I have a super power. It’s not superhuman strength or x-ray vision. I can’t shapeshift. But, I can find the long-lost remains of dead historical personages. I do that by writing a book about them.
My powers were slow to develop, Black Snake: The Daring of Ned Kelly was published back in 2002. It wasn’t until five years later that Ned’s jumbled bones were discovered in the grounds of Pentridge Prison in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg, while they were converting the prison into apartments. The reassembled skeleton was missing most of its skull. In 2007, forensic scientists were able to confirm that they were Ned’s remains by matching DNA from the bones with the DNA of a great-grand nephew. More than 130 years after his death, he was reburied with his mother and other family members. I included this new information in a reprint.
King Richard III
My very first book was Stagefright, published way back in 1996. It’s not a historical novel. It’s one of only two books I’ve set in current times, and it’s about school kids putting on a rock music version of Shakespeare’s play Richard III.
I’ve been fascinated by this king of England since I studied the play in high school. King Richard isn’t a character in my book, but one of the students plays Richard III on stage. Another becomes quite obsessed by him, and doesn’t think he’s the bad guy portrayed by Shakespeare.
The real Richard III was hastily buried after he died in a battle in 1485. At the time I wrote the book, no one knew where Richard’s remains were.
By 2012, Stagefright was a bit outdated (no mobile phones!), so I rewrote it extensively and it was republished. While I was working on that, Richard III’s grave was rediscovered. His skeleton, missing for around 500 years, was found under a carpark in Leicester. It made headlines around the world. Not the least because there was a dramatic curve in his spine which proved that he did, as Shakespeare had said, have a hunched back.
Richard was reburied in 2015 with all the pomp and ceremony befitting a king.
Two could be a coincidence, I hear you say. But there’s a third. Matthew Flinders, is well-known as the man who circumnavigated Australia, and drew up the first complete map of the continent.
Famous as he was, his gravesite had also gone missing. He was buried in St James Cemetery, London, but over time the graveyard itself ended up underground – beneath Euston Station. The building of a new high-speed rail line involved digging up part of the existing station. This was an opportunity for archaeologists to excavate the cemetery. It was a huge job. There were tens of thousands of graves. They wanted to move all of the remains to a place where they could examine them at leisure. And they had limited time. The chances of finding and identifying Matthew were slim.
On 25 Jan 2019, I was deep into writing a book about Matthew. I was listening to the ABC News, as always, while I made my lunch, when it was announced that they had found Matthew Flinders. They knew it was him because his skeleton had a lead plaque lying on it. On it was engraved Capt. Matthew Flinders R.N. Died July 1814 Aged 40 Years. No need for complicated DNA evidence!
Matthew’s remains (and 25,000 other skeletons unearthed before the project ended in December last year) will be minutely examined, before they are reburied. It all sounds a bit gruesome, but archaeologists and scientists can learn a great deal from the remains. What will they learn about Matthew Flinders?
My book, Matthew Flinders: Adventures on Leaky Ships will be published in July 2020.
It’s obvious that my superpower is getting stronger. My advice to historians yearning to find the final resting place of a long lost historical figure is simple. Engage me to write about them!