The flawed con­vic­tion of a hus­band-killer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Tom Gilling

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

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