The Thrill of the Chase

“I figured there would be a letter from someone, somewhere… I was just about to give up when I turned over a page and found it.”

-Historian Helen Harris, on the search to identify Ned Kelly’s bones

In recent days it’s been confirmed that a set of human bones exhumed from an unmarked mass grave in what used to be Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison belonged to Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly, perhaps the most infamous and celebrated of the Australian bushrangers. One of the great mysteries of the Kelly legend – what actually happened to the body after his execution in 1880 – has been solved, using modern-day technology and a bit of old-fashioned sleuthing.

Which is how a post about a 19th Century bushranger finds its place on a blog about a WWII bomber crew. There was an excellent article in the weekend newspaper last week that explained exactly how the identification was made and eventually confirmed through DNA matching with one of Kelly’s descendants. But it was the quote that opens this post, from a historian engaged in the search, which caught my eye. Harris was looking for police documents that could challenge contemporary newspaper reports that said Kelly’s body had been dismembered by autopsy, a crucial piece of evidence in determining that a skull long thought to have been Kelly’s was in fact not. Harris had a theory, born out of many years studying Victoria’s early police records, that the Superintendant of the time would have tried to find out the truth or otherwise of the newspaper report in question from the governor of Melbourne Gaol. She looked in the archives and, after a methodical search, found the letter she was looking for.

This is how a good historian works. Start with a mystery, work out where the gaps are in the story and consider where the missing piece of the jigsaw might be. Then go searching for it – and there is nothing quite like the thrill of turning over an old yellowing bit of paper in an ancient file somewhere and finding exactly what you are looking for.

Of course, it takes a long while sometimes to find that elusive document. Harris has, over the course of her career, looked at 400 boxes of old Victorian police documents – and the article says there are still a few hundred left to go. There could be anything in that archive – it takes a dedicated researcher to methodically work through each one, missing nothing, to fully extract all of the details.

Though the volume of documents that I have found in my research into B for Baker and her crew will not go even one twentieth of the way towards filling 400 boxes, I’ve gathered a fair bit now. And I still have a large pile that I’m working through – among them, documents that I copied at the National Archives of Australia well over a year and a half ago. As I work through each page, I sometimes find information that adds another piece to other puzzles I’ve been trying to solve. Finding letters written by one parent to another in one archive, and the replies to those letters in another, I’ve discovered that everything really is connected.

The information is out there, somewhere. Sometimes it’s in front of our very noses, it just hasn’t been properly extracted yet.

 (c) 2011 Adam Purcell

This blog post inspired by an article by Mark Chew, A Question of Identity, The Sunday Age Good Weekend Magazine, 03SEP11