Femme Fatale

Wicked women, seductive sinners, vicious vixens – from the biblical first transgressor Eve to latter-day child-killer Kathleen Folbigg, the female criminal has been portrayed in many guises in psychological theory, popular culture, mythology, literature and history.

Women’s crimes simultaneously appal and entice us, exciting an interest not generated by male felons. This publication highlights the way society has interpreted and contained the criminality of women. The pictorial content specifically contrasts glamorous constructions of female criminals in mid 20th-century popular culture with photographs taken of real women as they entered the prison system – the fantasy and the reality.

Exhibition entry within interior of Police and Justice Museum
This article draws on the exhibition and accompanying book Femme Fatale on display at the Justice and Police Museum between 7 March 2009 and 18 April 2010. Photo Sydney Living Museums

 

Female criminality has been examined and debated throughout history. The classical Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) considered females inferior to males and ‘by nature prone to secrecy and stealth’.1 In Timæus he stated that women are the reincarnation of men who had led evil lives and, as such, are morally flawed. Successive philosophers were heavily influenced by Plato’s ideas, and the belief that women lack moral fortitude became predominant. The Malleus maleficarum, the famous 15th-century text on witchcraft, asserted that ‘the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice’.2 This linkage of lust, greed and vice determined later Western thinking about female criminality. 

Modern ideas about female delinquency took shape in the writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) who believed female vice was linked to penis envy and women had ‘little sense of justice’.3 From the mid 1800s phrenology – a discredited pseudo-science that correlates the contours of a person’s head to their behaviour – was used by some theorists to explain female criminality. In 1893 criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1836–1909) wrote perhaps the most influential book on the subject, La donna delinquente (The criminal woman). Lombroso thought criminality was biologically determined and criminals had limited control over their impulses. He photographed and measured many female offenders, believing they displayed certain physical characteristics, known as the ‘stigmata of degeneration’. According to Lombroso the female felon was stronger, shorter, fatter and more likely to have dark hair and a mannish jawline than a ‘normal’ woman. He also considered the true criminal to be rare among women: 

The born female criminal is, so to speak, doubly exceptional, first as a woman and then as a criminal … criminals are exceptions among civilised people, and women are exceptions among criminals … As a double exception, then, the criminal woman is a true monster

Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, Criminal woman, the prostitute, and the normal woman, translated by NH Rafter and M Gibson, Duke University Press, London, 2004, p185.

Black and white police photograph of a lady showing her face, profile and full length. She wears a shiny black hat, coat and long skirt.
Matilda Devine. Photographed 27 May 1925, aged 26. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums DES_FP07_0226_002a

Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine used a razor to slash a man’s face in a barber’s shop and was sentenced to two years gaol. She was Sydney’s best-known brothel madam and her public quarrels with the sly-grog queen Kate Leigh provided the media with an abundance of material.

Born or Made?

Later theorists explored the influence of environment upon behaviour. Sociologist William Isaac Thomas (1863–1947) believed delinquent women are too deeply influenced by society and he linked much of their crime to cravings for excitement and stimulation. He also thought women could be reprogrammed to lead contented, conservative and moral lives. Post World War II theorist Otto Pollak (1908–1998) associated female criminality with sexuality, and suggested that secrecy surrounding menstruation conditions women to commit furtive crimes. Today, there is a multitude of ideas surrounding female criminality but, in general, the consideration of both environmental and biological factors is believed to give the best explanation of a person’s inclination to commit criminal acts.

Many religions tell of women who use their feminine wiles to lead men from the path of righteousness. The Christian canon contains the story of the Fall when the first humans, Adam and Eve, are cast out of the Garden of Eden. Eve cannot resist eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge and so commits the first sin. She then tempts Adam to eat the fruit and share in her disgrace. In Talmudic Judaic tradition Adam’s first wife, Lilith, will not submit to his authority. She leaves him and turns to a life of evil, seducing men and murdering male children. These religious teachings about women’s wickedness and willfulness are timeless and continue to influence much of Western society’s thinking on female transgression.

The use of spells and magical objects to protect against the destructive power of wicked women has a long history in many cultures. Amulets created to protect baby boys from Lilith have been unearthed in Persia (Iran), and in ancient Egypt protective spells ensured safety from malevolent female forces. European history is punctuated by a series of witch-hunts where women accused of using magical powers to commit crime were tortured and killed to appease a terrified populace.

Illustrated book cover showing blonde woman, quite relaxed as she shoots at her unseen attacker.
Detective book magazine: billion dollar baby (cover), artist unknown, Fiction House, New York, 1949. Courtesy 45th Street Editions.

The blonde is quite relaxed as she shoots at her unseen attacker. A hint of blood, the same colour as her lipstick, dribbles down the side of her mouth, suggesting that revenge may be her motive.
Police photograph of a lady with dark hair and dark dress buttoned up to her neck. She looks directly at the camera.
Muriel Goldsmith. Photographed 29 October 1915, aged 25. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums DES_FP07_0208_008

Muriel Goldsmith looks like a country school teacher but was actually a prolific thief with a string of aliases. She was found guilty of stealing money and jewellery from the Criterion Hotel in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

From Folk Tales to Detective Stories 

Transgressive women have made many appearances in oral and written tales. Greek myths recount the lives of many criminal women including Medea, who is spurned by her lover and so kills their children in an act of vengeance. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth goads her husband to commit murder in order to fulfil her desire for power. The morality tale Moll Flanders, written by Daniel Defoe in 1722, tells the story of a baby born to a criminal mother who grows up to be a felon herself. The novel mirrors a real concern of the 18th century that the degenerate underclass would breed and overrun the cities. The linking of female carnality to criminality forms the plot of Thomas Hardy’s popular novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) in which an innocent maiden who is ill-used by men becomes mentally unstable and, as a result, commits murder.

The archetypal wicked woman is the fairytale witch. Intent on causing murder and mayhem, she appears in folk stories throughout the world. As young children we hear stories of jealousy, avarice, hatred and murder: the plot of Snow White revolves around an ageing queen who conspires to have her beautiful stepdaughter murdered; in Hansel and Gretel a cannibalistic witch lures unsuspecting children into her gingerbread house; and in Sleeping Beauty a demented fairy curses a baby because of the parents’ breach of etiquette. Although some of these stories have been softened for modern children, they remain testimony to the belief that evil may lie within even the most harmless looking woman. 

smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, my lovely, Penguin Books, London, 2005, p205. First published 1940

The early 20th century produced another stock character in literature – the ‘femme fatale’. The meaning of femme fatale is the subject of heated debate among various scholars with an interest in literature, film, history, mythology and gender studies. The term has been applied to seductive women who are dangerous to know, either because of their own perfidy or because their paramour becomes the target of evildoers. The charm of the French phrase disguises its true meaning, ‘fatal woman’, just as the glamorous version of female criminality portrayed in literature and cinema of the period belies the unfortunate reality of female offenders. A particular type of femme fatale appeared in the detective literature of the 1920s. These women were not just ‘naughty’, they were wanton criminals, and the femmes fatales featured in the images here belong to this category.

In the 1837 preface to Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens wrote, ‘In every book I know, where such characters [criminals] are treated of … the thieves are represented as leading a life to be envied than otherwise’.4 This idea is reflected in the representations of criminal women in pulp fiction published from the 1920s to the 1950s, including magazines such as Detective Tabloid and Gun Molls, and detective novels like Farewell my lovely by Raymond Chandler and Ssssh … she’s a killer. The femmes fatales are active forces, creating opportunities and manipulating events in order to achieve their goals. They are ‘smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin’.5 Attractive, independent and intelligent, they willingly use their sexuality against men who are weak and unable to resist the lure of their feminine wiles.

These smooth, shiny girls move through the world with enviable freedom. Pulp fiction artists created a picture of incredible glamour, beauty and wickedness. The women were frequently depicted carrying out their nefarious activities, often with a smoking gun in hand. Renowned pulp artists such as Rudolph Belarski helped define the femme fatale ‘look’ of luscious lips, big eyes, revealing dresses and bold expressions. In order to attract consumers they used a palette heavy with bright red and yellow, leading to the archetypal seductress of blonde hair and red lips. Stories of feisty females appealed to a wide readership and may even have inspired some women to pursue a career in villainy: it has been suggested that Bonnie Parker of the gun-toting duo ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was an avid reader of crime magazines.

When women go wrong men go right after them

Mae West as Lady Lou, She done him wrong, 1933, motion picture, Paramount Pictures

‘When women go wrong men go right after them’1, said Mae West, perhaps reflecting the strange attraction bad girls exercise over the movie-going public. The concept of the femme fatale has been most memorably explored in film noir, a term loosely used to describe the crime dramas produced in the 1940s and 1950s that were often inspired by detective fiction. Most of the memorable film noir stories feature a woman who attracts, seduces, deceives, betrays and then discards a man.

Promotional posters and lobby cards portray the femme fatale with immaculate hair, perfect nails and pulsating red lips, wearing couture gowns that reveal her curvaceous figure. The women are powerfully sexual and often characterised as ruthlessly avaricious and ambitious. Many are gold-diggers with a psychopathic inability to love, as demonstrated in the B-grade film Blonde ice , which was publicised with the tagline ‘Ice in her veins … Icicles on her heart’.2 The films were subject to censorship by the American Production Code, which states that ‘the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime’. Censorship led to many implausible endings with a high level of mortality among femmes fatales.

The conventions surrounding film noir provide insight into some stereotypes of criminal women. Drug addiction and mental instability as a cause of felonious behaviour are examined in the characters of Carmen Sternwood in The big sleep and Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard.1 Other women, such as Cora Smith in The postman always rings twice, 2 scheme to rid themselves of inconvenient husbands. Women who manipulate men into criminal activities are recurrent figures in film noir. In her desire for money and excitement, the femme fatale of Gun crazy cajoles her lover into committing armed hold-ups.3 These women are independent and thrive outside the boundaries society places around ‘good’ girls. Some theorists argue the dominance of the femme fatale character during this period directly relates to societal disquiet over the blurring of traditional gender roles caused by World War II. 

Today, a new realism is favoured in cinematic depictions of female criminals. For example, the 2003 Academy Award winning Monster details the life and crimes of American serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed via lethal injection on 9 October 2002.4 This change is also reflected in literature with a recent revival in true-crime writing. People have always been interested in tales of real offenders. In Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, broadsheets recounting the story of a criminal’s life were sold to crowds at the condemned’s execution. Many stories were blends of fact and fiction and, with a heavy emphasis on morality, were intended to act as a warning to those considering wrongdoing. 

Convict Beginnings

The reality of criminal women’s lives contrasts sharply with the seductive femmes fatales of pulp fiction and film noir. The first boatload of dirty, foulmouthed 5 female convicts landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. About 20% of the First Fleet convicts were female, which created challenges for their keepers who had no template for administering a group of bold and raucous women. A First Fleet officer’s denouncement of the women as ‘damned whores’6 has shaped much of our consciousness about the first female convicts in Australia. Most of the estimated 25,000 women transported had been convicted of theft, not prostitution, but the pairing of criminality and loose sexuality became deeply ingrained in the colonial psyche. 

Painting of landscape scene with a group of figures in the foreground and a complex of buildings including large two story sandstone building in the background.
Parramata [i.e. Parramatta], N.S. Wales by Augustus Earle, 1826. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia an2818460

Purpose built Female Factory in Parramatta. Constructed in 1821 it had a variety of uses: workhouse, nursery, infirmary and place of punishment.

The British Government had given little thought to the care and management of female convicts. Upon arrival in the colony women could be assigned to work for free settlers or as government employees. If they chose to marry, they would be assigned to their husbands. Those who were not allocated a job had to find their own employment and lodgings, which inevitably led to prostitution. By 1804 Governor King had decided to create a female section at Parramatta Gaol to house unassigned women. It quickly became overcrowded and in 1821 a dedicated building, known as the Female Factory, was constructed. It had a variety of uses: workhouse, nursery, infirmary and place of punishment. Women were divided into three classes: first class comprised women who had not been assigned or had been returned without complaint; second class contained women on probation; and third class housed those who had been returned because of their insubordination. Pregnant convicts were also imprisoned at the factory and there was much speculation about the character of their children, with many believing the colony would be overrun by the doubly degenerate offspring of criminals.

The Female Factory was chronically overcrowded, with poor hygiene and nutrition resulting in outbreaks of disease. The women ran riot through Parramatta in 1827 in protest over the poor quality food. Acts of rebellion were common and incurred novel forms of punishment such as head-shaving. However, it was claimed the factory could not ‘properly be regarded as a place of punishment’ because many of the women enjoyed being in the company of their profligate friends.7

Females convicted of committing crimes in the colony were kept in various gaols throughout New South Wales including Bathurst, Biloela (Cockatoo Island) and Darlinghurst. Bathurst housed women who had been sentenced for serious crimes, Biloela contained women chiefly of ‘the prostitute class’ 8 and those serving short sentences for crimes such as theft and vagrancy were imprisoned at Darlinghurst. Prison conditions were primitive: cells were dark, damp and infested with vermin. 

Boredom was rife throughout the gaols. Prison reformer Rose Scott reported the women’s work in Darlinghurst Gaol ‘appeared to consist solely of scrubbing, cleaning, washing and needlework of the most hideous and dreary description’.9 Male prisoners were able to access the prison library and schoolroom but educational opportunities were not made available to women. Confining novices with hardened offenders was a matter of great concern to both authorities and prison reformers, and led to the construction of a women’s gaol at Long Bay, 14 kilometres south of the city of Sydney. Reformers had high expectations for the new prison and hoped it would be run on more humane principles. 

Painting showing convicts carving and moving sandstone blocks inside the gaol complex, the buildings arranged around a courtyard.
Darlinghurst Gaol, by H.L. Bertrand, 1891. State Library of NSW SV1/Gao/Darh/2

Opened in 1841 conditions within the Darlinghurst Gaol were primitive, with overcrowded cells and limited access to sanitation. Little thought was given to the health and comfort of the inmates, as Darlinghurst mostly held women serving short sentences.

The Long Bay State Reformatory for Women

The purpose-built State Reformatory for Women opened at Long Bay in 1909. It consisted of four large halls containing a total of 276 rooms. The women were separated into different classifications depending on their criminal history and attempts were made to keep known associates apart. Young offenders were separated from repeat offenders to prevent ‘the contamination of hopeful cases by intercourse with depraved characters’.10 Gossip was forbidden and prisoners usually slept in individual cells. 

A more radical penological ideology was encapsulated in the institution’s title of ‘Reformatory’ – the aim was not simply to punish but to improve the criminal. The women were introduced to ‘feminine’ behaviours and encouraged to adopt more ‘ladylike’ manners. Flowerbeds were planted in the hope they would develop a refined appreciation for the beauty of nature. The coarse black clothing worn by inmates at Darlinghurst Gaol was replaced with uniforms of lighter materials and colours, and some well-behaved prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothing. Exercise classes were held outdoors in order to maintain good health. The women were allocated tasks such as needlework, cooking and laundry. Rewards and remissions were offered to encourage compliance and obedient prisoners were sometimes helped to find employment upon their release by the visiting Ladies Committee members. 

The inmates from the reformatory featured in this book provide an interesting insight into the nature of female criminality during the period 1915–1930. Their images come from a remarkable collection of glass plate negatives held by the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney. The photographs were taken as part of the administrative process when an offender arrived at the prison. As anticipated, the majority of women were imprisoned for crimes against property including theft, larceny and shoplifting. The next largest category of offence is violent crimes against a person such as murder, infanticide and assault. The last significant grouping consists of convictions related to procuring or performing abortions. Offences connected with drugs and alcohol are also represented, as are women charged with bigamy. Many of the women had previous charges related to drunkenness, and the link between crime and alcohol and drug problems is still evident in today’s female prison population. 

I always felt that most of them had a chance of redemption and I tried to see that they got that chance

Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first police woman quoted in Vince Kelly, Rugged angel: the amazing career of policewoman Lillian Armfield, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1961, p10

How to Punish the worst Cases?

During the early years of the 20th century many new ideas were suggested for the control, punishment and management of female offenders. Strongly supported by feminists and prison reformers was the integration of female officials into the justice system to deal specifically with women and children. In 1915 the New South Wales Government employed its first female police officer, Lillian Armfield. Employment conditions for the first women police were appalling: the pay was abysmal, they were not issued with a uniform, were not entitled to superannuation and the government was not liable if they were injured in the workplace. Their special charge was to watch over young women and children and guide them away from moral danger. Female police officers supported rape victims in court and dealt with offences committed against children, as their ‘womanliness’ was thought to make them more empathetic towards victims. It was also hoped women police might exert a positive, reformative influence on hardened criminals. Lillian Armfield said of her work with female offenders, ‘I always felt that most of them had a chance of redemption and I tried to see that they got that chance’.1

Disputes about the punishment of female offenders dominated press coverage of the 1888 trial of Louisa Collins, the ‘Lucretia Borgia of Botany’. The allusion to the Borgia family, who were infamous throughout the Renaissance for corruption and murder, referred to Collins’s chosen method of murder, poison, which is viewed as a particularly female modus operandi as it does not need physical strength and can be secretively administered in food. It was alleged that Collins, a flirtatious drunk, grew tired of her older first husband, so fed him rat poison containing arsenic. After collecting his life insurance she married her lover, Michael Collins, and they continued to drink and frolic in the hotels of Botany Bay until the money ran out. Her spendthrift second husband soon developed an upset stomach and died. Suspicions were aroused when the widow rushed off to collect his life insurance and medical analysis revealed Michael Collins had died of arsenic poisoning. Collins was arrested and charged with his murder. 

The press reported that Collins displayed an unwomanly self-possession: ‘her demeanour in the dock [was] cruel and callous’.2 She was convicted and sentenced to hang, leading to much debate in the press and parliament about the ethics of hanging a woman. A Sydney phrenologist declared Collins had ‘an irregular mental organisation’ and was therefore not morally responsible for her actions.3 Collins’s role as a mother was also put forth as a mitigating circumstance but in 1889 she was executed at Darlinghurst Gaol.

Another famed case is that of Eugenia Falleni who was known as the ‘man–woman murderer’. In 1917 the charred remains of a woman were discovered in bushland at Chatswood. The remains were eventually deduced to be those of Annie Crawford who had been reported missing by her son from her first marriage. The search for Annie’s second husband, Harry Crawford, began in 1920. He was located living with his new wife and working as an odd-job man in a hotel. 

Upon his arrest Crawford denied committing the murder but, when informed he was about to be searched and sent to the cells, confessed he was actually a woman – Eugenia Falleni. This created a frenzy in the press and at the centre of the maelstrom was the ‘article’, or dildo, found in Falleni’s possession. Her trial was overshadowed by speculation about her ‘deviant’ sexuality and images of her dressed in both male and female attire were printed in the newspapers. Although Falleni pleaded not guilty to the murder, her perceived duplicity in convincing her family, friends and workmates that she was a man was used as proof of her immoral nature. She was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. Falleni was released from prison in 1931 after serving 11 years and died in a traffic accident in 1938.

Police photograph of woman showing front and side of her face. She has short hair and hard set jaw line.
Eugenia Falleni alias Harry Crawford. Photographed 21 October 1920, aged approximately 35. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums, DES_FP07_0206_002_0

The Sly Groggers

An extraordinary period in Australian criminal history began in 1920s Sydney when a handful of women dominated the inner-city criminal underworld. The two key figures were Kate Leigh, a sly grogger who had previously been charged with crimes ranging from theft to manslaughter, and Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, a successful brothel-keeper with a penchant for violence. Peripheral to Leigh and Devine’s operations were petty criminals like Nellie Cameron, ‘Pretty Dulcie’ Markham, ‘Botany May’ Smith and Iris Webber. Surrounded by male gangsters, the women of this epoch were as tough as any of the men they mixed with. In 1930 Leigh shot a man dead when he kicked down her door and in 1925 Devine spent time in Long Bay Gaol for slashing a man with a razor.

Page with written information, police photographs at the top right corner and table listing charges below.
Kate Leigh’s criminal charge sheet. Photographed 21 April 1915, State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay. New South Wales. Dept. of Prisons, State Records NSW, 3/6004, Leigh No.188

Thief, fence, drug dealer and ex-prostitute, Kate Leigh associated with Sydney’s most vicious criminals. Leigh muscled her way into the illegal liquor business. She owned and rented numerous inner-city properties for use as sly groggeries, where alcohol could be purchased after hours at an exorbitant price. She was also involved in cocaine dealing.
Black and white police photograph of a young girl. She wears a ligh coloured dress and stockings with a belted overcoat.
Nellie Cameron. Photographed 29 July 1930, aged 21. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive,Sydney Living Museums, DES_FP07_0235_002

Nellie Cameron was one of Sydney’s best known, and most desired, prostitutes. Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first police woman, said Cameron had an ‘assured poise that set her apart from all the other women of the Australian underworld’.

By the 1950s the big story in female crime was a new poison, thallium. The first proven case of its criminal use in Australia was that of Mrs Yvonne Fletcher, who was found guilty of having murdered her first husband in 1948 with rat poison containing thallium. It was also established she had killed her second husband in 1952 using the same method. The story of Fletcher’s marriages was told in titillating detail in the press and included allegations of infidelity and domestic violence. The furtive nature of poisoning and its occurrence within the sanctity of the home lent additional horror to the case: ‘when the killing is by means of an insidious poison … secretly administered within the family circle … the crime is a horrible one’.4 Fletcher was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. 

For many people the most abhorrent type of criminal is a mother who deliberately kills her child, as this contradicts the commonly held view that women are imbued with maternal instinct. Some empathy is extended to women who suffer from postnatal depression (now a recognised mental illness), but mothers who kill multiple children are much-hated enigmas. In 2003 the Supreme Court of New South Wales convicted Kathleen Folbigg of the murder of three of her children and the manslaughter of a fourth. Folbigg denied the charges, arguing the deaths were the result of illness and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). She has attempted, unsuccessfully, to appeal her conviction. The level of hatred displayed towards her within the prison population is such that she is currently housed in protective custody.

Women who commit violent crimes are rare and this makes them particularly fascinating. They confound societal stereotypes of women as passive, selfless and maternal. The sexual element in the interpretation of these women is tied to the belief that if a woman transgresses society’s laws she may also violate sexual mores. Enticing portrayals of femmes fatales in popular culture also play a part in maintaining our interest. Wicked women in films and novels are often young, beautiful and overtly violent, killing men without compunction. They are punished by the law or by God, thus creating a psychologically satisfying finish to a racy tale. The reality of a criminal’s life is more mundane: committing petty crimes, getting caught, sitting through lengthy legal argument at the trial and then the gut-wrenching fear of entering the prison system. Fictional and real-life femmes fatales both attract and repulse us, and will continue to do so. 

Notes

  • 1. Vince Kelly, Rugged angel: the amazing career of policewoman Lillian Armfield, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1961, p10.
  • 2. Daily Telegraph, 8 January 1889.
  • 3. P Besomo, The Botany poisoning case, P Besomo & Co, Sydney, c1888.
  • 4. Mr Justice Kinsella in Truth, 28 September 1952, p8.

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