Was Ned Kelly adopted ?

Chapter 3 of Bills  Denhelds just published book “A Certain Truth”  is titled “Who was Ned Kelly?” and it includes a photo of an article from the Herald Sun of 24th August 2008, which quotes Bill saying this: “Some researchers believe Kelly was adopted as a young child”.

By “some researchers” I believe he is actually only meaning “one” researcher, a woman called Edna Cargill Griffiths. There are no other ‘researchers’ that I’ve ever heard of who make that claim.


In his book, Bill writes “Ednas stories are mostly not accepted by other Kelly historians (but) we must at least consider written ‘oral history’ if only to get another perspective from what others say is ‘official history’.” He then goes on to explain why he doesn’t accept the scientists claim that DNA evidence extracted from Ned Kellys bones necessarily links those bones to Ellen Kelly. Bill claims that the mitochondrial DNA in those bones could link them to almost anyone, and therefore anyone could have been Ned Kellys mother, and so, as the evidence now stands, according to Bill, Ednas theory hasn’t been disproved.


However, the Scientists know exactly what Ellen Kellys mitochondrial DNA looks like, because they got it from Leigh Olver, a known genuine descendant of Ellen Kelly. They found exactly the same mitochondrial DNA in the bones of Ned Kelly, and naturally concluded that Ned Kelly must be a direct descendant of Ellen Kelly – and not someone elses child as Edna Griffiths claimed.


So who got it wrong – the scientists, or Bill??

Bills argument includes a small table of numbers on Page 38 : the numbers are taken from a chart on page 248 of “Ned Kelly Under the Microscope” Ed Craig Cormick”. Those numbers are profiles, known as the ‘haplotypes’ of mitochondrial DNA identified in the bones believed to belong to Ned Kelly because they had gunshot injuries at the places Ned Kelly was known to have been shot. ‘Haplotype’ is a word like Number Plate : its a unique number that identifies a particular unique piece of DNA, just as a number plate identifies a particular unique car. Underneath the Table Bill has written, in reference to ‘NK Under the Microscope’: “There is no explanation what any of these numbers mean or differentiate”



In fact, the origin and meaning of those numbers is most definitely explained in that book, but  Bill seems not to have understood the explanation given  – and people on a Kelly sympathiser Facebook Page have admitted they don’t understand it either. Clearly it needs to be re-explained in laymans language …which I will now do. This is Genetics 101 for Kelly enthusiasts:

DNA is a long chain of paired molecules of only four kinds, like carriages of a freight train, and are identified by the letters A, C, G and T. The sequence of those molecules in a piece of DNA could be like this :  AAAAAAGGCTTTTGCTTTA…and the sequence continues for thousands of more units.  The exact sequence is unique to every individual person, but there are many parts of the sequence that are the same in everyone…and in other living things  : thats why people can say we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees…and 50% with a carrot!


Most of our DNA is found in the nucleus of our cells but a small amount is found in structures called mitochondria: hence mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). The way a piece of mitochondrial DNA is identified is by comparing its sequence of hundreds of thousands of those four molecules with an already known sequence thats referred to as the Cambridge Reference Sequence, and noting the places where the tested piece is different from the reference piece. It would be a bit like lining up two trains side by side and noting the places where carriages alongside each other are not both the same colour. Now suppose it was found that the DNA being tested was only different from the Cambridge Reference Sequence (CRS) at position 6, at position 17 and position 98 : the Haplotype would then be 6, 17, 98.  Another piece tested might be different at 6, 17 and 45, another at 6, 17 45 and 71….and so on. After you’ve done a few thousand you might notice that 10% of them all start 6,17 and then have other numbers…and you might notice lots of those 6,17 DNA samples came from Japan…so you might group them together and say the group 6,17 seem mostly to come from Japan….and you will call the 6,17 group  HaploGROUP J  (for Japan ) And thats all there is to it – just dont get HaploGROUP and HaploTYPE confused – the former is like talking about the group of all Ford cars, the latter about the number plates on them.

Bills table also lists the haplotypes identified in some of the other bones recovered from the Pentridge burial site, and he points out that they too have numbers  in common with Leigh Olver. Thus, Bill would argue, having mitochondrial DNA like Leigh Olvers doesn’t mean you must be a descendant of Ellen Kelly…she wasnt the mother of those other criminals, even though they had mtDNA like hers.


However Bill has not actually listed the entire sequence of numbers that make up the haplotype of the other Pentridge bones…and whilst they may have some numbers in common – ie places at which they differ from the CRS – all of them have other numbers in their profile which make their Haplotype different – meaning that they are NOT the same as Leigh Olvers, or Ned Kellys. His bones were labelled as PEN 14 and the haplotype is 16069T, 16126C,73G,228A,263G,295T, 315.1C.. The bones from PEN 19, another executed prisoner gave this haplotype: 16126C,16163G,16186T,16189C, 16294T, 73G,152C,195C,263G,315.1C, I’ve made BOLD the numbers Bill noted they have in common, but as you can see whilst they do have a few in common, there are many others that are NOT shared. To say these Haplotypes are the same would be like saying your cell phone number and mine are the same because we both have a 7 and a double 2….

Only Ned Kellys bones gave a sample that was a match for Leigh Olvers.


Bill writes : “The conclusions in the book are that Leigh Olver and Ned Kelly both shared Haplogroup K in their DNA but ironically, so do I, and probably so do you, and also tens of millions of others belonging to the diagram Haplogroup K of Western European,……perhaps 20 million people having Haplotype K DNA at around 1850’s era. To be of Haplogroup K group means very little. And as a consequence, Edna’s oral history may be closer to the truth than what this DNA analysis may conclude. “

Here again Bill has got the wrong end of the stick: he is right that being in the same haploGROUP is nowhere near precise enough to link Ned Kellys bones to Ellen Kelly –  but that is NOT the proof being relied on. The proof linking Ned Kellys bones to Ellen Kelly is nothing to do with haploGROUP , but everything to do with the fact that they have an identical mtDNA HaploTYPE, or if its easier to understand without the technical jargon, an identical mitochondrial DNA profile.

In conclusion the science is crystal clear : Ned Kelly was Ellen Kellys natural born son, and Edna Griffiths belief about Ned having been adopted is disproved.

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7 Replies to “Was Ned Kelly adopted ?”

  1. Anonymous says: Reply

    I am totally unconvinced by this attention seeking chapter…why has a non scientist author made claims that Ned Kelly was adopted based on some backyard analysis of very detailed specialised DNA data from a known Quinn descendant, and then supported by what seems to be a very sketchy ‘creative’ account from a tenuous Kelly family connection.
    This adoption claim is at the expense of actual Kelly/King/Quinn family descendants who would no doubt be disturbed by another abstracted fictional narrative.

    1. Hi Anonymous, I suspect it may relate to Bill’s giving what I see as undue weight to oral history. David wrote above that “In his book, Bill writes ‘Ednas stories are mostly not accepted by other Kelly historians (but) we must at least consider written ‘oral history’ if only to get another perspective from what others say is ‘official history’”.

      As you can see elsewhere in Bill’s book, he quotes some lengthy chunks from Ambrose Pratt’s fictional tale ‘Dan Kelly, Outlaw’, a first person narration of Dan Kelly as having survived the Glenrowan Inn fire. Then on p. 288 Bill says, “It must have been an important endeavour for Pratt to record the intricate political situation and to write what he did on the first person”; this relates to Pratt’s story of Dan Kelly’s “account of the Kelly uprising” (p. 274). What seems to be happening is that Bill is arguing that oral history is potentially as important as written history, as written history is biased by being written by the victor. This will become important in his defence of some form of quasi republican sentiment in the North East in the 1870s regardless that he accepts my conclusion that there never was any Kelly led republican movement there. I’m still working through it to see how it works…

      1. Captain red says: Reply

        Mr Dawson is it your opinion that Danny boy and hart could have survived or died at the siege ?

        1. Hi Steve, there is no doubt from Dean Gibney’s RC testimony that they died in the inn and that those were the unfortunate burned corpses that were retrieved. Second, the inn site was picked over by souvenir hunters for days afterwards; there was no cellar, and even if there had been the fire would have consumed all oxygen over them and they would have died of asphyxiation. Third, they did not leave the inn with the released prisoners but remained inside. Fourth, they were still in the inn when Ned was captured and fired a couple of shots at the police around that time. Fifth, it was light by then and the inn remained surrounded; they did not sneak away. There is no chance whatsoever that they somehow magically escaped.

    2. Edna Griffiths must have been quite charming and a persuasive personality, and her close connections to Kelly people – Jim in particular – gave her views a certain authority which Bill seems reluctant to dismiss. As he admitted, everyone else who has looked at her writings dismisses them as fanciful, but Bill seems reluctant to do that himself and has tried to check some of them out, hence his attempt to show on DNA evidence that Neds relationship to Ellen wasnt established 100%. His eagerness to disprove the iron-cast link made by DNA analysis foundered on his misinterpretation of the science.

      Elsewhere in the book ( Chapter 5 ) he tells the story of Borrin, a story that is another of Ednas tales that nobody takes seriously – because of the lack of any other record or evidence or anything in any way hinting that such a person ever existed – but Bill took it seriously and tried to investigate it.

      1. Hi David, I thought the Borrin story was interesting and the possibility of investigating it seemed realistic if the alleged burial location could be pinpointed. It wouldn’t hurt to investigate and rule it in or out once and for all if there is an exact claimed location, which there seems to be from what has been described in Bill’s chapter.

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