Book Review: “Last Woman Hanged” by Caroline Overington (@overingtonc) (#AWW2016)

 

LastWomanHanged

As of the writing of this review, two full-length books have been published on Louisa Collins, the Australian woman who was accused, convicted and hanged for the death of her husband by arsenic in 1889. The first, Last Woman Hanged: The Terrible, True Story of Louisa Collins (November 1, 2014), was written by renowned journalist Caroline Overington. The other, Black Widow: The True story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (May 27, 2015), was written by “history detective” and author Carol Baxter.

Louisa is also featured in Deadly Australian Women: Stories of the Women Who Broke Society’s Greatest Taboo (April 1, 2013), which was written by professor of history Kay Saunders. While this reviewer has yet to read Black Widow and Deadly Australian Women, one question comes to mind: Why Louisa? Why is there such an interest on her story? How did her conviction and execution impact on 19th-century Australian society? And, perhaps more broadly, how are the stories of Louisa and other convicted female killers received by contemporary readers in Australia and beyond?

In Last Woman Hanged, Overington provides a perfect answer to this question. Having carefully studied the original forensic reports, court documents, judges’ notebooks and police records, the author is able to reconstruct the life stories of not only Louisa and her two husbands and seven children, but also those men and women involved throughout and beyond her plight. In this sense, the book is a biography of both Louisa and Australia as a young nation.

Overington writes in a fluent and friendly style that transforms history/“her story” into a fascinating neighbourhood/nationhood narrative that is both informative and entertaining. This reviewer particularly enjoys the author’s amusing tone, as seen in this example: “[Louisa] was plump, which was in those days considered attractive (no longer, alas).” Personal notes like this enable the author to voice over the drama that comes to life in front of our eyes. Each character, including “Nosy Bob” the executioner, has a unique story to tell.

But the author’s agenda is clear. Overington’s examination of the historical documents clearly illustrates how, after three trials that failed to convince 36 male jurors of Louisa’s guilt – and where her own children, especially her 11-year-old daughter, were forced to testify in court – the Crown launched a fourth trial and handpicked a new jury of 12 men in a desperate attempt to “get her”. Worse, although the cause of death of Louisa’s first husband was never ascertained, the suspicion that he died by arsenic was used in court to indicate “she did it once and would certainly do it again” to her second husband.

Whether Louisa really committed the murder(s) remains unknown. As the author’s voiceover takes centre stage halfway through the book, it becomes obvious why Louisa’s death became such a “fixed point in time” in Australian history:

Why should a woman not be given the same punishment as a man? Because women could not vote. Because they could not sit in parliament. Because they had nothing whatever to do with the making of the laws by which they were bound, and because they – unlike the men in the colony – had never been given an opportunity to vote on capital punishment. Because women in New South Wales in the nineteenth century had barely more rights than children, yet when it came to crime, they would be hanged as if they were adults. (p.167)

This is the turning point in Last Woman Hanged, for Louisa did not die in vain. The remaining chapters of the book shed light on how, inspired by Louisa’s case, women in Australia began to fight for their rights in a male-dominated society. For the first time in their lives, women wanted to have an active voice in public and private affairs. To quote the author to some length:

Of course it was not only the travesty of justice that was the trial of Louisa Collins that spurred women toward the suffrage movement. It was also the poverty in so many women’s homes (especially the homes of deserted wives, and widows). It was the violence that so many women suffered at the hands of drunken men (inescapable violence, since there was nowhere to go, and no work they could do that would pay enough to cover the rent and feed the children). It was the backyard abortions women suffered, as they tried to avoid having more children; it was the injustice of working at jobs that paid a third of the male wage; it was the stifling ad smothering of women’s ambition; it was everything. (p.241)

Which is why this book is valuable, to both female and male readers, as it documents how one personal tragedy can help to change the whole nation. For this year’s International Women’s Day and the Women’s History Month, this reviewer highly recommends Last Woman Hanged as a thought-provoking read.

 

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Brona
    Apr 03, 2016 @ 17:17:24

    Fascinating review. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention 🙂

    Reply

  2. Trackback: May Roundup – History, Memoir, Biography (HMB) | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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