DNA Evidence Identifies Famous Armored Australian Outlaw

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Ho New / Reuters

Three words you don’t often encounter in a sentence? “Famous Australian outlaw.”

But late 19th century Australian bushranger Edward “Ned” Kelly was famous (and fascinating) enough to merit historical poems, songs, a Booker Prize-winning novel, paintings, television shows (as well as breakfast cereal commercials), comics and half a dozen films, including 1970′s Ned Kelly starring Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and another (with the same title) in 2003 starring Heath Ledger.

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And now we know where his remains are (though minus his head), thanks to DNA tests on human bones unearthed at a former prison in Melbourne. Kelly was hanged in 1880 for crimes that ranged from robberies to killings to cattle theft. His remains were buried in a Melbourne jail, but exhumed for transfer to another nearby prison in 1929, at which point they were looted and Kelly’s skull disappeared. The remains were again exhumed in 2009 after a skull claimed to be Kelly’s was presented to officials.

Called a “cold-blooded murderer” by some and celebrated as “a folk hero” by others, Kelly led a small gang that robbed banks, incited the Irish-Australian population to revolt, burned an entire town’s mortgage deeds and dictated a notable letter protesting the treatment of Irish Catholics by the police. In the final now-legendary shootout that led to Kelly’s arrest, his gang wore suits of body armor, possibly fashioned from moldboards plows and weighing 96 lbs. each, strong enough to repel bullets. Kelly was shot repeatedly in the legs (the suits didn’t protect the body below the waist), captured, tried and sentenced to death.

The DNA match was secured with the aid of a sample taken from Leigh Olver, a Melbourne schoolteacher and the great grandson of Kelly’s sister.

“To think a group of scientists could identify the body of a man who was executed more than 130 years ago, moved and buried in a haphazard fashion among 33 other prisoners — most of whom are not identified — is amazing,” said Victoria Attorney General Robert Clark in a statement.

Thanks to the DNA tests, we also know the skull isn’t Kelly’s. Speculation on its whereabouts continues.

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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