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One Woman. Two Husbands. One Bloody Execution.

By MIA FREEDMAN

Louisa Collins was not your average Australian woman. A mother of 10. She liked a drink and a dance. She had two husbands and a baby who all died in a short space of time in unexplained ways. One woman. Two husbands. Four trials. One bloody execution.

The new book by best-selling author Caroline Overington is a ripping read and a true-crime story that you won’t be able to put down. But it’s more than that. Because Louisa Collins was the Last Woman Hanged in NSW and what happened to her had an impact on every woman in Australia.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I read it in a couple of sittings and you will love it. Also makes a most excellent gift for any woman in your life of any age. I’m buying in bulk for Christmas.

I’d love to say I sat down with Caroline to ask her about the book but whenever Caroline and I get together, we always have so much to talk about, there’s never enough time.  So we did this via email.

Also – she’s quite busy. She’s written a best-selling novel every year for the past six years, is an Associate Editor at the Women’s Weekly, writes for their website, is the mother of twins and keeps winning awards.

But this book has been her passion project over the past decade and when you read more about it, you’ll understand why………

Mia: Louisa Collins was the last woman hanged in NSW. What crime did she commit?

Caroline Overington: Louisa was twice married and – unlucky for some – she was also twice widowed. She was accused of the murder of both of her husbands.

MF: Her execution was pretty brutal. What went wrong?

CO: The hangman misjudged the drop. It had been around 40 years since a woman had been hanged, and he was supposed to calculate Louisa’s weight, and decide how long the rope should be, based on that. But he made the rope too short, and almost tore her head off. It was ghastly.

MF: And why were no other women hanged (hung?) after her?

CO: Capital punishment had been standard for the crime of murder since the arrival of the First Fleet. Floggings were also common, as were the stocks. But by the late 1880s, Australia was keen on becoming a nation in its own right, not just a penal colony. And the local politicians – all men – thought that Australia wouldn’t be taken seriously as a mature nation, if it continued with such barbaric practices. Louisa’s hanging was for many people the last straw.

MF: You’re a Walkley-award winning journalist and this is your ninth book but you’re best known as a best-selling fiction author. How did Louisa come into your life?

CO: I was working at The Australian in 2008, when my editor asked me to find out if anyone had ever been tried more than once for murder. I went looking – and Louisa’s trial came up. I thought, how strange! She was tried four times? How compelling could the evidence have been? Why were they so determined to get her? Once I started the research, it was difficult to stop.

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MF: What was the process of writing the book like? How long did it take and how did you manage it with all your other jobs and your family?

CO: I write on Fridays. It’s my day off from my day job at the Women’s Weekly. I would think about Louisa all week, but I only put the words down on Friday. They were always ready to come tumbling out.

MF: You write in your introduction to the book that, “It is often said that history is written by winners but, at least until recently, it was written by men.” It’s also written about men usually isn’t it? All those books about wars and political and sporting biographies. What did you learn about what life was like for Australian women in the years Louisa Collins lived and died?

CO: Louisa Collins lived and died at a time when women had no power, and no influence. There were no female politicians. Women could not vote. They could not sit on juries. They did not work for newspapers. So of course it makes sense that newspapers were filled with news about men: what rules they were making; what business they were pursuing; what sports they were playing. It was  privilege to delve into the records, to discover what women were doing at the turn of the century, how spirited, how curious, how intelligent and lively they were. The women who fought for Louisa’s life had real moral courage. People laughed at them, and they didn’t care. They marched on, and in their march, they have taken us right up to, and then right through, the doors of power.

MF: Are any of Louisa’s relatives still alive and have you met them?

CO: Yes. And yes. And it’s been a profoundly moving experience for all of us.

MF: You’ve been on an extraordinary journey with Louisa that’s been both emotional and forensic. How do you feel about her now?

CO: It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. I miss her. I have visited the grave of her little girl, who was forced to give evidence against her. I wept like a child.

MF: You write Louisa’s story in the most page-turning, rollicking thriller of a way but this book isn’t just about her is it?

CO: No. It’s about us. It’s about all of us. It’s about the women who fought for us, in the 19th century, who achieved the vote for us, and got us onto juries, and banged on the doors of the universities, demanding to be let in. It’s about the women who started up their own newspapers, and opened their own businesses, and fought to keep their children after divorce.

They did all of that not for themselves, but for us. They did it for us. And while I was writing this book, I couldn’t help thinking, if they were here now, in their petticoats and their boots, what would they think? Would they be proud of what we’ve achieved? I think they would be amazed. Amazed and proud.

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MF: Can you share a bit about how you launched the book this week and what you said about the women in the room?

CO: In the days after Louisa was sentenced to death, thousands of Australian women rose up to try to save her life.

It took enormous courage, because they were so powerless.

They did not succeed in halting the execution. Louisa was hanged. But in the days and weeks after she died, many of the women moved from fighting for her, to fighting for women’s rights more generally.

Less than 15 years after Louisa was hanged, Australian women became some of the first in the world to get the vote.

They didn’t do that for her. They did that for us.

And it wasn’t just the vote they wanted.

We are what they wanted.

In the room, at the launch, we had lawyers, doctors, editors, writers, publishers. We had politicians, and the journalists who hold them to account.

We had women who were working, and women who were not.

We had women who had children; women who had tried, and missed out, with all the agony that involves; and we had women who had said: you know what? Motherhood is not for me.

The women in that room were living the lives that our sisters, more than 100 years ago, wanted for us: lives of real freedom, and choice.

Leigh Sales with Caroline and Melissa Hoyer at her book launch.

Of course the battles aren’t over.

It was an honour for me to have my friend, Dr Eman Sharobeem, attend the launch. Eman works with some of the newer migrant communities in Sydney’s west, trying to prevent girls aged 13 and even younger from being taken abroad, to be forced into marriage with men to whom they are already related.

Then, too, we had women in the room who still cannot marry the woman of their dreams.

The book launch.

So no, the fight is not over. But we will get there, I’m sure.

In the meantime, I wanted to have an all-woman lunch to say thank you, to women who by their own example show what is now possible; and to say thank you – thank you – to that phenomenal generation of women who fought so hard for so many of the rights that we enjoy today.

We are what they wanted. They would, I think, be proud of us.

Caroline’s book is onsale from the 1st of November, but available on Kindle now, you can buy it here.

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