Australian farmer claims skull is Ned Kelly's

Forensic tests to determine whether skull handed in to authorities came from outlaw who was hanged in 1880

A farmer in Australia has handed in a skull for forensic testing, claiming that it is that of Ned Kelly, the country's most notorious outlaw.

Tom Baxter, from the remote town of Derby in Western Australia, says he had the skull in his possession for the past 30 years. This week he handed it in to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine after visiting the grave where a headless skeleton believed to be that of the outlaw was found last year.

Baxter did not explain how he had acquired the skull, saying only: "I don't even consider that it was an act of theft and I haven't admitted to being the person who took it."

The whereabouts of the bushranger's skull is one of Australia's most enduring historical mysteries: it was separated from his body soon after he was hanged in 1880 for murdering a policeman.

After a series of bank raids and a shoot-out in which three police were killed, Kelly's last stand was a 10-hour gun battle in which he was clad in homemade helmet and armour that became the stuff of legend.

Even before his death, such was the interest in Kelly that 30,000 people signed a petition protesting against his execution. After he was hanged, authorities removed his head and handed it to phrenologists to study for evidence of his criminal nature. Phrenology – the study of skulls to determine a person's character and mental ability – was popular in the 19th century

His torso was buried at Old Melbourne Gaol until its closure in 1929 when all the human remains buried there were transferred to Victoria's Pentridge prison. During the transferl, workers plundered a grave marked EK in the belief it was Kelly's, while the foreman collected the skull and handed it to the Australian Institute of Anatomy.

It was put on display in Old Melbourne Gaol, by then a museum, in 1971 but was stolen in 1978 and has been missing ever since.

Speculation over its whereabouts was renewed last year when archaeologists exhuming a mass grave at Pentridge prison found what they believe to be Kelly's skeleton.

Kelly's exploits have inspired films, TV series, songs and books – and a fierce debate about his place in Australian history. Opinion remains divided over whether he was a cold-hearted killer or a young man driven to crime because of poverty and social injustice. More: