Australia’s Most Infamous Criminals by Graham Seal

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Any country whose first colonists were predominantly criminals should be an excellent breeding place for crime stories.   Graham Seal’s latest compilation in his “Great” series is proof positive that Australia has sired generations of inventive felons for whom nothing is sacrosanct.

The book commences with a chapter on crimes of the convict era, but subsequent chapters are thematic rather than chronological, with generic titles like Crime Scenes and Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries. There are over 60 diverse stories, each of a few pages, including the usual bank robberies and murders and the less common hijacks and swindles. In a nod to more modern times, there are stories of shipwreck looting, money laundering and stolen antiquities.

The title itself is a little misleading, in that many of the criminals are more ingenious than infamous. Seal’s trawl through the archives has produced numerous stories that are little known and he has chosen to omit many well publicised cases. Some of the crimes are tragic, some violent, some breathtakingly brilliant, some downright bizarre – adding up to an engaging blend.

In this era of cyberstalking and scamming, the historic con-men and women may have loved the criminal opportunities available now. Even so, their low-tech scams are often brilliantly conceived and executed. Amy Bock spent over 50 years pretending to be other people and carrying out complicated scams across the 19th and 20th centuries. It takes some skill for a woman to impersonate a rich (male) sheep farmer and to marry an unsuspecting young woman at a large and expensive wedding.  No spoilers, but it turned out OK for one of them.

Another inventive fraudster was the aptly named Ethel Swindells of Manchester, whose unlawfully-derived income was sufficient to travel the world and dupe people of the antipodes. Her eight husbands and forty aliases must have been something of a record.

But it is easy to forget that even these non-violent crimes can have indelible effects on the victims.  Unfortunately, there is too much material here for Seal to go into much depth about the impacts on the many innocent people caught up in these crimes.

Two of the attributes which often kept criminals out of jail were fast mouths and fast running. Antonio Martini liked to dress like an American gangster and his thick clothing was perfect for concealed weapons, hacksaws and even slowing bullets. His powers of escape were legendary and despite repeated incarcerations, woundings and injuries, somehow lived for 81 years.

Bank robbers seem to have a prominent place in Australian crime history. A favourite was the meticulously planned Great Bookie Robbery of 1976: Weeks before the robbery, the thieves took bolts from the fire escape door…cut them in half and glued them together again…..They also managed to hack the elevator system, ensuring that the lifts would be stuck between floors… [p134]. The $15m or so that was stolen was never recovered, though the fallout in the underworld was savage, as a number of those involved were murdered by rivals.

Spanning over 200 years, the book’s content gives us some insights into the social mores of the day, not to mention the evolution in policing. Iris Webber (aka Shingles aka Furlong) was less well known than her female contemporaries of the early 20th century, like Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. She was a woman of many skills – as adept with knuckle dusters and tomahawks as she was at talking her way out of prison. Yet the police seemed more interested in her lesbianism than her not infrequent violence.

Professor Seal has made the crimes and the criminals the real stars of this book. Don’t expect much in the way of analysis – Seal leaves that to criminologists and philosophers. Although we are sometimes privy to the consequences, most of the time the effects on victims and their loved ones is left to the imagination. For light entertainment and plenty of surprises, it is worth a read.

Graham Seal is Emeritus Professor of Folklore at Curtin University. He is a leading expert on Australian cultural history and an award-winning songwriter. He is the bestselling author of Great Australian Stories, Great Bush Stories, Great Convict Stories, Australia’s Funniest Yarns, Great Australian Mysteries and Great Australian Places.

Australia’s Most Infamous Criminals

(October 2023)

by Graham Seal

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 176106 903 1

$34.99; 320pp

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