As part of the 2017 Mardi Gras festival, there’s an interesting play showing at the Seymour Centre called The Trouble with Harry. The play revolves around the fascinating figure of Harry Crawford, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1920. Harry was born a woman and was named Eugenia Falleni. Let’s take a look at the story.
Eugenia Falleni was born in 1875 in Ardenza, Italy. Her family migrated to New Zealand when she was three years old. In 1898, she arrived in Sydney and shortly after gave birth to her daughter, Josephine, who was put into care. Falleni had been going by the name Eugene since her teens, dressing as a boy and working in labouring jobs, however, this would change to Harry Crawford shortly after her arrival in Sydney; an identity Eugenia maintained for the next 22 years.
Harry Crawford liked to drink and worked manual jobs before he married Annie Birkett, a widow with a nine-year-old son, in 1913. The pair bought a confectionary store on Darling Street, Balmain and lived in the apartment above the shop. The business faltered, Harry resumed his heavy drinking and neighbours would later recall hearing arguments from their apartment. Added to this was the disturbance caused by the reappearance of Harry’s daughter, Josephine, who allegedly played a role in Annie’s discovery of Harry’s secret.
On 1 October 1917, some eight months or so after this discovery, Annie and Harry had a picnic near Lane Cove River. According to Eugenia’s police statement made two years later, the pair argued and Annie slipped and fell backwards, hitting her head on a rock and dying within minutes. Harry panicked and burned Annie’s body for fear of being arrested for murder and exposed as a woman.
Annie’s body was identified in July 1920 and the trial of Eugenia Falleni, after police had uncovered Harry Crawford’s secret, for her murder took place over two days in October 1920. Though by today’s standards a short trial, it was long for the 1920s and one that excited a lot of media attention. Falleni was found guilty and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment. She served 11 years at Long Bay Gaol , assuming the name Jean Ford a few years before her release in 1931. She ran a boarding house in Paddington until June 1938, and had just sold it when she was struck by a motorcar on Oxford Street and died at Sydney Hospital the following day.To this day it is still unclear exactly what happened by the Lane Cove River almost 100 years ago. There have been questions raised about the quality of her legal representation and the sensational media coverage which probably contributed to the guilty verdict. Legal experts, including Mark Tedeschi AM QC who published a book about her case, have suggested if her trial was held today she would likely have been acquitted or, at most, convicted of manslaughter.
You can see the entity and connections for Eugenia Falleni in the Dictionary here, and read more at the NSW State Archives & Records Office. Eugenia, by Mark Tedeschi was published by Simon & Schuster and is available here.