Re-examining the life and crimes of a serial poisoner

SA writer Samantha Battams’ new book The Secret Art of Poisoning takes a fresh look at the life and crimes of Martha Needle, the Adelaide-born serial poisoner tried and executed for the murder of her brother-in-law in 1894.

Apr 17, 2019, updated Apr 17, 2019
Martha Needle at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1894. Photo: Public Records Office Victoria, Central Register of Female Prisoners

Martha Needle at Old Melbourne Gaol in 1894. Photo: Public Records Office Victoria, Central Register of Female Prisoners

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The true crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner begins with the complex familial relationship between Martha Needle and her nephew, Alexander Lee. The two were charged, convicted and executed for their respective crimes separated by a span of 26 years.

Needle was tried and executed for poisoning her brother-in-law with arsenic in 1894. Alexander poisoned his wife and three of his children with strychnine in 1920. Both aunt and nephew were 31 years old.

Author Samantha Battams highlights the astonishing similarities in the two cases, but The Secret Art of Poisoning is Martha Needle’s story. The account of the “The Black Widow”, as Needle became known, foregrounds a lifetime of deplorable poverty, cruelty and social, emotional and psychological deprivation in the lead-up to the tragic consequences which ensued.

Battams re-examines Needle’s case and her particular art of poisoning, and constructs a defence denied her at the time.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Needle was only ever convicted for the poisoning murder of Louis Juncken (whose brother Otto was her fiancé), and not of her husband and children. Nonetheless, the morbid details of the poisoning deaths and subsequent exhumations of her children and husband were discussed at great length during the trial. The grotesque descriptions were presented to the jury, published in the press, and prejudiced her case.

Battams’ poignant, beautifully crafted narrative is underpinned by a critical understanding of the psychological and sociological intricacies of the period. She explores the complexities of the case to make sense of an otherwise incomprehensible tragedy, simultaneously placing Needle’s personal and family predicament in the context of the communities in which she lived.

Needle’s convoluted and contradictory character and motivations in carrying out the murders are scrutinised. An account of her traumatic childhood illuminates the gradual deterioration of her mental state. Her alcoholic parents abused and neglected her in equal measure. She was a victim of sexual and physical abuse, experiencing years of severe headaches and delirium as a result of typhoid fever.

Some close to Needle regarded her as an attentive mother and wife. During the trial one witness claimed: “The children were nicely, cleanly and tenderly kept. I could not say I ever saw children kept more nicely. I never saw any unkindness.”

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And yet, Needle slowly poisoned those she loved.

An examination of her behaviour reveals a woman with a volatile and unpredictable temper, prone to fits, auditory and visual hallucinations, and lengthy periods of confusion – symptoms which Battams discusses in light of modern psychiatric medical analyses. Needle’s psychiatric instability was further intensified by an addiction to a readily available concoction of laudanum, morphine hydrochloride, cannabis and chloroform.

The detailed police investigations and court trials are extensively researched and presented. The question of Needle’s guilt seems conclusive. The challenges examined by Battams revolve around sociological influences and whether the convicted killer was of sound mind.

The author accurately re-creates a period in Australian social and legal history when women and children’s legal rights were questionable at best. Needle was convicted by an all-male jury (women didn’t appear on juries until the 1920s).

The story of the life and crimes of Martha Needle sheds light on a 19th– century justice system adversely influenced by public opinion, where evidence was discussed in the local press before a case went to trial. Much of the evidence included would today be disallowed, while the extenuating circumstances of poverty, domestic and family violence, psychiatric and emotional ill-health were often disregarded.

“The lack of appreciation for the depth of her suffering was astounding,” writes Battams.

The murders of the innocent remains deplorable and tragic. However, this case was steeped in prejudice from the beginning, resulting in the dubious trial, conviction, and execution of Martha Needle.

It is a poignant and heart-breaking tale. The alternative judgments put forward in retrospect by Battams create a picture of Martha Needle as both victim and perpetrator of her crimes.

Denise George is the author of Mary Lee: The life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights.

Samantha Battams is an Associate Professor at Flinders University and a writer of non-fiction historical books. The Secret Art of Poisoning is her first book (self-published this year). Her second book – The Red Devil: The Story of South Australian Aviation Pioneer Captain Harry Butler, written with Les Parsons and Malcolm Riley – will be published later this year by Wakefield Press.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The true crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner is being launched at Carclew on April 28 as part of the SA History Festival.

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