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The Evil Stepmother

By Edited Dec 8, 2016 5 11

Martha Rendell

Criminals are not born that way.  There is no genetic component to criminality.  Sadistic serial killer Ted Bundy (b: 1946 in a home for unwed mothers; executed: 1989), for example, was raised by grandparents (not criminals).  His biological mother later married and took care of him; her new husband, John Bundy, formally adopted the boy.  Neither of his parents were criminals. 

Environment alone does not always lead to criminality, either. It may, in certain people, create a laissez-faire attitude but it will not make a criminal of someone not already predisposed, for whatever reasons, to be criminal.  The Menendez Brothers (parricides) were born into privilege.  Their environment (regardless of their defense pleas in court) was not classically “bad” or harmful.  They enjoyed wealth and comfort.  Likewise, America’s earliest youthful killer, Jesse Pomeroy, came from a solid background.  His parents were married and in a stable relationship, and both were gainfully employed (Pomeroy’s mother ran a dressmaker’s shop where Pomeroy would later lure and kill a young girl, burying her in the ash heap of the basement).  These two minor examples show how environment had no hand in creating the criminal.

A criminal’s behavior can be informed by his early environment, however.  Cult leader Charles Manson and serial killer Henry Lee Lucas are two stellar examples of environmental factors shaping the young psyche.  Manson (who actually never killed anyone personally) and Lucas were both born of prostitutes.  Manson’s mother was a hapless train wreck; Lucas’ mother was an outright monster (and is a perfect example of how environment

Martha Rendell (newspaper version, 1909)
can create a killer).  In any event these two were raised in a milieu where criminality was accepted, acceptable, and even condoned. 

Finally, one has the criminal “victim”.  Prisons are full of innocent people – just ask any inmate.  He or she will generally claim innocence, or a frame-up, or accident, or bad legal representation.  Almost any excuse is acceptable but the truth: he or she may actually be guilty of a crime. There are others who, of course, blame their lack of education or their upbringing, or blame the current state of human morals and norms for their problems.  The statement, “I’m a victim of society,” has been heard more than once from a defendant. 

However, what happens if one truly is a victim of society?  For Martha Rendell, Australia’s turn-of-the-20th Century Evil Stepmother, it meant execution by hanging.

The Merry Old Land of Oz
Australia was born of a strange dichotomy in its group think.  The settlers of Botany Bay were not “settlers” in the traditional sense but transported British criminals.  Australia’s founding as another country’s dust bin is perhaps not the most glorious of beginnings, but it is the truth.  The law-and-order element of the British Crown enforced Australian rule, while its growing populace carried the memory of a criminal culture with them.

Australia has a richly colorful history of extraordinary characters.  Their myth-making is a fascinating reminder of the culture’s embrace of both the eccentric and the truly criminal on a

Ned Kelly's homemade armor (1880)
romantic level.  One of Australia’s more notorious outlaws was a bushranger named Ned Kelly who thwarted police capture and repeated shootings by devising a rough suit of armor from scrap material.  Illustrations of him in this makeshift gear are amusing – he looks like a cross between the Black Knight (of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and a man wearing a Franklin stove.  Merriment aside, this man was a killer and a thug (finally captured and executed in late 1880, aged 25).  The press and public, however, loved him, and he was an “outlaw” imbued with all the romance and intrigue of a Strine version of Robin Hood.

Not all criminals in Australia rose to Ned Kelly’s level of public adoration.  One woman was so loathsome (in her homeliness, rough-hewn ways, and lifestyle) that she was accused, convicted, and executed for killing three of her “stepchildren”.

The Wicked Witch of the West
Adelaide, Southern Australia, incorporated in 1840, was a rustic backwater not yet fifty years old when Martha Rendell was born on August 10, 1871.  Australian conventions followed the Crown’s behavior, and the remoteness of the land meant it was not only slow to adapt to newer conventions it was also slow to shed old ones.  Victorian priggishness was in full swing.

Martha was not the typical Aussie woman of her day, and she was far from the ideal espoused by Aussie convention.  She left home when she was sixteen.  Her early promiscuity led to the birth in quick succession of three illegitimate children.  She struggled along as a social outsider, and then became involved with a married man in the mid 1890s.

Thomas Nicholls Morris(Martha's love interest) and his wife lived with their nine children.  In 1900 Morris and his family decamped for Perth where Thomas had work waiting for him.  Thomas and his wife were also motivated to leave Adelaide simply because, in the small gossipy town, Martha’s affair with Thomas was not tolerated and was considered scandalous.

Martha, against all common sense and social expectations, abandoned her three children in Adelaide, and followed the Morris family to Perth [Although it is not known what mode of travel was used, to give an idea of just how great an undertaking this was, Perth is almost 1400 miles west by coastal shipping lanes from Adelaide.  It was not a trip one would make recklessly in 1900, either overland or by ship]. 

Perth (the capital of the state of Western Australia) lay about nine miles north-northeast of the busy Indian Ocean port of Fremantle.  The site where the city stands was first visited by the Dutch in 1696; however, no settlement was established until the British set up shop in 1829.  The town was incorporated in 1865 and included the port of Fremantle in its metropolitan area.

A gold rush brought wealth and opportunity for many and by the time of Martha’s and Thomas Morris’ arrival it was a city on the cusp of urbanizing and becoming acculturated to the finer things.  International social movements took hold, although with a slightly more conservative bent.  The city was likewise divided along class lines just like Britain.  There was the old guard, fiercely loyal to the British Crown and British Victorian sensibilities.  Then there were the hoi polloi, just trying to get along as best they could. It was from the moneyed and powerful class that Perth’s legal contingent was made, and they vigorously supported capital punishment.

Perth gave both Thomas and Martha a fresh start. Neither was known there; the anonymity relieved the stress of their continuing affair. Martha found a job straightway as a domestic in a well-heeled household. Martha, because of a wildly effective Women’s Suffrage movement, had the right to vote in Perth (the right was granted in 1899, 21 years before the United States would allow women the right to vote).  The suffrage movement, however, came with a few caveats: although suffragettes lobbied for better treatment under the law and protection in the home, they upheld the popular ideals of female domesticity, respectability, and morality. Despite the opportunities available to her, however, she was still attached to Thomas Morris, and her future actually was heavily dependent upon his whims.  If something went awry in her affair with him she could not go back to Adelaide as she was a pariah there.

Social pressure about populating the country for its betterment was so great that women were encouraged to have as many children as possible.  Social Darwinism was at work behind the scenes, too.  A loose group of doctors and scientists, most of them new to Perth, were alarmed by evidence of population decline, poor health, “racial degeneration”, and moral “deviance and contagion”.  This was attributed to the rapid social changes inspired by the social movements embraced by the community (suffrage, labor, etc.).  Perth’s citizens believed the family was the social powerhouse of the new Australian nation.  Motherhood was held up as a shining beacon of virtue, as was Christian marriage.  Another critical element of this Progressive program was to insure the health of children through government intervention.  A medical officer in 1907 reported critical issues involved “schoolchildren's health, pulmonary disease among miners, historico-epidemiological studies of tuberculosis and diphtheria, quarantine, diet, housing, eugenics”.

The last social issue affecting Thomas and Martha was the divorce debate.  However much “in love” Thomas Morris and Martha Rendell were they could never marry, not in Perth society in that era.  Divorce was out of the question.  It was expensive, scandalous, and controversial. In a public forum in 1901 speakers opposed a federal divorce bill, reasserting that “Christian marriage” was the “foundation of the state and of the welfare of its citizens and their happiness and prosperity”. Opponents alleged making divorce easier would “open the floodgates” to adultery and orphaned children, and it was the state’s duty to “protect the family, punish severely all transgressions, and assist the injured”.

Public opinion had spoken.  Thomas Morris and Martha Rendell maintained their surreptitious relationship for a few more years.  In April 1906 (after almost ten years of sneaking around with Martha), Thomas Morris abandoned his wife.  He could not divorce her, but he did leave her.  He also took his five youngest children with him [it is curious to note the children did not stay with their mother.  This begs the question of just what kind of woman the Mrs. Morris was if, in 1906, it was deemed more fitting for the children to live with a single father]. 

Martha and Thomas set up housekeeping with the children in a run-down shack in East Perth.  Martha had to pretend to be Thomas’ wife or else face social ostracizing – many couples who wanted to cohabit were forced to live in this fashion.  Their new residence was ideal to keep up the sham marriage image – the area was filled with transients who took little interest in their neighbors.  To support the charade, the children’s real mother was kept away from the home (and none of the children would see her for three years after Martha and Thomas took up living together).

Martha’s life with Thomas Morris was not the idyll she probably imagined.  They lived in poverty.  Her days were spent in housework. Thomas was away much of the time working, and he left her as the sole warden of his five very resentful children.  The girls were too little to help with the household chore, and the older boys had school and outside jobs to keep them occupied.  Martha spent her days mostly alone.  She had no friends or family and she was not close to her neighbors. 

The most common version of what happened to Morris’ children after Martha moved in is well-known to the Perth community.  Martha Rendell holds a place in Perth lore equal to Belle Gunness (America’s lonely hearts killer and murderer of her own children during the early 1900s). 

The basic story is simple.  Between July 1907 and October 1908 it is alleged that Martha Rendell systematically killed the three youngest children of Thomas Morris, and made an attempt on the life of the next to oldest (George).  In a very contrived and subtle killing method Martha Rendell allegedly coated the backs of the children’s throats with a solution of hydrochloric acid (which was called “spirits of salts” then) after somehow making the child victim sick first (so “treatment” could be administered without suspicion).  The inflammation from the swabbing closed the child’s throat, while also mimicking the symptoms of diphtheria, and the child died of starvation, a long, drawn out process.

The first child to succumb was Annie, aged 7. Using the method of coating the throat with hydrochloric acid Martha killed the girl.  She died on July 28, 1907. Dr. James Cuthbert, the Morris family physician issued a death certificate, listing the cause of death as diphtheria.

Olive, age 5, died next.  She exhibited similar symptoms as Annie before her death on October 6, 1907. Dr. Cuthbert issued a certificate, also giving the cause of death in the case as diphtheria.

The 14-year-old Arthur was targeted.  He was the middle child and the youngest one still living in the cottage.  After malingering he died on October 6, 1908. Given that this was the third child to die in the household under similar circumstances, Dr. Cuthbert asked Martha if he could do an autopsy on Arthur.  She gave her permission, and was also present during the procedure.  Nothing incriminating was found at the time of the autopsy.

In April 1909 the second oldest boy, George (age 15), complained of a sore throat “after drinking a cup of tea” Martha had made for him.  According to the boy’s allegations, Martha coated his tonsils with “her medicine”.  George decided he “didn't want to go the same way” as his two younger sisters and his younger brother had, so he ran away from home to his biological mother a few streets away.

That day when Thomas came home from work he noted George’s absence. When questioned by a neighbor as to George’s whereabouts Thomas replied he did not know.  Suspicious, considering three children had already died over the last two years and now one was missing, neighbors went to the police. 

Inquiries started by an inspector named Harry Mann.  He was given lurid details from the people in the area about the children having their “throats painted” and their mother’s (Martha’s) apparent indifference to their pain and screaming.  Those who knew her a bit claimed she had a vicious nature and was not liked. It was alleged she mistreated the two young girls, once beating the girl Annie so badly that she could not walk.

One resident claimed he often peered in the windows of the Morris home.  At those times, this neighbor claimed he saw Martha standing before whatever child was screaming, “rocking back and forth as if in ecstasy”.  Inspector Mann found the runaway boy George Morris at his biological mother’s home.  At the time of his return, George made the serious allegation that Martha had killed his brother and two sisters, and she was trying to poison him, too.

Rendell and Thomas Morris were both charged with murder, Thomas as an accomplice.  Martha protested her innocence, saying she had been treating the children for diphtheria and they simply died of the disease. The arresting officer, Harry Mann, said Martha “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction”.  The press gleefully repeated it.

The Wicked Witch Is Dead
The coroner’s inquiry was confounded by the time lag since the deaths and the discovery of a possible criminal act.  Doctors could not say what effect swabbing with hydrochloric acid would actually have on a child’s throat.  The inquest panel found suspicion in Martha’s purchases of large quantities of spirits of salts during the time of the children's illnesses (coupled with her buying none since the latest child, Arthur, died). A court order was obtained to exhume the children’s bodies, and this was done in July 3, 1909 (almost two years after Annie died, 21 months after Olive died, and eight months after Arthur died).  Diluted hydrochloric acid was claimed to have been found on the throat tissue of each child. 

Martha Rendell intake photo, 1909

The public’s outrage was fantastic over these allegations, not so much about the children’s deaths but about Martha’s amorality. The press painted her as a “scarlet woman” and called her a “wicked stepmother”.  At trial, Thomas Morris, the father, was acquitted, and Martha was handily found guilty by an all-male jury.  She was convicted only of killing Arthur as not enough evidence could be produced to convict her of killing Annie and Olive.  She was sentenced to death, and was hanged on October 6, 1909 (coincidentally the first anniversary of the boy Arthur’s death).  She was the last woman executed in the state of Western Australia.  Martha Rendell is buried in the famous Fremantle Cemetery (in the same grave where, for unknown reasons, serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was buried more than fifty years later).

“If I Only Had A Brain”
Martha Rendell was an unattractive, aging, home-wrecking trollop who abandoned her own three children to follow a man across country.  She was all of these things, contemptible to Perth society of the early 1900s, but she was not a killer.

The criminal case against Martha shreds easily.  This is a clear instance of societal prejudices putting a woman to death simply because she was not liked, and she did not live by the “right” rules.

Martha Rendell was irascible.  She did not get on well with others.  When her sham marriage to Thomas Morris was uncovered, upon her criminal arrest the public outrage was very real and very vocal.  Martha did not live by the rules of the day.  She had “stolen” another woman’s husband (never mind that her relationship with Thomas lasted from 1896 until her arrest in 1909 and that Thomas had abandoned his wife). 

Martha knew she would be in trouble if anyone found out the illicit nature of her living with Thomas.  Hence, she used the name “Mrs. Morris” and required the children to call her “mother”.  This only makes sense.  Additionally, the claim she had beaten the girl Annie to the point where she could not walk may be true.  However, Martha would not have been the first or last person in that era to abuse a child in the name of “discipline”.  That does not excuse the behavior, but much was made of it – had the police bothered to dig into that neighborhood’s other denizens they would have found child abuse and neglect elsewhere as well.

The state of affairs for children in Perth was not good, particularly the children of the impoverished.  Women could find jobs, and they were welcomed in the workforce, but with child care expectations generally thrust upon them they could only hope to work.  “Baby farming” came into vogue to help the working poor woman.  Baby farms provided a service for working single mothers and deserted wives (with no divorce option, there were many) who were forced to leave babies and small children in care while they earned a living (forerunners of day care).

Unfortunately for Martha, a case was still ripe in the public mind when she came to trial. In early 1907 there were reports that 37 children had died at a Perth baby farm run by a woman named Alice Mitchell.  These farms were routinely inspected and surprise visits were not uncommon by authorities, either.  Mitchell’s business had been receiving favorable inspection reports, but doctors who regularly signed death certificates did not think anything untoward was happening at her farm.  The doctors in this negligence case were absolved of responsibility by the court (a precedent that would adversely affect Martha later).  Alice Mitchell was ultimately charged with only one count of murder.  She did not hang, however; confusion at her trial combined with contradictory circumstantial evidence led to her only receiving a five-year sentence at hard labor [Alice Mitchell was in the Women’s Division of Fremantle Prison when Martha Rendell arrived in 1909 to await execution].

Martha alleged the children had diphtheria and she was only treating them for that illness. This bears the clear ring of truth.  Diphtheria and typhoid were major problems, and killers of many, in the world at that time.  In the US, people actually moved away from New Orleans, Washington, DC, and other larger cities for the summer months (if they could afford it) to wait out the “fever season” in cleaner climates.

In the cramped poverty rows, like where the Morris family lived, disease was not uncommon and it certainly flourished.  These are people who used home remedies and could not afford to avail themselves of consistent physician’s care.  The government would send health inspectors around if a complaint about unsanitary conditions in a particular home was lodged (as part of the Progressive child-care agenda) and Martha Rendell was paid one of those visits unannounced.  She passed her inspection.  So, the children were not being neglected.

For the first year of living together Martha and the five children had to acclimate to each other.  Their own mother was purposely not in the picture.  Thomas reported his children did not care for Martha, and she was probably not the most pleasant candidate for a stepmother – she was lonely, aging, and bitter, without a true sense of stability that marriage could bring (in a society that valued it highly).  Furthermore, she lived in constant fear of being discovered in her sham circumstances and facing the same public humiliations she endured in Adelaide.  

In April 1907 all four of the youngest children caught diphtheria.  This was actually part of a city-wide epidemic that raged through Perth at the time.  The health care workers and doctors of the day were stressed immensely with health care demands they had neither the resources nor the staff to address.  Many people had to fend for themselves of necessity. 

Diphtheria is a horrible disease, highly transmissible, and it kills by spreading bacterial toxins through the blood.   Martha would have had to nurse four feverish, whining, sick children at once.  Their breathing was harsh and raspy – any breaking of the swollen tissues in their diphtheria infected throats meant fatal toxicity to the body.  Dr. James Cuthbert (who gave damning evidence against Martha at her trial) was the Morris family physician, and during this critical period he visited the Morris home on many occasions (he actually later commended Martha on her devotion to her nursing of the children, risking her own health in the process).

This presents the first and largest hole in the prosecution’s case against Martha.  The alleged method of death, the subtle poisoning to constrict the throat causing breathing difficulties and an inability to eat, is absurd on its face.  In the first place, just what strength solution of hydrochloric acid was needed to carry out this artful murder?  Too much and the victim would die instantly.  Too little and nothing would happen except a throat irritation. Martha was no chemist – this uneducated woman would have had to experiment tirelessly on some living thing before getting the mixture right.  The “hit-or-miss” uncertainty of such a method leaves it outside the realm of not only probability but of possibility as well.  Although there are many cases of murder with poisons (heavy metals such as arsenic, antimony, thallium, etc.) and some cases of people killed with acids (sulfuric, specifically) none had ever been recorded meeting the finesse requirements of Martha’s alleged method.  It is a contrived modus operandi and a bad one.

Rather, if Martha wanted these children dead, she had the perfect opportunity to be shed of four out of the five living under her roof, all at one time.  All she had to do was nothing. Martha could have simply stood by and watched them die of the diphtheria.  Diphtheria does cause the tissues of the throat to swell, obstructing breathing.  If Martha wanted to put up a pretense of doing something prophylactic she could have mixed up a batch of sugar-water, swabbed their throats, and told them it would help.  They’d die anyway.

Instead, she nursed them.  The swabbing with hydrochloric acid was not unusual or unique.  It was a commonly prescribed home remedy of the day, used as an anti-septic and as a treatment for diphtheria’s swollen throat problems.  Martha’s or Thomas’ purchase of any measure of the substance (as the whole city was under siege) makes perfect sense, as does the fact she made no more purchases after Arthur died.  The coroner’s inquiry made much of this but it was academic.  Why would she keep buying something she no longer needed? If she was poisoning the children, and they died, then she was done and no longer needed the solution.  If she was using it as an anti-septic, and the children died, she would likewise no longer need to buy more spirits. [Uses of volatile acids in medicine in the past are not that unusual.  Germane to Martha’s case was a criminal complaint levied against a Tasmanian doctor in 1847.  He applied sulfuric acid to a patient to cure a cancer (an accepted treatment) who later died.  The doctor, however, was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for eighteen months. Martha was not given the benefit of a negligence doubt].

The Morris children had a terrible time with the diphtheria.  Annie relapsed quickly enough and was back in bed with convulsions, vomiting, and diarrhea.  Dr. Cuthbert came and saw her.  He administered an anti-toxin and left Martha instructions to give small doses of laudanum (a liquid preparation containing alcohol and opium) to ease Annie’s pain. When Annie died in July 1907 Cuthbert wrote out her cause of death as “epilepsy and cardiac weakness”.  These conditions (not the generic “diphtheria” cause of death) are symptomatic of diphtheria.  One is the high fever which can cause convulsions (“epilepsy”), and the other is the bacterial toxins that, when released into the body, damage the heart and lead to heart failure (“cardiac weakness”).  Cuthbert’s cause of death listings are medically sound and based on good observations. This is not murder.

In August 1907 the other three younger children (all having recovered from, but weakened by, their bout with diphtheria) came down with typhoid.  This time Olive did not recover.  Her vomiting, diarrhea, and an undiagnosed membranous condition in her throat were present in October 1907 when she died, and her cause of death is recorded on her death certificate as “hemorrhage and typhoid” [also not diphtheria as popularly believed].

In June 1908 Arthur developed the same typhoid symptoms Olive displayed before she died (vomiting, diarrhea and the throat infection) and he died in October 6, 1908.  It was on this occasion the doctor thought something might be just a bit too coincidental in the children’s deaths, and the autopsy was requested on Arthur.

As noted, Martha gave permission and attended the operation.  However, at a particular point in the autopsy she called a halt to the procedure.  This would not stand up well in court later. The prosecution felt she stopped the autopsy so her murderous poisoning wouldn’t be uncovered (the team had not gotten to the throat yet). According to Martha, she stopped the autopsy because she thought the team had done enough carving to get what they needed.  Results based on the partial autopsy, however, showed an ulceration of the bowels, hemorrhage, and cardiac failure as the cause of death (all conditions caused by typhoid and a weakened heart from Arthur’s earlier diphtheria).  The autopsy team made no special notes about the fact that three grown children had died within the space of fifteen months in the same household; apparently, it wasn’t considered relevant.

The testimony that doctors found “traces” of hydrochloric acid in the dead children’s throats is patently false.  It has to be a fabrication that went unchallenged by the defense.  Hydrochloric acid is a water soluble solution.  The concentrations Martha would have been swabbing the children’s throats with would have been very mild.  It is not known from available records if the children were embalmed before burial (unlikely that the Morris clan could have afforded the cost at the time).  Even if embalmed, there would be no trace of the acid itself.  If the tissues had not decomposed to the point of uselessness (and after two years’ decomposition Annie’s certainly were) no doctor or scientist could detect the presence of hydrochloric acid in the throats of any of those children in 1909.  At best they might be able to see evidence of slight acid-burn scarring, and that would be expected if Martha was using the spirits of salts on their throats as she claimed she was.  So the exhumation of the bodies produced nothing but more sensationalism.

The doctors who were called to testify were found blameless in the matter.  The defense called into question their own clear negligence in treating the children, but in the wake of the Alice Mitchell “baby farm” murder trial doctors were seemingly untouchable as negligent contributors to anything.  They were above consideration as parties to the Morris children’s deaths.  Martha’s defense tried, however, and did ask a few relevant and probative questions on cross about the diagnoses of the children when they had diphtheria and typhoid.  He also called into the question the lack of concern, enough to report to higher authorities, anyway, when the boy Arthur died and was autopsied.  Certainly, someone was suspicious enough for that, yet no further action was taken. 

On the subject of medical ability and forensics in this case both leave a lot to be desired.  At the inquest much was made of the inability to determine just how, exactly, a person’s throat constricted with repeated applications of hydrochloric acid would seem.  To help resolve this issue at trial a series of tests were done on guinea pigs and rabbits.  They suffered horribly, and their throats were indeed scarred.  But that only proves someone is capable of using an acid solution on a lab animal.  Rabbits are not humans.  Nor did anyone have any idea what concentration of the solution was allegedly used on the children.

Forensic analyses produced no evidence of poisoning with hydrochloric acid.  Nor did any forensics witnesses know of any other cases where hydrochloric acid was used as a murder weapon.  When the defense raised questions about the swabbing of the rabbits and guinea pigs with acid not producing real, practical results, there was basically a stammering of sorts: the conclusion was Martha was so conniving as a criminal mastermind that her technique could not be properly duplicated

Martha’s defense was allowed one day in court to put on its case. As Thomas was charged alongside her it is odd that no witnesses for character could be produced for either.  Thomas Morris was saved from the noose by the court’s paradoxical belief that his son could lie about his own father, knowing the consequences [It was his son George who accused him of being Martha’s accomplice and got him arrested in the first place.]  This meant they did not believe the boy’s testimony.  Thus, it could be said by extrapolation that what he said should also have been disbelieved when it came to Martha’s “involvement” as well.

Unfortunately, women were both weaker and stronger in this jury’s mind.  Thomas Morris was acquitted because they couldn’t believe his son and because they felt Martha was dominant in their relationship.  He couldn’t have done it; he was too weak-willed. Thomas’ frequent working away from home had an advantage of presenting him with a quick alibi, however; the jury just didn’t think he had enough time to orchestrate the elaborations needed to kill the children as the prosecution described. 

That left only Martha in the hot seat.  She took much abuse publicly, and in front of her all-male jury and a gallery filled with hostile females the presiding justice called Martha a “moral deformity” (in today’s courts this would call for an immediate mistrial and sanctions).  The jury found Thomas Morris not guilty, and he was free.  Martha, as expected, was quickly found guilty of the willful murder of Arthur Morris (which carried an automatic death sentence).  The jury made no recommendation for mercy.  Nor had her attorney raised the question of insanity as a possible defense.  Martha’s only hope for survival was for new facts to be raised for a new trial.  Failing that, she could only pray for a commutation of her death sentence.

Thirty-eight years had passed since the last woman was hanged in Western Australia.  There was much public debate about Martha’s fate.  Hardly anyone thought she was innocent of the crime, but

Fremantle death chamber 1
many felt hanging was too extreme for the circumstances.  Public opinion in some cases tried to give her the benefit of the doubt: maybe she had killed the children accidentally, etc.

The death sentence debate over Martha split neatly along class lines in Perth.  The upper class conservatives who ran the government (and whose lifestyle the likes of Martha Rendell flouted with her “easy living” in sin) continued to support capital punishment.  Others opposed hanging, especially of women.  The medical profession whose reputation was called into question and whose negligence was neatly quashed in court (in both this case and in the “baby farm” murder in 1907) stood on the side of capital punishment for Martha.  Women’s groups were quiet on the subject in Western Australia (although they had protested strongly in Victoria and New South Wales in the 1890s to save two women from hanging, claiming that hanging of women by a body of men was “a barbarous act”).

“There’s No Place Like Home”
Popular belief is that Martha tried to poison George with a cup of tea in 1909 and she was immediately arrested.  This is not true.  In May 1909 the two older boys, George and the unnamed son, were reunited with their real mother (several months before Martha was accused of murder).  George (having not seen his real mother in three years) in the wake of this reunion ran away to live with her.  Thomas Morris did not know where the boy was, and he raised the alarm thinking something happened to him.  It was he who called in the police.

Once George (it is unclear just how long he was “missing”) was found he gave police an earful about horrible Martha.  He said she had murdered his brother Arthur.  He also said Arthur had told him she was painting his throat with spirits of salt [She was. This is an indisputable fact. It was part of the boy’s treatment protocol].  George whined she had served him cups of bitter tea that caused him to run away for fear of his life.  He also implicated his own father as Martha’s murder accomplice.  Finally, George spilled the beans about Martha’s and Thomas’ “immoral” relationship.  Martha responded, unfortunately, with stupefying silence on all issues.  She only spoke of anything about her life with Thomas publicly at the later coroner’s inquest and from prison (proclaiming her innocence).

Pre-trial publicity bordered on hysteria.  The crimes of which Martha Rendell was accused were horrific.  Incensed crowds of Perth women, their moral outrage unconstrained at this hussy in their midst, demanded her hanging (and worse).  The Morris home was opened up to auction off what little Thomas and Martha had to help pay for a defense.   Groups of people looted the place for souvenirs and left the accused with only enough material goods to earn £10 of auction proceeds.  

There was Martha in the middle of this circus, accused of multiple killings.  Women child murderers are the most hated, yet female killers in general have a certain allure.  They fascinate at the same time they are found repugnant.  And they make for great press.  The inspector Harry Mann’s alleged statement about Martha’s deriving sexual satisfaction from watching her stepchildren suffer (one that, if he made it, he was in absolutely no position to make, since he could have no way of knowing what gave Martha Rendell “sexual satisfaction”) is probably a paraphrase of what the Peeping Tom neighbor said (and voyeurism was just as frowned upon then as now; why that neighbor was not called out for his own ill-mannered behavior is beyond reckoning.  He mentioned he looked in the Morris’ windows “often”).  Regardless, the press relished Mann’s sordid little detail.  

Male felons hardly ever arouse the sort of lurid obsession in the populace that women do.  Because Martha was a “false wife” the outrage was even greater.  There were also discussions publicly about why she, in the roughly 14 years of being with Thomas Morris, did not have any children by him.  They were both obviously fertile (she had three children of her own, and Morris proved himself capable of spawning at least nine times).  The insinuations, of course were: 1) they were practicing birth control (very bad morally), or 2) Martha had aborted (even worse).

A harbinger case would have echoes in Martha’s trial outcome.  In 1903 Florence MacDonald (of Queensland) was found guilty (along with her husband) of the murder of her young stepdaughter. The couple had worked, beaten, and starved the girl to death.  There was public sentiment heavily in favor of execution for the pair.  Their sentences, however, were commuted to life (the husband had well-placed friends). The Perth news reported on this case heavily as it was sensational.  

Martha, in the public’s mind, was not sympathetic. She was plain, middling in years, stone-faced.  She epitomized the popular stereotype of a murdering stepmother like Florence MacDonald.  Martha had the misfortune of being a stepmother and not a “real” mother to the Morris children (and, technically, she wasn’t even their “stepmother” as she and Thomas were not married).  In popular culture there was the figure of the wicked stepmother, aging, ugly, vain and haughty, and murderous of little children left in her care.  The Aussies also had a saying, “Providence is a cruel stepmother.”  Stepmothers were bad.  The press reported frequently upon murders in step-families. Being the evil stepmother, combined with her stubborn silence (which she resolutely maintained for most of her time under scrutiny, though it was her legal right as a defendant in Australia) only confirmed her guilt to the jury. 

Martha was punished for being “immoral”.  As a prime example of Perth’s condemnation of “immorality”, in 1903 three French prostitutes, in the company of three johns, were sentenced to death for their part in a fight that led to a murderous shooting in Perth. The townspeople of Perth were also suspicious of new arrivals.  A letter to the editor in the West Australian newspaper, opining on what should happen to the prostitutes, suggested “hang them all, they are all foreigners”.  The jury in this case recommended mercy for these prostitutes and they were eventually freed.  Martha got no such consideration, and she was not even a prostitute.  [Only the shooter in the 1903 case was convicted]. 

Fremantle death chamber 2

The wheels of justice and retribution spun quickly in Western Australia.  Martha was hanged only twenty days after her verdict was handed down (this was also only a mere seven weeks after the coroner’s inquiry, in August 1909, determined she should go to trial; her trial started in mid-September 1909). She holds the dubious

Fremantle prison program re: Martha Rendell
distinctions of being the third woman hanged in Western Australia, the only one executed for child murder, and the only woman ever hanged in Fremantle Prison.

Sadly, as echoed in our own times, the jury then could not tell bad “science” from the real thing and were actually enthralled by the parade of “science” that was presented to them. It is easy to overlook them since it was, after all, 1909; the science of criminal forensics was in its infancy.  However, the British Crown had already established very good guidelines for use of such evidence in cases like this one, and the lab work and medical work in this case came nowhere near that standard.

In the end, Martha was executed for being Martha. Her case was based on conjecture, supposition, and the word of a disgruntled 15 year-old-boy who wanted his mommy. The real one.

Miscellany
Not many photographs of Martha Rendell exist.  In fact, the most popular image of her is a newspaper rendering (much more flattering than reality) of her intake photo.  Another black and white

Questionable "Martha Rendell"
photograph of what purports to be Martha Rendell in 1909 was located, however, but despite its inclusion on an “authoritative” Web-site it is almost certain this picture is not of Martha Rendell.  It is probably some other woman of the era who was similarly in Fremantle Prison around the same time (maybe even Alice Mitchell, it isn’t certain).  Casual inspection of the questionable picture against the one known as Martha yields much contradictory information immediately: the questionable woman has a cleft chin, dark eyes, dark hair, and her right ear is bat-like. Martha’s hair is lighter as are her eyes, she is more robust than this othe
Comparison between known Rendell and "?"
r woman, and she has no cleft in her chin.  Furthermore, the center line of Martha’s nose in profile is hooked; the unknown’s is straight and upturned at the tip.  The chins are different.  Unless Martha underwent a rather quick physiological change (hair, eyes, cleft chin, major weight loss, ear cosmetic surgery to make it look worse) this isn’t Martha Rendell.  But, as always, the decision about what is true and is not needs be borne by the viewer.
 
A final “viewer participation” activity concerns the reported “sightings” of an image in one of the Fremantle Prison windows resembling Martha Rendell.  The legend tells the image watches over the prison.  The saccharine sentiment behind this is absurd – Martha would no more care about watching over that prison than any other prisoner would.  She’d probably just as soon see it burned to the ground.  The “illusion” (a very vague one, requiring much in the way of stretching the imagination) can actually only be seen from the outside of the glass – looking through it from within produces no image.   This phenomenon
Fremantle Prison window with "ghostly image"
(morphing the amorphous into recognizable shapes in the mind’s eye) is called “pareidolia”, and in over a dozen photos examined of this alleged phenomenon for this article none are any better or clearer than the one shown here, and this, frankly, leaves a lot to the imagination about “The Face in the Window”. 

 ***

Author’s Note: A “thank you” is extended to fellow InfoBarrel writer, JudyE.  Without her two excellent (entertaining and informative) articles on the Fremantle Cemetery in Western Australia, I would never have known of Martha Rendell.  Both are well worth the read (they profile some other notorious Strine criminals, Aussie oddballs, and genuine celebrities): 

The Famous and Infamous of Fremantle Cemetery - Part 1
The Famous and Infamous of Fremantle Cemetery - Part 2

Another falsely-accused Aussie sheila

Lindy "the dingo ate my baby" Chamberlain

The Chamberlain Case: The Legal Saga That Transfixed the Nation
Amazon Price: $16.95 $10.28 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 8, 2016)
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Comments

Aug 13, 2011 5:18am
JudyE
Great article,Bill and a worthy extension of my original article. I thought your reasoning was very sound. Although I originally thought Martha was guilty, I've been convinced she probably wasn't.
Aug 13, 2011 11:22pm
vicdillinger
Coming from you, Ms. E, that is high praise indeed, and considering you were the inspiration for this it means that much more. Thanks again for your help.
Nov 7, 2011 6:05am
eileen
Wow what a long and interesting article. We are a mad mob over here in Perth. Over the years we have had a few bad apples. Western Australia used to be one of the safest states in Australia. I did not know about this particular case though.

I think it is the same all over the world nowadays, can be dangerous anywhere. Thanks for a great read. rated up
Nov 7, 2011 5:26pm
vicdillinger
You Strines aren't any worse than the rest of the world. What shocked me more was the prudish Puritanism that got her killed. JudyE hipped me to Martha -- I'd never heard of her until I read her article about the Fremantle Cemetery, which is what led to this piece. Glad you liked it, and thanks for reading.
Dec 19, 2011 8:51pm
LLWoodard
A very different look at the Martha Rendell story than that presented by the Investigation Discovery channel's "Deadly Women." Appreciated your insights into the situation.
Dec 20, 2011 8:40pm
vicdillinger
Oddly enough, I was just looking into what, for me, was a forgotten murder case. In a rare instance (for me), everything I looked into led me to conclude she was not guilty (I generally only write about the guilty -- Mata Hari is the other exception off the top of my head whom I have covered). Perhaps Martha could be posthumously exonerated (that's up to Australia, of course). I sincerely believe she was not guilty. Thanks for reading.
Jul 10, 2012 11:07am
yummy-treasures
I am sorry for not reading this but only skimming through....this article looks and sounds so nice I will come back later and read it. I don't know from where you get all the patience to write and write and still write.
I will read later vic as I am a bit busy this month...but I will be back.
Jul 10, 2012 11:21am
vicdillinger
This is an older article, I was just fixing some links in it for some material I recently did. Thanks for "skimming" (this, however, is one of my best pieces of investigative work...no pressure!)
Jul 10, 2012 4:10pm
Etcetera
Interesting article, I haven't head of Martha Rendell. However as I have studied Child and Adolescent Psychology, I just wanted to say in terms of 'environment' there are very subtle influences which have profound affects. For a child to develop secondary self conscious emotions like: sympathy, empathy and guilt there must be a attachment with a caregiver, the development of a sense of self, appropriate interactions with people and environment and cognitive and language abilities. Some people never develop, or have limited secondary self conscious emotions like: shame, embarrassment and sympathy etc. Also while I am ranting I will also say that in regard to Ned Kelly, you have to understand that the Irish were treated worse then lepers, there were signs 'No Irish Allowed' and they were less then 2nd class citizens, not only here but in Ireland where they were subjugated and badly treated under English rule. People simply are both products of genes and environment.
Jul 10, 2012 4:25pm
vicdillinger
Martha didn't do it, I say! Thanks for reading.
Jul 10, 2012 4:26pm
vicdillinger
Oh, and I've always found Ned Kelly's trashcan armor to be thoroughly amusing -- it's a classic in criminology.
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