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The only ones who know are the people who were there Between 1907 and 1908, three small children died in Perth, Western Australia It was claimed that their stepmother, Martha Rendell, murdered them Public opinion, inflamed by horrific descriptions of how the children were poisoned, demanded that she be executed After Martha Rendell was convicted of the murder of one of the children Arthur Morris , she was hanged on 6 October 1909 the last woman to be executed in Western Australia.But did Martha Rendell murder the children Was Martha Rendell a murderer, or a victim of circumstances and prejudice As the de facto wife of a married man, Martha Rendell s respectability was highly suspect in the eyes of early 20th century society But who was Martha Rendell, and how else might she have been viewed at the time Anna Haebich s approach to this story is interesting She has chosen to look at Martha Rendell, and broadly the people of Perth in the early 20th century, through the eyes of five characters Four of these characters the photographer the detective the doctor and the reverend would each have had some contact with Martha Rendell Each of them has a perspective, not all of them consider her guilty The doctor, especially, has a broader view The researcher is somewhat removed from the actual events but keen to ascertain the facts And the facts the basis of Martha Rendell s execution are capable of differing interpretations.I found Ms Haebich s approach intriguing, and it certainly made me think both about this particular case and the role of perceptions in general I don t know whether Martha Rendell murdered these children or not, but it is difficult to accept that this was as straightforward a case as the verdict seemed to indicate Prejudice and ignorance seemed to play as greater part in the outcome as forensic evidence The children were not the only victims Despite all of the hyperbole written about her, Martha s true identity has remained shrouded in mystery Jennifer Cameron Smith It S In Perth, Australia, And Sensational Rumors Of The Murder Of Three Small Children By Their Stepmother Ignite The Passions Of The Citizens Shocked By Horrific Descriptions Of How Martha Rendell Poisoned The Children, Perth S Citizens As One Voice Demanded Her Execution But Did Martha Rendell Truly Do It Or Was She A Victim Of The Prejudices Of Her Persecutors Based On A True Story And Meticulously Researched, This Compelling Novel Is Driven By Passion, Imagination, And An Eerie Conjuring Up Of The Past Author Anna Haebich Brings To Life The People Of Perth And The Entangled Mesh Of Self Righteous Bigotry, Slander, And Unbridled Revenge That They Invoked To Propel The Trial Of Martha Rendell To Its Inevitable End The Book Documents The Accused Woman S Downward Spiral From Her Dreams Of A New Beginning With Her Lover To A Life Of Domestic Drudgery And Deceit Then Her Final Days On The Edge Of The Abyss Becoming The Last Woman In The State To Be Hanged Murdering Stepmothers Is Told From The Perspective Of Five Different Characters The Doctor, The Priest, The Photographer, The Researcher, And The Detective The Book Creates A Fresh, Vivid, Fusion Of Factual History And Insightful Imagining Inspired By The Author S Shared Experiences As A Stepmother, Which Perpetuated A Desire To Tell Martha S Story Without Sensationalism, It Tackles The Very Serious, And Still Relevant, Questions Of Conviction, Evidence, Legal Processes, And Right To Re Trial to get right to the heart of the matter, I liked this one.The blurb for this book reads as follows Professor Anna Haebich brings to life the people of Perth and the entangled mesh of self righteous bigotry, slander and unbridled revenge they invoke to propel the trial of Martha Rendell the last woman in the state to be hanged Based on a true story and meticulously researched, this compelling novel is driven by passion, imagination and an eerie conjuring up of the past.This is just the sort of blurb that gets my nosy self s heart pumping I first noticed this book in an ad in The New York Review of Books, and immediately I had to know who was Martha Rendell, why was she hanged, and all of the gruesome details, never having heard of this person before So I bought the book, thinking it was a new historical novel based on a real crime After reading it, it s a tough call as to whether it s actually a novel or no But I ll get back to this later.In 1909, a 14 year old boy named George Morris ran away from his father William and his stepmother Martha Rendell in reality the two were not actually married , back to the home of his mother He had claimed that three of his siblings had died in their home in East Perth, and that he was worried he was next Within the span of 18 months, all of the children had become ill, and after recovering, were being cared for by Rendell One by one they began to develop strange symptoms, in particular a peculiar membranous condition of the mouth and throat which the physician had never seen before And then one by one, they died, except for George, who said that Rendell had pretended to pour out his brother s Arthur medicine, but then replaced it with spirits of salts This caused Arthur to scream in pain, and become deadly ill As the children began to die, George left, seeking shelter with his mother There was just enough doubt to cause authorities to dig up the children s bodies and charge both Rendell and Morris with murder.Haebich tries to reconstruct the case from four different points of view a newspaper photographer who followed the trial, a detective whose hero and model was Conan Doyle s Sherlock Holmes, a physician, and a reverend, who ministered to Rendell within the prison walls She provides a wealth of information about the period, including past poisoners, the power of the press, and the science of medicine and pathology of the time In each person s narrative, the reader is left with some doubt as to whether or not Rendell was really guilty If she was guilty, then perhaps there was some physical, psychological, social or emotional reasoning behind her crimes After the four different points of view are completed, the final say is given over to the author in a chapter entitled the researcher Here she notes that while trying to put together Rendell s story, she realised early in the piece that a conventional historical narrative could not possibly convey the nuances of this complex and controversial case Due to the many gaps in the records there were also many questions that could only answered via imaginative reconstructions of people and events She then goes on to provide an analysis of what may have actually happened, and discusses her experiences with descendants of the Morrises.Although the approach she s taken plays out well, I don t think she needed to go that route Within the different reconstructions, she provides a wealth of factual information related to the case that could have stood on its own put together in a singular historical retelling There s very little dialogue in the narratives, the voices are not as distinct as those of different characters should be in a novel, and you never really get the feeling that you re actually reading a novel in its true sense Now, having said that, Murdering Stepmothers is still a book that will keep you reading and involved The case itself is interesting and you as the reader are left to put together all of the different sociological, psychological and physical threads to decide for yourself as to Rendell s guilt or innocence Haebich s analysis of the available facts is very well done and the book is not just another over sensationalized true crime account that crowds bookseller shelves Overall it s a good book, with few distractions and a well grounded sense of time and place. Long before Disney cashed in on her notoriety, the sinister archetype of the murdering stepmother has held the collective psyche in thrall like no other villain In an intriguing interlacing of fact and fiction, Anna Haebich takes this morbid fascination as her premise to investigate the trial and execution of Martha Rendell a Perth woman convicted of poisoning to death three of her stepchildren in the early 1900s and the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia Rather than a straight forward fictionalised biography, Haebich has chosen to narrate the story through a succession of characters either lifted directly, or composited from, the historical record These multiple points of view give a Haebich a nuanced means of conveying the prevailing attitudes particularly towards women , bigotry and religious dogma of the time, whilst entertaining variously informed opinions on Rendell s guilt or otherwise Rich in detail, it is a narrative devise calculated to show what a woman in Rendell s position was up against and how she was unlikely to have ever received a fair trial The detail comes as a product of Haebich s meticulous research which she uses to close the gap between the known facts of the case and what could have just as likely have happened Haebich articulates possible theories, alternative scenarios and the forensic and psychological thinking of the day through the speculative musings of her narrators It is a display of knowledge that makes for interesting reading, but it does stretch the bounds of credible characterisation at times Haebich s formal prose is in keeping with the era, without being unnecessarily flowery After four male voices, with their necessary, era specific sexism, however, there is a strong desire for the author to speak for herself and lay bare her own conclusions on Rendell s trial and execution Haebich satisfies this need by writing as the fifth and final narrator The Researcher and only woman to offer her opinion Ultimately, what Haebich achieves through her own voice and the cumulative effect of her male narrators is a persuasive argument against trials by media, public hysteria witch hunts and the malignant employment of stereotypes to condemn a person, all of which resonates as being just as applicable to the modern age as it was 100 years ago It is also the closest thing to a fair trial stepmother and convicted murderer, Martha Rendell, will ever receive. This book was really fascinating Not only did the author chronicle Western Australia s criminal and judicial past in telling the story of the last woman hanged in Western Australian history It resonates with the way in which stereotypes, such as stepmothers from folklore can still over ride reason up til today Early on, I had not realised that each of the first four chapters, given the headings of four male characters each implicit in this case, were in fact separate men telling their stories It was clear that the last character, The Researcher , was female with the author herself speaking This last chapter ties together wonderfully this sordid tale based on fact.A great read I gave up this book for three reasons.1 The author uses too many big words that I never heard of.2 The book isn t really about Martha Rendell 3 There s too many conflicting opinions between me and the book.Maybe I ll read about true crimes that take place later than 1907. Rather than being interested in Martha Rendell the woman the book is about, I want to know about a Scottish woman who was acquitted after a trial in 1857 for the suspected poisoning on her lover, who was only mentioned in passingThe Researcher section was good, but it never gelled as a novel it felt almost like monologues that could be delivered on stage, but the majority were a bit of a snoozefest reiewers in academic circles seemed to like it but it didn t do much for me Pretty dull Didn t actually finish it Just couldn t engage with the writing style.