The two faces of the femme fatale

Matilda Devine, criminal record number 659LB, 27 May 1925. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW

Ann Savage from the 1945 film noir classic, Detour

The femme fatale is a staple character of crime fiction and film. Last weekend, I got a glimpse of the reality behind screen and literary presentations of female criminality at an exhibition into Australia’s famous female criminals, currently taking place at Geelong’s National Wool Museum.

You don’t have to have a PhD in cultural studies to realise that our fascination with women as deviants is deeply rooted in conceptions that stretch back to the Bible (Eve, anyone?), fairy and folk tales. The exhibition, Femme Fatale: The female criminal opens with a quote by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso from 1893 that epitomises this worldview: “The born female is, so to speak, doubly exceptional, first as a women and then as a criminal. This is because criminals are an exception among civilised people and women are the exception among criminals… As a double exception, then, the criminal woman is a monster.”

The exhibition includes a pretty grim history of the illegal or backyard abortion industry, the women who often ran it and the police who profited from protecting it. This includes some amazing police crime scene photos (not for the faint hearted) of the premises in which back yard abortionists operated.

A section examines the depiction of women criminals in popular culture, including the femme fatale of classic hardboiled and noir crime fiction and film, women in prison films such as Convicted Women in 1940 (“WOMEN WEEP … but not for their sins … as tear gas quells female prison riots”), and more recent examples such as Thelma and Louise and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

The contrast between these sometimes lurid, at other glamorous, screen and textual presentations and the reality experienced by female Australian criminals in the first half of the last century couldn’t be more stark.

There was Kate Leigh, a thief, fence, drug dealer, ex-prostitute and sly grogger and razor girls like Tilly Devine, who dominated female criminality in inter war Sydney. Nellie Cameron was a well-known Sydney prostitute and bare-knuckle fighter. Iris Webber carried a knuckle-duster in her handbag and was dubbed “the most violent woman in Sydney” by police.

But it’s the mug shot images of women who did time in the State Reformatory for Women set up in Sydney’s Long Bay jail, that most clearly depict the reality of female crime in the early part of the last century.

Covering the period 1915-30, these were recovered and restored by the NSW Justice and Police Museum. I’ve seen their work before (they put together a great book of photographs of Australian criminals from the depression era) and they’ve always impressed me with how well they restore images.

There’s nothing glamorous about the women in these images. Their crimes include sly grogging, vagrancy, petty theft and the occasional murder. Who knows the exact circumstances, but they are overwhelmingly poverty related offences.

Their lives of hardship, violence and drug and alcohol abuse are etched on their faces and in most cases have prematurely aged them.

It’s as far away from the classic image of the femme fatale as you can get.

If you get a chance, the exhibition is well worth checking out.

Femme Fatale: The female criminal runs until June 13 at Geelong’s National Wool Museum.

Photographs courtesy of the NSW Justice and Police Museum




3 Responses

  1. “Woman is rarely wicked, but when she is, she is worse than a man.” Do you think this Italian proverb may have influenced Lombroso’s thinking on the subject of female criminality?
    Great review, Andrew. I second your endorsement of this fascinating exhibition.

  2. Pingback: The two faces of the femme fatale « Angela Savage

  3. Pingback: Will the real Nellie Cameron please take a bath | Angela Savage

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