CAROL BAXTER is an author, genealogist and ‘history detective’ who finds out the hidden stories behind some of Australia’s most notorious personalities. In Carol’s new book, Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, she tells the story of Louisa Collins, who was the last woman to be hanged in NSW in 1889 after being charged with murder. The mother of seven was known chillingly as the ‘Botany Bay Murderess’ – but was she really guilty? We ask Carol about the truth behind Australia’s biggest historical crime story. Below the article is a gr review of Black Widow.
Why do you liken yourself Dr. Who? Do you have two hearts?
Perhaps some could argue that, since I like writing about crime and murder, I have no heart at all! In fact, similarly to Dr Who, I explore the stories of ordinary people whose actions have a profound consequence on their world. These largely unknown stories are, to me, the most interesting and enlightening.
How should someone go about tracking down their genealogy?
The simplest answer is to start with oneself and track backwards – through parents, grandparents and so on. And invest money in birth, marriage and death certificates. Australia has the most detailed and comprehensive certificates in the world so researchers might as well make the most of them.
How did you come across Louisa Collins? Hopefully not in a dark alley?
No! … and, as it happens, I wouldn’t be worried about encountering her in a dark alley. Women serial killers generally target those in their care. In fact, I first read about her story in a book discussing major Australian crimes. Then I met a descendant who suggested that I write Louisa’s story. I had already thought about doing so but I only made the decision to pitch it to Allen & Unwin after I had come up with a great title: The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay. We changed the title to Black Widow just before publication.
Can you tell us about her?
Louisa is an enigma. In order to understand her, we have to understand her actions, and that is something that no one has previously managed to do. As Black Widow is written as a murder mystery, I won’t give that newly-discovered information away. You’ll have to read the book.
Why did you commit to writing a full book about this woman?
To write a 100,000-word book, I need a story that is larger than itself. The fact that Louisa was the last woman to be sent to the gallows in New South Wales was a starting point for a ‘big picture’ story. Additionally, the events occurred at a time when the demand for women’s rights was getting stronger so Louisa’s story could obviously be used as a vehicle for exploring the roles and rights of women at that critical time – although the evidence shows that Louisa’s case did not energise the feminist movement (despite recent claims that it did) because she was politically ‘toxic’ for reasons explained in the book.
Other themes and issues inevitably turn up during the research for any book and, in Louisa’s case, it turned out that an extraordinary miscarriage of justice had occurred. Moreover, the events that followed her conviction were partly the result of an extremely divisive political environment – and, indeed, the government fell within days of Louisa’s execution. Additionally, female killers are always more intriguing because of their rarity and because they break the female norms. Men can do bad things without being considered intrinsically bad whereas women who do bad things are inevitably thought to be either bad or mad. This challenges us to think not only about the roles and rights of women but about the perception of women, then and now. In 1889, this perception – or misperception – led to a woman swinging on the gallows.
If you could ask her one question, what would it be?
How would you describe yourself and your actions and motivations?
Why do people find serial killers so fascinating?
We are socialised to be ‘good’ and to suppress the ‘bad’ urges so those who breach these social norms intrigue us. Why? And why them and not us? One part of us lives vicariously through their misdeeds while the other part wants ‘good’ to triumph, for the ‘baddies’ to get caught and to be dealt with appropriately … all’s right with the world. This is where the thrill of the hunt comes in. Detection stories (true and fictional) are popular because, in one way or another, we all love the hunt. In fact, it’s the hunt that drives me to write these books. I start with a loose outline of the story – like a jigsaw puzzle with a bit of a border and some pieces in the middle. I then research the case and build up the evidence, and ultimately the story, piece by piece. I never know what the complete picture will be until after I finish the first draft. In terms of Louisa’s story, it was only in the weeks before I handed over the manuscript (after two years of full-time work and a contract extension for six months) that I worked out
what was driving her – the killing trigger, so to speak. Previous writers have either assumed guilt without determining motivation or assumed innocence because the evidence was circumstantial and they couldn’t work out why she might have done it. So discovering her motivation was a major breakthrough in my own hunt for the truth.
What’s the most chilling thing about Black Widow?
That any society could execute a person based on evidence provided by that person’s eleven-year-old child.
Was Louisa Collins evil or misunderstood?
Thanks for that question. It allows me to make an important point. No one is evil although they can think things and do things that others consider to be evil. I try to avoid the term because it’s often a simplistic judgement that allows people to pigeon-hole other people who hold views or act in a way they dislike (I once heard a scripture teacher state that a boy was evil because he challenged her claim that God made babies!). Louisa, like most people, was a mixture of good and bad and that’s what makes her human … and intriguing. Was she misunderstood? Absolutely. At her trials, she presented herself with a Lindy Chamberlain-type calmness and inscrutability and, similarly to Lindy Chamberlain, Louisa’s fortitude was one of the reasons for her conviction. It made her seem ‘unwomanly’ and, therefore, more likely to be a killer. She was also misunderstood in the sense that the community was happy to send her to the gallows even though the ‘who’ evidence was only circumstantial and the ‘why’ unknown – until the publication of Black Widow.
Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer
Sydney. July 1888. A distressed woman begs a doctor to visit her violently ill husband whom she fears is close to death. The doctor, alarmed at the man’s deteriorating condition and the ineffectiveness of his prescribed treatment, discusses the case with a colleague and learns that the woman’s first husband died in suspiciously similar circumstances. The subsequent death of husband number two triggers a chain of events of which no-one involved could be proud.
The little-known story of Louisa Collins, the so-called Botany Bay Murderess, makes for fascinating, albeit disturbing, reading. Convicted only after being prosecuted through three hung jury trials and a decisive (but legally questionable) fourth trial, Louisa was ultimately sentenced to death – the last woman to meet this fate in New South Wales.
Author Carol Baxter tells Louisa’s story with eloquence and dispassion. Without advocating Louisa’s innocence, 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. By situating the case within its historical context, Baxter canvasses the various political and social debates it inflamed, such as the role of capital punishment, the case for gender equality and society’s expectations of women – issues that remain relevant more than a century later.
Black Widow is an intelligent, extremely well-researched and thought-provoking examination of a grim episode in Australia’s colonial history.
4 stars – Allen & Unwin – $29.99
Reviewed by Heather Lunney