Day in and day out, Stephen Cordner sorts through a big jumble of human bones. He's the director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Victoria, Australia. The bones he's handling this day are unusual: They belong to the legendary Ned Kelly.
"I don't think anybody grows up in Australia without hearing about Ned Kelly," Cordner tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Roberts.
Even in death, Kelly is larger than life in Australia. So large that he's been played in movies by both Heath Ledger and Mick Jagger.
Ian Jones may be the world's foremost Ned Kellyist. He describes Kelly as the prototypical hero-bandit: "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."
While 19th-century America was absorbed in a civil war, Kelly was blazing a path through the Australian bush. He was tall, manly, often on horseback, chivalrous to ladies, a sucker for babies, a revolutionary, a bank robber and even an Irish nationalist.
He ended up in jail for a life of crime that included killing cops.
Today, he's a divisive figure. The majority of Australians think he's heroic. But, according to Jones, "about 30 to 40 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 of the 40 percent who regard him with absolutely hysterical hatred."
In 1880, the police cornered Kelly and his gang in a town called Glenrowan. In a dramatic standoff, the entire gang was killed except for him. Dressed in homemade armor, Kelly was shot in the legs and arrested. He met his end in the summer of 1880, when he was hanged at age 25.
Kelly was buried at Pentridge Prison, alongside other executed prisoners. Fifty years later, that jail was closed and the remains exhumed. Curious onlookers swiped a few souvenirs, including what may have been Kelly's skull.
A couple of years ago, the remaining bones were dug up again, as development spread into the old prison yard. That's how Cordner ended up with the pile.
"There was one pit which contained about 15 sets of remains, and there were about 10 names in that pit," Cordner explains. "One of them was Kelly."
He sent the bones to a lab in Argentina to extract DNA, but they needed another source of Kelly's DNA to compare the samples to. Kelly's homemade armor, on display in Melbourne, didn't provide a usable blood sample, but a family descendant did. Just last month, Cordner was finally able to conclude that one of the skeletons is a DNA match.
The naked eye tells a story consistent with the DNA testing, Cordner says. "When you then looked at that particular set of remains, you could see the bullet wounds that he sustained when he was finally arrested."
Kelly's skull remains at large, however, and speculation on its whereabouts abounds. It's been 130 years since Kelly died. It seems that, for him, resting in peace will take a little bit longer.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.