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Body Snatchers- The Theft of Radical's Body Parts.

Yagan, Pemulwuy, Ned Kelly, Peter Lalor, Joe Hill

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.

Aboriginal Relics

Indigenous Australians can be seen as the nation's original rebel class. The invasion of the British saw them poisoned, raped, killed and mutilated. Their land was stolen and ecologically ruined and their culture, language and spirituality put under concerted attack. In return they resisted through guerrilla warfare, the killing of livestock and the simple refusal to disappear.

Not only did the invaders attempt to spiritually and physically destroy any and all of the indigenous inhabitants they came across, but they also endeavoured to loot their corpses. Between 3000 and 6000 aboriginal people are estimated to have had their body parts stolen and sent overseas. In the last thirty years (since Aboriginal people attained citizenship) there has been a concerted push by Aboriginal groups across Australia to get these parts back and bury them in their homelands.

Recent successes in these battles have seen the return of Yagan's head to the Nyungar people (see below) and the return of a pickled penis and head preserved in whisky to Tasmanian families. For the most part Museums and Universities have been resistant to the return of body parts fearing that they could lose whole collections to their rightful owners. More importantly these institutions are worried that the rise of indigenous movements could undermine their claim to be the ultimate holders of culture. As Caroline Spotswood, a representative of Tasmanian indigenous groups, stated at a 1998 Museums' Conference "British Museums can stand their ground as the last strong hold of imperialism or take account of the changed world and the place in it of indigenous people... Has cutting up people after they are dead and putting body parts on display to strangers really enlightened and brought enjoyment to your people?"

A recent dispute has also broken out over whether the Museums and Universities are legally responsible for the deaths of people whose body parts they later acquired. The debate centres on claims from Australian academics and aboriginals that people were "killed to order" so that collectors could obtain desired parts. Whilst the institutions fiercely deny that their representatives ever took part in killings circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise. As aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell, whose himself has conducted three trips to the UK in search of body parts and who has been banned from the British Museum, stated in 1997 "You find that wherever a massacre took place a collector just happened to be in the area."

Regardless of whether the Museums were on the scene of massacres or simply moved in to profit from them, it is clear that aboriginal people are only just beginning the fight to get their ancestors' bodies and artifacts back. The campaign to do so has become a central part of their battle for cultural independence and integrity. Caroline Spotswood made this clear in 1998 when she stated "We will never rest until we bring all our old people's bodies back and the things that they made with their own hands. When we lay the spirits to rest it breathes life into our own."

Yagan's Head

Yagan was a Nyungar leader who played a key part in early indigenous resistance to white rule around the area now occupied by Western Australia's capital city Perth. Initially he had good relations with the white administration and distributed goods and rations received as compensation for the use of land by settlers. As the whites increasingly encroached on traditional lands and threaten the Nyungar way of life he was forced to fight back.

Yagan's first recorded act of open rebellion was the June 1833 spearing of a servant and the destruction of a mud brick home in reprisal for the shooting of an un-named Nyungar man who had been "stealing" from a settler's garden. Following this a number of other attacks on settlers occurred throughout the Swan area leading to his arrest. Acting through a white interpreter named Robert Lyon, Yagan was spared the death penalty as he successfully claimed he was a prisoner of war. He also confronted the court with its complicity in sparking the guerrilla war by stating "You came to our country. You have driven us from our haunts and disturbed us in our occupations. As we walk in our own country we are fired upon by white men. Why should he mistreat us so?"

After being exiled to Carnac Island Yagan and another warrior made an escape to the mainland. Trigger happy settlers had begun the wholesale killings of Nyungars and shortly after Yagan's father Midegooroo was arrested and executed. In return Nyungar reprisal attacks had escalated including one against a guard at Carnac Island. Nyungar attacks were far more selective in their range of targets than those by whites as the nature of Yagan's death attests.

Yagan and a companion were shot in the back whilst sharing a meal with the Keats brothers. The brothers were bounty hunters who had lured in the pair with promises of friendship. Before the attack was over one of the brothers had been speared. The other abandoned him before returning with a posse. The posse found Yagan dead and finished off his dying friend Heegan with a bullet to the head. Yagan's head was then hacked off and later preserved over a smoky fire in a tree stump before being wrapped in a kangaroo skin. His skin was then carefully removed and hung to dry in order to obtain intact his tribal markings. The other remains were left behind, unburied and unburned.

From there Yagan's head was to undertake the long journey to Britain. In 1834 it was falsely and ghoulishly displayed throughout the country as belonging to the "Chief of the Swan River". The head later became the property of the Museum of Liverpool and was displayed for many years before being disposed of in 1968 as part of a general clean out. It was later buried in a paupers grave in Everton Cemetery along with the bodies of 21 still born children.

The various clans within the Nyungar people have long sought the return of Yagan's head. As elder Ken Colbung has stated "Because the head is separate from the torso, Yagan cannot enter the spirit world to be reincarnated and his spirit is still roaming." Efforts to obtain it culminated in 1997 when a four person delegation went to Britain to begin negotiations. Colbung had already spent the last four years concertedly lobbying the British Government and had gained the support of the Foreign Office. The power to grant permission to exhume remains however rested with the Home Office and they were stalling the matter on the grounds that the bodies of the 21 babies should not be disturbed. Eventually a solution was found and using sonar technology workmen were able to successfully exhume the head which was then handed over in a special ceremony.

Controversy continued to dog Yagan however. On his return to Perth Colbung lashed out at British Authorities. Linking the death of Princess Diana to the exhumation (which had occurred on the same weekend) he stated "Because the Poms did the wrong thing they have to suffer. They have to learn too, to live with it as we did and that is how nature goes." Disputes also broke out amongst Elders over where Yagan should be buried with some groups claiming he should never have been brought back. Elder Robert Bropho suffered a mysterious heart attack shortly after Yagan's return and attributed this and a run of bad luck to Yagan's angry spirit.

Since this time Yagan's head has finally come to rest at an undisclosed location. Unfortunately the battle over his memory continues as racists have repeatedly beheaded a Swan River statue erected in his honour.


Pemulwuy was probably around 30 years of the age when white settlers first invaded Botany Bay area in 1788. As a member of the Bidjigal group of the Eora people he roamed from Castle Hill to Botany Bay and would have been one of the first indigenous people to experience white domination. Despite Governor Phillip's instructions that settlers were to avoid "unwarranted killings and interruption of the Aborigine's way of life" there were no negotiations over land use and an unofficial war soon broke out.

Pemulwuy first came to public attention in 1790 when he was accused of having killed a convict named McIntyre. McIntyre was widely known to have killed a number of Eora people. A military expedition sent out to kill him failed to do so and instead was ordered to bring back "any six Bidjigal or their heads." Some months later he was reported to have been injured in two battles, one with troops at Parramatta and another with the African American bushranger Black Caesar. In 1797 he was wounded and captured in a battle with soldiers and armed settlers. This time he was captured, but despite his wounds was able to later escape.

With Eora numbers depleted from massacres and disease the group switched from head on confrontations to guerrilla style attacks. In this they excelled causing extensive damage to crops and killing a number of settlers. Having survived many gunshot wounds Pemulwuy's power had taken on a legendary status amongst the Eora and as a result he led many of the attacks. These missions became a severe threat to the fledgling colony's economy and in 1801 Governor King ordered settlers to fire on any aboriginals caught in the Parramatta area. He also outlawed Pemulwuy along with two escaped convicts who were believed to be aiding the Eora. The reward for their capture, dead or alive, was 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon.

In 1802 the Eora were further decimated and the struggle began to falter. Pemulwuy was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances and his son Tedbury continued the resistance until he himself was killed in 1805. Pemulwuy's head was severed and sent as a gift to the (in)famous botanist Joseph Banks accompanied by a letter from King stating that "Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character..."

Pemulwuy's skull was returned to Australia in the 1950s and then displayed at various points across the country before becoming lost. In 1998 a skull believed to be Pemulwuy's was given to Redfern aboriginal undertaker Allan Murray by the NSW state coroner's office. It has since become the centre of a dispute between Murray and a group of aboriginals from Taree who believe that the skull is actually that of a Taree man. Whilst Murray wishes to bury the skull and erect a statue to the "rainbow warrior" the Taree group wish to return it to their Elders. Much confusion would have been avoided had the settlers left Pemulwuy's corpse intact and indeed left the Eora alone in the first place.

Ned Kelly

Aboriginal resistance figures were not the only ones to have their heads stolen as the case of Ned Kelly clearly illustrates. Kelly's family belonged to the class known as "Free Selectors". To alleviate tension in the city and country, state authorities during the 1840s and 1850s sold off small areas to unemployed bush workers. The plan was designed to fail from the beginning as the plots were too small to enable selectors to repay their debt to the state. Because of their habitual bankruptcy and lower class background the selectors also attracted police harassment. This in turn increased when a number of them took to cattle duffing and bushranging as a means of survival.

The Kelly gang were amongst those who turned to crime. After police arrested their mother and molested their sister, Ned, his brother Dan and their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne took to robbing banks and staging hold ups in and around the Greta area. In the process of looting banks the gang also freed locals from debt by destroying all the records they could find. At one point, with the support of locals, the gang took over the township Jerilderie for a number of days. Whilst there Ned drafted a 56 page letter declaring war on all squatters who did not contribute a portion of their profits to the poor of the district.

The letter betrayed his Irish republican sympathies and vehemently attacked the Victorian police calling them "A parcel of big ugly fat necked wombat-headed, big bellied, magpie-legged narrow hipped splay footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English landlords..." Further evidence of the Kelly Gang's revolutionary leanings can be found in the fact that shortly before their defeat they had dispatched their sister Eliza to purchase large amounts of weapons and ammunition with which to launch a regional uprising. Before the gang was finally defeated at Glenrowan in 1880 around twenty locals had been arrested for refusing to collaborate in the search for Kelly.

Following his execution Kelly's body was cannibalised by members of the medical profession. A reporter for the Bendigo Independent reported at the time that "The students went in particularly heavily, taking parts of his body and generally examining every organ. It was a ghastly sight...I'm told portions of the corpse are now in nearly every 'curiosity' cabinet in Melbourne medical men's places." The theft was to continue in 1929 when those employed to unearth caskets and move them to the Pentridge Cemetery looted Kelly's coffin for souvenirs.

Ned Kelly's skull has become the focus of a particularly protracted dispute. In 1929 a skull bearing the marks "E.K." was sent to the Institute of Anatomy along with his death mask. When these were passed on to the National Trust in 1972 they became the centre of controversy as some historians claimed that the skull could not be Ned's as his may have been split in two in 1880 by students trying to get at his brain.

Whatever the truth of these allegations the skull was put on display at the Old Melbourne Gaol and was subsequently stolen in 1978. The thief in a later statement claimed he had taken it because he "Simply wanted to keep the skull away from the sick people who had custody of it and abused the privilege." At some point the skull was offered to left wing author Frank Hardy who before his death had told friends that he knew of its whereabouts. A formal offer to return the skull to authorities was made in the 1980s and then withdrawn after police raided the homes of those they believed were connected to the theft.

Nothing more was heard of the skull until March 1998 when the thief contacted the former Father of the Old Melbourne Gaol. Father Norden reported that the caller wished to return the skull providing it was buried in dignity with the rest of Ned's body. He also reported that a number of Kelly's surviving relatives agreed with this request. Kelly historian Ian Jones was also contacted by the man whom he described as "A very down to earth fellow who just said that Ned Kelly's skull should never have been on display and that's why he took it. He didn't feel it was proper."

Following criticism of the thief as "disrespectful" he and his supporters released a ten point statement pointing out that-

  1. We did not hang Mr Kelly by the neck so that his knees contracted twice to his chest before passing on.
  2. We did not mutilate his body.
  3. We did not hack off his head.
  4. We did not remove his brain, put it in a preserving jar and give it to an unnamed medico.
  5. We did not remove the flesh from Mr Kelly's skull.
  6. We did not brand the initials E.K. into Mr Kelly's skull.
  7. We did not declare the skull an official police trophy.
  8. We did not pass the skull around Victorian townships as part of a grisly exhibition.
  9. We did not mount the skull in a glass case and put it on display as a trophy.
  10. We did not behave in a ghoulish, barbaric and uncivilised manner that is more in keeping with the head hunters of old than with supposedly sophisticated twentieth century and soon to be twenty-first century human beings.

Shortly after the release of this statement the Ned Kelly Memorial Society came forth to offer a $10,000 reward for the skull. Negotiations also began with Northern NSW activist Fast Bucks and former journalist JJ McRoach representing the thief. The pair, both of who had run for the Australian Marijuana Party in the 1980s, claimed to have met the thief shortly after he obtained the skull. Fast Bucks also claimed to have paid the man $8000 in 1978 to prevent him from selling it to a number of overseas collectors. Amongst these collectors was Mick Jagger who himself had recently appeared in the film of Ned Kelly's life. Fast Bucks was apparently shown the skull which was hung from a coathanger in a cupboard. In connection with this he stated that "There is no doubt that (the thief) took it. Its a bit disgusting, its a creepy thing to do, but why should the cops have it as a souvenir? So they can humiliate Ned Kelly even further?"

Negotiations stalled after the thief contacted a journalist at the Melbourne Age and demanded that Kelly be given a posthumous pardon and that his body be moved from Pentridge and buried with his skull in the Kelly homeland around Greta. During the conversation the thief identified Kelly as an early Australian republican and an Australian icon. He claimed to live in the outback of WA and said that Kelly's rebellion could be traced "Back to the government stuff, them trying to split up families. They pretty much had a down on the Kellys. I'm not trying to say he is blameless... but in the circumstances of Stringybark Creek, he was obviously fired upon first by people who weren't in uniform... He's not the common criminal people make him out to be... of course the police take a dim view because he killed some."

The fact that the police take such a view of the Kelly legend has meant that any chance of a pardon is nil and without it any chance of the skull's return is unlikely. In the meantime the cannibalisation of Ned Kelly continues as the government and business people he rebelled against profit from his death through displays in court and gaol museums and the sale of tacky merchandising. Such merchandising has recently come to include an expensive New York Ned Kelly watch and aprons bearing Kelly's last words "Such is life..."

The story continues....on Monday 2 August 1999, the Age Newspaper from Melbourne had the following editorial:

Peter Lalor

Whilst many of those listed above literally lost their heads to the authorities one of the leaders of the Eureka uprising instead lost his arm during the famed battle.

In 1854 the farmer dominated Victorian administration was in the process of expanding the state's industrial infrastructure. New roads, docking facilities and an expanded police force required alot of money and that money was to be squeezed out of the poor through increased taxes. One series of taxes was aimed at gold diggers who were made to pay huge license fees in the hope of forcing many of them back to wage slavery. In order to enforce the license system the government was required to send out a number of troopers.

The troopers were brutal in their treatment of diggers and helped push them toward revolt. The final spark came with the killing of a digger by a hotel proprietor and the subsequent cover-up by police. Bentley's Inn was set alight on December 2nd and the police were run out of town. Upon hearing of the approach of a large number of troops the diggers threw up a stockade and elected Lalor their Commander in Chief. Detachments were formed and armed with whatever weapons could be obtained. The blue and white Southern Cross was hoisted as a rebel flag. All 500 of the men swore "By the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties."

At 3:30 am on Sunday December 3rd 276 troopers moved in and attacked the stockade. The diggers had wrongly believed that the authorities would not attack on the Sabbath and those in camp numbered less than 150. By the time the battle was over they had suffered the loss of 30 lives with the rest forced to dejectedly surrender. As is so often the case their true victory was to be found elsewhere as further protests and rebelliousness broke out across the colony forcing the government onto the back foot. Within a short time troopers were removed from the gold fields and taxes were lowered.

During the battle Peter Lalor was wounded in the arm and only narrowly survived its consequent amputation. The whereabouts of the arm became an issue of debate in the 1980s when Victoria's state historian Dr Bernard Barrett began a search for its location. Barrett felt that the arm was a neglected relic stranded somewhere in or around Ballarat. Unsurprisingly many of Lalor's modern day admirers were none too pleased at talk of relocating the missing arm. A Miss Marguerita O'Reilly revealed that the arm had received a Christian burial at a mining site in Wills Street, now Mairs Street, in Ballarat. The burial had been noted by a Ballarat historian the previous century and reported in the Austral Light. Barrett was condemned by O'Reilly and others both for his historical ineptitude and for his desire to exhume the happily resting arm. Suitably chastened Barrett made no more comment on the matter.

Joe Hill

The theft and attempted theft of remains in Australia has not just been confined to homegrown radicals. Joe Hill, an I.W.W. activist and songwriter had his cremated ashes stolen by police in Sydney during 1917. They have never been recovered.

Hill migrated from Sweden to the US in 1901. After a period of enduring low pay and terrible conditions he joined the I.W.W. and later recruited thousands to the radical labour organisation through songs such as "The Preacher and the Slave", "Casey Jones" and "The Rebel Girl." His songs remain alive through recordings by artists such as Billy Bragg, Paul Robeson and Phil Ochs as well as through performances by radicals everywhere.

Joe Hill was martyred in 1915 when he was executed on framed up charges in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mass demonstrations and the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson failed to move a war crazed Utah administration bent on squelching the I.W.W. threat. Before going to the firing squad Hill sent out a number of telegraphs. One of them went to the I.W.W.'s headquarters in Chicago and echoing his commitment and humour stated "Goodbye, I will die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning, organise... It is only a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the State line to be buried. I don't want to be found dead in Utah." The I.W.W. honoured his wishes by removing his body from the Mormon state and then cremating it in Chicago before a crowd of 30 000. In honour of his worldwide popularity they then mailed his ashes to all the active branches across the globe.

The Sydney I.W.W. at this time was under heavy pressure from the police due to its role in campaigning against enforced conscription. Tom Barker, a leading militant in the I.W.W. recalled in 1965 that-

Barker later went to the police station and was told that the police chief had thrown them into a fire. However since relations were never good between the I.W.W. and the police this may have been a lie. Sadly we may never know if Joe's ashes are languishing somewhere in police storage or sitting as a prize trophy on some Commissioner's mantle piece.


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Last modified: August 2, 1999

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