sort that out.
ROBERTS: Also, they were old bones dating back to the 1880s. And some of them could maybe be the mortal remains of the legendary Ned Kelly.
CORDNER: I don't think anybody grows up in Australia without hearing about Ned Kelly.
ROBERTS: If you didn't grow up in Australia, it's hard to understand what a big deal Ned Kelly is Down Under. He lives in song and story. He's been played in the movies by both Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger. Ned Kelly is huge. Ian Jones may be the world's foremost Ned Kelly-ist.
IAN JONES: Almost every country has a Robin Hood figure, a highwayman hero, a romantic bandit, a rebel fighting against injustice. You have Rob Roy in Scotland, you have Jesse James in America. But with Ned Kelly, you have a man who fits the mold almost too perfectly.
ROBERTS: In the middle of the 19th century, while America was absorbed in a civil war, Ned Kelly was blazing a path through the Australian bush. He was tall and manly and rode horseback with exceptional skill. He was chivalrous to ladies and a sucker for babies. He was an Irish nationalist and a revolutionary. He also stole horses and robbed banks and killed policemen. Today, he's still a divisive figure. The majority of Australians think he's heroic.
JONES: About 30 percent will think he's the total expression of everything that is undesirable in the Australian character. And within that group, you will find 10 percent who regard him with absolutely hysterical hatred. They call him a thug and a cop killer and all the rest of it.
ROBERTS: In 1880, the police cornered Kelly and his gang in a town called Glenrowan. In a dramatic standoff, the rest of the gang was killed. Ned, dressed in striking homemade armor, was shot in the legs. Then he was arrested, and he was hanged for his crimes in the summer of 1880.
JONES: He was 25, and of course, became immortally 25. If they'd been able to lock him up and let him waste away in jail, the legend of Ned Kelly would have survived, but it would have been blighted by the reality of this sad old man. As it was, he just became a complete legend to Australians.
ROBERTS: He was buried at the jail, along with other executed prisoners of the day. Fifty years later, that jail was closed, and all the remains buried there were exhumed. Curious onlookers, knowing the legendary Kelly was among the skeletons, swiped a few souvenirs, including what may or may not have been Ned Kelly's skull. Then a couple of years ago, the remaining bones were once again dug up, as development spread into the old prison yard, which is how Stephen Cordner, at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, ended up with the big box of bones.
CORDNER: There was one pit which contained about 15 sets of remains, and there were about 10 names in that pit, and one of them was Kelly.
ROBERTS: But which one? Cordner sent the bones to Argentina to a lab that specialized in extracting DNA from old degraded bones. But what to compare it to? At first, they hoped to get blood off Kelly's homemade armor, which is on display in Melbourne. When that didn't work, they tracked down a descendent of Kelly's sister Ellen. And just last month, Cordner was able to say one of the skeletons, which was a young man of about the right height, was a DNA match.
CORDNER: When you then looked at that particular set of remains, you could see the bullet wounds that he sustained when he was finally arrested.
ROBERTS: And what of Kelly's skull? Someone did bring one to the lab, but it wasn't a DNA match. Kelly's skull remains at large. As for what happens to the rest of his skeleton, conversations are ongoing. Ian Jones has his opinion.
JONES: Some silly suggestions have been put forward. Someone suggested he should be buried in the jail at Beechworth, which is my hometown. And you could say, well, I'd be thrilled to have Ned Kelly's body, but not in a jail, for heaven's sake. That's just wrong.
ROBERTS: But it's not up to Ian Jones. Given Kelly's role in Australian history, there is not a shortage of opinions on Kelly's final resting place. It's been 130 years since Ned Kelly died. Resting in peace may take a little longer.
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