Written by Molly Lancett
Note: Hi everyone! I'm so excited to be back for another semester. We will be discussing various topics, such as a case study in Underworld Crime (today's topic), Indigenous incarceration and the youth justice system (more to be announced later on in the semester). Remember to subscribe and thank you all for reading!
I, like the rest of you, obviously have a huge interest in all things crime, but I never have quite explored the historical side of Australian crime, so for this post I will be working in Collaboration with the UONCCJ'S Crime podcast hosted by Isabella Crebert. To check out the podcast episode with UoN's very own Associate Professor Nancy Cushing being interviewed, click here! The episode discusses the underworld of crime within Australia, whereas I will be discussing the historical criminal case of Louisa Collins.
Pictured - Louisa Collins
Louisa Collins, the last woman hung in NSW, was accused of the murder of her second husband, and accused of murdering her first husband. This historical story sheds light on the past legal system and its prejudices against women who "murder."
Louisa Collins was born in 1847, within the NSW Hunter Valley. Louisa eventually married Charles Andrews at a relatively young age, together they had nine children, only seven who would survive the early stages of life. Within 1886 Charles had decided to move his family to Botany. The family were not well off financially, and to ease the stress on Andrews, the couple decided to lease rooms to other individuals, one of which was a co-worker to Louisa's husband, who she eventually began an affair with. Once Charles discovered the affair, he forced Michael out of their home in 1886.
Shortly after Charles discovered the affair he fell extremely ill, and Louisa immediately organised his insurance/will, and quickly after this he passed. Shortly after the death of her first husband, she remarried, unsurprisingly to Michael, the co-worker of Charles who she was having an affair with. Louisa was shown to mourn in an interesting manner, which also raised suspicion that she was involved in his death, even though it is a well known fact that everyone grieves differently. Early on in the marriage, Michael began having similar symptoms to that of Charles, and eventually died due to the illness. She nursed both her husbands till their death. It was shown within the autopsies that the men had large levels of arsenic in their system, and it was ruled their deaths were caused by poisoning. The Crown was beyond convinced Louisa had poisoned both her husbands, and put her on trial for both the murder of her first husband and second husband a shocking four times.
Louisa maintained her innocence to the day she hung. Unfortunately, to highlight what I said earlier about a prejudicial legal system, she was trialed in front of a total of 48 men, and the first three juries failed to find a conviction. Finally, the fourth trial was successful and she was found guilty, sentenced to hanging. Interestingly, the main testimony used against Louisa was from her daughter, who was ten-years-old at the time of the trial, who purely stated they had some rat poisoning within their household. It must be noted that majority of the evidence was circumstantial. Louisa Collins was hung and tried in a time where women were beyond treated equal.
Later on it was discovered that the drug Louisa was accused of poisoning her husbands with, arsenic, was extremely prevalent in both of their jobs, as they were workers for the sheepskin tanning industry. As well as this both men were prescribed a medicine when the sickness begun which also contained arsenic. Regardless of the lack of evidence, Louisa was finally hung in January 1889, the last woman to be hung in NSW in Darlinghurst Gaol.
When Louisa was hung, her head was nearly severed and her windpipe was left exposed. A brutal execution. She was painted a drunk and credibility was stripped from her testimony of innocence. She was tried by a system who gave no rights to women, four times to reiterate. It has been proposed by Carole Overington who wrote "The Last Woman Hanged" that the male establishment at the time felt threatened by women, hence the "witch hunt" for a guilty verdict to be obtained.
Louisa Collins was painted a drunk and a flirt and tried for a crime that she most likely did not commit. Is this a story of an unjust, sexist legal system, or a story of a cruel and calculated murderous woman?