The flawed conviction of a husband-killer
Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Serial Killer By Carol Baxter Allen & Unwin, 376pp, $29.99 For century-old cold cases, the so-called Botany murders have become a hot topic. It took nearly 125 years for one book to be written about the convicted poisoner known as the Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay, and six months later there are two.
Caroline Overington’s Last Woman Hanged: The Terrible, True Story of Louisa Collins explored how Collins’s bungled hanging at Darlinghurst Gaol on January 8, 1889, energised demands for greater rights for women across the political spectrum. Drawing largely on the same contemporary documents, Carol Baxter’s Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer is more concerned with the judicial process that led to Collins’s execution.
May 2-3, 2015
On July 2, 1888, Collins went to Dr Marshall’s surgery in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, and begged him to visit her husband, Michael, who was very sick at home. Across the course of several visits Marshall became suspicious about the cause of the man’s gastric illness and his failure to respond to medicines. Marshall suspected arsenic poisoning. When Collins died soon afterwards, Marshall refused to sign a death certificate and handed the matter to the police, along with the remains of a tumbler of milk that subsequent tests proved contained arsenic.
Unfortunately for Louisa Collins, another doctor at the practice remembered treating her first husband, Charles Andrews, for a gastric illness that also proved fatal. After arsenic was confirmed in the body of Michael Collins, the police decided to exhume Andrews’s remains. They found minute quantities of arsenic. Collins had been a boarder at the Andrews house and he and Louisa married very soon after Andrews’s death. It wasn’t hard to join the dots.
Louisa Collins was charged and put on trial for murdering Collins, but the jury could not agree on a verdict. At the retrial, there was another hung jury. While Collins freely admitted to being the only person to treat her husband, and therefore the only one in a position to poison him, the lack of an obvious motive was a problem for the prosecution. Andrews’s death had given Louisa a big insurance payout, but the death of her second husband left her penniless. Why on earth would she kill him?
The crown put Collins on trial again, but this time for the murder of Andrews. The motive here seemed clear but again the jury couldn’t agree. At this point it seemed likely Collins would walk free. Three trials were highly unusual, four were unprecedented. But in a case that smacked increasingly of judicial persecution, the crown put her on trial for a fourth time, again for the murder of Michael Collins.
Astonishingly, the trial judge allowed into evidence details of Andrews’s death, although Collins had never been found guilty of poisoning him. The most crucial testimony came from Collins’s only daughter, May, who remembered seeing a container of an arsenic-based rat poi- son called Rough on Rats on a shelf at home. The case against Collins was entirely circumstantial but this time the crown got the verdict it wanted. The judge sentenced her to hang.
Late 19th-century trials — especially for crimes as sensational as these — were reported in intricate detail by the newspapers, often in verbatim accounts many thousands of words long, and Baxter has clearly put in her hours in the newspaper archives. She tells a good story, quoting liberally from the court transcripts and giving the reader useful character sketches along the way. Generally, Baxter lets Collins speak and act for herself, rather than trying to psychoanalyse her from a distance, although now and then she can’t resist ramping up the drama (‘‘horror stabbed at her like a hot poker’’) by hopping inside her subject’s thoughts.
As the subtitle implies, Baxter is convinced Collins was guilty of murdering both her husbands, and she probably is right. Motivation was always the problem in the second case and in her final chapter Baxter offers a perceptive and emotionally plausible account of why Louisa