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Martha Rendell was the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia, in 1909. Depicted here as imagined by newspapers in the 1980s. Wikimedia Commons

Iconic murders: fictionalising the life of Martha Rendell

This article is the fifth in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read the rest of the series here.

My book Murdering Stepmothers (2011) is a novel about the trial and execution of Martha Rendell, the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia, in 1909.

I could have written a conventional history, like the two recent books about Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales in 1898. There are strong similarities between the cases: both women were alleged to be serial poisoners – Martha of her three stepchildren, Louisa of her two husbands. Both trials were “technically flawed and prejudiced” and all-male juries found both women guilty.

My decision to write imaginatively about the Rendell case wasn’t so much a protest against the limits of this sort of crime history, like Simon Schama’s fictionalised murder history Dead Certainties (1991), in which he sought to “tear out the seams from the finished fabric of history writing, let them fray and hang”.

Rather it was that the murder and its archive seemed to demand that I write imaginatively, subjectively and ambiguously.

Iconic murders such as the Rendell case electrify our imaginations and passions. They cut across our mundane lives, as novelist Noel Sanders writes, “like lightning, momentarily lighting the whole terrain up and then returning it to darkness”. They expose unspeakable deeds by figures who fascinate and repel. Historian Amy Gilman Srebnick suggests that they take us into the abyss of their “ultimate disordering”.

Added to this is the artifice of the crime archive: seemingly objective and true, it is crammed with passion and conjecture. The sources are traumatic and conflicted and charged with powerful emotions.

They are rich in stories, each with its own half-truths and unique perspectives on the crime: a victim’s account of events, a witness’s evidence, an accuser’s deposition. Learned legal arguments are theories to prove innocence or guilt, constructed from the stories recorded in the archive and popular discourses from criminology, psychology and forensic science.

Srebnick argues that such sources demand fictive writing and that, rather than abandoning historical truth or fidelity to the archive, this produces accounts that uniquely explain the genealogy of the crime with the “nuance, depth and complexity that historians dream of”.

That was what drove my decision to write a novel about the iconic Rendell murder.

The passions surrounding the trial and execution marked a high point in the extremes of outrage and moral panic that have gripped the good citizens of Perth over the years. They were united in their outpourings of vehement hatred and in demanding Rendell’s execution.

Rendell and the archive

Rendell’s alleged crime was horrific: murdering her 15-year-old stepson by painting his throat with hydrochloric acid and, it was widely believed, her two young stepdaughters as well. She was also living “in sin” with their father as his de facto wife.

As a stepmother, immoral woman, poisoning murderess and middle-aged and plain-looking working-class woman she ticked all the public’s fantasies of female criminals and poisoners and the theories of famed criminologist Cesare Lombroso as well.

She also personified troubling anxieties about proper care of children and sexual morality in the family. Rendell was the perfect scapegoat. To this day she continues to intrigue, but now more often as a woman wrongly accused and hanged.

Like the Rendell case, the archive is also emotionally charged, opinionated and haunted by the cruellest imaginings about the woman. Of the official sources only the records of the coronial inquiry and Rendell’s last days in the condemned cell survive but fortunately Perth had several newspapers then that provided idiosyncratic accounts of her guilt. With little really known about Rendell everyone was free to imagine the worst.

The Truth featured outrageous headlines and a photograph of Rendells’ veiled face at the coronial inquiry with the features of a vicious witch scratched into it. The murder theory was quite possibly a story concocted by the dead children’s aggrieved brother recently reunited with his mother.

The police, the prosecution and the medical, forensic and medical witnesses all endorsed the unlikely scenario despite having no precedents of furtive poisoning with hydrochloric acid or forensic or medical proof of its use and no eyewitness accounts.

In the court’s feverish atmosphere a small bottle with a squeaky cork said to have held the acid took on the proportions of a murder weapon. The fictions were conjured up from scarps of hearsay and popular stereotypes about the archetypal wicked stepmother and female poisoner and the “science” of women’s criminality and immorality.

The archive’s gaps and silences also set me imagining about this poor working-class woman who left no personal records or diaries and who, out of shame or defiance, muttered only a few words to proclaim her innocence, at the end in letters written by her spiritual adviser.

Filling in the gaps

From these rich fictions and a host of unanswered questions I conjured up my own account of the Rendell case, informed by reading about the context of the times.

Inspired by the idiosyncratic approaches of the sensationalist Truth and the stodgy West Australian newspapers and records of the coronial inquiry and condemned cell I created four male characters: the Photographer, the Detective, the Doctor and the Reverend.

With the exception of the sympathetic Reverend, Rendell’s spiritual adviser to the end, the men accepted the prosecution case but each had his own professional involvement and personal perspectives to narrate and to justify.

There is also a fifth, female, character, based on my experiences researching the case. There I provided factual information I unearthed about Rendell independently of the archive that revealed not a monster but a quite ordinary woman who fell in love with a married man, Thomas Morris, and followed him from Adelaide to Perth.

When he eventually left his wife she moved in with him and cared for his younger children, nursing them with regular visits by the family doctor through serious bouts of diphtheria, typhoid and their final illnesses carefully listed by the doctor on their death certificates.

Rendell remains silent in the book. With the real woman so elusive in the sources I could not unequivocally give voice to her guilt or innocence. Paradoxically, while following this lesson from the sources could have disempowered her, it had the effect of filling the book with her presence.

Just as she drove the imaginations of the people of Perth she also pervades our imaginings. There is poetry and power in her deliberate silence.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the fifth in our series, Writing History.

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