Louisa Collins was many things to the late-1800s colony of NSW but, more than a century later, she is nothing to us. Few people know her name.
Last woman hanged in NSW, but was Louisa Collins innocent?
by Jacqueline Maley
Was Louisa Collins a callous killer or a victim of a colonial-age perfect storm of political pressure, men’s fear and women’s push for greater equality?
Louisa Collins went calmly to her hanging. She walked from her Darlinghurst Gaol cell to the gallows shortly after 9am on January 8, 1889, accompanied by the prison chaplain, Canon Rich, who had been praying with her since dawn. Louisa, a wife, mother and convicted murderess, wore “the usual prison clothes of dark wincey material”, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, one of the loudest of the editorial voices calling for her head. Her eyes were downcast. The only hint of what must have been her terrified interior was the flush in her cheeks.When she swung a few minutes later, at the hands of Nosey Bob the executioner (so named because his nose had been kicked off by a horse, and he now had nothing but two nasal holes), Louisa Collins became the last woman hanged in NSW.
The newspaper reporters who had recounted her case avidly were all there to witness the hanging, which was botched, as Nosey Bob’s often were. But strangely, they saw different things as Louisa stood on the scaffold awaiting her fate, which was even more violent than usual. To some observers, Louisa seemed “weak and completely broken down” as the noose was placed around her neck and the Lord’s prayer was whispered. But to others, she appeared “quite self-possessed”.
As journalist Caroline Overington describes in her new book, Last Woman Hanged, Louisa’s body jerked as she fell, her head was nearly severed and, afterwards, her windpipe was left exposed.
After the hanging, the newspapers also differed on whether Louisa had made a last-minute confession admitting to the murders of her two husbands, despite having maintained her innocence throughout the four trials the colony’s authorities inflicted on her, determined as they were to get the “right” result, which is to say, the one they wanted. The Herald said vaguely that Louisa had “confessed her sins to Almighty God” but another report insisted she made “remarks which leave no doubt that she murdered both her husbands”.
Was she calm, or did she break down? Did she confess, or did she take the truth to the grave? In death, as in life, no one could agree over Louisa. She was a slattern who killed consecutive husbands in the cruellest way, by arsenic poisoning. She was the wronged mother of 10. She was the victim of a male-run system that conferred on women none of its rights but all of its responsibilities. She was a poster girl for the colony’s embryonic suffragette movement. She was a drunk.
Louisa Collins was many things to the late-1800s colony of NSW but, more than a century later, she is nothing to us. Few people know her name. So when Overington became aware of her extraordinary story and the extreme doubt about her conviction, she felt compelled to write a book about it.
“There is no reason that I can see that we would know the name Ned Kelly, that we would know the name Captain Thunderbolt, that we would know the story of Eureka, and yet we have sitting in our files the case of a woman who was tried for the same crime so many times, who went to the gallows protesting her innocence, who saw the rise of huge numbers of women to the cause of equality, and not know the story,” says Overington.
“Unless,” she pauses. “Unless people felt ashamed.”
It was August 2008 when the judge in the trial of Gordon Wood – the Rene Rivkin associate accused of throwing his girlfriend off a Sydney cliff – had declared a mistrial. The order came through from Caroline Overington’s editors at The Australian newspaper: find out if anyone has ever been tried more than once for murder in NSW. The answer, Overington discovered, was that while such cases were rare, they were not totally unknown.
One that popped up was extraordinary, though.
It was the story of Louisa Collins, a 41-year-old working-class mother of 10 (three of whom died in infancy), nicknamed the Botany Murderess and the “Borgia of Botany”. She had been tried four times, which seemed excessive, even when you consider she was suspected of having murdered two husbands.
Overington’s curiosity was piqued, and over subsequent years the story continued to niggle at her. “I just thought, ‘She didn’t do it,’ ” she says.
As Overington was to eventually find, Louisa’s story is a gripping tale of justice potentially miscarried. It was also extremely controversial. After all, to lose one husband to a violent, sudden-onset stomach illness could be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two does look like foul play.
But quite apart from being a juicy murder-mystery, the story of Louisa Collins also gives us an insight into 19th-century colonial society, its gender politics and social conditions. And why we know so much about the eccentric, brilliant and dangerous characters of our colonial history, but only those who are men.
Louisa was born in 1847 at Belltrees, in the NSWHunter Valley, to a freed-convict father and a free-settler mother. She was the second of about seven children and when she reached the appropriate age – 14 years old – she became a domestic servant to a solicitor in nearby Merriwa.
In the 1860s, all that adorned Merriwa were a few inns and stores, two blacksmiths and a handful of tailors. There was also a butcher’s shop, run by one Charles Andrews, and that’s where Louisa met her destiny.
She didn’t want to settle down. Later, after Louisa became notorious, she was described as the town flirt, part Scarlett O’Hara, part Lolita. One newspaper report claimed that as a girl in Merriwa, Louisa had been the “pet of the village”. She soon “developed all the qualities of a country coquette”, using her “winning ways” to attract multiple “youthful sweethearts”.
She was pretty, dark-haired and plump – a desirable feminine trait at the time.
Charles was a widower about 13 years older than Louisa. Later, she complained that he had “always been boring”, but that didn’t impede the match, which was most likely made by Louisa’s mother. Beautiful, poor and unmarried daughters were a liability to the 19th-century parent.
“Louisa was fun,” says Overington in her Bondi home, where we meet over a pile of scones and a stunning key lime pie. “She liked to dance. She liked to drink – brandy in particular. And she liked beer. I love the idea that she was wilful and she grew up such a pretty girl. She flirted with everyone.”
The couple settled and Louisa spent her time nursing children – and a drinking habit. She had five children in quick succession, four of whom survived infancy. When the family hit hard times, they moved to Botany, in Sydney’s south, where Charles hoped to find work.
Botany in the 1880s was part-swamp, part-slum, with its residents living in rows of workers’ cottages offering little privacy and no sanitation. The only source of fresh water was a shared pump out the marshy back. But it was the epicentre of the colony’s wool-washing and packing industry, a huge mini-economy at the time. Charles got a job at a woolshed.
Soon, the married couple had seven children (by this time, Louisa had lost two babies) and money was tight, so they took boarders into their four-room house. By late 1886, there were at least six adults living at 1 Pople’s Terrace.
Neighbourhood rumour had it that Louisa liked the male boarders rather too much, with her favourite being Michael Collins, a handsome and much younger man who worked for the woolsheds, carting the dirty sheepskins across the city to be washed for sale. They became lovers.
Her husband found out and threw Collins out of his home in a dramatic scene that resulted in the constabulary being called. But Louisa kept seeing her young lover, and her children grew ragged and dirty, according to later reports.
That’s when Charles grew sick. His illness came on suddenly – everyone who knew Charles thought him perfectly robust. His symptoms were gastroenterological – stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Louisa was said to be an indifferent nurse. She tended to him a little but also seemed very eager to get his will drawn up and signed. His estate included a life insurance policy, which was worth the modern-day equivalent of $20,000 – a fortune for a working-class family. Charles had been ill for less than a week when he died in his sickbed, on February 2, 1887.
Louisa, in the best tradition of female villains, was observed to mourn in an unusual way. Immediately after her husband’s death, she caught a tram to Sydney to inform the insurance company and the bank. She didn’t tell her eldest son, Herbert, who lived near Newcastle and who ordinarily would have inherited his father’s fortune. She didn’t wear the traditional black of the widow. She threw a party and danced with her lover. In fact, writes Overington, “Louisa seemed to some neighbours to be deliriously happy that Charles was dead.”
The optics, as they say, were bad, and they only worsened when Louisa married her lover three months after the death of her husband. By this time she was pregnant to Michael. She was in her 40s (her new husband was 26) and it was her 10th child.
The baby, a boy, died aged four months. Louisa had already spent her inheritance and he was buried in the pauper’s section of Rookwood Cemetery.
A few months later, Michael himself fell ill, with the same sorts of gastro symptoms his predecessor had suffered. This time, Louisa seemed to nurse her husband with more concern, administering various draughts and medicines prescribed by the doctor she summoned. These medicines would later become of great interest to the police and courts, because, when Michael died, about two weeks after falling ill, Louisa was suspected of having poisoned him. An autopsy found the cause of death to be “arsenical poisoning”.
The exhumation of the remains of her first husband, Charles, was ordered and Louisa was taken into police custody. She was to wait there through all her trials, until her eventual hanging. The law was patient, and relentless.
As we diminish the scones and key lime pie (Overington, who is now associate editor at the Australian Women’s Weekly, explains that baking comes with the territory), I ask why the colonial authorities were so determined to convict Louisa. There were two inquests and Louisa was tried an astonishing four times. The first two times, she was tried for the murder of Michael Collins, the third time for the murder of her first husband, and finally, for the murder of Charles again.
“If you try a person once and you can’t get a verdict, and then you try them twice and you can’t get a verdict, at some point your case cannot be particularly compelling” Overington says. “So by the time they got to the fourth trial, surely there was enough doubt. But the case was so famous. It was on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald and all the other papers in the colony. A fever built up and people became convinced that she must be guilty.
So I think by the time it came to the fourth trial, the jury just gave in.”
But Overington believes there were also other forces at play, apart from sheer juror fatigue. She thinks that the colony’s male establishment felt threatened.
“There had been a number of poisoning deaths, and [the authorities] were very concerned because women’s position in Australian society at that time was very dire,” Overington says. “You couldn’t get a divorce, certainly not if you were working class. You couldn’t support yourself if you did.
“You had women trapped in loveless and often quite desperate marriages. Alcohol abuse was rife. Men would drink and then their fists would fly.
I think they were concerned that the ready availability of an easily accessible poison might lead to more deaths.”
As Overington narrates in her book, a poison called Rough On Rats was common in Australian households at the time. One of Louisa’s young daughters, May, testified she had seen some in the family home. Suddenly, women had easy access to a substance which could despatch a man in a matter of days, or even hours.
Simultaneously, Overington says, “there was an enormous move in Australia at that time to give women more rights. Women had just begun campaigning for the vote. And there were a number of men who were saying things like, ‘If you want equality, this is what it looks like. You too will hang for murder.’ ”
The letters pages of the Herald were ablaze. The case was debated on the floor of the NSW Parliament, with the pro-hanging arguments led by a strident Sir Henry Parkes. Overington points out that Parkes was on the record as being opposed to the death penalty. In a previous hanging case, he had argued for mercy, very much against the weight of public opinion. But that was when he was in opposition.
Now he was Premier and faced with Louisa’s case, Parkes was decidedly pro-hanging. He boomed that Louisa Collins’ murder of her second husband was “one of the most cruel, inexcusable, and frightful murders … in the world’s history”.
To some people (mostly men), Louisa’s gender was an argument for mercy. She was a mother, and it was barbaric to hang a woman. To others, the fact that a woman had committed murder made the crime more monstrous. It was as though Louisa, in committing such a violent act, had (like Lady Macbeth) gone against all the natural instincts of the mother and wife, and in deviating from them she deserved even harsher treatment than a man.
There was a lot of argument among male politicians about the justice that women expected for Louisa, with Parkes declaring, “I believe that the women of the country would vote for Mrs Collins being hanged!” It never occurred to him to test the proposition.
Meanwhile, the women of NSW were mobilising. Petitions and letter-writing campaigns were launched on Louisa’s behalf. Many of the indefatigable women involved in these female-led campaigns would later become prominent in the suffragette movement.
“A number of people wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald, saying, ‘Well, if women want to be treated equally, this is what it means’,” explains Overington. “And the women who rose up to save Louisa accepted that argument by saying, ‘Well, fair enough. If you’re going to treat us like adults in the courtroom and hang us for our crimes, then we want the vote and we want to stand for Parliament.'”
Louisa’s legal appeal failed. As a last resort, viceregal clemency was sought from the governor, a British aristocrat named Lord Carrington. He believed he possessed the Royal Prerogative, which would allow him to overturn Louisa’s sentence. But he didn’t use it, probably because of political pressure.
The day before her mother’s hanging, 11-year-old May went with a deputation to plead with Lord Carrington. He declined to see her. As he wrote in a letter to Parkes: “These cases are simply awful.”
Late evidence was uncovered showing that arsenic was prevalent in the sheepskin tanning industry, and that both of Louisa’s husbands would have been exposed to it in their jobs. Evidence was also brought that bismuth, a medicine that both men took during their illnesses, often contained arsenic as an impurity.
None of it mattered. Louisa was hanged on January 8, 1889. After being the subject of such media frenzy, she was dropped from public discourse.
“Almost immediately they carried out the execution, it went completely quiet,” Overington says. “It is hard to find reference to Louisa Collins for almost 50 years after her hanging.”
Overington believes that Louisa’s story was buried because the young colonial society was ashamed of what it had done. And also, she says, “because women’s stories just don’t get told. But I think there is a movement underway at the moment to rectify that.”
Last Woman Hanged
by Caroline Overington
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