SERIAL KILLERS: Thallium was a popular poison to catch the many rats that resided in Newtown just after World War Two. It also became the choice method for a murderous wife who wanted to do away with violent or just troublesome husbands, writes G. L. Marlowe.
The streets of Newtown still have a sinister feel.
While some of the old buildings have stood the test of time they are now home to vegan restaurants, hipster cafes and independent bookstores. Walking along the main road, with its terrace houses turned second-hand stores, is akin to stepping back in time.
Ghosts haunt the streets.
There is no longer a shortage of food, electricity or a lack of sanitary conditions; it is prime real estate here. The workman’s cottages still stand; quaint now instead of cramped. The traces of poverty have seemingly disappeared. The many rats that once flooded the neighbourhood are much fewer and far between these days, and instead its humans from all across Sydney who scurry the streets at night, particularly on weekends. From working-class to grungy to artsy to gentrified, the circle is near complete now. Largely erased from our modern memories is that this was the same suburb that played host to the Thallium Scandal of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Along with it, the name ‘Yvonne Gladys Fletcher’ has been lost too.
Yvonne loved to dance. It was how she met both of her husbands. Her favourite dances weren’t just the jitterbug or the foxtrot though. She liked dances in which she didn’t have to follow the man’s lead with intricate, complicated steps and she was determined to lead. Her desired partner: freedom.
But first she had to partner with death. Engaging with it quietly, subtly, so no one noticed at first. Not even the men she would slowly lead to their deaths. A mother of two, she had hoped to dance around the jury too and convince them of her innocence.
After the second death people had become suspicious though. Two dead husbands in three years … something was a little off about Yvonne Fletcher.
* * * * *
It was a seven-day trial, at Sydney’s Central Criminal Court. Yvonne testified while sitting in the stiff, wooden box facing a jury of twelve men. Men who had never felt the strike of a drunk ex-serviceman’s fist in the comfort of their own home. A place she was meant to be safe. Where her children ran up and down the stairs, calling after each other, where they learnt to walk, talk, and how to hide from their stepfather when he raised his voice after a long day of rat-catching.
Yvonne had no choice but to look out among the sea of faces, most of whom were male or morbidly curious housewives, all who had read about her in Sydney’s Truth newspaper or the Sydney Morning Herald. The only other place Yvonne could look was the tall ceiling – white in contrast to the mahogany seats and floor.
“I do not know who poisoned them, or how they were poisoned,” she told jury during her trial.
“I have never bought or handled any poisons at any time, and you know as much about the deaths of these two men as I do.”
Seven days of lawyers examining the evidence. They held up the bottle of Thall-rat, the common rat poison; pored over the hospital records that highlighted the striking similarities between both her husbands’ deaths; explained the results of the exhumation of her first husband’s body, where the toxicologist had noticed signs of thallium, a poison which mimicked the signs of peripheral neuritis – damage of the peripheral nerves causing numbness, pain and weakness.
Thall-rat was an odourless, colourless and tasteless liquid rat-poison. Quite possibly put in the curry she packed for her second husband’s work lunch, scoffed down when he took a break from his job as a rat-catcher. It was Newtown, after all. Rats infested every crevice, invaded every cupboard, scurried along skirting boards and chewed through walls.
The arrest of Yvonne Fletcher in May 1952 (Image: Supplied)
A page from the Sydney Morning Herald on September 23, 1952 – the day Yvonne Fletcher was sentenced to death for murder (Image: Sydney Morning Herald / Trove)
It may be pure speculation as to why she killed her first husband, Desmond Butler. But the second, Bertrand ‘Bluey’ Fletcher, they’d found a motive.
The court heard her testimony about her bloody handkerchief, the plaster on her forehead, her being hit in the head with a key, according to a neighbour. Most shockingly of all, her broken nose which required a blood transfusion. Although, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Bluey had also accused her of murdering her first husband.
“After I married Fletcher I was very happy for a while,” Yvonne herself said to the jury.
“His manner changed suddenly. He started to accuse me of poisoning my first husband, but I do not know why he said that. I think somebody must have told him those things.
“I told him I was taking steps to have him ejected from the house, and it was then he said he would take poison to get me into trouble.”
Women’s Weekly didn’t tell her which concealer worked best for bruises. Or which lipstick colour complimented a busted lip.
Unlike the jury, she had the woman’s knowledge that if she left, she would have nothing.
She sat in the witness box, white gloves folded over a prayer book. The perfect Catholic mother. After all, how could a woman carrying a prayer book, who went to church and had two children, murder two husbands? Trying to shed the role of the ‘good-time girl’, that the press had dubbed her. A black and white photo in the World News shows her dark (another photo shows it to be blonde) curled hair, baleful large eyes, that stared out at the judge and jury between lowered lashes.
None of that mattered when the verdict came back.
Guilty. Of murdering her first husband, Desmond Butler, in July 1948. It’s surmised she put the poison in poor Desmond’s tea.
“If the conviction had been in respect of your second husband, possibly some palliation of your crime might have been found, for the evidence showed you suffered greatly at his hands. In respect of your first husband, there is no evidence at all of that nature,” Justice Edward Kinsella said when sentencing the 30-year-old Yvonne to death on September 23, 1952.
“The crime of murder is a terrible one, and when the killing is by means of an insidious poison, secretly administered within the family circle to an unsuspecting victim, which destroyed him mentally and physically, while permitting him to linger for months in wretched agony, then the crime is a horrible one.”
Although she was composed when the jury had read out its guilty verdict, upon hearing the death sentence Yvonne “went white, swayed and then collapsed in the dock”. She dropped the Bible she was holding throughout her week-long trial. Three policewomen and a male officer ran to her aid. She was eventually given some water.
After being roused, she was then escorted sobbing from the court by two police officers.
According to one legal expert at the time, it was the first time someone in Australia had been convicted of murder through the method of poisoning by thallium.
Her death sentence however would be commuted a few years later when the NSW Government abolished the death penalty for murder in 1955. Yvonne would eventually leave prison as a free woman in 1964.