Women comprise a relatively small percentage of inmates in Australia – making up just 8.3% of all inmates around the nation last year.
Criminological research and ‘true crime’ stories have traditionally focussed on men who have committed heinous crimes.
There are, however, several notable exceptions – including true crime shows like ‘Wives With Knives’, ‘Deadly Women’ and ‘Snapped,’ which air on pay television.
And just last week, the Public Record Office of Victoria released the prison records of women incarcerated in the state between 1855 and 1934 via a publically accessibly, digitised online archive system.
This valuable resource presents an exciting opportunity for historians, writers, criminologists and descendants to learn more about women who spent time behind bars – including their deeds and even the adversities that they faced in prison.
It provides interesting data about the types of crimes committed by females and reasons behind offending – as well as the challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system.
Differential Treatment of Male and Female Inmates
While much has been done to address gender inequality in recent years, it was a different story back in the day when women were considered inferior to men.
For instance, a comparison of male and female records reveals that women were routinely imprisoned for having sexually transmitted infections (known as ‘venereal disease’) while men who suffered from the same afflictions usually got away scot-free.
In the 19th and early 20th century, it was difficult for women to secure employment – particularly when they had a family to look after. In the absence of social security and women’s refuges, those who were widowed at a young age were often forced to turn to crime to support themselves and their children.
This saw large numbers of women imprisoned for minor theft (larceny) offences.
In other cases, women who were ‘doing it tough’ actually sought to be locked up, with many tempted by the promise of a bed, shelter, regular food and water, and access to medical attention.
Notorious Female Criminals
While many women were incarcerated for relatively minor offences, the records reveal that others committed heinous acts which would shock even the most hardened true-crime fans.
Take Elizabeth Elburn, for instance. Better known by her alias, Madame Olga Radalyski, she ran a brothel and fortune-telling business from a house in South Yarra. In the 1890s, she met 19-year-old Thelka Dubberke. The two soon became close friends, and Dubberke moved into the house and began paying rent.
In 1898, a 17-year-old girl by the name of Mabel Ambrose visited the house, seeking treatment for an undisclosed medical condition. Three months later, her body was found naked and bound inside a boot box in the Yarra River – leading the case to be dubbed ‘The Case of the Body in the Boot Box.’
Police were puzzled by the finding, and, in a grisly bid to identify the killer, decapitated the body and put Ambrose’s head on display at the morgue, attracting droves of onlookers desperate for a glimpse of the gore.
Eventually, Dubberke caved-in and confessed to police, giving evidence at Madame Olga’s trial that young Ms Ambrose had sought to procure an abortion, and had been electrocuted with a terrifying device constructed from a battery, wires and connectors. The girl was also given ergot, a component of LSD, which was frequently used to procure miscarriages.
It transpired that Ms Ambrose had died from her ‘treatment’ around 13th of December 1898. Fearing prosecution, Dubberke and Madame Olga cut the young girl’s hair off in an attempt to disguise her, before throwing her body into the river.
Following the trial, Madame Olga was sentenced to death – but her sentence was later reduced to just 10 years imprisonment.
Dubberke was rewarded for her assistance to police, and was not charged at all.
Another gruesome story is that of Frances Lydia Alice Knorr – also known as the ‘Baby Farming Murdress.’
The economy reach rock-bottom in 1892, and desperate women considered any means to make a few pennies. The money-making method employed by Knorr was unorthodox to say the least. Knorr decided to establish a business as a ‘child minder,’ selling children to couples who could not conceive.
Children who could not be sold met an unfortunate and tragic end –brutally strangled and buried in a backyard. When a new tenant found a baby girl’s remains in the yard, police were called to dig up the rest of the area. They uncovered the remains of a baby boy, and Knorr was ultimately sentenced to death. She was hanged on 15 January 1894.
If you are interested in the plights of these women, you may wish to have a flick through the database of the Public Record Office of Victoria.
Who knows, you might even find a long-lost relative or two!