FREMANTLE, AUSTRALIA — On October 6, 1909, Martha Rendell stepped onto the gallows of Fremantle Prison.
Condemned to die for murdering three of her common-law husband’s children — slowly, methodically, and in a manner that caused the young victims agonizing pain — Rendell made history as only the third woman to be hanged in Western Australia and, to date, the last.
Martha Rendell grew up as something of wild child in Adelaide, South Australia. Born in 1871, she had three children out of wedlock while she was still a teenager and, by the 1890s, had taken to sleeping with married men.
Thomas Morris was once such paramour. Morris and his wife had nine children. In 1906, after the husband’s affair with Rendell had carried on for years, the couple split up. Morris relocated to rural Perth and got custody of his five youngest kids.
In short order, then, Rendell abandoned her own offspring and moved in with Morris. She insisted his children call her “Mother.” In private, they likely also called her something else.
By all accounts, Rendell proved to be a sadistic and abusive stepparent to George, 15; Arthur, 14; Annie, 7; and Olive, 5. Inspector Harry Mann wrote of observing Rendell beat one of the little girls until the child could not walk, and noted:
“[Rendell] delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.”
In 1907, though, Rendell’s rage escalated. She went from being cruel to being homicidal — beginning with seven-year-old Annie.
After Annie complained of feeling ill, Rendell coated back of the child’s throat with hydrochloric acid, claiming it was “medicine.” The acid agonizingly closed Annie’s throat and made it impossible to eat. On July 28, little Annie starved to death.
At the same time, a diphtheria outbreak had been infecting the children of Perth. Dr. James Cuthbert, a local physician, examined Annie and concluded that she had succumbed to the disease.
On October 5, five-year-old Olive Morris died after Rendell poisoned her in the same manner. Once again, Dr. Cuthbert declared it a case of diphtheria.
Cuthbert’s suspicion arose the following year after 14-year-old Arthur somehow died under similar circumstances. He performed an autopsy on the boy, but found no evidence of foul play.
Rendell’s scheme came undone after she swabbed the throat of 15-year-old George. Knowing that his stepmother had dosed him with something noxious, George ran away to his real mom’s house.
Once there, George claimed Rendell had killed his siblings by painting their throats with “spirits of salts.” He proved to be absolutely correct.
Authorities investigated the matter and found that Rendell had purchased unusually large amounts of hydrochloric acid. Upon exhuming the bodies of the dead Morris children, doctors, indeed, found their throat tissue inundated with the toxic substance.
Police charged both Rendell and Thomas Morris with murder, but he convinced the court he had no idea what his common-law wife had been doing. They cut him loose.
Rendell’s trial commenced on September 9, 1909, and captivated all of Australia. The public bayed for vengeance against this alleged most wicked of stepmothers. The guilty verdict came down fast.
Less than a month after she’d gone to court, a hangman slipped a noose around Martha Rendell’s neck.
Some prominent members of society spoke out against executing a woman, particularly by way of the rope, but Rendell’s fate was sealed. Not for nothing does Australia boast the folk saying, “Providence is a cruel stepmother.”
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Main photos: Martha Rendell [Fremantle Prison]