Martha Rendell, described as a ‘child murderess’ and “one of the most cold-blooded and relentless criminals in Australian records,” was a woman found guilty in 1909 who shook society in Western Australia (WA) to its core as her crimes undermined the highly-regarded societal values of marriage, womanhood and motherhood. Throughout this essay, it will become clear that Rendell’s guilty verdict was not solely for her crime being guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This assertion will be supported with evidence that demonstrates that the media and society portrayed Rendell as being emotionless, evil and wicked due to her defying what society deemed was acceptable behaviour for women at the time. The media’s focus on Rendell throughout her trial and execution and the citizen’s perceptions of her resembles a witch hunt as they impetuously condemned her. The essay will undercover the historiography of how society’s perceptions of 1909 were clouded by the fact Rendell was a ‘homewrecker’ and did not fall in line with the idealistic women, instead of convicting her on concrete evidence both through the trial and through public and media scrutiny.
Martha Rendell is described as a women who did not conform to the idealised societal values discussed, as she “had broken early in life from the womanly ideals of her day by leaving home at the age of sixteen, taking lovers and bearing three illegitimate children before striking up a relationship with married Thomas Morris in the mid-1890s, and abandoning her children and family to join him in Perth.” Morris separated from his wife and Rendell moved in with him and four of his children. To their community, Rendell was the wife and mother of Morris and his children. Rendell was accused with the murder of Morris’s child Arthur in May 1909 after George one of the older children ran away from the home of Rendell and Morris, to his mother where he made the allegation to her and the police that “his stepmother had murdered his brother Arthur, and that Arthur had told him she was painting his throat with spirits of salt (hydrochloric acid).” This allegation occurred a year after Arthur Morris had died, and two years after two of Morris’s daughters died, they all suffered from the same symptoms. The investigation of the allegation was unusual, “with no crime scene, fresh bodies or eyewitnesses, only a 14-year-old boy’s report and neighbourhood gossip reported retrospectively, as well as no incriminating physical evidence or forensic evidence either.” Despite the lack of evidence, both Morris and Rendell were charged with the wilful murder of Arthur. The trial began during September 1909 and consisted of an all-male jury. The jury went into deliberations for 15 minutes before deciding unanimously a verdict of guilty against Rendell and not guilty against Morris. Rendell was sentenced to the extremist penalty of the law, the death sentence. A group of men petitioned Rendell’s death sentence, however, the Executive Council refused the request to reconsidered. “Rendell was hanged with unseemly haste on the 6th of October 1909, just twenty days after the guilty verdict was handed down and only seven weeks from when the coronial inquiry had deemed Rendell should stand trial.” Rendell maintained her innocence to the very end, with a signed statement being given to Reverend Allen, and her last words being “I am completely and absolutely innocent of the crime for which I am dying.”
Western Australian Society in 1909
To understand the implications of the Rendell case it is important to understand the societal values of the time. Western Australian society in 1909 and the years surrounding, concentrated vastly on building up the nation. As a way to build up WA, it involved a highly-regarded accepted societal norm of holding the institution of marriage as a vital ideal and ensuring that traditional gender roles were upheld and the status quo maintained. These societal ideals were evident as “there was a fervent allegiance to the family as the powerhouse of the new Australian nation, with mothers forgoing its future citizenry and Christian marriage as the binding glue, all guided by values of respectability and hard work.” A further reflection of the importance of these societal values is seen in 1901 in Perth where “speakers opposing a proposed federal divorce bill…claimed that making divorce easier would open the floodgates to adultery and orphaned children and that the State must protect the family, and punish severely all transgressions…”. The alternative of de facto living had emerged at this time, however, those who partook in that lifestyle did so “in secret since the arrangement was universally condemned as immoral.” These societal values were ridged in their application and contributed significantly to shaping the histography of the Rendell crime, and further influenced society’s views on the last women to be hanged in Western Australia.
Societal Perceptions of Rendell
From the societal values discussed it is evident that Rendell, a stepmother, mistress and child murderer, did not conform to ideals of WA society of the time. An examination will now be discussed as to what the Rendell case revealed about society and what the societal perceptions of the case were. The first aspect the Rendell case reveals about society is that societal ideologies relied heavily upon the value of each gender having very specific roles that must be adhered to. As already discussed it was a societal expectation that women lived up to the ideals of being a perfect wife and mother. Thus, when it was publicly known that Rendell was not only alleged to have murdered her children, but it was also discovered she had been living outside the institution of marriage and was a ‘homewrecker, it proved to be too onerous of societal defiance for Perth citizens to get past. This is evident as the prominent women’s advocate groups in Perth at the time, were “shocked by the alleged breaches of Rendell’s womanly role of nurturing and caring for children and remained silent over the controversial issue of hanging a women,” implying that even women’s group weren’t in Rendell’s corner. Further, there were “crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse” demonstrating that Rendell who had so evidently defied the gender accepted roles put all in society on the defensive and ignited a public hatred to rid society of such a threat to respected values. However, it is important to consider that Morris was living the same lie as Rendell and was initially accused of the same crime, yet, Morris was not scrutinised and hated in society and the media like Rendell. Why was there such a difference between Morris and Rendell? The answer to that question is simply the difference in gender, as the differing in treatment between them can be attributed to the fact gendered hypocrisy was at play in society, in which a man could do no wrong and women were expected to keep in line with traditional expectations at all times. Rendell defying traditional gendered roles is apparent as “her behaviour breached all of the cherished ideals of family, wifely conduct and motherhood that Perth society demanded of its women.” Therefore, society perceived Rendell to be guilty of two crimes, child murder and defying societal expectations of the idealised perfect women.
A further aspect of the Rendell case revealed about society was the prejudices surrounding stepmothers. Once Rendell was exposed as being a stepmother, society cast her in a light accustomed with a wicked and evil stepmother from a fairy-tale, and society’s mind’s became clouded with stereotypes instead of evidence discovered. The ideas of stepmothers were considered by historian Anna Haebich, stating that “harsh prejudices about stepmothers had survived for centuries regardless of their vital role in caring for motherless children after family breakdown through the death of the wife or separation.” The connection between Rendell and the harsh prejudices about stepmothers were apparent as it was reported about Rendell that “a shocked public grappled with the news of murders that seemed unimaginable outside of a wicked stepmother fairy-tale.” Further, historian Amanda Kaladelfos, reflects in her work on the execution of Rendell by stating that the case is used “to understand the persuasiveness of folk beliefs about the inherent wickedness of female killers and bad mothers.” Therefore, “in the Rendell trial stereotypes of stepmothers provoked extremes of public hatred against the woman…” demonstrating that Rendell’s connection with an evil stepmother contributed to society’s perception of her, as well as added an additional layer to the way her story was portrayed in the media. Thus, the case reveals that there was an inherent association of stepmothers as being linked to evilness in a society which can be attributed to that fact stepmothers could be linked to a relationship that involved de facto living or a relationship outside of the precious institution of marriage which was immoral behaviour of the time.
A third aspect that is argued to be revealed about society from the case is that it was because Rendell’s defied societal expectation of women that she was given the death penalty. This argument is supported by comparing Rendell with a case from 1907. The case involved baby farming run by Alice Mitchell, which “is defined as a place where the care and nourishment of babies were undertaken for hire.” Mitchell was charged with wilful murder and found guilty of the manslaughter of one child in her care, despite the court suspecting Mitchell had allowed many other infants to die in her care. Mitchell was sentenced to five years imprisonment. “Mitchell’s was saved from the noose by contradictory evidence, most of it circumstantial, and the court’s inability to rule that she had deliberately caused the infant’s wasting condition.” Like the Mitchell case, the evidence against Rendell was purely circumstantial with no definitive proof that she had murdered Arthur, yet despite the lack of evidence, Rendell was sentenced to death. The question must be asked as to why such vastly different sentences were handed down to two women in similar situations. The answer revolves around the surrounding circumstances of Rendell, the fact that Rendell embodied the complete opposite of what is expected of women. Support for this assertion is given by Simon Adams who states that “Rendell was almost certainly judicially murdered, not for the crime for which she was tried, but because of the threat she posed to the institution of the family.” Therefore, it can be contended that the Rendell case acted as a warning to other women in the society of what occurs when societal values are defied. The argument further illustrates the importance of the gender expectations of the time, to the extent that society’s minds were clouded by Rendell’s defiance and disregarded the lack of evidence available for the actual crime she committed, and publicly and judicially found her guilty due to how they perceived her to be.
If the evidence against Rendell was practically non-existence and circumstantial, why were the societal perceptions of Rendell so harsh? The question is answered by the way the press and newspaper articles portrayed Rendell. “Clair Scrine demonstrates how in the case of sensational murder trials involving women the courts and media can create from misogynist stereotypes, gossip and the stated facts of the case a logically consistent system of meaning that glosses over inconsistencies and details of what actually happened.” What Scrine describes occurred in the Rendell case, as society were not privy to the circumstances of Rendell’s life until the press informed the public and then begun to portray a narrative of Rendell being a wicked evil stepmother, that shaped the perceptions of the public and in turn created the hatred and frenzy that occurred. There is no doubt that the story painted by the media is one framed by them as Rendell was silent during the ordeal, which was her legal prerogative, yet the media portrayed her silence as her “confirming her guilt.” Despite Rendell’s silence the press reported her as being a callous women and stated that “even if there had been no question of crime, the women stood revealed as an utterly heartless and coldblooded being,” yet there was no actual evidence to derive such a description from other than allegations of a child. The narrative portrayed spiralled as articles contended that there was no doubt that Rendell murdered all three Morris Children that died over the past 15 months, despite her only being charged with Arthur’s death. The Media published articles portraying how Rendell committed her crimes building up a graphic narrative for the public despite having no evidence to attest to what actually occurred. Further, it was contended that Rendell “extracted a diabolical satisfaction, even an amusement, from the suffering she was inflicting,” and that she represented “a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost, like aboriginals, the Martha Rendell’s of this world must kill.” Multiple articles described Rendell as a wretch, a monster, an evil and wicked stepmother, and a woman that embodied immoral deformity, therefore, it is not a surprise that society perceived her in the way they did. From this evidence it is conclusive that “long before a jury found her guilty, the public had convicted Rendell…,” which is supported by Simon Adams who states that “the press coverage of the role she was alleged to have played in the ejection of her lover’s wife from the family home undoubtedly influenced the decision not to grant her a pardon.” Therefore, it is determinative that the media played a vital role in the Rendell case that created evidence lacking narrative which shaped how society viewed Rendell. The media’s portrayal of Rendell revealed that society at this time was willing to believe what they were told without concrete evidence. This assertion is due to the crime Rendell was accused of and her circumstances, as a women child murderer who defied societal expectations such as Rendell did was a rarity for the time in WA.
From the evidence discussed it is evident that the majority of citizens at the time held the belief that Rendell was guilty, which is founded on primarily primary sources of the time. However, as historians looking back to the crime, further interpretations of the case can now be concluded. One conclusion contends that like those who petitioned Rendell’s guilty verdict, her guilt was not absolute, but instead purely circumstantial and founded on the belief that a woman such as Rendell could threaten the status quo of the time. Historian Anna Haebich aligns with this view, asserting that “today researchers are constructing a further image of this sorry women as the wrongly condemned victim of prejudices and public hysteria in Perth.” However, not all historians align with this interpretation, such as Paul Kidd who asserts Rendell as “being among the most sadistic child killers the world has ever known.” It can be argued that the important difference between the interpretations is that Haebich does not conclude absolutely that Rendell is innocent or guilty, however she argues that due to the context it is possible that a guilty verdict hinged on the social prejudices of the time and the pressures to convict a person accused of child murderer despite the evidence being minimal, whereas Kidd has taken the evidence on face value.
The social perceptions of Rendell were that she was guilty beyond doubt despite there being a lack of definitive evidence against her. Once Rendell’s life was exposed, of what was perceived as a life of deceit and immoral behaviour, it proved ruinous for Rendell despite her maintaining she was innocent. These perceptions, which were largely shaped by the media, revealed that society held the ideals of womanhood, marriage and motherhood to be the utmost importance, being societal expectations women was intended to abide by. Therefore, as Rendell represented an embodiment of what women shouldn’t do, the public crucified her both for the alleged crime of child murder and for challenging the traditional gender roles and expectations of a woman at the time. Through looking at the historiography of society, media and the Rendell case it can be concluded that Rendell was a victim of the social prejudices and ideals of the time, and for that, she went on to be the last women hanged in Western Australia.