Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015), 1–366.  ISBN 978 1 74331 501 9. RRP $29.99

Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015), 1–366. ISBN 978 1 74331 501 9. RRP $29.99

Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015), 1–366. ISBN 978 1 74331 501 9. RRP $29.99

Sydney, July 1888. A seemingly distressed Louisa Collins begs a doctor to visit her violently ill husband Michael whom she fears is close to death. The doctor, alarmed at his rapidly deteriorating condition and the ineffectiveness of his prescribed treatment, confides with a colleague and learns that Louisa’s first husband Charles Andrews had died 17 months previously in suspiciously similar circumstances. The subsequent death of Michael from arsenic poisoning then triggered a sensational chain of events which had much deeper social and political ramifications for Sydney and indeed New South Wales and beyond.

Carol Baxter has written a meticulously researched, richly detailed, convincingly argued and compelling book which this reviewer found to be utterly unputdownable, despite knowing the eventual outcome. Black Widow is the remarkable true story of the life of Louisa Collins but it also explores the much wider social conditions of Sydney and New South Wales in the year of the centenary.

Louisa Collins married her first husband Charles Andrews when she was 18 and he was 32. Despite having nine children, the marriage was not a happy one. So when Michael Collins, good looking and in his early twenties, became a boarder in their house at Botany in 1886, it soon became obvious to Charles that Louisa and Michael were having an affair. Andrews ordered Collins to leave; three weeks later, Andrews – a hard-working, strong and healthy man – became violently ill and died. At the time the cause of death was thought to be gastroenteritis; later when Andrews’s body was exhumed for evidence of poisoning, small traces of arsenic were found in his remains.

Louisa was not found guilty of murder although there are strong suggestions that she was.[1] For her contemporaries, she had two quintessential motives for murder’[2] – ‘lust and greed’. The day Andrews died, and before she called a doctor, Louisa caught a tram to Sydney and cashed in a large inheritance from Andrews. Within two months, she and Collins married. For some of their Botany neighbours, this was all rather scandalous, as was her refusal to wear black for the required twelve month mourning period.

By all accounts deeply in love, Louisa and Michael’s all too short relationship was a tragic tale of squandered inheritance, unemployment, alcoholism, the death of their child and, as the author convincingly suggests, threats of abandonment. This, Baxter concludes, was probably the reason Louisa decided to kill Collins; rather than become an abandoned wife, Louisa used her domestic power in the kitchen and gradually put poison in his drinks. For many observers at the time this was truly outrageous behaviour, offensive to the law and to traditional gender roles and the wifely ideal.

Naturally when the story of the ‘Botany Bay Murderess’ became known, the news was a startling press sensation. Sydneysiders were both horrified and fascinated while newspaper editors wrote tantalising and lurid headlines. When the case went to court – not once, not twice, but four separate times – the spectators gallery was packed every time. In the days leading up to her execution it seems the whole of Australia was waiting with anticipation to receive news of a grant of clemency. As the author points out, ‘Sydney was not alone in its fascination with Louisa’s case. With the benefits of the instant telegraph service, all of Australia was waiting to hear what would happen as the gallows clock continued its unrelenting countdown.’[3]

In the nineteenth century, capital cases had to be decided by the unanimous agreement of 12 men on the jury. But because the evidence was so unreliable, the testimony of her young children so irregular and the unwillingness of many men to capitally convict women, the first three trials eventuated in hung juries. Many at the time thought the matter should have been dropped after the second trial and especially after the third. Yet Louisa Collins was subjected to four different trials which was unheard of in the legal history of colonial Australia and indeed elsewhere under British law.

Baxter probes the facts of the case and questions the Crown’s relentless pursuit of her conviction and their determination to bring her to the gallows. There was, as the author suggests, ‘an unprecedented level of zealous determination…to convict her.’[4] The fourth trial found her guilty of murdering Michael Collins and the author discusses the ways in which the jury was mostly persuaded to come to this decision by the judge. As such, much of the book is set in the courtroom and the drama which unfolded there. In Baxter’s hands this does not become dry and tedious but rather adds to the mounting crescendo of the tale in the very words spoken by the protagonists involved at the time. The author has deftly used the hundreds of pages of depositions and court transcripts and the hundred thousand words of testimony to recreate this incredibly compelling story.

At the same time, and beyond the drama of the courtroom, the book also explores the wider social and political issues of the day; the meaning of the centenary year, the heated topic of Chinese immigration and the even hotter contemporary debate over the rights and wrongs of capital punishment – and issue which deeply divided Sydneysiders in 1888 as it had two years previously over the notorious Mount Rennie rape case. The trials also had many scratching their heads over the frustrating need for unanimous verdicts in capital cases. The case had important political ramifications as the New South Wales Government was deeply divided over the issue of executing women and many members at the time called for the Parkes government to abolish capital punishment there and then. The role and relevance of the Queen’s representative, Governor Carrington, was also debated as he had the final say in commuting the death penalty to life imprisonment.

Despite large petitions and deputations to plead for her life, Carrington acquiesced to Henry Parkes (who threatened that his government would resign if a stay of execution was granted) and refused to grant clemency. Finally the case of Louisa Collins brought up the ‘woman question’ with the stirrings of first wave feminism and calls for greater rights for women. At the same time the old misogynist chestnut of the ‘weaker sex’ and ‘the angel in the house’ ideal was starkly juxtaposed against the specter of the mad, bad woman and the idea that female criminals – and husband poisoners in particular – were the worst of the worst, an idea that resonated with many in the late nineteenth century as it had during the years of female convict transportation. Louisa Collins had broken the criminal law in killing Collins, yet perhaps her greater crime was, as Baxter suggests, breaking the unwritten social law of what constituted respectable, dutiful, passive – and thus appropriate womanly – behaviour. For this she became the first woman in New South Wales to be executed in 28 years, the first woman to be hung at Darlinghurst jail, and ultimately, the last woman to suffer capital punishment in New South Wales.

At times this book is gruesome and makes for disturbing reading. There are graphic details of how hideously arsenic poisoning kills, the revolting processes of exhuming the bodies of her first husband and dead baby, the procedures involved in nineteenth century autopsies and the explicit description of her botched execution by hanging in the hands of an incompetent executioner known locally as Nosey Bob.

Black Widow is a bleak but thought-provoking examination of a grim episode in Australia’s colonial history. Baxter vividly brings the whole drama to life in such a way that the reader feels as though she is actually watching it unfold before her very eyes. It will be of great interest to social historians and readers curious about the history of the law and medical anatomy. It will certainly appeal to true crime fiction readers, and also people interested in female crime and ultimately anyone interested in life in Sydney in the late nineteenth century.

Dr Catie Gilchrist
July 2015

[1] She was tried for the murder of Charles Andrews at the third of her trials however the evidence was dubious and 10 out of the 12 jurors thought she was innocent.
[2] Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015), p 94
[3] Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015),302
[4] Carol Baxter, Black Widow: The True Story of Australia’s First Female Serial Killer (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015), 233

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