Tale of historic murders just as relevant today
A new play revisits the true story of a man hung on Devonport’s foreshore for committing a triple murder.
But more importantly, the play’s author, Michelanne Forster, says it tells the story of two sisters’ relationship with each other in the face of horrific domestic abuse.
Forster, author of 18 plays and a former Michael King writing fellow, wanted to tell the women’s story without ‘‘glamourising’’ the Devonport murders which gripped the country in 1847.
Always My Sister’s dark protagonist, Joseph Burns, ‘‘was an evil man,’’ Forster says.
Burns, a violent alcoholic, murdered the Snow family in their home, mutilating their corpses to make it look like they were killed by local Maori.
He then tried to silence his suspicious de-facto wife, Margaret Reardon, by slitting her throat. While in jail for his failed attempt against Reardon, Burns falsely accused another local, Thomas Duder, of the murders.
Burns even tried to marry Reardon, which under 19th century laws meant Reardon couldn’t testify against him.
Throughout Reardon’s ordeal living with Burns, her sister Sophia Aldwell struggled to not be dragged down by her sister’s plight.
‘‘The play really asks, ‘am I my sister’s keeper?’ How far should I go to get my sister out of harm’s way?’’ Forster says.
Justice was swift cruelly misplaced.
In 1848, Burns’ act was neatly matched by his punishment, but Reardon was tried for perjury, transported to Tasmania and sentenced to seven years’ forced labour.
Burns, found guilty of the murders, was hung on Devonport’s foreshore, near the site of his crimes.
‘‘We can still see the same thing happening today with battered women, but today we have an understanding of what happens to a battered wife,’’ Forster says.
The players: From left: Jess Sayers, Chris Tempest, writer Michelanne Forster and Torum Heng.