THE KILLING OF LOUISA
by Janet Lee
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
Paperback: 272 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One of the more unusual criminal cases in Australian history is that of Louisa Collins, who in 1889 was the last woman hanged in New South Wales.
Louisa Collins has already been the subject of two academic studies published in recent years: Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (2014): and Black Widow, by Carol Baxter (2015). Now, emerging writer Janet Lee has written a fictionalised account of her. Louisa Collins’ case has been of particular interest not only because she was the last woman hanged in NSW, but also because she was found guilty only on the fourth trial for the crime of murder.
Her first trial was for the murder by poisoning of her first husband, Charles Andrews, resulting in a hung jury. In July 1888, she summoned urgent medical assistance when her second husband, Michael Collins, was seriously ill. The doctor conferred with a colleague to learn that her first husband, Charles Andrews, had died in similar circumstances the previous year.
An exhumation of Charles’ body followed, raising the question of whether Louisa murdered her husbands by feeding them a standard rodent killer, “Rough on Rats”, that contained lethal quantities of arsenic.
The inquest into Charles’ death concluded that he had died as a consequence of arsenical poisoning. Her second and third trials were for the murder of her second husband, Michael Collins, and resulted in similar verdicts. A guilty verdict for murdering her second husband was secured only on the third trial for his murder, and her fourth trial.
As she was demonised by the popular press, who dubbed her “the Botany Murderess”, and “Lucretia Borgia of Botany”, most modern commentators believe that legal authorities kept re-trying Louisa because they were determined to secure a guilty verdict to make an example of her.
Commentators thus seriously question the guilty verdict, given the negative perceptions of her by the public, particularly in light of her portrayal in the media, as the previous trials had been sensationalistically reported in the newspapers. This in itself raises the issue of the difficulty of securing an unbiased jury.
Furthermore, Louisa was found guilty largely on the testimony of her 11-year-old daughter, whose evidence was essentially inconclusive. For many modern commentators, also problematic is the reality that at that time women had neither the vote – hence, no means to influence the political process – nor could they serve on juries; hence, by being judged by an all-male jury, was she really found guilty by her peers?
Lee writes from the perspective of the novel’s protagonist, Louisa Collins. The novel begins with Louisa being found guilty of the murder of Michael Collins, and being sentenced to death, and her reactions of surprise at the verdict and sentence. The early chapters are rather slow – and, at various points – rather dry, as the narrative persona reflects upon prison conditions and her incarcerated state.
Visited by the Anglican chaplain, Canon Rich, who comforts her, Louisa Collins gradually recounts her life story to him, and it is at this point in the novel that the narrative becomes engrossing. Lee depicts Louisa as lacking agency, with family members – particularly her father and husbands – and others making critical decisions for her.
Born in rural NSW, the daughter of a semi-itinerant labourer, Henry Hall, as a teenager Louisa forms an attachment to the son of the pastoralist on whose property her family lived. The pastoralist’s wife, being anxious to separate Louisa from her son, arranges for Louisa to be employed as a servant to a lawyer and his wife.
After Louisa gradually finds her niche and experiences contentment with her situation, her life is radically altered when her father agrees to Charles Andrews’ request to marry her, a request he readily accepted, as Charles was a butcher, and thus had a stable income. This is despite the fact that she hardly knew him, and he had neither courted nor proposed to her.
Feeling obliged to honour her father’s decision, Louisa marries Charles, who was considerably older than her, with reluctance.
The following chapters describe her life as a butcher’s wife in rural NSW. She is repulsed by the smell of blood. She has a number of children in quick succession. The family fortunes take a turn for the worse when Charles is injured, and his butcher’s business folds.
Determined to make a new start, the family moves to Sydney, settling in Botany. Charles supports the family with his wages as a labourer, supplemented by sub-letting spare rooms in their rented house to lodgers.
Louisa also develops a taste for alcohol, frequenting a local hotel where she meets Michael Collins, who becomes a lodger. Seeing him as a potential rival for Louisa’s affections, Charles expels Michael from the house.
Some time afterwards, Charles becomes violently ill, early in 1887, complaining of stomach pains, and dies, with Louisa as his wife being the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. She soon marries Michael Collins, although he is considerably younger than her. This scandalises the neighbours. Louisa gives birth to Michael’s child. However, this child dies after only a few months, leaving Louisa distraught.
Her problems are compounded by Michael’s compulsive gambling, and as a consequence most of the money from Charles’ life insurance policy is squandered. It is at this point that Michael becomes violently ill and dies in a manner similar to Charles in similar circumstances to Charles, and the medical authorities alert the police.
Throughout the novel, Louisa is portrayed as believing that she will be reprieved, despite signs at regular intervals that the carrying out of the death sentence is inevitable. One of the most moving scenes is towards the end of the novel, when Louisa sees her children, including her daughter who testified against her, for the last time.
The Killing of Louisa is a well-written and engaging retelling of the Louisa Collins story, for which the author deservedly won a Queensland Literary Award recently. On some levels the portrayal is controversial, as she is depicted as being an essentially innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control.
However, The Killing of Louisa raises the vexed and perennial issue of the extent to which legal authorities will go to secure a verdict, and the difficulty in securing an unbiased jury to try a defendant who is held in opprobrium by the general community, largely as a result of hostile reporting by the media.
This novel is one that the reviewer found hard to put down, and is highly recommended.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.