Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney

Hachette Australia, 2019, pp 1-311, ISBN: 9780733640988, RRP $32.99

 

Mid-morning, Tuesday 12 January 1904, Watkin Street, Newtown.

Four-year-old Mervyn Sly probably did not fully comprehend the horror he stumbled across when he saw his mother lying prostrate on a mattress on the floor of her bedroom. She was dressed only in her underclothing, a calico chemise (a full-length slip.) On her feet were her neatly laced up boots. Her throat had been cut so savagely that her head was semi-severed from her body and she was completely soaked in her own crimson blood. But he knew something was clearly ‘wrong with Mammy’ and he went outside to fetch his oldest brother who went upstairs to investigate.[1] Here, seven-year-old Bedford Sly saw his lifeless, blood drenched mother. He then made another terrible discovery; his father, fully dressed save for his usual hat, was lying in a similar condition close by on the bedroom floor. An open cut-throat razor was still tightly gripped in his right hand. They were both quite dead and the floor of the room was swathed in a thick red river. It was a truly ghastly spectacle and ‘in less than twenty-four hours, the headline ‘Newtown Tragedy’ was splashed across papers nationwide’.[2]

Tanya Bretherton’s latest book The Suicide Bride opens with the grim double discovery of the murder-suicide of Alexander and Ellie Sly in Newtown on that fateful summer morning in 1904. It explores the possible motives behind the crime; the subsequent police investigation into it and the coroner’s inevitable, sad inquest. The book steps back to trace Alexander Sly’s own long family history to examine broader ideas of madness and criminal hereditary. It then moves on to reveal the deep and enduring repercussions that Sly’s final dreadful act had upon the lives left behind. This is certainly not a happy read. It is gruesome and grim and it is sadly just one Sydney story of murder-suicide – for there are so many more. It is however, an incredibly powerful, deeply moving story, meticulously researched and beautifully written with both careful nuance and rich aplomb.

To his neighbours, Alexander William Bedford Sly (known as Alicks) was an odd and eccentric man. A tailor by trade, in 1903 Alicks found himself out of work due to the depressed state of the economy. He was also prone to violent outbursts and displays of intense spiritual rantings; both were juxtaposed by erratic and unstable hallucinations. His was indeed a volatile persona and to medical and criminological minds in the Edwardian era, this made him a dangerous man, bordering on the criminally insane.[3]

And Ellie Sly? Victim or ‘willing’ participant? Whilst her own complicity in her dreadful violent death is not explicitly spelled out, some contemporaries at the time, and indeed the author, subtly suggest that she might have actually been a ‘consenting murder victim’.[4] This is utterly astonishing today, but it was not entirely unknown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though the early years of their marriage seem to have been happy ones, poverty, mental illness and madness slowly weaved an anxious troubling thread around the couple. Before her awful death, Ellie, like her husband, showed signs of persecution and paranoia. And by 1904, the Sly family were desperate and destitute.

Their four surviving children – Bedford (b. 1896), Basil (b. 1897), Mervyn (b. 1899) and Olive (b. 1900) had all been terribly neglected; they were ill fed and emaciated and were often left unsupervised in the streets where they lived. Another child Norman was born in 1902 but he died at the age of 6 months. At the time, his symptoms presented as gastroenteritis but Bretherton speculates that his death might have in fact been caused by arsenic poison, deliberately and lethally administered by one of his despairing parents. This was never proved although, as the author perceptibly reminds us, today ‘strict protocols to screen biological samples for poisons are well developed’ but ‘in 1904, forensic science remained a fledgling field’.[5] Somewhat sinisterly, at the time of the Newtown tragedy, young Olive was actually in the Prince Alfred Hospital recovering from ‘alleged’ food poisoning.

The three young boys, then aged seven, six and four were temporarily taken to the Sydney Rescue Home of Hope in Camperdown, a place where ‘friendless’ and ‘fallen’ women gave birth and had their babies removed soon afterwards.[6] Some desperate women came here to recover from a botched illegal abortion, although sadly, many did not recover and left the home in a coffin. A month later, in February 1904 the brothers were sent to the Roman Catholic St Michael’s Orphanage at Baulkham Hills. Their sister Olive was officially adopted and left the Prince Alfred with new parents and a new name, Mollie Ford. We don’t know her later story. For her brothers however, ‘it would be ‘St Michael, not family, who would raise Bedford, Basil and Mervyn.’[7] And for the next few years their lives were structured around religion, rigorous routine and rigid rules of behaviour. On reaching the age of ten, they were all transferred seven kilometres away to the boys’ industrial school at St Vincent’s – also then known as Westmead Boy’s Home.

It is all rather grim indeed. But it is in the portraits of the brother’s adult lives where the author’s sociological training really shines through. Eldest son Bedford never shook off the complex trauma that his parents’ death had unleashed. In his early teenage years, he ran away from St Vincent’s and from here ‘he just kept running’.[8] Tragically he did not stay in touch with his brothers. Instead, he lived a lonely, transient life, wandering through Sydney, country New South Wales and South Australia, often moving in and out of gaol, as a vagrant. His own sudden death, occurred on the anniversary of his parent’s death, on 12 January 1955. Reading his sad life story, one actually wonders how he managed to survive his solitary nomadic existence for so long.

Happily, middle brother Basil fared rather better. As an adult, he made regular donations to both St Michael’s and St Vincent’s which suggests that his time there had possibly been a positive, affirming one. Somewhere along the way, Basil developed a deep love for poetry and Australian bush ballads, perhaps as a means of escapism, or maybe it was a wistful earning for an idyllic life of freedom. He married happily, but on being widowed early, successfully raised his two daughters alone.

Youngest brother Mervyn tried to enlist in the AIF during World War One, but at just five foot and three inches he was deemed too short and was therefore declared ‘medically unfit’. He ultimately became a champion swimmer and pioneer surf lifesaver, managing harbour baths and teaching swimming at various coastal locations on the beaches to the north and south of Sydney.[9]

In many respects, The Suicide Bride is a sweeping and at times soaring, family saga. There is a truly shocking twist towards the end which documents another murder-suicide which occurred in Five Dock, Sydney in 1929. But out of tragedy, also emerges a much broader, very rich history of daily life and death in Sydney and its neighbourhoods; religious divisions in the early twentieth century, intemperance and poverty, contemporary gender relations and the miseries of married life for many unhappy couples. Institutionalisation and orphanages, crime and madness, and the role of genes and hereditary are also here intimately explored. The Suicide Bride is ultimately a strong and sincere testimony to the struggle and survival of those born and raised in adverse family circumstances, the repercussions of crime and violence, and the stigma of mental struggle. It is then, a story which will resonate both loudly and profoundly for many today.

On finishing the book, I was left oscillating between feeling both utterly bereft and yet also really hopeful. And that is surely the sign of a book that is brilliant, thought-provoking and profoundly emotive at one and the same time.

Dr Catie Gilchrist

August 2019

Dr Catie Gilchrist is an historian at the University of Sydney. She has written for the Dictionary of Sydney and the St John’s Cemetery project, and is the author of Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court (Sydney: HarperCollins 2019)

Visit the publisher’s website here to purchase or read a sample of The Suicide Bride: https://www.hachette.com.au/tanya-bretherton/the-suicide-bride-a-mystery-of-tragedy-and-family-secrets-in-edwardian-sydney

 

Footnotes:

[1] Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2019, p 5.

[2] Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2019, p 38.

[3] Clearly, and with the benefit of hindsight at least, he was a man in need of institutionalisation in, to use the phraseology of the day, one of the state’s many ‘lunatic’ asylums.

[4] Although the coronial inquest concluded that she had been murdered by her husband.

[5] Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2019, p 117.

[6] It was founded in 1883 by George Ardill of the Sydney Rescue Work Society. In 1890 it was based in Stanley Street (today known as Gilpin Street) and in 1904 became known as the South Sydney Women’s Hospital until it closed in 1976.

[7] Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2019, p 194.

[8] Tanya Bretherton, The Suicide Bride; A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney, Hachette Australia, 2019, p 227.

[9] According to Bretherton, Florence had possibly been infected by VD by her first husband on his return from World War One.

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