Leigh Straw, Angel of Death Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman

HarperCollins, 2019, ISBN 978073333966 (p/bk), pp1-312, RRP $32.99

Angel of Death is the third book by writer and historian Leigh Straw that focus on Australian women and crime. It follows on from her successful books The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) and  Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018).

Dulcie Markham (1914-1976) was neither a leading underworld crime boss nor Sydney’s first female detective but as ‘one of Australia’s most popular prostitutes’ she had a place in both their worlds as they fought to control her; Leigh to manage and profit from her work and Armfield to reform her. Dulcie Markham however, had her own agenda and agency. She was deeply fascinated by the power and the profit that organised crime offered and, wanting in on the action, was determined no one was going to stop her.

Markham lived much of her working life in the seedy underworlds of Australia’s main cities from the 1920s through to the mid 1950s when she finally retreated into obscure retirement. During these decades she was well known in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and just for good measure, she had a brief sojourn in Perth in 1946 too.

From teenage runaway and streetwalker to professional prostitute, she lived through the audacious flapper days of the Roaring 1920s, the bleak Depression Years of the 1930s and the lucrative era of WW2 when thousands of cashed-up yanks on R and R were in town looking for a good time. She was also a standout beauty and she used her Hollywood looks to lure her punters and to dazzle her lovers – of which she had many. As she herself told newspaper reporters in 1940,

‘I was pert, more than ordinarily pretty, and fellows took a lot of notice of me.’

But her personal glamour obscured the dark-side, for her life was also firmly ensconced within the criminal, the dangerous and the often very violent. She flew with the crooks and moved with the warring gangs with their razors and pistols, as they fought for control over the illicit drugs, sly grog, prostitution and illegal betting rackets that characterised life in the dubious locales of Australia’s main metropolitan centres.

As both prostitute and ‘gangster’s girl’, Straw suggests that ‘jealousy over Dulcie was behind many of the underworld shootings in the 1930s and 1940s.’ Astonishingly, at least a dozen of her lovers and husbands were brutally slashed or fatally gunned down. The first was her beau Cecil ‘Scotty’ McCormack, a 22 year old gang member, who was viciously stabbed through the heart by rivals on the streets of Darlinghurst in May 1931. Dulcie’s appearance at the coronial inquest into his violent death the following month was ‘her first public appearance as a member of Sydney’s underworld.’ Dressed in a racy blood-red dress and hat, with her perfectly coiffured blond hair and ruby lips, there was no escaping her resulting persona; to the city’s pressmen at least, this woman was the classic femme fatale.

McCormack’s violent death was the genesis of Dulcie’s long and notorious career, in which her proximity to death and gangland vice was extraordinary. Whether it was sheer coincidence or treacherous collusion on her part, shootouts, showdowns and sly stabbings saw many of the men in her life taken down by the blade or the bullet. By 1940 Dulcie had lost three lovers and a husband to underworld violence, along with numerous close associates and friends. Many more would follow. Coronial inquests and court trials grimly followed all of their deaths – although the criminal code of silence would thwart the legal proceedings. By this time, the newspapers had begun to label ‘Pretty Dulcie’ the ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘Australia’s most beautiful bad woman.’

Tough, streetwise, always alert and constantly on guard, sometimes she used violence herself. Dulcie spent much of her time evading the authorities by using aliases, hair dyes and flitting between cities, or as she herself remarked, she ‘went into smoke’ – although not always successfully. She was arrested and fined on numerous occasions and also did a few stints in Long Bay Prison for vagrancy (streetwalking), prostitution, being ‘idle and disorderly’, and consorting with criminals.By the late 1940s she was living in St Kilda, Victoria, working as a prostitute and also running her house as a sly grog shop and a safe haven for Melbourne’s violent thugs and crooks. Yet the underworld was far from discerning when it came to deal with its rivals – male or female. In September 1951, Dulcie was shot three times in the leg and hip in the front room of her house. She survived, but the wounds crippled her for life. Her young lover at the time, twenty-two-year old Gavan Walsh was shot dead and his brother Desmond was wounded. Later, in 1955 she was found with severe injuries in Bondi, New South Wales. It is highly likely that she had been thrown off a twenty-foot high balcony for some sort of payback from a rival gang, although, ever the ‘moll’, Dulcie kept completely quiet. She simply insisted that she had fallen down the stairs. Yet the terrifying episode made her think deeply about her unsavoury, and potentially fatal, lifestyle, and in the mid 1950s she made her retreat and retired. By this time she had clocked up almost 100 convictions across four cities and had become ‘one of the most famous criminals to walk through Australia’s courtrooms.’

Her final years were spent quietly in domestic bliss in Bondi, married to sailor Martin Rooney who was, by all accounts, a law-abiding man. In many ways however, her death in April 1976 reflected the violence that had characterised much of her life. The once infamous ‘Angel of Death’ burnt to death in a fire which engulfed her Bondi bedroom after she had been smoking in bed.

Readers au fait with the criminal history of twentieth century Sydney and Melbourne, will be familiar with many of the people included in this new book. From the notorious female criminal entrepreneurs Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, to gangsters Guido Calletti, Frank Green and Leslie ‘Squizzy’ Taylor, it is certainly a book with a colourful cast and Straw knows them and the streetscapes and locales they once inhabited remarkably well. Into this picture, she skilfully weaves Dulcie Markham through their interconnected webs of crime, corruption and murderous violence. For readers new to the history of this appalling yet enthralling era of organised crime, the book will simply astonish.

But was Dulcie Markham a femme fatale? An Angel of Death? Did she deliberately lead her lovers into dangerous and deadly situations as the press so often suggested at the time? Probably not if the criminal code of violence, silence and pay back is anything to judge by. And after all, these men were already on the wrong side of the tracks. One of the main strengths of the book is that Straw leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions about Dulcie Markham. And there are indeed many silences in her story too – what happened to a daughter supposedly born in 1942? What sort of birth control did Dulcie use during her working life? Did she in fact truly love any of her lovers and husbands or was she simply in it for herself? We don’t get to really know her, despite the rich research materials that the author has mined. Yet the quiet gaps in the historical record in many ways epitomise the life of the Australian underworld itself. Secretive, shadowy and ruled by a criminal code of silence, this was Dulcie Markham’s world. That we don’t get to know her in her entirety is perhaps simply a genuine reflection of this.

Dr Catie Gilchrist
July 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 to purchase or to find a sample of the book: https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780733339660/angel-of-death-dulcie-markham-australias-most-beautiful-bad-woman/


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