FRESH LOOK AT PERTH’S UN­DER­BELLY

Southern Gazette (South Perth) - - Lifestyle -

IT started as re­search for an old fam­ily mur­der but soon turned into a col­lec­tion of true sto­ries on the fe­male crim­i­nals who stalked the streets of Perth and Fre­man­tle in the early years of the 20th cen­tury.

Lo­cal res­i­dent, his­to­rian and his­tor­i­cal fic­tion writer Leigh Straw wrote Drunks, Pests and Har­lots: Crim­i­nal Women in Perth and Fre­man­tle 1900 - 1939 and will give a talk on the book this Satur­day as part of Perth Her­itage Days.

“This book in fact started with a mur­der in Col­lie in 1929,” she said. “The mur­derer is my hus­band’s great-great un­cle.

“In look­ing through the Po­lice Gazette is­sues for 1929, try­ing to find a ref­er­ence to An­drew Straw, I found my­self drawn to the mug shots of fe­male of­fend­ers. I didn't know a great deal about th­ese women in WA his­tory and wanted to know more.”

Dr Straw said she de­cided to write the book after talk­ing with a great-grand­daugh­ter of one of the women fea­tured in the re­search.

“She brought Mary Ann Sweet­man to life in a deeply per­sonal way and showed in­cred­i­ble grat­i­tude that a his­to­rian would choose to write about her fam­ily mem­ber,” she said.

“It was this gen­uine in­ter­est in the re­search and en­cour­age­ment that fi­nalised my decision in my mind to write the book.”

Dr Straw said crime his­tory had al­ways in­ter­ested her.

“At one level, like a lot of peo­ple, I am drawn to crime sto­ries, want­ing to know more about crime and crim­i­nals, which is an as­pect of life that I am not di­rectly in­volved in but find in­ter­est­ing,” she said.

“I en­joy en­gag­ing with the crim­i­nal past as I think it al­lows me to broaden my per­sonal per­cep­tions of crime and crim­i­nals.

“Re­search­ing the lives of peo­ple re­peat- WHERE: WHEN: TIME: BOOK­INGS: edly charged and con­victed with com­mit­ting a crim­i­nal of­fence has al­lowed me to more fully un­der­stand the cy­cle of of­fend­ing that im­pairs so many lives, even to­day.”

The book looks at women such as Es­ther War­den, who was ar­rested more than 200 times for crimes in­clud­ing drunk­en­ness, as­sault, va­grancy and so­lic­it­ing.

Rather than be­ing har­dened crim­i­nals, most of the women were im­pris­oned for pub­lic or­der of­fences.

Dr Straw said at a time when Perth was es­tab­lish­ing it­self as an Aus­tralian city, th­ese women were sin­gled out for giv­ing the city a bad name and fail­ing to con­form.

“In essence, many were im­pris­oned for sim­ply be­ing poor, al­co­holics or home­less,” she said. “They were also pun­ished twice, first by the jus­tice sys­tem through im­pris­on­ment and then by so­ci­ety.”

Pic­ture: David Baylis

Leigh Straw with her book Drunks,Pest­sandHar­lots.

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