Good Reading : February 2018
Sarah, the woman identified as the mother of the dead child. Sarah doesn’t look menacing, and she isn’t someone who projects an image of strength. This didn’t fit with my image of jazz-age women, nor with the history I had read of women during the ruthless razor-gang wars of Sydney’s inner city. This was an era I associated with women who were strong and unafraid of authority, like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. But if you look at a photo of Sarah taken in the 1920s, you’ll notice that there is very little fight left in her. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why Sarah’s story has been overlooked for so long. She certainly wasn’t a hero, and she couldn’t be called an antihero either; she was an ordinary person. As a researcher I was driven by one question – what could have happened in this woman’s life to bring her to this point? Like many people, I enjoy reading true cr ime, which typically presents us with a victim and a perpetrator. This combination can make for a very satisfying read because you are transported to a place of absolutes. Approaching Sarah’s story not as a true-crime reader but as a researcher offered me an opportunity to explore the genre in new ways. All of the conventional elements are there – a grisly crime is committed, police follow a trail of clues and capture a suspect, and a trial takes place. The most compelling areas of the story lie for me in the many moral ambiguities associated with Sarah’s case. What led a mother to commit an unthinkable act? Can someone be both villain and victim at the same time? As I read about Sarah, her life, and the time in which she lived, I was shocked by many things. First, the fascination for gruesome true cr ime stories is not a recent thing, as I had assumed. Cruelty and brutality made headlines then, as they still do today. Second, all cities have a secret and violent history, and this often involves society’s most vulnerable people. The deaths of victims who were very small children seem particularly horrible – limbs were missing, skulls were crushed, and babies who had drawn only their first breath were quickly suffocated. The modes of disposal also reveal a great deal. There was desperation, and there was terrible shame. One dead baby was abandoned on a train carr iage, in the few short moments available between one train station and the next. A newborn was hooked on a fishing line by an early-morning fisherman at Maroubra. Even now I find myself travelling across the city, feeling conflicted about the public places that are Sydney icons. While others see a grand historic building or a beautiful city park, I can’t help thinking that’s not just a park; it was once a silent, shameful and unmarked grave. Lifting the Lid on the Suitcase Baby GOOD READING FEBRUARY 2018 45 BEHIND THE BOOK This was an era I associated with women who were strong and unafraid of authority, like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. One dead baby was abandoned on a train carriage, in the few short moments available between one train station and the next. A newborn was hooked on a fishing line by an early-morning fisherman at Maroubra.