Murdering Stepmothers: The Trial and Execution of Martha Rendell

Article excerpt

In the figure of the wicked stepmother ... survives the antique Kali with her necklace of severed heads.(1)

In 1909 Martha Rendell was found guilty in the Supreme Court of Western Australia of the murder of her stepson, Arthur Morris, and in the public mind, of the murder of her two stepdaughters as well. Her defacto husband, Thomas Morris, also charged with willful murder, was found not guilty and left the court a free man. Despite the subsequent disclosure of evidence raising serious doubts concerning Rendell's guilt and some public opposition to capital punishment, in particular, the execution of women, Perth citizens remained united in demanding her execution. Heavy, middle-aged, weary-looking and protesting her innocence, Rendell was led to the gallows on 6 October 1909, the third and last woman to be hanged in Western Australia.

The public saw Rendell as an immoral woman who destroyed a happy family and then chose to live `in sin' with her `paramour' and as a cruel stepmother who tortured and murdered the innocents in her charge. Created and promoted by the press, police and prosecution in the unraveling court room drama, these representations have remained remarkably consistent over time. In the 1930s Perth parents still threatened naughty children with the spectre of banishment to Martha Rendell's `house of horrors' and she remains a symbol of maternal cruelty in local folklore.(2) Crime publications today have given these representations a contemporary twist. Rendell is included in Segrave's Women Serial and Mass Murderers and the Australian Murder Almanac brands Rendell a `murderous sadist who took sexual pleasure from the agony of children' and transforms the dowdy face in her prison photograph into that of a seductive but dangerous siren.(3)

There have been few challenges to these representations of Rendell. Feminist writers have virtually ignored the case, although it was included in an art exhibition on the institutionalisation of women in Western Australia in 1994 and an historical analysis of Western Australian Supreme Court trials of women in the following year.(4) Neither questioned the conventional view of Rendell. The exception is Stannage's social history of Perth which addresses factors which may have predisposed Perth citizens to condemn Rendell, in particular her immoral behaviour in living in a defacto relationship and early twentieth century preoccupations with the well-being of working class children.(5)

Stannage's analysis provides the backdrop to this article. The central question addressed is not Rendell's innocence or guilt but how, in this instance, `truths' and `convictions' were formed and fanatically embraced when the truth of what happened could never truly be known.(6) The paper argues that the powerful resonances between a crime involving child killing by poisoning at the hands of a stepmother and fairy tale narratives of the wicked stepmother evoked a powerful emotional response to the trial and suggested a conclusion to restore domestic peace and normality, that is, the death of the wicked stepmother. Explanations are also sought in intersections between turn of the century framing ideologies of women's roles as wives and mothers, the proper care of children, the promotion of respectable family life across the classes and constructs of female pathology. These created particular pressures and anxieties in the context of major demographic and social changes in Perth following the 1890s gold rushes. These various factors converged in the Rendell trial, and, reinforced by the vigorous press coverage of the trial, they determined public obsession with the case and demands for her death.

Schaffer reminds us in her analysis of narratives of the nineteenth century castaway, Eliza Fraser, that the historian's quest to pin down historical truths is illusory and that this quest is also frustrated by the limitations of our sources. This analysis of the Rendell case generates theories about what may have happened and why, rather than an indisputable reconstruction. …