‘Concealment of Birth’

“Cruel Murder Of An Infant. A Shocking Tragedy. Carter Finds A Strangled Babe. Wrapped in Brown Paper. One Little Hand Protrudes. Everything Points To Murder.

Early yesterday morning a man named George Sharp, employed as a brick carter in Albury, saw a parcel under a culvert at the intersection of Hovell and Kiewa-streets. He some time later saw the parcel still there. Some little children also noticed the parcel.

“Mr. Sharp at length investigated and found to his horror that it contained the dead body of a female infant with a piece of tape tied very tightly around the neck. The tape is strong material and is such as is much in everyday use.

“One tiny hand of the two-day-old mite had been forced through the brown paper covering, which had given way, evidently while being pushed into the small space in which it was found.” (1)

This was the news that greeted the residents of Albury and Wodonga on Wednesday, 6 January 1909.

George Sharp called the police, who took the body back to the station where a post mortem was carried out by Doctor Andrews . This showed that the newly born baby girl had been dead for about 36 hours. Her lungs contained air and, beyond some haemorrhage in the brain, the other organs were all in a normal condition. The doctor told the coroner later that the child had certainly lived and breathed; but only for a short time after birth. (2)

That night, the police arrested Miss Margaret Lucy Donnelly at her home in Kiewa Street. It turned out that the brown paper used to wrap the baby’s body had on it the address of a young man staying at the Donnelly family residence, which is also where Margaret lived. His name was Clarence Wilton White and he was about 14 or 15 years old at the time (there was never any suggestion made that he was the father).

Amazingly, it seems that the family had absolutely no idea that Margaret was pregnant or had given birth a couple of days earlier.

Portrait of Margaet Donnelly.
Margaret Donnelly, born 1877 [source: State Archives NSW, NRS1998, 3/5963, pg 119].

Margaret was born at Wodonga on 3 October 1877 to John and Catherine Donnelly; she had at least two brothers and two sisters. Her father seems to have been a respected bookmaker and her mother was the daughter of a Victorian police constable.

In 1909, when Margaret’s story takes place, this respectable Catholic family was living in Kiewa Street, Albury. Margaret was 31 years old at the time and gave her occupation as dressmaker.

The Inquest

At the coronial inquest, the police said on arrival at the Donnelly house, they had found Margaret to be very hysterical and in a “precarious state” of health. So, after they called in Doctor Kennedy to examine her, the police arrested Margaret then took her straight to the Albury Hospital and placed her under guard. She remained there for two weeks and was then removed to the gaol.

Doctor Kennedy told the inquest he had examined Margaret Donnelly on 30 October 1908 and had found her to be about seven months pregnant. She had bound him to secrecy but he told the court he was sorry he didn’t tell her mother – he had known her for a number of years and described her as having an intense hysterical temperament, and at times an unstable mental balance.

Constable Nesbit, who was on guard at the hospital when Margaret was there, also told the inquest some things she had said to him. She said, “I’m going mad” – holding her head with her hands – “I must have been mad when I did it. I don’t know what tempted me; I must have been mad at the time; there is no excuse for me, and there is no one to blame; I’m old enough to have known better; it was born on Sunday afternoon… And I took it away last night; I don’t know how I got there and back; I wouldn’t have gone that distance any other time not for a five-pound-note; no one knows what I went through, only myself.” (3)

The deputy coroner, Arthur Phillips, found that death was due to strangulation by Margaret Donnelly and he committed her for trial at the next Albury Circuit Court.

The Trial

Margaret’s case came up in May and she pleaded not guilty to the wilful murder of her child.

In her defence, Margaret stated that she “knew now that she was the mother of a child born about the beginning of January last. She had no recollection of the birth of the child, nor that of being in the hospital. The first thing she remembered was being in gaol.”

Her lawyer, in his address to the jury, put up the plea of insanity, saying that “in all the sad circumstances… it was reasonable … to draw the inference that [Margaret] had broken down under the strain of her great trouble.” (4)

But Justice Pring told the jury they could not find her insane; they only had three choices: Murder; Concealment of Birth; or Contributory Murder.

After just 15 minutes, the jury returned their verdict of concealment and a rider added containing a strong recommendation to mercy on account of the accused’s mental condition at the time.

Throughout the entire coverage of the case in the media, there was only a brief question over the identity and whereabouts of the father and only vague comments over what life would have awaited Margaret had she been upfront about her ‘condition’. But it appears that everyone in that court room knew what her choices were and understood she could well have been driven temporarily mad by the stress of her entire situation. The jury’s verdict was the most compassionate of their available choices.

Justice Pring sentenced Margaret to 12 months imprisonment with light labour in the Albury Gaol, specifically so she could be regularly visited by her family.

She began to leave the court in the arms of her mother and father, all three of them “in great distress” and then Margaret collapsed and had to be carried out by two constables.

Margaret Lucy Donnelly’s Gaol Photographic Record [source: State Archives NSW, NRS1998, 3/5963, pg 119].

Afterwards

Margaret’s father, John, died in June 1910, presumably while Margaret was still in gaol. Her mother, Catherine, passed away two years later, her residence at the time being given as Fitzroy.

Perhaps after John’s death, and Margaret’s release, the family felt they had to move away from the Border region and find a place where no one knew their sad story.

The last mention we can find of Margaret is in a coronial inquest file at PROV: Margaret Lucy Donnelly died of Cardio Vascular Degeneration in September 1949 at the Sunbury Asylum, located north-west of the city of Melbourne. (5)

 

(1) https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/109785860

(2) https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/69551891

(3) https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/69551953

(4) https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/132472386

(5) https://www.prov.vic.gov.au/search_journey/select?keywords=margaret%20lucy%20donnelly

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