Black Widow by Carol Baxter

A fascinating read.

Black Widow by Carol Baxter

‘Louisa Collins, the woman, will always remain an enigma, an intriguing mystery that cannot be solved.  Louisa Collins, the murderer, however, has achieved a notoriety that will never be eclipsed.’

On 9 January 1889, Louise Collins (aged 39) was hanged.  The first woman to be hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol, the last woman to be hanged in New South Wales.  She was hanged after being found guilty – at her fourth trial – of the murder of her second husband Michael Collins.  Four trials?  Yes.  The first three trials resulted in hung juries.  Who was Louisa Collins?  Dubbed the Lucrezia Borgia of Botany Bay, she was twice widowed, and had seven living children.  Did she really murder two husbands?  Was she a callous adulterer, drunkard, liar and murderer?

‘Six court hearings; hundreds of pages of depositions and court transcripts; a hundred thousand words of testimony: for a writer of historical true-crime thrillers, this amount of original source material makes Louisa Collins’ case a dream story.’

In this book, one of two specifically about Louisa Collins, Ms Baxter focusses on the judicial process that led to Louisa Collins’s execution.

On 2 July 1888, Louisa Collins sought medical help from Dr Marshall in Elizabeth Street, Sydney.  Her husband Michael, was very ill at home. Dr Marshall visited Michael Collins several times, and became suspicious about the cause of his illness and his failure to respond to prescribed medicine.  Dr Marshall suspected arsenic poisoning, and when Michael Collins died, he refused to sign the death certificate.  Dr Marshall notified the police and also provided them with the remains of a tumbler of milk which, when tested, proved to contain arsenic.

Another doctor at the same practice remembered treating Louisa Collins’s first husband, Charles Andrews, for a gastric illness that had also proven fatal.  Once arsenic was confirmed in the body of Michael Collins, Charles Andrews’s remains were exhumed and tested.  Minute quantities of arsenic were found.  Michael Collins and Louisa had married very soon after the death of Charles Andrews: Michael Collins had previously boarded at the Andrews house.  All very suspicious.

While the death of Charles Andrews had left Louisa with a large insurance payout (£178), Michael Collins was uninsured. So what motive did Louisa have for poisoning him?

It took four trials to find Louisa Collins guilty, and each of the trials was reported in detail by the newspapers.  Ms Baxter has quoted extensively from the transcripts, thus providing a contemporary sense and view of proceedings.

This book raises a lot of issues for the reader to consider. If Louisa Collins was guilty (and I’m inclined to think she was, as no-one else seemed to have the opportunity to poison either man), should she have been hanged?  Do then ends justify the means?  Was it appropriate for her to have had four trials?  Should information about Charles Andrews’s death have been introduced into her trial for the death of Michael Collins?  Louisa Collins was found guilty (finally) on circumstantial evidence in a process that seemed to be highly prejudiced against her.  A woman, tried and convicted by men in a system where women had no vote, no voice.  Would the outcome have been different if women had been part of the judicial process?  Should the outcome have been different?

I found this book fascinating.  Before I read it, I knew only that Louisa Collins was the last woman hanged in New South Wales.  I knew nothing about her crimes, and certainly had not considered the possible consequences of her trial and execution.  These days, her trial would not be considered fair.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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