Old Melbourne Gaol – Melbourne, Australia - Atlas Obscura

Melbourne, Australia

Old Melbourne Gaol

Once housing children next to hardened criminals this historic jail once displayed Ned Kelly's skull until it was stolen. 

Built in 1839, the Old Melbourne Gaol once loomed over the city, taking in any and all comers from lazy children to murderous vigilantes. This historic prison was the site of over 100 hangings including that of famed criminal Ned Kelly, whose death mask, along with those of others hanged at the site, still sits in the museum that now inhabits the space. 

At the time of its construction, Melbourne Gaol was an imposing symbol of the city’s unforgiving justice system, reminding all just where they would end up should they break the law. As the only penal fortress in the area, the jail became the holding house for everyone from mentally ill lunatics to serial killers to unruly young children. The youngest reported inmate was a three-year-old who was held in the jail for six months for the offense of being idle.

Executions were also commonplace in the jail with 133 hangings taking place at the jail during its 90 years in operation. The prison even put to death some of the era’s and area’s most infamous criminals such as Frederick Bailey Deeming, who was convicted of murdering a couple of his wives and a handful of his children, and most notoriously, murderer-or-vigilante-depending-on-who-you-ask Ned Kelly. He of the iconic home-made plate metal armor was captured after a deadly confrontation with police, and hanged in the Melbourne jail in 1880.

The jail ceased operation in 1929 when the conditions were no longer deemed acceptable. Some of the structures were taken down, but the remaining facilities were once again used to house AWOL soldiers during World War II before finally being established as a museum in 1957. The museum told the history of the famous jail and displayed such grim mementos as the death masks of some of those executed at the site and even a skull reported to belong to Ned Kelly. Unfortunately, the skull was stolen in the ’70s.

Today the museum is still open and has added such attractions as a mock trial for Ned Kelly in which the whole family can reenact sentencing the man to death. And while his skull no longer graces the halls of the Old Melbourne Gaol, Kelly’s death mask remains for anyone who wants to stare into the eyes of a dead criminal.