The ‘Real Life’ Underbelly & Femme Fatales.

‘Underbelly’, a popular mini-series on Australian television re-told a true gangland war in Melbourne.  However, it wasn’t just Melbourne that was well known for it’s reputation as having a high representation of a certain type of criminal.  Sydney during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s also comprised of many thieves and con-men.  And the women were just as bad!

Recently I attended an exhibition titled ‘Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal’.  This exhibition is part of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney, containing images from police files and records, including research from newspapers of the day.  Australia was also the world leader in crime photography during the 1930s and 40s.  You can find out why by visiting their blog, From the Loft, which I’ve since found to be handy for writing prompts.

Here are just some interesting facts I discovered from the exhibition:-

  • Women like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were prominent figures in Sydney during this time.  Both women were involved in the sly-grog trade; Kate Leigh was also known to be a cocaine dealer.  They were both brothel owners and therefore, bitter rivals.  They ultimately came to blows during the Sydney razor gang wars.  This episode of Australian history would later be portrayed in Underbelly: Razor.
  • Lillian Armfield became Australia’s first policewoman in 1915.  Having no uniform and carrying a gun in her handbag, her work mainly involved assisting women who were victims of domestic violence.  This type of work would also lead to other cases, including murder, rape, drug-running and the white slave trade.
  • Family friends of Yvonne Fletcher became suspicious after her second husband died in similar circumstances to those of her first husband.  His body was exhumed and traces of thallium, a popular rat poison at the time, was found in his body.  This was also found in the body of her second husband – both were enough to convict her of murder.
  • Perhaps the strangest case of all involved Harry Leo Crawford.  He married his first wife in 1914, only for her to disappear three years later.  He remarried in 1919 and was eventually convicted of murdering his first wife.  What was so unusual about this case was that he was in fact a woman.  Eugenia Falleni successfully managed to convince everyone, including both his wives that he was a man.  It was only after his arrest that his second wife admitted that she thought ‘he was a bit shy’.  The ‘object’ in question was also on display, yet it is believed it could also have been a baton.  Although no expert on these particular ‘objects’ and having seen the one in question I believe this may well be the case.

Delving into such fascinating cases opens many opportunities for crime writers.  The truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

Image copyright Justice and Police Museum, Sydney.

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2 thoughts on “The ‘Real Life’ Underbelly & Femme Fatales.

  1. Thanks for the fun facts, Debbie. “Harry Crawford” sounds fascinating! There is definitely a story to be told there.

  2. Hi Jen. Yes, ‘Harry’ was quite a remarkable character, and as you say there’s definitely a story there!

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