Last Woman Hanged written by journalist and author Caroline Overington is the story of Louisa Collins. Twice married, Collins endured not just one, but four trials for the murder of her second husband and was finally convicted of his murder and hanged. It’s also story of how the courageous women of New South Wales and beyond rallied to fight for the life of this unfortunate woman and in the process women’s rights and suffrage were won.
It’s an engaging book! This Australian story takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century where life was extremely hard for women. It concerns Louisa Collins, a young woman who had been forced into an early marriage to a man she didn’t love, and to whom she bore nine children. Her youthful days were spent feeding, washing and caring for her family. When hardship struck and the young couple found it difficult to make ends meet, Louisa and her husband Charles Andrews took in borders and very soon one of these, Michael Collins became Louisa’s lover. It was just a few months later that Louisa’s husband suddenly became sick and died. Friends and acquaintances noted and were appalled that Louisa failed to mourn the loss of her husband and all too soon became Michael Collins’ wife.
From what we read Louisa was in love with Collins even though it is suspected that Collins married her for the insurance money left to her on the death of her first husband. Collins soon gambled this away leaving the couple in debt with many mouths to feed. It wasn’t long before Louisa’s second husband Collins also became sick with ‘gastritis’ and despite medical attention succumbed. This time the sudden death of a relatively young man was noted and Louisa was accused of slowly poisoning Collins with arsenic.
The evidence gathered at the four trials into Collin’s death was circumstantial. No-one saw Louisa administer any arsenic neither was she seen to purchase the poison. Whereas the first three trials had failed to reach a guilty verdict the fourth trial saw her guilty of the crime of murdering her husband. Those involved were determined to find the woman guilty. Life in the 1880s was difficult for women who were often at the mercy of abusive husbands from whom they could not escape. Employment for women was rare and refuges even rarer. Therefore Louisa Collins must be seen to be punished for the murder of her husband – it wouldn’t do for her to escape punishment for other women suffering at the hands of her husband might get similar ideas.
But the evidence that convicted her was circumstantial. The testimony obtained from May, Louisa’s young daughter claiming that she had seen a box of rat poison containing arsenic in the house and the evidence from the expert who doubted that the men would absorb enough poison from handling fleeces to cause them death was crucial and led to Louisa’s conviction.
But not before the women of the colony had their say. The women roared. For they had very few rights. A woman’s place was definitely in the home. Women could not vote, and they did not sit on juries. Women had no say on the question of capital punishment. Many women supported Louisa and wrote to the governor and newspapers declaring that while Louisa may have done a terrible thing and poisoned her husbands, she should not be hanged. This they considered was barbaric. The women would have their say and they did.
In January 1889 a committed group of women set about to try to save Louisa’s life. One of the most determined was Mrs Eliza Pottie, a fifty-year-old mother of ten who among her other activities was president of the Mission Home for Women at Glebe, established to help unmarried mothers. But most importantly Mrs Pottie was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which believed in controlling the supply of alcohol to protect women from violent husbands. They advocated for women to be able to work and vote. Together with ten other women, Pottie drew up a resolution arguing that it was abhorrent that a woman and a mother should be hung till she was dead. Other women such as Elizabeth Parsons was responsible for the so-called petition of the women of Victoria which was signed by more than 500 women who declared that although the crime was loathsome the punishment by hanging was barbaric and was anathema to the spirit of modern civilisation. Although the Governor Lord Carrington promised to consider the petition he did nothing and Louisa was hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on Tuesday 8 January 1889.
As well as being a really absorbing story about Louisa Collins, her life and crimes, throughout the latter pages of the book Caroline Overington tells the little known stories of the wonderful women who as a result of their involvement in Louisa’s awful plight, underwent consciousness raising leading to a better life for all women.
Louisa’s ordeal led Australian women to become aware of the injustices that confronted their sex and to work towards suffrage and the right for women to earn a decent living and the right not to lose their children after divorce.
Caroline Overington correctly labels Last Woman Hanged a terrible true story but it’s much more. It’s also a wonderful and inspiring story of women’s fight for justice and this needs to be told!