A criminal record: women and Australian true crime stories


File 20170822 13685 w0sgkd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The pyjama girl mystery, as featured in Famous Detective Stories no. 6.
State Library of New South Whales, CC BY-ND

Rachel Franks, University of Newcastle

Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.

Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Vol. 1, No. 1, 5 March 1803 (Front Page).
Call number: DL F8/50, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, CC BY

The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.

The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.

In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.

Women as perpetrators

In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.

As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.

One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.

Kate Leigh’s mugshots and prison form.
State Archives of New South Wales, CC BY

The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.

In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.

But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.

Women as victims

In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.

Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.

Florence Linda Agostini (née Platt; 12 September 1905 – 27 August 1934) was known posthumously as the Pyjama Girl.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.

The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.

Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.

Changing true crime narratives

The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.

Kerry Greenwood, known for crime fiction and true crime, has curated two important volumes On Murder (2000) and On Murder II (2002). Rachael Weaver, in The Criminal of the Century (2006), offers a rigorous exploration of colonial serial killer Frederick Deeming. More recently Alecia Simmonds has written on the terrible consequences seen when drug use, violence, masculinity, and psychosis collide in Wildman: The True Story of a Police Killing, Mental Illness and the Law (2015). A dominant force on the landscape of true crime writing is Helen Garner with several compelling works including Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (2014).

Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.

The ConversationCrime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.

Rachel Franks, Conjoint Fellow, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet


‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Phantoms-Bookshelves-Jacques-Bonnet/dp/1590207599/

Ebooks: Not There Yet?


The following article Wired lists five reasons as to why ebooks are not there yet. I would say that ebooks will never be the same as traditional books and they probably are never meant to be the same. I would also say you should probably never expect them to be the same. Television is not the same as going to the movies and never will be. I think waiting for ebooks to be the same as traditional books is to ensure you never use ebooks all that much. Just my opinion.

There are some useful considerations in the five points raised in the article – but there are also some fairly ordinary ones also, which suggest to me a bias against ebooks from the start. Being concerned that ebooks don’t allow you to use them in home design – I mean, really??? If that is a major concern with ebooks – you have to be kidding.

Some years ago I never thought I would ever like ebooks – I love them now and I don’t even have an ebook reader (I use by laptop) at this stage. I can see myself buying one in the near future – that would make ebooks so much more convenient to me. I could read one on a bus or ferry, I could read at work without too many difficulties (in my breaks of course), etc.

How many books can I now own? For a bibliophile like me ebooks are a dream come true. I have well over 1000 traditional books and I will soon eclipse that number in ebooks – many of which are old and out of print works which are very precious to me. These brilliant old books are now so accessible to me and I can store them all in such a small place. Fantastic I say.

See the article mentioned above at:
http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/06/ebooks-not-there-yet/all/1

 

John Adams, by David McCullough


I have just finished watching the mini series ‘John Adams,’ starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. I found the mini series to be difficult to watch, as it was hardly brilliant drama despite the rhetoric on the DVD case. Not being American was perhaps a reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the mini series. I found it to be a disappointment as a viewing spectacle. But how true to the man and to history was the mini series? This is a question that now has my attention – for the portrayal of John Adams in the production was hardly that of a man to be admired.

Adams comes across as a self-centred, vain glorious man, with poor people skills and a terrible father and husband. He appears to seek his own advancement to the expense of those about him and also to be full of envy and petty jealousy. He also appears to be a somewhat poor diplomat and politician overall – even though he held the greatest office in the United States, as second president following that of George Washington.

So now I come to the book on which this mini series was based, ‘John Adams,’ by David McCullough. I am now going to read this book and see just how true to the book and actual events the mini series achieved. I find it difficult to believe that Adams could have been the way he was protrayed in the film – now I will seek out the truth for myself.

Changing the World: November 27 – Educating the World


Today’s suggestion is about doing something about the many children throughout the world that receive no education or very limited education. This can be especially true of many girls in some countries and seems to be more so in some strict Islamic communities and regions.

It is difficult to know just what can be done in this field by the ‘average Joe,’ so to speak. Whereas individuals may not be able to do a lot personally, they may be able to contribute by being part of a larger organisation that is able to bring pressure to bear on governments around the world.

It is also possible to be part of a humanitarian organisation that seeks to assist people to receive education and/or by donating money to such a group.

For some ideas on this particular suggestion have a look at:

www.campaignforeducation.org & www.unicef.org

A response to reading ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton

‘Shameful Flight – The Last Years of the British Empire in India,’ by Stanley Wolpert


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

‘Shameful Flight’ relates the history of the final years of the British Raj in India, including the partition of India into both Pakistan (West and East) and India, and the early hostility of the two new nations destined for perpetual warfare in such regions as the Kashmir.The history of this era of political instability on the subcontinent includes all the main players from Great Britain, India and Pakistan.These main players include Winston Churchill, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. There is not a single figure in this history of India’s partition who comes out of it in a good light, though several seem to have had very well-intentioned aims and motivations. It is the true story of lost opportunity and the devastating consequences of human pride and selfishness that have reverberated down through the decades to the present day and remain visible in the continuing clashes between India and Pakistan, as well as in the extremism expressed in both the Islamic and Hindu communities throughout the sub-continent. It is a story of perpetual tragedy and human suffering with no end in sight.

This book is extremely easy to read, passes on a wealth of historical information and whets the appetite for further research on the India/Pakistan situation. It provides enlightenment, by bringing understanding to the current political instability in both India and Pakistan, by clearly revealing the root of the problem – the manner of the birth of both nations out of British imperialism and that nation’s final haphazard departure aptly described as a ‘Shameful Flight.’ This is a great book for understanding the sub-continent and the wounds it still carries to this day.

This book was provided to me for review by Oxford University Press – www.oup.com

Changing the World: November 22 – Thanks


The suggestion for today is to acknowledge and express thanks for those who have improved the human condition – for humanity in general and for myself in particular.

Today is known in the United States as ‘Thanksgiving Day.’ Here in Australia we know no such day – something which could be seen as both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, in that it is not another day commercialised and bad, in that there is no particular day for acknowledging our gratitude to those that have improved our lives, etc.

But why do we need a particular day for this – can we not be thankful and express our gratitude on a daily basis? I think we can. I am not calling for a false expression of gratitude and thankfulness, but that which is real and true – surely we can all find something to be thankful for? I know it isn’t hard for me to find plenty to be thankful for throughout each day.

 

A response to reading ‘365 Ways to Change the World,’ by Michael Norton

‘Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin – An Update


 

As visitors to ‘At the BookShelf’ would know, I have been reading ‘Reformers and Their Stepchildren,’ by Leonard Verduin. I have now started chapter four and progress through the book may appear slow and you may think this is a reflection on the quality of the book. That would be a mistaken assumption however.

In reality I am finding the book a brilliant treatment of the differences between the ‘partial reformers’ (such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc) and the more ‘radical reformer’ who sought a complete transformation of the church to that which more accurately reflected the New Testament model.

The ‘slowness’ of my reading is more a reflection of my reading half a dozen or so books at the same time. Reading so many books at any given time is fairly normal for me – in fact, I would call normal (for me) reading far more books at any given time, but I am trying to reign myself in a little here. I just love reading – I am a bibliophile and bookworm remember 🙂

The third chapter of Verduin’s work has to do with the lack of true church discipline in the churches of the Reformers and their indifference (generally speaking) to ungodliness in the church (remembering that their churches basically included all in a given location or region).

The third chapter presents a very clear case of the real time contradiction of the Reformers and the reform they were bringing to bear on such places as Geneva, Zurich, etc. To a large extent their work of reform didn’t go anywhere near far enough to satisfy their ‘stepchildren,’ who when they tried to go further were branded as heretics, with their efforts at a more thorough reform being identified by the reformers as evidence of their heresy.

It is a very engaging chapter I believe and one that is helpful for shedding light on Christianity even to this day.

‘The Noticer,’ by Andy Andrews


Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars.

thenoticer_andandrews_225_350_Book_50_cover Based on a true story, ‘The Noticer’ tells the story of a mysterious old man known simply as ‘Jones,’ who seems to have the ability to turn up when needed most. In the midst of a crisis, Jones is there to provide ‘perspective.’ Jones is ‘the noticer,’ an individual who notices what is happening in the life of ‘the other’ and provides a little bit of perspective, thereby helping ‘the other’ to understand, grow and move on.

‘The Noticer’ is an easy read that warms the heart. It leaves you thinking how easy it can be to provide a little bit of perspective and make a difference in ‘another’ person’s life. It certainly encouraged me to identify opportunities for looking out for ‘the other.’

However, when viewed from my own Particular Baptist perspective, as heart warming and encouraging as the book is, it is unable to provide that spark that will enable a person to be an effective noticer – that is the realm of the life changing gospel. Yet, in the hands (and mind) of a renewed believer, this book may very well be a vehicle on the road to greater usefulness in being more other-centred than self-centred.

You may also find it useful to check out ‘The Noticer Project’ online at:

http://www.thenoticerproject.com

This book was provided to me for review as a member of the ‘Book Review Bloggers Program’ at Thomas Nelson:

http://brb.thomasnelson.com/

THE STORY OF THE ENGLISH BAPTISTS: John C. Carlile


I have recently posted on the particularbaptist.com library site ‘The Story of the English Baptists,’ by John C. Carlile. The book can be found at the following link:

http://particularbaptist.com/library/englishbaptists_john-carlile.html

I own the 1905 edition which was printed as a hardcover by James Clarke & Co. in London, England. My copy is quite aged and is in quite poor condition. The version I have placed online is of course in pristine condition and will undoubtedly stay that way.

There are a number of illustrations and photographs in the book – all of which can be found in the online version.

The book provides something of an introduction to both the General and Particular Baptists, and as such is probably a useful book in that it whets the appetite to research deeper into the history of Baptists in England – which in my case is especially true of the Particular Baptists (of whom I am one).

There are some very interesting and useful chapters in the book, though the treatments of some of the ‘big’ names in Particular Baptist history are quite brief – as I say, something of an introduction. Perhaps an overview may be a better way to describe the book.

I don’t think everyone will necessarily agree with all of the conclusions and statements made by the author of the book. For example, there is something definitely hinky about his comments regarding possible unification of General and Particular Baptists. I’m not sure that he really grasps the significance of the differences between the two camps.

Out of 5 I’d probably give the book a generous 3. I think the book has merit, but is yet disappointing.