Born: 10 August 1871
Died: 6 October 1909
Active: July 1907 to April 1909
Method of Disposal: Swabbing with Hydrochloric Acid
- Arthur Morris (step-child)
- Annie Morris (step-child)
- Olive Morris (step-child)
- George Morris (step-child)
To all intents and purposes, Martha Rendell might well have met her end on the gallows for the heinous crime of ‘being a step-mother’.
Martha was born on 10th August 1871 in Adelaide, South Australia. By the time she was sixteen, Martha had left home and was soon saddled with three illegitimate children owing to her rampant promiscuity.
In the mid-1890s, Martha met Thomas Nicholls Morris. Thomas was still married to his wife Sarah, but Martha believed that this was a temporary hurdle that would right itself soon enough. It was with this hope that she followed Thomas when he left with his family to live in Perth, Western Australia. In doing so, she left behind her own children. Once in Perth Thomas’s marriage did indeed break down. Martha wasted no time in moving in with Thomas upon Sarah’s departure. The younger five of Thomas’s nine children completed the household.
Now, it would not do for people to know about the true nature of their relationship. Appearances must be upheld, because if it were to be found that Martha and Thomas were not in fact husband and wife, it would surely bring down the delicate fabric of early twentieth century society. So the scandalous couple relocated to East Perth, where people generally kept to themselves, and Martha began passing herself off as Thomas’s wife. She also insisted that the children call her ‘Mother’ at all times.
The idyllic life that Martha had believed was within her grasp eroded quickly. Thomas worked away from home for long periods of time. This woman, who had left her own children back in Adelaide, now found herself a single parent to five of somebody else’s children who in all likelihood were just as displeased about the circumstances as she was. Added to this, Martha’s secrecy about her true marital circumstances let to an enforced isolation. Any request for help brought with it the chance of discovery. Martha could not risk this, because she was already a pariah back in her home town where she’d deserted her family, and discovery meant she’d be ostracised from this community as well.
In mid-1907, the four youngest children fell ill with diphtheria, which was infecting large numbers of the city’s inhabitants at the time. Annie would not survive the illness and died in July of that year. The other three children (Olive, Arthur and George) appeared to make a full recovery. Doctors who had visited the home during the outbreak commented on Martha’s devotion to the sick children, almost at the expense of her own health.
The recovery was short lived however, because typhoid soon visited the home to ravage the still-weakened immune systems of the children who had previously survived the diphtheria. Olive would succumb to this secondary illness in October 1907, followed by her brother Arthur exactly a year later. An autopsy was held on the body of Arthur, due to the previous deaths in the family, but nothing suspicious was found.
Throughout this secondary illness, Martha did her best to heal the children. She gave them plenty of bed rest and fluid, along with a special treatment of an hydrochloric acid swab to the throat. Martha had used this home remedy before on the children to combat the diphtheria. Since only one child had died at that time, she assumed it would work again for whatever illness she was dealing with this time. The doctors who visited the house once again nodded their approval to her methods, with only one medic displaying any sign of concern at all.
It all began to unravel for Martha in April 1909 when Thomas’s other son, George, ran away from home. He had drunk some tea Martha had given to him, and soon after he developed a sore throat. Martha grabbed for the hydrochloric acid and brush. George, remembering the recent demise of the other three children, fled the house. He arrived at his mother’s house, and told her that Martha had poisoned his brother and sisters, and he had run away to prevent the same thing from happening to him.
Neighbours soon noticed that George was no longer around, but enquiries made with his father elicited little more response than shoulder shrugs and murmurs of “Dunno”. The nosy neighbours consequently stepped up the rumour mill, and there were soon whispers that something untoward had happened to George and his siblings. One neighbour said that they regularly just happened to glance through the front window of the home, and had seen the way Martha swayed back and forth as if in ecstasy when administering her ‘remedy’ to the children. Oh, and then there was the time that Annie was beaten so badly she couldn’t walk. Martha did that, for sure. She’s such a disagreeable woman, nothing can be put past her. The neighbours did their neighbourly duty and took their concerns to the local constabulary.
Police Inspector Harry Mann followed up on George’s disappearance by first taking the obvious beeline to George’s mother, who lived mere streets away from the Morris/Rendell home. Inspector Mann listened to George’s tale of woe, which was clearly not the result of George not liking Dad’s new wife. A coronial inquest was launched, and exhumations were ordered on both Annie and Olive. Hydrochloric acid was found in throat tissue samples of all three children. Upon further investigation Mann found out that both Thomas and Martha had purchased the acid. And it was now clear that Martha was a liar, as she had been telling everyone that she was Thomas’s wife when she wasn’t. If she could lie about that, then clearly this debauched woman was capable of anything. Including murder.
Trial and Conviction:
Both Martha and Thomas were charged only with the murder of Arthur, despite also being suspected of the involvement in the deaths of the two little girls as well. Media reports were scathing of Martha throughout, vilifying her as a ‘scarlet woman’ and a ‘wicked step-mother’. She was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Arthur, because clearly the hydrochloric acid had killed the child and not the typhoid or diphtheria. Thomas, on the other hand, was acquitted, presumably on the basis that he wasn’t enough of a harlot.
Martha was the last woman to be legally executed in Western Australia. She was buried in a pauper’s grave at Fremantle Cemetery, in the same grave where Eric Edgar Cooke would later be interred. Cooke was an Australian serial killer who held the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Western Australia.
Co-habitating in a grave with a man to whom she was not married? Goodness, the neighbours were going to have a field day with that one.
“Institute of Advanced Studies.” Revisiting the Trial of Martha Rendell : The University of Western Australia. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
“MARTHA RENDELL CHILD MURDERS – 1909.” MARTHA RENDELL CHILD MURDERS – 1909. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
“Martha Rendell | Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers.” Martha Rendell | Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
“The Unknown History of MISANDRY.” : Martha Rendell, Australian Serial Killer Step-Mother. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.