Book Review: “Deadly Australian Women” by Kay Saunders (#AWW2016)



If you are interested in writing and reading (true) crime stories featuring female killers, especially from a historical perspective, then there are few books that can better serve as a treasure trove of ideas and background materials than Deadly Australian Women. Authored by Kay Saunders and published in 2013, this is a collection of stories of those women “who have broken one of society’s most cherished taboos and become both notorious and deadly”.

The book surveys a great number of cases across Australia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries where women committed murders as lethal abortionists, “baby farmers”, baby and child killers, wicked stepmothers, poisoners, deadly lovers and manoeuvres, spouse/partner killers, and victims of domestic abuse who fight back. Each of these cases is well researched, with personal backgrounds of killers and victims as well as those of the judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers provided. Also covered are responses of families and communities, the society at large and, in some cases, colonial and state government officials, based on a careful study of archival records and media reports.

While it does not make a pleasant reading, Deadly Australian Women is a valuable book because Saunders, as a legal expert, provides extensive political, social and cultural settings of those British, American and Australian laws that safeguard women’s status and welfare in traditionally male-dominated societies. The birth and evolution of these laws represents each society’s constant and continuous attempt to catch up with the times. The triumphs and failures of these attempts are keenly observed in the often tragic stories of these female killers.

Saunders writes calmly and objectively as an academic and rarely judges those historical figures studied in this book. (Consequently, it is particularly satisfying when this reader reached the end of the book and saw the author criticising a judge’s remarks as “inflammatory” [p.314] and his instruction to the jury “completely incorrect” [p.320].) In her Introduction to Deadly Australian Women, Saunders provides a short profile of women killers that may be useful to contemporary writers and readers interested in crime:

The notion of women’s essential goodness and innate nurturing capacity persists as a cultural image. Martha Clowers, in her entry on “Women Who Kill” in the Encyclopaedia of Crime and Punishment, concludes that “women and murder are [terms seen as] mutually exclusive. Females are expected to be victims, not victimisers”. Women commit far fewer murders, manslaughters and other unlawful killings than men. Their patterns also do not conform to the male model of the accidental “pub brawl” death, where the victim and the assailant are complete strangers. Women rarely kill strangers, historically or in the present day. They overwhelmingly kill intimates, and often within the direct family circle.

Women who kill use firearms or fists far less frequently than men do. They are typically portrayed as stealthy killers, more likely to use poison within the domestic setting to achieve their deadly purpose. Plato suggested that, by nature, all women were given to secrecy and stealth. What he may have identified is a response to the powerlessness of women’s familial role, whether in fifth-century BCE or in twentieth-century Australia. As Melina Page Wilkins proposes: “[The female killer] is deceitful, nearly invisible to her would-be victims and the surrounding culture, and cloaked in the raiment of her gender.” Her invisibility in the home going about her domestic activities, her sheer ordinariness, often hides a darker reality. (p.6-7)

While no use of violence should be condoned – and there are certainly many violent and seemingly evil women discovered by Saunders – somehow it is such “powerlessness” and “invisibility” of women in this and other traditionally male-dominated societies that needs to be addressed. Hopefully, Deadly Australian Women as a book can help more writers, readers and critics, male and female alike, to understand the plight of those women in our past and current times who were victims themselves before taking drastic and deadly measures to change their lives.


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