Crimes of passion

Whether it is the Ivan Milat murders, or the Azaria Chamberlain case, each generation or era has had a crime that galvanised public opinion, and shaken the community’s sense of security and well-being.

The exhibition, Crimes of Passion, displayed at the Justice & Police Museum, considered five crimes from five different eras, each of them receiving massive media coverage, shocking the public and influencing policing and public attitudes of their time. There was murder by stabbing, poisoning, and shooting, and then there were several unsuccessful attempts including a botched royal assassination.

There was the drama and intrigue of a clandestine affair with accusations of mind control and the murder of the lover’s husband, the deranged attack on the Duke of Edinburgh in 1868, and the first act of ’supposed’ international terrorism on Australian soil in 1915. Then a series of murders and attacks using rat poison by jealous and greedy women in the 1950s and finally the public sympathy and fan club hysteria for two escaped murderers in 1959.

These crimes were major stories of their day, receiving extensive coverage and great discussion by the public. Whilst ’justice’ was being ’seen to be done’ in police investigations, coronial inquiries and criminal trials, similarly in pubs, offices and across backyard fences, the public were looking for answers, resolution and often revenge. Above all, these crimes evoked passion - hysteria, anger, outrage or fear in the general public.

In this exhibition, curator and crime writer Peter Doyle presented the facts of each crime and discussed public responses to them. Included in the exhibition were the weapons and objects used in the criminal acts, including the rifles and the Turkish flag from the terrorist attack at Broken Hill, a cricket stump used by Leslie Newcombe and Kevin Simmonds to beat to death a prison warden and the pistols from the shooting by Henry Bertrand of his lover’s husband.

Also on display were copies of press reports about the crimes, books, posters and newsreels - showing the public feeling and media outrage at the time. As Peter Doyle, said ’each of these crimes was a big public event in its day, like the craze that unexpectedly hooks everyone. These big public crimes are cultural events. Crime as theatre. Crime as opera.’

The Mad Dentist of Wynyard Square

The 1865 case of the ’Mad Dentist of Wynyard Square’ has all the ingredients of a modern soap opera. There was the villain, the eccentric young dentist Henry Louis Bertrand, and his wife, sweet innocent Jane. Enter the adulteress Ellen, married to alcoholic banker Henry Kinder. Bertrand became infatuated with Ellen and they started a passionate affair. Brazenly, the adulterous couple often met at their respective homes. Henry Kinder was either too drunk to notice or care and Jane Bertrand too frightened of her husband’s moods to say anything. More scandalous was that Frank Jackson, Ellen’s former lover also lived in the Kinder marital home.

But this ’menage à cinq’ could not survive. Bertrand, obsessed with Ellen, decided to murder her husband. He dressed ’incognito’ as a woman, to purchase the gun. After several botched attempts, he managed to shoot Kinder, but the bullet did not kill him. Bertrand dressed the wound and sent for a doctor explaining to the medic that Kinder was seriously depressed and had tried to kill himself.

But this near escape was not enough to stop Bertrand. Desperate to get rid of his competition, he mixed the poison ’belladonna’ with milk and had his lover administer it. Finally Kinder was dead. Bizarrely, the coroner found the death was by suicide. Immediately Ellen moved in with the Bertrands, sharing a bed with the couple on the first night, a fact that shocked Sydneysiders when reported during the eventual trial.

The drama didn’t stop there. Bertrand had paid and warned Frank Jackson, former lover of Ellen, to leave Sydney shortly before the poisoning. On hearing of Henry Kinder’s supposed ’suicide’, Jackson attempted to blackmail Bertrand. But in a most audacious act, Bertrand went to the police and had Jackson arrested. He was subsequently given a year’s imprisonment for blackmail.

Eventually the police reopened the case and charged Bertrand, his wife and Ellen Kinder. The trial was a sensation, causing a massive furore. Poor sweet Jane was exonerated, and found to be the victim of mesmerism and mind control. Ellen was discharged for lack of evidence and Bertrand, labelled by press at the time as ’the Mad Dentist of Wynyard Square’, served 28 years imprisonment.

Until the early 1900s, Henry Louis Bertrand was seen as the epitome of unmitigated evil, and for many years rumours persisted that he had used mesmeric techniques to seduce his upper crust female clientele.

Attempted Assassination of Prince Alfred

Only a few years later in 1868, scandal broke again with the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh and the second son of Queen Victoria. This was the first visit to Australia by a member of the royal family so when the Prince was shot in the back whilst at a picnic at Clontarf Beach, the news was greeted with great shock and embarrassment.

The would-be assassin Henry James O’Farrell was quickly arrested. He claimed, falsely, to be under orders from the Fenian Brotherhood, a radical Irish nationalist organisation. This unleashed a torrent of anti-Irish feeling in the small Sydney community. Many felt that the scandal shamed the colony, and over 20,000 people attended an ’indignation meeting’ the next day, producing abject declarations of loyalty to the crown.

Riding the wave of colonial shame, the Legislative Assembly hurriedly passed the repressive Treason Felony Act, which made it, among other things, an offence to refuse to toast the Queen or to express sympathy with alleged Irish independence conspirators.

Henry Parkes, then Colonial Secretary, swore in a small army of private detectives - including ex-convicts to track down Fenian conspirators. None were ever found.

But it was found that Henry James O’Farrell had acted alone and had a history of mental instability. Despite the intercession of the Prince, O’Farrell was quickly tried, sentenced and hung.

The incident exposed the sectarianism that was not far from the surface of Australian society and was an early example of how politicians could manipulate public hysteria and xenophobia for their own political outcomes.

Attack at Broken Hill - 1st January 1915

Perhaps the first act of ’supposed’ international terrorism in this country occurred at Broken Hill in 1915. Turkey was at war with Britain and upon hearing that the Turkish sultan had made a call for arms, Mahomed Gool and Mulla Abdulla, addled with hashish, made a death pact.

On 1st January 1915, with a Turkish flag fluttering above their heads, they opened fire on an open picnic train filled with 1200 passengers, killing four people. Two passengers braved the gunfire and ran along the tracks to raise the alarm. A party of police arrived and after a three-hour gun battle, both men were killed.

As news spread of this ’Afghan’ attack (people of Middle Eastern appearance were regularly referred to as Afghan), anger rose and a mob, suspecting German involvement in the attack, burnt down the German club in Broken Hill. They then headed towards an Afghan camel camp near by, but were stopped by police. The next day a mosque was desecrated.

A wave of public panic swept the country. Although the men had left a note saying they had acted alone, Prime Minister Billy Hughes used the incident to whip up fear that ’foreign’ nationals posed a threat to Australian security. The War Precautions Act was rushed through parliament, which placed restrictions on the movements of ’enemy’ nationals. Anti-German and Turkish feeling swept the country, leading to the dismissal of foreigners from their jobs, numerous assaults and the changing of German sounding place names.

The Thallium Poisonings

In recent years, much has been made of the perceived decline in moral values, and increasing levels of crime and social problems. Several commentators have suggested the decline started with the decadence of the 1960s, desiring a return to the values of post war 1950s Australia.

The reality of the 1950s was very different that the picture often painted today. Much of society was in upheaval following the return of soldiers from the war, often suffering from untreated war trauma. Housing conditions were poor and often over-crowded, and there was a rat plague in inner Sydney. The government decided to lift restrictions on the powerful rat poison Thallium Sulphate that kills both the rat that had eaten the bait and other rats that ate the corpse.

Thallium quickly became a popular drug used to poison people. Being odourless and tasteless, it was easily added to food. Mainly a method preferred by women, it was cooked into cakes or scones, added to chocolates or put in a drink. The first case came to court in 1952, sparking a recognition of thallium poisoning symptoms, and more cases came to light. The subsequent press coverage then started a new wave of poisonings and thallium was placed back on the poisons list in 1954.

Perhaps the most famous of the thallium poisoners was 4ft 5" tall grandmother, Caroline Grills, who killed four members of her family and attempted to murder another three by adding thallium to her home made treats. This sweet looking 63-year-old serial killer was sentenced to life in prison, spending the rest of her days in Long Bay Gaol where she became known by the other inmates as ’Aunt Thally’.

The other notorious thallium poisoning was of rugby league star, Bobby Lulham who played for Balmain and Australia. Lulham and his wife, Judy lived with his mother-in-law Veronica Monty, with whom he was having an affair whilst his wife was at Sunday mass.

In 1952 Veronica poisoned Bobby Lulham, adding thallium to his cup of tea. Lulham eventually recovered after an anonymous tip-off to the hospital letting them know he had been poisoned with thallium. Veronica Monty was charged with attempted murder. She admitted to poisoning Lulham but claimed it was an accident, stating she had meant to poison herself. She was acquitted of the crime, and in 1955 she committed suicide.

Life on the Run - Simmonds & Newcombe

In late 1959, Kevin Simmonds and Leslie Newcombe escaped from Long Bay Gaol, triggering the biggest manhunt in New South Wales history. Escaping through a ventilation duct in the roof of the prison chapel, they spent their first night of freedom huddled in a freshly dug grave in Botany Cemetery.

Two days after their escape they broke into Emu Plains Prison Farm to get supplies. They were discovered by one of the warders, who they beat to death with a cricket stump and baseball bat.

Within a fortnight, Leslie Newcombe was arrested, but Kevin Simmonds managed to elude the police for 37 days.  Initially the pair were vilified by the media, but the longer Simmonds remained at large, the more public sympathy swung in his favour.

Kevin Simmonds was a good looking and charismatic man. He gained almost movie star status, with a Sydney schoolgirl starting a fan club and a group of libertarians plastering inner Sydney with posters declaring him as a hero.

Newspapers were flooded with letters of support, from housewives declaring they would give Simmonds a hot meal if they could, and ’returned solders’ writing that he embodied the Anzac ideal. The government psychiatrist who urged Simmonds sympathisers to seek treatment received a wave of death threats.

Kevin Simmonds was finally captured at Kurri Kurri and tried, with Newcombe, for the murder of the gaol warden. Much to the judge’s displeasure, the jury found them guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and the judge described the affair as ’the worst case of manslaughter I have ever known’.

Kevin Simmonds committed suicide at Grafton Gaol in 1966. A biography by Leslie Newcombe (1979) and another by Simmond’s sister (1980) revealed that both men had been routinely and continually subjected to brutality whilst in gaol, and their experiences figured in the prison reforms of the 1970s.

26 October 2002 - 12 October 2003

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