Tag Archives: 1900s

1909: Martha Rendell

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

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.

1907: Xu Xulin, anti-Manchu assassin

Chinese revolutionary Xu Xulin was executed on this date in 1907.

As a civil servant in Anhui Province, this militant (English Wikipedia entry | German | the far more detailed Chinese) had just one day before assassinated the provincial governor, En-ming, during the ceremonial graduation of a police academy. Xu himself was the academy’s superintendent.

He’d been hoping to touch off a revolution and his hopes, though not ill-founded, were disappointed in this moment. He was beheaded hours later and his heart carved out as an offering to his victim. Xu’s cousin, the feminist Qiu Jin, was executed the following week for the same disturbance.

Surprisingly, Xu’s murder of a Manchu official — the Mongolian peoples who ruled China’s domestic Han majority under the Qing dynasty — directly spurred a national response to his frankly stated ethnic grievances, as the Qing maneuvered (too late, as it would transpire) to implement reforms that could sustain their state through a revolutionary era.

Xu Xilin, during his interrogation, readily confessed that he had killed Enming simply because he was a Manchu … Xu Xilin professed no grudge against Enming personally, nor did he claim that the governor had been particularly hostile toward Han. Rather, Xu’s enmity was directed toward the Manchus in general:

The Manchus have enslaved us Han for nearly three hundred years. On the surface they seem to be implementing constitutionalism, but that’s only to ensnare people’s minds. In reality they are upholding the centralization of authority so as to enhance their own power. The Manchus’ presumption is that once there is constitutionalism, then revolution will be impossible … If constitutionalism means centralization, then the more constitutionalism there is, the faster we Han people will die … I have harbored anti-Manchu feelings for more than ten years. Only today have I achieved my goal. My intention was to murder Enming, then to kill Duanfang, Tieliang, and Liangbi, so as to avenge the Han people … You say that the governor was a good official, that he treated me very well. Granted. But since my aim is to oppose the Manchus, I cannot be concerned with whether a particular Manchu was a good or bad official. As for his treating me well, that was the private kindness of an individual person. My killing of the governor, on the other hand, expresses the universal principal of anti-Manchuism.

The murder of Enming caused tremendous unease among Manchu officials … Because it coincided with a series of revolutionary uprisings in Guangdong that Sun Yat-sen had launched in early May, the assassination was especially upsetting. According to British diplomats, “Everywhere throughout the country the Manchu officials are living closely guarded in their Yamens.” …

[The Empress] Cixi was particularly anxious about Xu Xilin’s anti-Manchuism. At an audience a month later with her foreign minister, Lu Haihuan (1840-1927), the empress dowager was reportedly still wrestling with Xu’s ghost. She insisted to Lu, “The bandit Xu Xilin claimed that there is prejudice between Manchus and Han, but really when we select provincial officials there is no prejudice whatsoever.” More to the point, she issued within five weeks of each other two edicts that were clearly prompted by Enming’s murder. The first, promulgated on 8 July, two days after the assassination, called once more upon her subjects to present proposals for reform, but this time her appeal went beyond the elite of top officials who were authorized to memorialize the throne to the much broader group of junior officials and scholar commoners, who were now permitted to have their ideas forwarded to her by either the Censorate or the provincial officials.

[The second edict, of 10 August] focused specifically on Manchu-Han relations. Cixi maintained, yet one more time, that the Qing dynasty throughout its long history had always treated Manchus and Han impartially, both as officials and as subjects. Nor had it, in recent appointments to the banner system [hereditary provincial military and administrative posts that were overwhelmingly Manchu], distinguished between Manchus and Han … she then called on all officials to offer suggestions on “how to totally eradicate the boundaries between Manchus and Han.”

-Edward J. M. Rhoads, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Proposals from various officials ran the gamut, — encouraging intermarriage, abolishing legal privileges still enjoyed by Manchus, suppressing the Manchu language, and moving Manchu cultural practices towards the Han in everything from naming conventions to forms of address. Even Cixi’s Grand Council was shaken up to establish parity between Manchus and Han.

The chilling words of the dead assassin still echoing, the government moved on these proposals with surprising urgency. By the autumn,

the court issued two edicts, ten days apart, that resolved to drastically change, though not abolish, the Eight Banner system. The first edict, handed down on 27 September, ordered … that the provincial garrisons be disbanded over a ten-year period and their inhabitants be prepared to make their own living … The second edict, issued on 9 October, dealt with the customary and legal differences between Manchus and Han, such as the length of the mourning period and the commutation of punishments. It called on the Ministry of Rites together with the Commissioners for Revising and Codifying the Laws to draw up a set of ceremonies and penal codes that would apply uniformly to Manchus and Han, excepting only the imperial lineage.

These two edicts thus accepted many of the proposals advanced by the memorialists after Enming’s assassination …

Meanwhile, in response to the growing demands of the constitutionalist reformers … Cixi, in her own name, issued two other edicts that clarified the vague promise that she had made a year earlier to institute a constitutional regime. On 20 September 1907 she declared that her ultimate intention was to establish “a bicameral deliberative body.” As a preparatory step, she ordered the immediate creation of a Consultative Assembly, appointed the fourth-rank prince Pulun (1874-1926) and the elderly grand secretary Jia’nai as its co-presidents, and charged them, together with the Grand Council, to draw up a detailed plan for this new national assembly. A month later, on 19 October, she authorized the formation of provincial deliberative assemblies as well. Afterward, she sent Pulun to Japan to learn more about constitutional government at first hand.

Cixi died the following year. The Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing dynasty in 1911.