From 1934 to 1942, the body of a woman found dressed in yellow silk pyjamas was kept preserved. Thousands of people looked at her as she lay – firstly, in a bath of ice in Albury and later, in a bath of formaldehyde, at Sydney University. But who was she?
The young woman’s body was found on September 1, 1934 by a farmer, Tom Griffith, who was walking his bull near Albury in NSW. The body, with a bullet in the neck, had been pushed into a large pipe running under the road. Newspapers of the day went into breathless detail.
"With the forehead cruelly battered, and the legs and lower part of the abdomen charred to a black mass..." one front-page story began.
The young woman was wearing yellow silk pyjamas with a Chinese dragon on them, considered exotic in Depression-era Australia, so the media quickly labelled her the Pyjama Girl.
The case, described as "one of the most baffling murders that has ever confronted the police of this State", was constantly in the newspapers. Police followed all sorts of leads, even tracking down every woman under 40 who hadn’t voted in the Federal election the weekend after the body was found.
The woman’s body was kept first at the Albury morgue and then, when no members of the public could identify her, she was transferred to Sydney University’s medical school.
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In 1935, a man came forward to suggest that the dead woman might be a friend of his, Linda Agostini. Linda had disappeared in August 1934. But other people who knew Linda viewed the body and said it wasn’t her. Linda’s husband Antonio, an Italian immigrant, also viewed the body and said it wasn’t her. He gave police the name of her dentist, and the dental records ruled out the possibility.
Another identity put forward for the woman was Anna Philomena Morgan. Morgan’s mother was convinced it was her, as was a doctor called Thomas Benbow, but police didn’t agree. They believed Morgan had changed her name to Jean Morris and been murdered in Queensland in 1932.
The body stayed at Sydney University, where it became something of a ghoulish attraction.
"Hundreds of people anxious to help solve the crime have viewed the body, but with no result other than personal horror," The Pyjama Girl Case newsreel, considered to be Australia’s first true-crime film, declared in 1939. "For no one who has seen it once wants to see it again."
In March 1944, with the case still unsolved, the NSW police commissioner, William MacKay, went to his favourite Italian restaurant. He noticed that his waiter, Antonio Agostini – who he had known before Agostini was sent to internment camps for four years – was looking agitated, and he asked him to come to the station. There, newspapers of the day reported, Antonio told police he had been going through hell for the past 10 years and wanted to tell the truth.