March 17, 2009 / 5:48 AM / 10 years ago

Ruthless, real: Sydney showcases its criminal women

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Some of Sydney’s most infamous women criminals have come back to life in a museum exhibit that slays all stereotypes of the wickedly seductive, glamorous female outlaw.

The “Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal” exhibition, at The Justice & Police Museum, looks at crimes committed by females since the first immigrant woman stepped on to Australian soil through to the 1950s.

Not for the faint hearted, it also explores criminology, the justice system, religion and myth, popular culture and case studies of some of Sydney’s most notorious female criminals.

“We are really bringing to the forefront this contrast between what popular culture sees as the female criminal, often quite sexy, glamorous imagery and then the reality of the sad lives led by Sydney’s female criminals,” Nerida Campbell curator of the exhibition told Reuters.

The exhibition gives an insight into the lives of 40 notorious female criminals who were convicted and spent time in Sydney’s Long Bay maximum security jail.

These include infamous brothel owner Tilly Devine, illegal alcohol operator Kate Leigh; Yvonne Fletcher, the first women to use thallium to poison her two husbands and Louisa Collins, the last women hanged in New South Wales in 1889.


“The women of the Razor Gang era in the 1920s to the 1940s, in particular Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, they were women in quite powerful positions,” Campbell said.

“They were leaders which was quite unique at that time. They built up powerful empires compared to most female criminals who had very little power.”

Campbell described Leigh and Devine as tough and violent people who took advantage of circumstances after World War One when there was a power vacuum in the criminal world as many of the former male criminals either didn’t come home, or left a previous life of crime to take up other professions.

The women also took advantage of legislation at the time that made it illegal for a man to run a brothel, but not a woman.

“Kate Leigh shot a man dead and he was one of the toughest criminals in Sydney at that time,” said Campbell.

“Tilly Devine was charged and sentenced to prison for slashing a man from ear to ear with a razor in 1925 to teach him to speak more respectively (of her),” she added.

One of the walls of the exhibition is adorned with detective comic book covers depicting women in glamorous posses supposedly in the act of murder while the opposite wall displays stark black-and-white portraits, uncovered from the museum’s forensic photography archive, of women such as the ruthless Eugenia Falleni, dubbed the “man-woman murderer.”

Some of the weapons confiscated in raids on the women’s homes are also on display.

Part of the exhibit is also dedicated to showcasing illegal, female-run back street abortion clinics, that ranged from dirty dilapidated rooms filled with crude equipment to cleaner and cozier environments with proper medical care.

The exhibit runs from March through to April 2010.

Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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