Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.
And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.
In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**
Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.
“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.
The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?
The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.
Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.
Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.
It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.
Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.
* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.
** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.