Eugenia Falleni lived for decades as Harry Crawford until arrested for murder
Caitlyn Jenner and now the Oscar-nominated film The Danish Girl have shone the light on the difficulties faced by transgender people as never before. Jenner’s transition and Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener) is bringing understanding and acceptance that others could never have dreamed of.
Take the tragic story of Sydney’s Eugenia Falleni, born about 1875, who lived most of her life as Harry Crawford. From an early age Falleni felt more comfortable as a male. For many years she lived secretly as a man in Sydney, but in the 1920s her story was made public under the most tragic and humiliating circumstances.
Eugenia is believed to have been born in Italy, the eldest of 22 children. The family migrated to New Zealand in 1877 but Eugenia was punished for dressing in boys clothes and being a tomboy.
As a teenager she ran away from home several times. At 19 her father forced her into a marriage with an Italian man named Braseli. When it turned out that Braseli was already married, Eugenia ran away for good.
Signing on as a ship’s cabin boy under the name Eugene Falleni she lived as a man aboard ships for several years until a captain discovered her secret and subjected her to continued rapes. She was forced ashore in Newcastle in 1898 and made her way to Sydney where she gave birth to a daughter she named Josephine.
She left her baby in the care of an Italian woman in Double Bay and took on the identity of Harry Leo Crawford, dressing as a man and working as a manual labourer.
Although some thought him strange and somewhat reserved, none of Crawford’s co-workers suspected his secret. They knew him to be a good worker who, despite his small frame, was not afraid of hard work.
Crawford always spurned the interest of young ladies until in 1912, when he was working as a general hand and cart driver at a company in Wahroonga, he fell for his boss’s housekeeper Annie Birkett, a widowed mother of a teenager son.
Crawford finally allowed himself to get close to a woman, even devising a method of making love that would convince her he was a man. They were married in 1913 and set up a sweets shop in Balmain together.
Crawford maintained the deception until 1917 when Annie discovered his secret from a neighbour. Determined to save the marriage Harry took Annie on a picnic on the banks of the Lane Cove River to convince her to stay
Something terrible happened on that picnic. According to later statements by Crawford Annie slipped and fell, fatally hitting her head on a rock. In a panic he tried to burn her body and obliterate the evidence. Her body was discovered but it would be years before the police were able to identify her remains.
Telling Annie’s son, Harry Birkett, that she had run off with another man Crawford moved house and in 1919 married Elizabeth Allison.
In 1920 the police finally identified Annie’s body with the help of Harry Birkett who recognised her jewellery and Crawford was later arrested.
The first mugshots were taken of Crawford in men’s clothes before he was forced to change into women’s clothes for more humiliating photographs.
There was more humiliation in store. Newspapers reported the Falleni case as the “man-woman” and there was intense interest from a less than understanding public.
Society was outraged by this woman “masquerading as a man” and supposedly defrauding innocent women into marriage.
At the trial Falleni’s defence centred on challenging the identification of the body as that of Annie, but the jury was not convinced. Falleni was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
Execution may have been a kinder sentence, because of the agony of being forced to live as a woman in prison. Falleni was released from Long Bay in 1931 because of her failing health, but was dogged by her tragic past.
She died in 1938 from injuries sustained after being hit by a car on Oxford St near her home at Paddington.
Was ‘transgender warrior’ a victim of an Australian miscarriage of justice?
Mark Tedeschi QC’s biography of Eugenia Falleni exposes a potential unjust murder conviction from 1920
f you go into the lord chief justice’s court at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, you may notice a pair of rather shabby red velvet curtains, to the left and right of the presiding judge’s chair. Each curtain is suspended from a horizontal brass rod, which is hinged so that it can sit flat against the panelled wall when not required.
Although court 4 is regularly used for ceremonial occasions, such as the swearing-in of senior legal figures and the extraordinary 800-year-old quit rents ceremony, I have never seen the curtains swung out for use. I had always assumed they were Victorian draught excluders, made redundant by improvements to the central heating system since the courts were opened in 1882.
That was until this week, when I read a chilling account of a woman being sentenced to death. This was not an Indonesian court sentencing someone for drug trafficking but an Australian court sentencing a defendant for murder.
The year was 1920. After hearing the jury’s verdict and inviting the defendant to address the court, the chief justice of New South Wales “gave an almost imperceptible nod to the sheriff’s officer who was waiting in the body of the court”. The official knew exactly what the gesture meant.
He walked to the front of the court, mounted the stairs to the bench, walked around the back of the judge to the two, large, hinged curtain rods that were normally flush on the wall behind the bench, each rod carrying a black velvet curtain, and swung them forward to a position on either side of the judge. By ancient tradition, this signalled that a death sentence was about to be handed down. This quaint practice symbolically isolated the judge from all side distractions and influences and focussed his attention on the prisoner directly in front of him, so as to assist him in discharging the distasteful task at hand.
Before I explain the remarkable background to this case, I should say that — as far as I know — nobody has ever been sentenced to death in court 4 of the Royal Courts of Justice, although the court of criminal appeal certainly used to hear appeals in capital cases there. Perhaps there is a legal historian who can tell me whether the courtroom curtains in London were ever deployed in the way they were in Sydney.
The woman sentenced to death in New South Wales had been convicted of murdering Annie Birkett, a woman who had believed she was the defendant’s wife. Eugenia Falleni had lived as a man for 22 years and, during that time, had taken part in two ceremonies of marriage with women who each believed that they were marrying a man. The second woman even persuaded herself she had become pregnant by Falleni.
Eugenia, the new biography of Falleni from which I have taken the passage above is, written by Mark Tedeschi QC, senior crown prosecutor for New South Wales. He believes that Falleni was wrongly convicted on the basis of “fallacious scientific evidence, unreliable sighting witnesses, dubious police practice and an avalanche of prejudicial publicity”.
Tedeschi demonstrates all too clearly how a more experienced defence counsel could have secured an acquittal or, at worst, a manslaughter verdict. It is a message that the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, should take to heart. And the authorities in Indonesia might care to note that, as long ago as 1920, Australian politicians were not prepared to see someone they regarded as a woman going to the gallows. No women had been executed in New South Wales for more than 30 years. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Falleni was released on licence in 1931, only to die in a road accident in 1938.
Born in Italy in 1875 and brought up in New Zealand, Falleni went to sea at the age of 21. The following year, Falleni was raped by a sea captain who discovered that he and his crew had been deceived by the young sailor. Falleni became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who went on to have a family of her own.
It was in 1913 that Falleni, then known as Harry Crawford, went through a ceremony of marriage with Birkett. What strikes the modern reader as extraordinary was that Birkett, who had been widowed some seven years earlier and left with a young son, took more than four years to realise how she was being deceived by Falleni, despite several tell-tale signs.
Tedeschi explains how Falleni used a dildo and always wore a loose-fitting undershirt during lovemaking. Eventually, Birkett confronted Falleni, but Tedeschi’s account of their falling out makes it clear that Birkett’s death could have been an accident.
In his highly readable biography, Tedeschi concludes that Falleni was a “transgender warrior at a time when there was no understanding of her condition and no support for her cause”. He says “the most acceptable term today for Eugenia Falleni’s condition is ‘gender identity disorder’, which is synonymous with transsexualism”.
But Tedeschi writes as a lawyer, not as a psychologist. His main concern is to expose a miscarriage of justice for which one of his predecessors was largely responsible. An honest prosecutor never regards an unjust conviction as a successful outcome.
- NSW State Records https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/magazine/galleries/eugenia-falleni-convicted-murderer
- Eugenia Falleni lived for decades as a Harry Crawford until arrested for murder, The Daily Telegraph, 29 January 2016, by Troy Lennon https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/today-in-history/eugenia-falleni-lived-for-decades-as-harry-crawford-until-arrested-for-murder/news-story/6c4d080303b1d7bd4c5e85ccba99d107
- Was ‘transgender warrior’ a victim of an Australian miscarriage of justice?, The Guardian, 24 June 2013, by Joshua Rozenberg https://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/jan/23/australian-transgender-warrior-miscarriage-justice