Eugenia : A true story of adversity, tragedy, crime and courage by Mark Tedeschi QC

Eugenia : A true story of adversity, tragedy, crime and courage by Mark Tedeschi

Sydney – Simon & Schuster – 2012, 260 pages, incl. endnotes.

Found on the Adult Non-fiction shelves at 364.1523 TED

Plot Summary : Eugenia Falleni was born in Livorno, Italy in January 1875. Two years later, with her parents, she emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand. A tomboy as a girl, Eugenia fell out with her parents and at 15 left home, fending mostly for herself by labouring jobs disguised as a male and calling herself Eugene. By 1897,  Eugene was working on a Norwegian ship where the captain liked to practice his Italian on Eugene. A slip of the tongue, using the female word ending to describe himself, led to repeated rapes by the captain. Eventually, pregnant, Eugene was put off the ship at Newcastle, New South Wales, to fend for himself. 

Finding family friends in Sydney, Eugene had a baby daughter who was left to the care of the friends and resumed his life as Harry Crawford, a Scottish labourer, finding work with a doctor in the then remote suburbs of the North Shore. The doctor’s housekeeper, Annie Birkitt, a widow with a young son, took Eugene/Harry’s fancy and he wooed her for a year, finally marrying her in 1912.  The newlyweds bought themselves a confectionary shop in Balmain with Annie’s savings and settled down to a happy married life.

Several years into the marriage, Harry’s daughter Josephine, let slip to a neighbour that her father is female and that neighbour in turn told Annie the truth about her marriage. For the next eight months Harry sleeps in the spare room while Annie tries to work out how to get out of this ‘marriage’ without any scandal. Finally deciding on asking for an annulment for non-consummation, she goes on a picnic with Harry to tell him of her decision. There, in the Lane Cove River Park, Annie dies. Two and a half years and a second marriage later, Harry is charged with her murder and goes on trial for his life.

Review : This sensational true crime is told by prominent NSW barrister, Mark Tedeschi in three parts.

The first part, ‘Looking for Love’, tells Eugenia’s story from misunderstood childhood and adolescence to living as what she saw as her true self, Eugene.  The facts of this case are astonishing  – how Eugene/Harry manages to convince two women of his masculinity for so long, how Annie’s disappearance goes unreported for so long and Tedeschi, drawing on contemporary public records (trial transcripts, press reports, interviews, etc.), speculates on how Harry managed to live convincingly as a man and how he managed to sustain his deception in marriage not once but twice.  The second part, ‘Legal Proceedings’, tells how the law and public opinion came down very very hard on Eugenia, casting her as a depraved ‘sexual invert’ and the third part, ‘Incarceration and Release’, gives an account of her time in Long Bay Gaol and her subsequent release until her tragic end in 1938. Here Tedeschi also analyses how Eugenia’s trial was conducted and the lessons that can be learned from it. (The reasons for all these changes in names and gender will be clearer for readers of the book).

Written for the most part in a narrative non-fiction style (like a novel), this is a fascinating case in which Mark Tedeschi has an obvious sympathy for Eugene/Harry.  While some bits are slightly repetitive, he does a pretty good job overall of explaining in laymans terms the problems in the way the trial of Eugene was conducted and contrasts it with how it should be done today.

It is just a shame that one of the people who read this book before me had decided to write their opinions and comments on numerous pages. I found this highly distracting and intrusive. I like to make my own mind up about what I am reading until I am finished and am ready to share and I got more and more annoyed that this person had the rudeness and audacity to deface public property. I am not averse to writing notes in my own books, especially ones I read for book group, but Library books are a public asset, for sharing with the community, and I think you should return them in as close to the good condition as they are lent to you.  Their only saving grace is that they made their remarks, circlings and underlinings in pencil so I was able to remedy the situation.

Reviewed by : Alba

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