Book Review: “The Edward Street Baby Farm” by Stella Budrikis (@FremantlePress)

True crime books report on crimes from the beginning of their investigation to their legal proceedings. These books not only restore the lived experiences of the perpetrators and their victims, but also reconstruct the complex circumstances in which the crimes were committed.

These books help us see the parties involved as genuine people. Instead of mere statistics and sensationalised media coverage, we follow the behind-the-scene stories of how crimes were initiated, conducted, scrutinised and solved. We experience their considerable impact on individuals and communities.

In writing The Edward Street Baby Farm, Western Australian author Stella Budrikis confesses: “I’ve always been fascinated by the way people’s lives interact, bringing all their past experiences and personalities crashing together at a single place and time, before diverging again like billiard balls on a table.”

One of the three people featured in the book is Alice Mitchell, the notorious “baby farmer” who was arrested in Perth in 1907 for the murder of a five-month-old girl. During the inquest and subsequent trial, the public was shocked to learn that 37 out of 43 infants in her care had died.

Questions were asked: How could so many babies have died when Mitchell’s house was visited regularly by Perth’s first female health inspector, Harriet Lenihan? And how could 25 of the death certificates have been signed by the same children’s specialist, Dr Edward Officer, without him raising any concern about such a high mortality rate?

Through meticulous research on court records, state archives and newspaper reports from the time, Budrikis examines the events leading up to and beyond this tragedy. Her expertise as a general practitioner, pastoral carer and addictions clinic doctor helps shaping a highly intelligent narrative that is both informative and emphatic.

Budrikis further reveals the social history of Perth in the early 20th century, explaining how criminal cases like Mitchell’s can lead to essential changes in law. She pays specific attention to society’s attitude towards protection of children of single mothers and other “unfortunate” women back then.

Budrikis details how “illegitimate” babies were often shunned by their families and society due to the lack of a parental marriage certificate. In her words, the “illegal” status of these babies “meant that no one felt responsible for seeing that they were well treated”.

Worse, the practice of “baby farming” – private, for-profit foster care arrangements where the carers were purely interested in making money out of taking in children – was well known, but few seemed to care or offered any solution.

As Budrikis points out, at the time, whoever suggested these “illegitimate” babies and their mothers should be better protected and provided with humane care would meet the response that “that would just encourage other women to act immorally and take advantage of the system”.

Hopefully, true crime accounts like The Edward Street Baby Farm (Fremantle Press, 2020) can prompt more readers to question our society’s attitude towards those labelled “illegals” and hidden from view. To change, we first need to pay attention and care.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “A shocking murder trial”, by Ranges Trader Star Mail, April 20, 2021, Page 6.

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