The Schoolgirl Strangler by Katherine Kovacic

‘Saturday, 8 November 1930 was an unseasonably warm Melbourne day.’

Twelve-year-old Mena Griffiths was playing in the park with her sisters and friends when she was lured away from the park by an unknown man. Lena’s body was found, strangled, and gagged, in an abandoned house the following morning. Just nine weeks later, sixteen-year-old Hazel Wilson was found, gagged, and strangled on a vacant block near her home.

In 1935, two more girls were murdered: twelve-year -old Ethel Belshaw and six-year-old June Rushmer.

After June Belshaw’s body was found, the man responsible for all four murders was captured, and confessed. He is tried, and eventually executed for his crimes. Who was he, and how did he manage to evade capture for so long? The police had suspects, had arrested men and, in one case, obtained the conviction of an innocent man.

In writing about this case, Ms Kovacic drew on contemporary newspaper reports (some of which can be accessed through Trove), police records and court documents. She sets out the chronology of each case, and of the subsequent investigation. It makes for heartbreaking reading.

Once the murderer is identified, Ms Kovacic takes us through his background and then through his trial. The murderer claimed to have no memory of events and the defence went for an insanity defence. By pleading insanity, the onus of proof fell on the defence to clearly establish insanity. The insanity defence failed, the murderer was found guilty and (after exhausting the appeals processes) was executed in Pentridge on 1 June 1936.

Before I read this book, I knew nothing about these four girls, although I had heard of the murderer. I finished the book, thinking of all the other lives destroyed when the murderer took the lives of Mena Griffiths (1918-1930); Hazel Wilson (1914-1931); Ethel Belshaw (1922-1935) and June Rushmer(1929-1935).

Ms Kovacic presents a comprehensive and accessible account of these historic murders, and I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in accounts of true crime.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith