COBURG, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA — On June 1, 1936, Arnold Karl Sodeman fulfilled the ultimate requirement of his death sentence by stepping into a noose and hanging in the gallows of Pentridge Prison.
Forty-seven-year-old Sodeman was condemned to die for the murders he committed between 1930 and 1935, in which he abducted and strangled four young girls using articles of their own clothing. Afterward, Sodeman tied his victims’ arms and legs together, then cavalierly ditched their bodies.
Sodeman’s five-year terror campaign earned him the nickname the “Schoolgirl Strangler” — as well as an appointment with the hangman.
Born in 1899, Arnold Sodeman grew up in an impoverished, abusive Victoria household. He turned to crime early on — and stuck with it. Shortly after being sprung from reform school at 18, Sodeman severely wounded a railway station master during an armed robbery and earned a three-year hard-labor prison stint. After an attempted jail break, Sodeman had another year added on to his sentence.
Strangely, then, Sodeman married after prison and worked a series of labor jobs. In 1928, Sodeman’s wife, Bernice Pope, gave birth to the couple’s daughter. Despite Sodeman’s heavy boozing and occasional dark moods, he exhibited no violent tendencies either at home or in public, and most observers described the Gippsland-based family as a happy one.
All that changed on November 9, 1930. Sodeman’s inner evil apparently emerged when he came upon a group of girls playing at a local park.
On that dark day, Sodeman gave money to several of the girls and told them to get ice cream, and asked 12-year-old Mena Griffiths to stay behind. When the girls returned with sweets, both Sodeman and Griffiths had disappeared.
Two days later, Mena’s bound, strangled body turned up in an abandoned building in the nearby suburb of Ormond. She had also been sexually assaulted.
About six weeks after the first slaying, Sodeman abducted 16-year-old Hazel Wilson on January 10, 1931. Searchers also found her body, similarly choked to death and tied up posthumously, in Ormond.Related: Schoolgirl Killer Karla Homolka Doing Volunteer Work — At Grade School
Over the next four years, Sodeman laid low. Then, on New Year’s Day 1935, 12-year-old Ethel Belshaw stepped out to buy an ice-cream cone in the seaside community of Inverloch. Sodeman captured Ethel and repeated his previous homicidal pattern.
Sodeman struck for the last time on December 1, 1935. While riding his bicycle, Sodeman came across six-year-old June Rushmer while she was walking home from a park in Leongatha. Once again, Sodeman went through his horrific motions and murdered the child. On this occasion, though, witnesses spotted a man on a bike talking to a little girl at the site of June’s disappearance.
As news reports spread about police looking for the man with the bicycle, one of Sodeman’s road crew coworkers made a joke about seeing Sodeman on his bike in the park that day.
Upon hearing the quip, Sodeman erupted into such berserk, uncharacteristic rage that his crewmates contacted the authorities. Once officers showed up to question Sodeman, he confessed to the killing and added, “I’ve had enough.… There is not only this one.”
Sodeman went along with the police quietly. From there, he provided details of each girl’s death that only the killer would know. He also said that he’d previously targeted a boy and a girl together but they got away. The police knew had gotten their man. Once word got out that he was in custody, officers had to fight out a lynch mob.
In February 1936, Sodeman went on trial for killing June Rushmer. He pleaded insanity. Defense lawyers cited that Sodeman’s great-grandfather died from “inflammation of the brain” and that his grandfather, father, and uncle had all died while locked up in psychiatric facilities.
The jury didn’t buy it. Two days later, they returned a guilty verdict and the judge sentenced him to death.
For the next few months, Sodeman’s lawyers filed appeals, again trying to prove their client suffered from mental debilitation. Time ran out, though, on the first day of June. Sodeman’s execution happened right on schedule.
Sodeman’s autopsy proved potentially revealing. The coroner discovered that the killer suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative brain disorder that can be profoundly worsened by the abuse of alcohol — and Sodeman absolutely abused alcohol. Some observers say that, had that disease been discovered earlier, Sodeman may have been determined unfit to stand trial. Then again, perhaps not.
Either way, four young girls would still remain dead and violated by his hand. There is just no possible happy ending to this tragic saga.
Main photo: Arnold Sodeman mug shot [Corrections Victoria: Corrections, Prisons, and Parole]