Phrenological analysis of Ned Kelly's death mask


The notorious Australian bushranger Edward "Ned" Kelly was apprehended in 1878, following a confrontation during which he and his gang killed three policemen. Upon his arrest, Kelly was thus described by the police:

5'10" tall, weight 11st 4lbs, medium build, sallow complexion, dark brown hair, hazel eyes, scar on top of head, two scars on crown, scar on front of head.

Eyebrows meeting, two natural marks between shoulder blades.

Two freckles lower left arm, scar on ball of left thumb, scar on back of right hand and three scars on left thumb.

Kelly was convicted of robbery and murder and sent to jail, where he remained until his execution by hanging on 11th November 1880. On the day before the execution (when the above photograph of Kelly was taken), A.S. Hamilton, who called himself a professor of phrenology, wrote a letter to the Australian Chief Secretary, seeking permission to analyze Kelly's skull. The permission was not granted, but Hamilton nevertheless got an opportunity to take measurements of Kelly's skull soon afterwards.

At that time, phrenology had been dismissed by the scientific community, but remained popular. The Australian authorities often made plaster cast "death masks" of executed criminals, which would be put on public display, partly as a symbol of the state's victory over crime, partly because they were of some scientific interest and partly for entertainment.

The taking of death masks had been well established in the state of Victoria by the 1850s, so the practice was a matter of course when Kelly was executed. One hour after he was hanged, Kelly's hair and beard were shaved off and a death mask was made by Maximillian Ludwig Kreitmayer, a skilled waxwork modeller who had studied anatomy in Munich and Glasgow.

Hamilton was a "travelling" phrenologist who travelled Australia and New Zealand lecturing on the subject, and claimed to have practiced it since the 1840s. He had made many casts of the heads of prisoners who were awaiting execution, and had ended his letter to the Chief Secretary with a note to the effect that an exception might perhaps be made on account of Kelly's notoriety. Hamilton had recommended that every prisoner in the country undergo his analysis, and undoubtedly believed that a study of Kelly's character would be profitable.


Hamilton was therefore allowed to assist Kreitmayer in his work, and thus to examine Kelly's death mask (pictured on the left). "After very many years experience in such work, I never saw a more perfect work, especially of the face, forehead and temple," he said of the mask.

Hamilton wrote a detailed phrenological analysis of Kelly's death mask, and published it in the Melbourne Herald on the day of Kelly's execution. From his measurements of the mask, he had concluded that the cranial regions for combativeness and destructiveness were dangerously overdeveloped in Kelly's skull, while those for cautiousness and conscientiousness were underdeveloped. Hamilton also argued that Kelly's character traits could be attributed to too much self-esteem:

...there are few heads amongst the worst that would risk so much for the love of power as is evinced in the head of Kelly from his enormous self-esteem. This self-esteem, combined with large love of approbation combined with hope, would often make him appear bright, dazzling and heroic to those who could not see through the veil which vanity threw around him.

To this day, Ned Kelly remains Australia's best known outlaw. His death mask, together with the home-made plate metal armour and helmet he was wearing at the time of his arrest, are kept at the Old Melbourne Gaol, where he was jailed and executed.

More like this

Ned Kelly was never convicted of robbery and he wasn't apprehended until 1880.

By Brad Webb (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink