1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1861: Robert Thomas Palin, under Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7

Add comment July 9th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1861,* Western Australia’s Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 claimed its one and only victim.

Implemented early in Western Australia’s convict era as the influx of criminals made existing settlers jumpy, this law made a wide variety of violent but non-fatal crimes potentially subject to the death penalty when committed by an escaped fugitive.

Robert Thomas Palin was a newcomer to Australia, having debarked from a convict ship only in January 1860. Despite his burglary conviction back in the mother country, he was an exemplary prisoner and earned his ticket of leave (a sort of limited furlough). He even kept a house in Fremantle and took lodgers.

In May 1861, he threw every away every bit of good will and more by burgling another Fremantle home. A Mrs. Susan Harding awoke in the moonlight to find this invader looming over her bed — and he greeted her in that classic of convict argot, “Your money or your life.”

Mrs. Harding didn’t have any — in the words of her testimony on July 3:**

He repeatedly told me to “hush.” He took hold of me by the arm and pulled my hair about, and then pulled the bed clothes down, and felt about the bed. I was afraid he was about to commit some assault — he touched my night dress, not to move it, and then I got so dreadfully alarmed, that I jumped out of bed on the opposite side of the bed. I went to my looking-glass drawer, and took out a watch and chain, which I handed him, and prayed him to leave me.

Palin did so.

Although terrifying for Susan Harding, the encounter did not result in any injury; as Palin’s boot-prints were easily followed back to his own house, even her watch and chain were recovered. To send this offender to the gallows seemed like a punishment out of the wrong century, as Perth’s Inquirer and Commercial News editorialized (June 10):

Burglary attended with violence, however brutal that violence might be, so long as it did not result fatally, is not punished with death in the United Kingdom.

… What was the violence on this occasion? Catching hold of the arm of the principal witness; and it does not appear from the evidence that even the grasp was violent, nor was it necessary to be so according to the acceptation of the meaning of the word laid down for us. It was propounded by the Chief Justice that, strictly speaking, merely laying a hand upon a person, under such circumstances, constituted violence. Is this truly the spirit of the law? …

Palin might have taken everything in that house, yet he would not have been hung. He might have threatened with the presumed pistol, have gesticulated, have stormed and terrified the occupant of the chamber almost to the verge of insanity, and yet he would not have been hung, but he touched her arm, and death is the penalty. There is something horrible in this. But there is something more fearful still when we further look into the matter and find that had he committed any enormity, even to the shedding of blood, he could not have had awarded to him a more extreme measure of punishment. …

[It is our] fervent hope that never again may the pages of our Colonial History be inscribed with so terrible a record; that never again will it be our province to allude to an event of so dreadful a character as that which has lately passed away.

The fervent hope was realized. In the only other case where Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 was used to secure a death penalty for an ordinarily non-capital crime, the sentence was commuted.

* As of this writing, Wikipedia avers July 6. References from 1861 newspapers make it clear that this is erroneous. (example, another).

** Yes, that’s six days before the execution occurred.

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1795: David McCraw, “blasted all our conjugal happiness”

Add comment November 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1795, Donald McCraw was hanged in Perth, Scotland. A weaver by trade, McGraw joined the great human migrations the Industrial Revolution was stirring by migrating from the Highlands to Perth’s booming textile industry.

There, he laments in a bracingly emotional confession published as a broadside on the day before his execution,

[I] might have lived very comfortable, if it had not been for that curse to all peace and happiness, an overbearing temper in myself, and a fractious discontented temper in my unfortunate wife, [which] blasted all our conjugal happiness, so that instead of bearing with one another, as we are commanded in scripture 1 Pet. 3:7-11, our time was unhappily spent in mutual railings, upbraidings, threatenings, and even blows. In this most disagreeable life we lived for several years, but wickedness did not stop here, which may teach those who have the pattern of dreadful example before them, how dangerous a thing it is to live a wicked life, and how any vice persevered in grows in us like a second nature, and rare if it be ever left off.

I had long made a practice of beating my unhappy wife, custom made me almost think it no crime till it ended in the horrid crime of murder! And that at a time, which made it a double crime, when she had only one month between her and childbed.

Oh how unhappy have I been, to embrue my hands in the blood of my helpless wife, and my innocent unborn offspring. I no sooner committed the horrid crime, and saw her lying lifeless, than I was seized with such a trembling horror, that had I been lord of a thousand worlds, I would freely have given them all to have had the horrid deed recalled; but alas! it was done past recalling.

McCraw at first fled his crime but after running just a few miles he

began to reflect that I could not fly from the presence of an all-seeing God, nor run from the guilty conscience that now overwhelmed my heart; for should I fly to the uttermost corner of the earth, I would still be in his presence, and my guilt would accompany me. I therefore thought it would be better to give myself up to justice, and suffer what I justly deserv’d, than live with the pangs of a guilty conscience which are worse than death.

After hanging, McCraw was delivered to the city’s doctors for dissection.

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1964: Eric Edgar Cooke, the Night Caller

Add comment October 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1964, Western Australia conducted its last hanging — that of Eric Edgar Cooke.

Cooke was one of Australia’s worst serial killers, and also one of its strangest: the eight homicides were almost unpatterned save for their rage.

A harelipped, bullied youth turned delinquent turned small-time criminal — he had numerous arrests to his name for theft, for vandalism, for torching a church that rejected his choir audition, for auto theft and for being a peeping tom — Cooke busted out of obscurity and into nightmares on the night of Australia Day 1963 when he gunned down five random people in Perth‘s comfortable suburbs. But even by then he had already been stabbing and shooting at people, and menacing them with cars.

Cooke’s Australia Day spree comprised four distinct incidents united to one another and to Cooke’s previous patterns by little but a lust for the hunt: his sole methodology was opportunism. Cooke shot a couple parked in a car (they survived), then an accountant through his apartment window (not so lucky); then, Cooke murdered a young man asleep on an open veranda, and rang the doorbell of another house to lure a fifth victim (both of these men also died).

As he’d been previously arrested on the strength of his fingerprints, Cooke had taken the precaution to wear gloves, leaving police a very cold trail indeed. The shock of the one night’s carnage multiplied as weeks, and then months, elapsed with no arrest. Thirty thousand men were fingerprinted in a futile fishing expedition.

An isolated western city in the midst of a transformative population boom, Perth learned mistrust from Eric Edgar Cooke. Of course that can’t literally be true; Perth was half a million people strong by this time. But in the civic memory Cooke’s Australia Day signposts an innocence lost. Estelle Blackburn in her Broken Lives depicts Cooke as the baleful spirit come to scourge Perth’s newly, complacently prosperous. (See this pdf.) It was

[t]he small city … [that] had ways of a friendly, easy going big country town where people left their doors unlocked and their car keys in the ignition of open cars. They trusted each other. He turned it into a city of suspicion and terror. For the first time people started locking the doors of their homes and cars, stopped going out at night and slept with guns or any weapons they could find under their pillows.

There’s a kernel of truth in this cliche, for Cooke liberally exploited Perthians’ inattention to security. When finally arrested in August of 1963 after he shot an 18-year-old babysitter, his confession explained that thanks to car owners’ habit of just leaving the keys in the ignition, he had frequently stolen vehicles parked for the night, used them in hit-and-runs or other crimes, and returned them before morning … the owners very often none the wiser.

Cooke had, meanwhile, also strangled a social worker in the Perth suburbs in February 1963, and stabbed to death a South Perth beautician during a home invasion robbery back in 1959. He proved to have a photographic memory of his misdeeds, and could detail exactly the objects he had stolen in hundreds of long-past burglaries. He copped in all to eight murders and 14 attempted murders.

With such evidence from Cooke’s own mouth his barristers had little choice but to pursue an insanity defense. This didn’t fly with the courts, but neither too did Cooke’s more embarrassing admissions to two murders for which two other men were already imprisoned. (Officially, the crown only credited him with six of his eight kills.) A “villainous unscrupulous liar” he was called for those claims; Darryl Beamish and John Button each served many more years in prison for these two disputed murders; with Blackburn’s help, they were both formally vindicated in the 2000s.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Serial Killers

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