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Clair Scrine

‘More Deadly than the Male’
The Sexual Politics of Female Poisoning:
Trials of the Thallium Women

Clair Scrine

In September 1952, 30 year old Yvonne Gladys Fletcher of Newtown, New

South Wales, stood trial before Justice Kinsella at Sydney’s Central Criminal
Court for the murder by poison of her first husband, Desmond George
Butler. Popularised through Sydney newspapers this story was a gruesome
tale of not one but two husbands’ deaths at the hands of a woman presented
as deceitful, treacherous, and self-serving. Yet within 12 months Fletcher’s
trial was only one of a succession that saw six women charged with
poisoning various family members. Common to all the crimes was a
household commodity – the rodenticide ‘Thall-rat’, a thallium-based product
common to many 1950s suburban homes. These women and their crimes
captured the imagination of the press and public and it is the way they
were represented by both the law and print media that forms the subject
matter of this paper.

Examining female crime reveals numerous anxieties that are deeply

linked to gendered expectations about women’s familial role, the
marriage contract, and patriarchal authority. Female poisoners
present a particularly interesting focus on female offenders because
most of their victims are intimates – husbands, children, or other
family members. The wife or mother who poisons highlights the
instability of women’s docility and subservience to certain domestic
ideals general ly seen as ensuri ng women’s confinement and
subordination. The threat and danger such women pose lies in the
power they can wield through the inversion of their assigned roles
and their ability to deceive. In fact, the deceitful nature of poisoning
is said to account for its ‘feminine coding’. In 1950 American

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criminologist Otto Pollak in his text The Criminality of Women, Thallium was discovered in 1861 by chemist William Crookes
considered one of the most influential studies on women and crime and was originally prescribed as a depilatory in dermatological
in the postwar era, argued all women were physiologically deceitful. practice. The abundance of acute toxic symptoms led to its eventual
He claimed conceali ng menstruation, the ‘pretence of sexual abandonment.5 In the twentieth century it resurfaced as a treatment
response’ during intercourse, and misrepresenting sex to her for ringworm in the form of thallium acetate, although it became
children, shaped a woman’s character. 1 Pollak attributed women’s restricted after the deaths of 13 children in Spain in 1930. In Australia
propensity for poisoning, and their greater success at concealing it was still used predominantly for the treatment of ringworm until
their criminal activities, to this natural deceit.2 the mid-1940s, after which it was mainly utilised as a pesticide. 6 In
Such deep-seated myths and beliefs about women’s poisoning New South Wales, thallium was available in liquid form in ‘Thall-
have a long historical legacy that reveal a range of misogynist views.3 rat’. At a time when rats were increasingly a problem for many inner
In examining the cases of ‘the thallium women’ this paper seeks to city suburban and rural households, the commercial availability and
show the way such notions manifest themselves in the treatment cheapness of this rodenticide meant it was a common domestic item.
and perception of women accused of such crimes. Exploring these Indeed, a witness at one of the trials, a hardware salesman at Nock
trials involves analysing their representation in the contemporary and Kirby’s Ltd., claimed that his store in George Street, Sydney,
print media and institutions of the criminal justice system, both of sold on average three dozen bottles of ‘Thall-rat’ per week.7
which constructed a particular perception of these women and their Most of the women involved in the thallium cases resided in
alleged crimes. suburbs around metropolitan Sydney. Yvonne Gladys Fletcher,
Representations of criminal women are embedded in a cultural Australia’s first thallium poisoning suspect, lived in Newtown.
frame informed by values and expectations of the dominant social Caroline Grills, the accused in perhaps Australia’s most infamous
order. The stories of the thallium women presented to the courts poisoning case and suspected of poisoning over 11 members of her
and then popularised through the press were constructed in family, resided in Gladesville. Mabel Monty, certainly the most
reference to particular expectations and ideals for women that scandalous of the thallium cases, lived with her daughter and son-
permeated 1950s society. Historians have described the immediate in-law in Ryde, while Beryl Hague resided in Leichardt. Aileen Smith
postwar era, and the 1950s in particular, as marking a return to and Ruby Norton both lived on rural properties battling the problem
repressive conservative values where women had second class of rats, the former in the Bathurst area, the latter in the northern
status. 4 Men were especially threatened by the upheavals of the war New South Wales town of Maclean. While ‘Thall-rat’ was deemed a
years that saw change to traditional gender patterns. Women’s active useful and effective solution to rats, a spate of poisonings and
participation in the war effort brought many new freedoms and homicides quickly saw it assuming menacing proportions as a
opportunities. The need to re-establish social, political, and economic ‘diabolical and inhumane weapon’ which had come to ‘supplant
stability in the postwar period manifested itself in the promotion of arsenic, strychnine and cyanide as the most widely-used poison
conservative ideas concerning relations between the sexes and their murder weapon in New South Wales’.8
roles. Dominant familial ideology advocated a return to ‘traditional It was in September 1952, when Australia’s first thallium murder
family values’ which essentially meant a return to pre-war patterns trial took place, that the alarm was raised about this poison. Through
of men as the breadwinners and women as ideal mothers and wives. the trial of Yvonne Gladys Fletcher, forensic experts and medical
This paper is concerned with illustrating the way such dominant authorities were alerted to the ease with which thallium could be
gender norms constituted the ‘filter ’ through which female crime obtained and administered, and the extremely debilitating effects
and the female ‘deviant’ were interpreted, represented, and thus of this toxic substance. A dose of one gram was considered sufficient
understood. Ultimately, the images and stories of the thalli um to cause death within two to 14 days, with the most striking
women demonstrate the way the gendered social order of the early symptoms including loss of hair, pain in the abdomen, back and
1950s worked to maintain itself and, in particular, how institutions legs, extreme tenderness of the soles of the feet, loss of vision, and
such as the media and law were crucial to that process. periods of lethargy, delirium and depression.9 Newspapers were

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particularly fascinated by thallium’s lethal qualities. In somewhat tried as a result of wicked gossip. ... Allen was a wonderful chap
hyperbolic tones, the Sydney Morning Herald reported ‘a piece of and I loved him very much’. 15
thallium the size of a headache tablet is sufficient to kill five people’.10 Both Fletcher and Norton’s trials highlighted the widespread
However, the revelation of another thallium murder case sent the availability of thallium and the fact that it escaped detection by its
papers into a frenzy. The substance became notorious not simply victims and physicians. It appeared women could literally ‘get away
for its deadly properties, but for its connection to women and with murder ’ and the call was made for greater thallium regulation.
murder. Despite fierce opposition from the manufacturers of ‘Thall-rat’, by
In October 1952 50 year old Ruby Norton stood trial charged September 1953 the NSW Poisons Act was extended to include the
with the murder by thallium poisoning of her daughter ’s fiancé, banning of all thallium to anyone under 18 years of age. Other
Allen Williams, who died in Cowra hospital in July of that year. provisions included restricting all sales to one bottle per customer,
Fletcher ’s case was said to have provided Norton with the idea of and that the customer must be known to the retailer unless in the
how she could rid herself of an unwanted son-in-law. Norton’s other presence of a witness known to both retailer and purchaser, all of
son-in-law testified that she showed great interest in the Fletcher whom had to sign a ‘ poisons book’. Such measures proved
trial when he read it to her. At her initial questioning by police, inadequate and the Truth took great delight in ri diculing and
Norton is said to have admitted finding a bottle of poison in the exposing their ineffectiveness by reporting the story of a young girl
house, claiming ‘it was the same as that stuff that woman used in they sent out who successfully purchased a large quantity of the
Sydney, the one that murdered her two husbands with rat poison, product. 16 By November an inclusive Poisons Act, the Therapeutic
wasn’t she a terrible person’.11 Substances Bill, was passed unifying standards among all states so
Together these two cases were represented in both the court and that the sale of thallium was effectively banned.
the media as women exacting their revenge against the men in their Despite regulation, by the time the trials of Veronica Mabel Monty
lives. Norton’s trial generated great interest within the towns of and Caroline Grills came to Sydney’s Central Criminal Court in late
Noonbinna (Norton’s residence) and Bathurst, with the two local 1953 Australia was in the grip of a thallium panic. Along with these
newspapers devoting large amounts of coverage to this drama.12 trials, a spate of suicides and accidental poisonings attributed to
The prosecution portrayed Norton as a woman who despised all thallium were said to account for up to 55 casualties and 10 deaths.17
the men in her family and publicly declared her intentions to rid Reporting on this craze, the Sydney Morning Herald claimed thallium
herself of them, yet the case against her was dependent on gossip was ‘acquiring a certain unhealthy popularity as an instrument for
and hearsay. Various witnesses, including other family members, both murder and suicide’.18 The trials of Monty and Grills further
provided evidence of supposed incrimi nating conversations. entrenched in the minds of the reading public the association
Norton’s sister stated that one evening after a fight with Williams, between women and thallium poisoning. The manner in which the
Norton turned up at her house asking for poison to give to him. ‘I papers constantly referred to those previousl y accused in the
told her she would hang if she did and she said, “I’ll give it to him repor ting of each new case also directly contributed to the
in a way I won’t hang for”.’13 Norton’s neighbour, Mrs Muriel ‘serialisation’ of these women and their crimes. In fact, much of the
Bridgett Hackett, who also admitted to sending a letter around the frenzy surrounding the thallium women owed a great deal to the
town which contained malicious gossip about Norton and her print media, which used them for public titillation and fantasy. The
daughter, testified that on her inquiring into Williams’ health, way in which the thallium stories were presented heightened their
Norton had stated, ‘the doctors have given up all hope of him, I’ll sensational quality and the mystery surrounding those involved.
get rid of him’.14 The prosecution alleged Norton had poisoned Particular representations served to satisfy the desires of the reading
Williams’ food, in particular, a bacon pie she had cooked for him public, yet, at a more implicit level, they can also be seen as having
not long before the start of his physical decline. Norton and her a significant impact in codifying and reinforcing certain portrayals
daughter denied such statements and claimed Williams had bought of these women.
‘Thall-rat’ to get rid of the rats in his car. Norton declared at her The heavily publicised trial of Caroline Grills in October 1953
trial: ‘I am innocent of this terrible crime. I have been arrested and fascinated the reading public not only because of its thallium

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connections, but also due to the extent of the allegations. The media emphasised her complete absence of concern or emotion at
preoccupation with this case was especially true of women, who the guilty finding. She simply ‘drummed her fingers on a rail in the
flocked to the trial daily to hear the details of an entire family ‘whose dock ... [and] was otherwise apparently unmoved’.25 After a record
close bonds since before the turn of the century had been a thing at jury deliberation of only 12 minutes, Grills was pronounced guilty.
which to marvel’. Yet this family had been ‘torn asunder ’ as its She spent her remaining days in Long Bay Gaol, where she became
members were methodically ‘wiped out’, supposedly by Grills.19 renowned for dispensing motherly advice, singing softly to herself
Although Grills was only being tried for the attempted murder of and embroidering hankies.26
her sister-in-law, Mrs Eveline Lundberg, the prosecution were The tr ial of Veronica Mabel Monty was al so a par ticular ly
permitted to use evidence regarding the suspicious deaths of all poignant example of the sensationalism the papers ascribed to the
her family members, effectively contributing to the image of Grills thallium women. The trial took place in November 1953 and had
as serial killer. The prosecution alleged that, since 1946, Grills had daily front-page coverage in both the Truth and the Sydney Morning
slowly poisoned Mrs Christina Mickelson, her 84 year old sister-in- Herald. The sense of sensationalism and scandal attributed to this
law, and Mrs Angelina Thomas, aged 87, a close friend of Grills’ story arose not only because Monty was accused of poisoning
mother. Both bodies were later exhumed to reveal lethal quantities handsome young Australian football hero, Robert (Bob) Lulham,
of thallium. Grills was also accused of attempting to poison her but equally because of the revelation of a sexual relationship between
brother ’s second wife, Mrs Mary Ann Mickelson, and another 11 this newly-married man and Monty, his mother-in-law. Having
members of her immediate family. 20 separated from her husband, Veronica Monty moved in with her
The papers took great delight in reporting the trial of ‘Aunt daughter and Lulham in late 1952. In her defence, Monty claimed
Carrie’, as Grills became known, particularly her more extroverted she was very depressed at her circumstances and felt suicidal. 27 She
actions in court. Descriptions of her laughter, smiles and waves told police she purchased ‘Thall-rat’ ‘on impulse’ with the intention
towards members of the gallery were commonplace. The Truth of poisoning herself, which was how the thallium came to be in a
described Grills as ‘completely self-possessed, smiling and waving cup of Milo Lulham received. Monty stated that it was her usual
at the intervals to women who jostled for seats in the back of the routine to make herself, Lulham, and her daughter a nightly cup,
courts’, and suggested, ‘she has enjoyed her forays and skirmishes and claimed that, on that particular night, ‘I must have picked up
with the eager cameraman’ . 21 Once when Gr ill s reached the the wrong cup. I really thought I was going to get the poison’.28
courtroom, leaving a trail of rueful photographers outside, she was Lulham became very sick, to the puzzlement of his physicians. It
said to have laughed and declared the trial ‘the fun of the world’. 22 was only through anonymous calls to the police and his doctor made,
While initially such portrayals painted Grills as a quaint and curious it was later revealed, by Monty, that Lulham’s symptoms were
character, eventually they worked to effectively establish the notion identified as that of thallium poisoning. Monty also sent imitation
of her as a malevolent thrill killer. The papers began to report on hate mail implying the poison was part of a vendetta against Lulham
the way Grills did not shy away from questions that were quite which she later claimed was merely designed to divert attention
obviously designed to imply her guilt. Asked if she knew of the from herself.
product ‘Thall-rat’, Grill s was quoted as giving it a glowing The prosecution based thei r case against Monty on th e
endorsement, admitting she had in fact given bottles of it to two of relationship between her and Lulham. The Crown Prosecutor, Mr
her victims.23 Similarly indicting were stories about Grills being Charles Rooney, claimed it was her ‘incestuous passion’ that led to
renowned for predicting the deaths of various family members, Lulham’s poisoning, and was the motive for wishing her son-in-
whom she was later accused of killing. Grills was reported as taking law dead. 29 Rooney sought to portray Monty as manipulative,
great delight in her predictions, attributing her success to the power sexually devouring, desperate and entirely responsible for the sexual
of her ‘intuitions’. 24 By the end of the trial, some five months after relations with her son-in-law. Questions directed at Bob Lulham
Grills had hit the headlines, it seems the prosecution’s portrayal of during the trial continually sought to emphasise Monty’s seduction
her as a cold and calculated poisoner won out, as reflected by the of him, typically focusing on how she dressed and behaved. In
newspapers’ more sinister depictions. In reporting the verdict, the outlining the prosecution’s case, Rooney stated that the evidence

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‘demonstrated beyond all doubt that a most infamous and unnatural women were isolated not only in their suburbs and homes, but also
relationship of sexual nature existed between the pair ’, declaring it by their sense of alienation from societal expectations of their
‘a disgraceful episode’ in which ‘the guilty pair polluted the marital primary role. 36 Widespread dissatisfaction amongst suburban
bed’ and where ‘obviously the male party was the pursued’.30 women in the 1950s was identified as ‘the problem that has no name’
The newspapers also focused on the sexual details of this case in Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking work, The Feminine Mystique.37
that acquired colossal proportions because of these ‘scandalous’ In this respect the thallium trials provided a rare opportunity for
revelations. With headlines such as ‘Lulham tells of Petting’ and women to he ar these discontents and frustrations publi cly
‘Lulham - a little familiar with Mrs Monty’, both the Truth and the expressed. The extent to which the thallium women challenged or
Sydney Morning Herald deliberately emphasised the more sordid subverted the dominant rhetoric was also undoubtedly equally
aspects of the case.31 Such was the nature of their representation important in accounting for women’s attraction to the cases.
that Monty’s solicitor wrote to the Attorney General, accusing the Certai nly it was these aspects which structured the media’s
papers of simply further gratifying ‘the sensual desires of those who representation of the thallium women and contributed to their
enjoy publishing and reading pornographic matter ’. 32 Despite ‘deviant’ image.
Lulham’s acquiescence, Monty was always the one portrayed as Examining the representation of the thallium women by various
responsible for the affair. The Truth claimed her ‘connubial feelings’ prosecutors suggests it was more the nature of the crimes, rather
towards Lulham were a classic case of ‘mother-in-law syndrome’.33 than the actual crimes for which they were accused, that directed
It seems the reading public revelled in the opportunity to gaze the portrayals. A wealth of imagery and myth was utilised that
into the domestic life of a man they regarded as the ‘average sought to relate these women and their alleged crimes to classic
Australian bloke ’, ye t whose m arital proble ms and sexual images of woman’s deceit and the pe rception of the femal e
indiscretions presented a very different picture to the expected poisoner ’s treachery. Thi s effectively reduced the women to
domestic scene. Women seemed fascinated by the Monty trial and archetypal notions that dismissed the need to explore the particular
many took a particular ly active i nterest in the case. It was circumstances surrounding each case. In effect, it reduced them to
reported that the ‘fact’ that they were simply cold and calculated poisoners.
Such deliberate ploys were apparent in the work of Senior Crown
[a]t each day’s hear ing a crowd of women Prosecutor Charles Rooney who was present at the trials of Fletcher,
bustled into the small courtroom as soon as the Norton, Monty, and Grills. In continually invoking potent imagery
doors opened, cut lunches in their string bags, and ideas about female poisoning, Rooney situated these women
ready to listen to the details of Lulham’s in a credible system of meaning. In the case of Grills he utilised
domestic attachments. Many were respectable notions of the poisoner ’s deceit and disguise in order to overcome
suburban housewives. Others came from the the incredulity of the serial killer tag being accorded to this ‘dear
glamour ranks.34 old woman’. 38 In the absence of any clear motive he simply asked,
‘who can look into the mind of a poisoner?’39 Through recourse to
The Monty case certainly made a mockery of dominant values and such well-established conventions and historical associations he
domestic ideals of the 1950s, and this aspect seemed to attract the reduced the character of Grills to that of a type. He stated that
interest of many women. In fact, this accounts for much of the appeal
and fascination of all the thallium cases. Despite the entrenched classical cases show that poisoners poison for
familial ideology that portrayed life for women as ‘domestic bliss’ the thrill they get from watching the effect of
in the 1950s, many Australian women experienced a very different the poison and knowing that they alone in the
reality. In her study of housewives and mental illness in the 1950s, world know what is causing the symptoms. …
psychologist Carol Warren argues that women lacked the legitimate [T]he ordinary murderer kills in a white heat of
means through which to articulate their grievances. 35 She claims passion, the poisoner plots and plots, wins the

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confidence of their victim, admini sters the the crime of murder is a terrible one, and when
poison, then watches its effect over days, weeks, the killing is by means of an insidious poison,
months or even years.40 secretly administered within the family circle to
an unsuspecting victim, which destroyed him
The case built up against Ruby Norton also sought to portray mentally and physically while permitting him
her as a cold-blooded, spiteful, and malicious character. Rooney to linger for months in wretched agony then the
stated Norton was typical in that ‘poisoners work by stealth and crime is a horrible one. 46
there is never an eyewitness. ... [B]y the cold blooded nature of the
offence, they make no direct admissions’. 41 He claimed that The fact that women in the 1950s could buy ‘Thall-rat’ openly at the
grocery store under the guise of their household activ ities
it is difficult to think of an act containing more heightened the deceitful nature of these crimes. That the thallium
hatred and malice. ... [I]t was done with wilful, was always administered by way of comforting items such as a cup
deliberate malice and a desire to hurt and injure, of Milo or tea, and gifts of cakes and biscuits brought to family
and could only be done by a person possessing occasions, simply intensified the level of treachery surrounding these
malice to the last degree.42 women and their domestic image.
Such ideas can be identified in the case of Beryl Hague who stood
In 1955, at the inquest of Aileen Smith who was charged with trial in July 1953 at the Darlinghurst sessions court for ‘maliciously
murdering her husband with thallium, the police prosecutor argued admi nistering thallium ’ and endangering her husband’s life.
that although many had claimed she always acted lovingly towards Hague’s case poignantly reflects, both within the court and the
her husband, ‘[o]ne of the characteristics of poisoners ... is that they media, how the perception of these crimes and the women accused
have ki ndl y and he l pful ways and have hi ther to be en of was centred on the threat they posed to the domestic scene. This
unimpeachable character ’.43 Again, at Smith’s trial, the Crown trial also illustrates the contempt that was held for a woman so
Prosecutor, Mr Reynolds, acknowledged the evidence he was brazen in admitting her deliberate intentions to harm her husband
presenting was highly circumstantial but claimed this was inevitable and abuse his trust. Hague confessed to going to the corner shop,
because ‘the poisoner was a person who acted in secret and in buying ‘Thall-rat’ and putting it in her husband’s tea. She also
the dark’.44 admitted that her actions were a result of a fairly violent domestic
As with their ‘historical counterparts’, notions of ‘domestic dispute. She claimed she had only intended to ‘give him a headache
treachery’ underlay the stories of the thallium women. All the to re pay the many he adaches h e h ad gi ven me ’. 47 Hague
accused used the term ‘domestic duties’ to describe their occupation. subsequently began to regret her actions and eventually took her
Yet the juxtaposition of their domesticity with these crimes simply husband to hospital in time for him to fully recover. Despite this,
contributed to the sense of treachery and deceit surrounding these Hague was sentenced to two years in Long Bay Gaol for what Judge
women. Through their representation in both court and the media Holden described as ‘a grave matrimonial offence’.48 Evoking classic
the thallium women’s identities as primary care-givers were given poison imagery, Holden stated that to excuse the deliberate actions
an element of suspicion and threat. The young wife, the dear old of Hague would mean, ‘ we would be back to the days of
aunty, and the m other -i n-l aw assumed monstrous and the Borgias’. 49
menacing qualities. Much of the anxiety surrounding the thallium cases can be linked
In the case against Grills, Justice Brereton stated her treachery to the challenge they posed to the stability of the dominant ideologies
was made all the more sinister because it came in the pretence of a of postwar society. This era saw women’s femininity, subjectivity
caring aunt: ‘under the guise of friendship and loving kindness but and status become synonymous with their domesticity, monogamy
with apparently motiveless malignity, you administered poison’.45 and (hetero)sexuality, which, Marilyn Lake argues, can be seen as a
Similarly, at Fletcher ’s trial Justice Kinsella declared that direct response to the anxieties generated over women pursuing

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their own interests during the war years. 50 Images and philosophies ‘deviance’ of these women became a matter of immense scrutiny
supported and perpetuated by advertising and ‘professionals’ and significance in the eyes of the prosecution, law makers, and the
claimed that a woman’s happiness, self-fulfilment, and a successful press. These cases indicate the manner in which women’s moral
marriage, depended on her domestic capabilities and remaining character became a central issue in their trials. Furthermore, these
alluring to her husband. The mass media played a crucial role in examples reveal how concern with criminal women was as much
promoting such ideas, with imagery constantly presenting women with their distance from, or subversion of, dominant roles and
as extremely domestic and sexy. A wealth of commodities flooded expectations for women as with their crimes. Fletcher and Monty
the market which were promoted as guaranteeing those qualities. were consistently presented as fail ing to embody domin ant
Indeed, the commodities themselves assumed an explicit erotic stereotypes of the caring mother, devoted wife, and virtuous woman,
significance, invoking sexual desire, pleasure and fulfilment. 51 Yet against which their characters and their actions were judged.
while women’s sexuality was increasingly emphasised, in truth it Nowhere is this made more apparent than by Chief Prosecutor
was intended solely for the purpose of monogamous marriage and Rooney who, in a letter to the Attorney General regarding Monty,
ultimately for the satisfaction of one’s husband. Women were opened stated ‘there can be no doubt’ evidence of her sexual misconduct
up to a new sense of sexual potential and yet, at the same time, with her son-in-law
were told it was to be expressed in very narrow margins. As Carol
Smart claims, a wife was encouraged to be sexual, but her sexuality is highly prejudicial to the accused and must
‘had to be functional in terms of family stability’.52 The moral panic inevitably alienate from her any sympathy a jury
over women who transgressed such narrow limits, particularly might feel for a person accused of a capital
divorced, adulterous, an d promiscuous women , reveals the offence , par ticular ly whe re the accuse d is
incon sistencie s and conservatism surroundin g im ages and a woman. 58
expectations of women.53 While statistics reveal many women were
increasingly seeking to end their marriages – in 1950 in New South Evidence of marital disharmony in a woman’s trial was equally
Wales alone, 2221 women petitioned for divorce compared to 1718 damning because it revealed she had violated her duty to ‘love,
men – the horror evoked over the unmarried mother and the honour and obey’, and as such was capable of other transgressions.
‘divorcee’ continued to manifest itself both ideologically and In the thallium trials witnesses provided valuable and ‘authoritative’
institutionally. 54 As Smart states, such women challenged the local opinion on the state of the defendant’s marri age and the
conservative order and became ‘ the n ew folk devil ’. 55 The character of the defendant. Certainly Fletcher ’s acknowledgment
demonising of such women was especially reflected in thei r that both her marriages were unhappy and violent worked against
treatment in the criminal arena. her. In fact an earlier application for an apprehended violence order
Judith Allen argues that the concerted effort to establish male against her second husband contributed to her image as a bad wife
authori ty in postwar society directly re asserted an inh erent and was used as evidence of Fletcher’s desire to be rid of her
patr iarchal and mi sogynist culture within the criminal justice husband. It was acknowledged during Fletcher ’s trial that the rule
system, particularly manifesting itself in differing perceptions of of law was such that ‘it is not permissible to show that the accused
men’s and women’s crime.56 She claims that dominant sexual and is the kind of person who might be expected to do this kind of
political positions in postwar Australia informed responses to crimes thing’.59 Yet the case against her was explicitly based on ‘matrimonial
against, and by, women. Allen argues this is evident in the reception differences, her obvious dislike of her husband, [and] her reluctance
of trials involving the slaying of wives that were increasingly framed to care for him’.60 The prosecution’s case was thus principally built
in the context of a crime of passion where women’s infidelities or around establishing her as the very antithesis of the good, happy
actions were said to ‘unreasonably provoke’ the husband.57 Certainly, wife, an image which was then utilised by the prosecution as an
powerful and conservative expectations permeating postwar society, adequate motive for the deaths of her first and second husbands.
particularly with regard to women’s sexual conduct, were pervasive As with Fletcher, the case against Aileen Smith was built around
in the tr ials of Fletcher, Monty and Smith. The alleged sexual linking her character and motive to evidence that she had been

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unfaithful to her husband, an accusation based heavily on the gossip for her crime. As Laster shows, Lee’s identity as a prostitute, a single
of numerous locals regarding an alleged relationship between her mother, and ‘all round good time girl’, was the very antithesis of
and a close family friend. 61 In contrast to Fletcher, Aileen Smith’s ideals of the dominant moral, social, and political authority of the
image as a caring, devoted wife and mother of five was continually early 1950s, and she paid the ultimate price. 65
invoked. As such, it seems she succeeded in conforming to the For this article, the question of the thallium women’s innocence
domestic and devoted model the jury expected and understood. is not of primary concern. Rather, the intention is to illustrate that
Both cases are poignant examples of the degree to which women’s social codes, rather than simply the laws, were at work in these
deviation from dominant notions of appropriate behaviour came trials. Representations of the thallium women within both the court
to be as significant as the crimes of which they were accused. The and media reveal less about the reality and complexity of their crimes
reliance on circumstantial evidence always means a great deal of and more about the workings of a patriarchal and conservative value
inference informs poison trials. Thus, certain ‘deviant’ behaviour is system entrenched within 1950s Australia. Both institutions position
used in a manner that suggests it is a legitimate explanation for women within culturally constructed categories which support
women’s criminal actions. Yet in truth, such an idea is directly dominant value systems and specific gendered stereotypes that
informed by the view that women who fail to embody certain images serve to either legitimate or discredit these women and their
and expectations are inherently bad. Carol Smart argues that the testimonies. 66 The deviant nature of the thallium women derived
‘sexed woman’, the ‘unruly mother ’, the ‘criminal woman’, and ‘the less from their alleged crimes and more from the extent to which
prostitute’ are the characterisations of women constructed in and they departed from such ideals. Accused of poisoning, the thallium
by legal discourse.62 Similarly Jocelyn Scutt claims the Australian women also faced the double burden of a history of popular and
law has historically defined women in male terms within which misogynist stereotypes surrounding such crimes and such women.
they are ‘dependent wives with no ability to make their own Like gender ideology, the ‘genre’ of the archetypal female poisoner
decisions or, wretched whores’. 63 The representations of women on provided a system of meaning to narratives within the courts and
media. Yet, paradoxically, this discourse suggested it was through
trial in the 1950s illustrates the way such stereotypes and images
inform the discourse of the ‘deviant’ woman, and how enormously their very domesticity that these women were able to carry out such
crimes. Women’s domestic and familial lives actually became a form
influential they are wi thin the crim inal justice system. The
of stealthy insubordination. In this sense, the threat posed by the
construction and representation of these women as ‘deviant’ can
thallium women was mul ti-layered, arisi ng not just from the
also be seen as ensuring the maintenance of ‘appropriate’ gendered
challenge they presented to expectations of women, but also in
behaviour by contributing to the censure of all women who
revealing the danger and power women could wield in those roles.
contravene overwhelmingly powerful expectations. The investment Australian society had in particular identities
Other studies that have explored the perception and treatment
and behaviour for women in the early 1950s reveals itself in the
of female criminals in Australia have also dem onstrated how perception and treatment of women who challenged such ideals
dominant notions regarding women are pervasive in the operations and expectations. The social and sexual stereotypes in the postwar
of the justice system. In her examination of women and capital era inevitably worked against women whose actions seemingly
pun ishmen t in Vi ctoria between 1842 an d 1951, Mel bourn e contr avene d or thr eaten ed the stabi l ity of such i mages.
criminologist Kathy Laster found that out of the total 185 women Representation of the thallium women was informed by women’s
sentenced to death, the five who were executed were all portrayed position within the gendered social order of the 1950s. Such
as promiscuous and immoral.64 She argues such portrayals saw these representations are thus a mi rror to a wider social context, in
five women treated more harshly precisely because they failed to particular, the problems and tensions arising from changes to the
live up to stereotypical feminine roles. The fact that such women roles and identities of men and women at the time. Ultimately,
were regarded as ‘irredeemable’ was apparent justification for their examining the thallium women illustrates the way both the law and
execution. The case of Jean Lee, who in 1951 was the last woman media sought to contain the threat these women posed to the status
hanged in Australia, is a particularly pertinent example of a woman quo, and thus how deeply interconnected these institutions were to
being judged for what she did (and did not) represent, as much as the social control of all women.

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LIMINA Volume 8, 2002 Clair Scrine

Notes Truth, 13 September 1953.
C. Warren, Madwives: Schizophrenic Women in the 1950s, Rutgers University Press,
O. Pollak, The Criminality of Women, University of New York Press, New York, 1950, New Brunswick, 1987, p.8.
p.10. 36
2 ibid.
ibid., p.11. 37
3 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Norton, New York, 1963, pp.15-32.
G. Robb, ‘ Circe in Crinoline: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England’, Journal of 38
Sydne y Morning Herald, 15 October 1953.
Family History, vol. 22, no. 2, 1997, pp.165-177; E. Dolan, ‘Home Rebels and House 39
Traitors: Murderous Wives in Early Modern England’, Yale Journal of Law and the 40
Humanities, vol. 4, 1992, pp.1-31. 41
4 National Advocate, 24 October 1952.
For instance, see A. Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonisation of 42
Women in Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1994; J.J. Matthews, Good and Mad Women: 43
AONSW: SCCC, CD, R. v. Aileen Fay Smith, 19/13213. In 1955, four years after his
The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth Century Aus tralia,Allen & Unwin,
death, Alfred Smith’s body was exhumed. Medical authorities testified that the
Sydney, 1987.
5 concentrated amounts of thallium found in his stomach region probably meant he
R. Hausman & W. Wilson, ‘Thallotoxicosis - A Social Menace’, Journal of Forensic
died within three days of its consumption.
Scie nces , vol. 9, no. 1, 1964, p.701. 44
6 Northern Star, 1 September 1955.
Noel Sanders claims the Spanish case was well known to authorities in Australia 45
Sydne y Morning Herald, 16 October 1953.
yet thallium continued to be used in the treatment of ringworm. N. Sanders, The 46
ibid., 24 September 1952.
Thallium Enthusiasms and Other Australian Outrages, Local Consumption Publications, 47
Truth, 31 July 1953.
Sydney, 1995, p.45. 48
7 ibid.
Archives Office of New South Wales (AONSW): Clerk of the Peace (CP), Supreme 49
Court (SC), Criminal Depositions (CD), R. v. Veronica Mabel Monty, 3/19989. 50
8 M. Lake, ‘A Case of Male Justice’, The Australian Review of Books, supplement in The
Truth , 18 October 1953.
9 Australian, February 1997, p.6.
D. Glaister, ‘Thallium’, Journal of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology, 1973, pp.701- 51
See G. Reekie, Temptations: Sex, Selling and the Department Store, Allen & Unwin,
10 Sydney, 1993, pp.161-167.
Sydne y Morning Herald, 9 October 1952. 52
11 C. Smart, ‘Law and the Control of Women’s Sexuality: The Case of the 1950s’, in B.
AONSW: CP, Supreme Court and Courts on Circuit (SCCC), CD, R. v. Ruby May
Hutter & G. Williams (eds), Controlling Women, Croom Helm, London, 1981, p.48.
Norton, 10/10484. 53
12 On the discriminations divorced women faced, see Matthews, Good and Mad Women,
See Western Times and National Advocate (Bathurst), 21-25 October 1952.
13 p.132.
AONSW: CP, SCCC, CD, R. v. Ruby May Norton. 54
14 J.S. Mukherjee & A. Scandin (eds), Source Book of Australian Criminal Statistics 1804-
15 1988, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, 1989, p.13.
Western Times , 24 October 1952. 55
16 Smart, ‘Law and the Control of Women’s Sexuality’, p.48.
Truth, 16 October 1953. 56
17 J. Allen, Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880, Oxford
Sydne y Morning Herald, 24 June 1953.
18 University Press, Oxford, 1990, p.242.
ibid. 57
19 ibid., p.234.
Truth, 18 October 1953. 58
20 Rooney to Attorney General, 4 November 1953, emphasis added.
AONSW: CP, SC, CD, R. v. Caroline Grills, 19/9841. 59
21 N.S.W. State Reports, vol. 53, 1953, p.77.
Truth, 11 October 1953. 60
22 ibid., pp.74-75.
ibid, 16 August 1953. 61
23 ibid.
Sydne y Morning Herald, 14 October 1953. 62
24 C. Smart, Law, Crime and Sexuality: Essays in Feminism, Sage Publications, London,
25 1995, p.221.
Sydne y Morning Herald, 16 October 1953. 63
26 J. Scutt, ‘Sexism in Criminal Law’, in S.K. Mukherjee & J. Scutt (eds), Women and
Sanders, The Thallium Enthusiasms, p.45.
27 Crime , Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981, p.17.
AONSW: CP, SC, CD, R. v. Veronica Mabel Monty. 64
28 K. Laster, ‘Arbitrary Chivalry: Women and Capital Punishment in Victoria, Australia
29 1842-1967’, Women and Criminal Justice, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, p.70.
ibid. 65
30 ibid.
C.V. Rooney to Attorney General, 4 November 1953, AONSW: SC, CD, R. v. Veronica 66
See L. Code, Rhetorical Spaces: Ess ays on Gendered Locations, Routledge, New York,
Mabel Monty.
31 1995, p.45.
Truth, 13 September 1953; Sydne y Morning Herald, 11 September 1953.
Jack Thom to Attorney General, 7 October 1953, AONSW: SC, CD, R. v. Veronica
Mabel Monty.

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