Criminal contemporaries of the twenties

The 1920s was a particularly fascinating period in the criminal history of Sydney.  Some of the most notorious women criminals in Australia’s history were imprisoned in Long Bay Women’s Gaol in Sydney in the early twentieth century.  While their stories undeniably offer opportunities for true crime voyeurism, they are also complex and intriguing.  While accused, and ultimately sentenced to serve time for dark and cruel acts of violence, each story presents a vignette on the complexities and diversity of female criminality.

Dorothy Mort was the wife of wealthy and prominent business identity Harold Mort when she shot her lover, Claude Tozer  – a dashing young doctor and talented cricketer.  It is believed that when Tozer tried to break off the affair, Dorothy shot him in the sitting room of her very fashionably decorated middle class Lindfield home.    Dorothy’s story is explored with great skill by Suzanne Falkiner in Mrs Mort’s Madness.

dorothy mort

Matilda Devine was many things – a prostitute, a survivor of domestic violence, and a mother.  She was charged with a wide range of offences including vagrancy, soliciting and illegal grog trading.   Matilda would go on to become a matriarch of crime in Sydney by leading an organised crime empire during the infamous ‘razor gang’ period of the city’s history.  It is this persona – Tilly Devine – with whom most people are familiar.  Many accounts have been written of both Tilly, and the razor gang wars, however Kay Saunder’s account is comprehensive and beautifully written.

tilly2

Eugenia Falleni (aka Harry) was one of 22 children, a survivor of rape, a mother and a step-father.  Arriving in Australia as a desperately poor Italian migrant with very low levels of literacy in both English and Italian, Eugenia was also a transgender man – Harry.  While married to Annie Birkett, and for reasons not entirely clear, Harry murdered Annie and attempted to destroy the evidence by setting fire to the body.  Two fascinating and very different accounts of Falleni’s story are provided by Suzanne Falkiner and Mark Tedeschi.  A very poignant fictionalized account of Harry’s life was also produced by Sydney’s Siren Theatre Company called ‘The Trouble with Harry’ in 2017.

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