This morning I happened to find myself reading about the marriages, lives and deaths of a handful of people from early 1900’s Australia – but it was no ordinary story.
Instead I found a story about both murder and attempted murder, all in the name of keeping a secret.
Eugenia Falleni left home – and a disapproving family – behind to masquerade as Eugene Falleni, and take on work as a cabin boy. Previously, she had spent her teenage years dressing as a man to secure jobs in brickyards and stables.
Her true gender was revealed on board the ship after a drunken slip in conversation with the captain. Unable to convince the captain, Eugenia soon found herself not only shunned by the others on-board (it was considered bad luck to have a female on a ship), but soon found herself being repeatedly raped by the captain. In 1898, Eugenia was pregnant and dumped on the shores of Newcastle, Australia.
That year her daughter – Josephine Crawford Falleni – was born, and given to an Italian-born woman to take care of. Shortly after Josephine’s birth, Eugenia took on a new, male identity of Harry Leo Crawford.
Falleni (now Crawford) continued to take on manual jobs – at the meatworks, the pub and the rubber factory). In 1912, Falleni was employed in Wahroonga (northern Sydney) and met his employer’s housekeeper, Annie Birkett.
Annie had been widowed with a 13-year-old son to support some years before, and when they left Wahroonga for Balmain, Falleni followed them. In 1913, Falleni and Birkett were married and moved to Drummoyne.
All witnesses involved in the case – including Falleni herself – have stated that Annie was unaware her husband was not biologically male for most of their marriage. In fact, it is claimed Annie was completely unaware of this until shortly before her death in 1917 – four years after they were married!
“During those 22 years, Harry legally married twice,” says Mark Tedeschi a New South Wales Crown Prosecutor and Author. “Neither wife was aware they were married to anything other than a full-blooded Aussie male.”
“Clearly, his two wives never saw Harry in the nude. But they had an active sex life.”
The marriage was going well until Josephine – Falleni’s daughter – tracked Falleni down and let slip to the neighbour the secret of Falleni’s identity. Records suggest this is how Annie discovered the truth about her husband.
In early October, 1917, Falleni and Annie took a picnic down to Lane Cove River. According to Falleni’s later statements, the couple had another argument, where Annie indicated she was planning to leave after discovering that “her husband is a woman”. At this point, the records I’ve come across are divided. Some say Falleni struck Annie over the head with a rock, while others suggest Annie slipped, fell backwards, and hit her head, losing consciousness.
By most accounts, though, this wasn’t enough to kill Annie. Falleni panicked at the sight and in an attempt to hide her body, decided to burn it so that it would be unidentifiable.
“…the body was much charred. No definite marks of violence were found, and the stomach contained much food. There was no smell of alcohol, and the organs of the body were in a healthy condition. Death had occurred… probably due to burns.”
While this is a grisly turn of events, it’s worth noting that Falleni would have been absolutely terrified at this point. Early 1900’s anywhere – let alone Australia – was not a society that was kind to someone who was disguising their gender.
For a time, Falleni’s plan was successful. Annie’s body was found, but unidentified. She was initially buried in an unnamed grave.
Falleni continued life as a free man, telling anyone who asked that Annie had run off with another man. In 1919, Falleni met and married Elizabeth King Allison, and again managed an active sex life with her.
By 1920, Annie’s son had divulged information about Falleni’s actions after her death. Falleni had taken him to a notorious suicide spot and tried to coax him to the edge (presumably to push him off). He was also taken out to scrub land at night and asked to dig a hole. The story led to a police interview, and police arrested Falleni on July 5, 1920.
While under arrest, Falleni requested to be placed in the women’s cells. When questioned about this, Falleni finally admitted the truth – that he was a woman. A check by a police doctor confirmed this.
While searching through his belongings, police found a phallus object made of wood and rubber bound:
“[Falleni] said: ‘You will find it, something there that I have been using.’
Detective: ‘What is it, something artificial?’
[Falleni] replied: ‘Yes, don’t let her see it.’
Detective: ‘Do you mean to say that she doesn’t know anything about this?’
[Falleni] said his first wife had not known about it either, ‘Not until the latter part of our marriage.’
Falleni herself became an unwilling spectacle, obsessed over by the press, dubbed the ‘Man-Woman case’.
The prosecution case was to suggest that her duplicity in passing herself off as a man was proof of her immoral nature.
Originally sentenced to death for the murder of Annie Birkett, Falleni’s sentence was reduced and she was released in 1931, with the proviso she lived out the rest of her days as a woman.
She assumed the name “Mrs. Jean Ford” and lived in Sydney until 1938 when she was hit by a car and died the next day in hospital.
The case of Falleni is a sad one – both for Annie Birkett, who unwittingly discovered a secret and ultimately died for it – but perhaps particularly for Falleni herself, who never revealed her reasons for choosing to live her life as a male. But worse of all, she had her deepest and most personal secret revealed to the world, and was subjected to the ridicule and fascination of society, labelled a ‘sex fraud’ and an oddity by the press.
If Falleni was transgender – and nobody seems certain – then her imprisonment continued long after leaving jail, forced to live uncomfortably as a gender she may not have identified with.