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Martha Rendell: Perth’s evil stepmother

This is the story of aconvicted child killer and theonly woman to be hanged in Western Australia.

As is often the case, our tale begins with an affair. Thomas Nicholls Morris and his wife, Sarah, had what she described as an unhappy and quarrelsome marriage, with Thomas having ‘kept’ a mistress, Martha Rendell. Looking for a fresh start, the family moved from Adelaide to Perth; however, little did they know that this was the beginning of the end, with Rendell following her love out west.

After a particularly nasty and violent fight, Morris ‘turned’ Sarah out of home, forcing her to leave her five youngest children – Olive, Annie, George, Arthur and William, aged six to 15 – behind. With his wife out of the picture, Morris soon installed his mistress and paramour in her place, demanding his children call Rendell ‘mother’ under threat of thrashings.

Over 15 months, three of Rendell’s stepchildren died from diphtheria, or ‘throat afflictions’ – nine-year-old Annie was the first to fall ill and succumb to her sickness, followed by Olive, aged five, and Arthur, 15. Yet, it was only when a fourth child started presenting the same symptoms that neighbours – and police – became suspicious.

In April 1909, George Morris began experiencing a sore throat after drinking a cup of tea. Frightened, George ran away. Noticing the absence of the boy, neighbours began to inquire as to his whereabouts. Morris then reported his son missing, sparking an investigation that uncovered the cold-blooded acts of Rendell.

Police eventually found George with his mother, and he told the officers what life was really like living with Rendell, and what really happened to his three siblings. It was soon discovered that Rendell had murdered the three children by poisoning them with ‘spirits of salts’ (hydrochloric acid), causing slow and agonisingly painful deaths. Rendell, however, claimed that the spirits of salts was ‘medicine’.

Both Rendell and Thomas Morris were charged with the murder of Arthur, whose body was exhumed and an autopsy was conducted. The findings were clear: poison had been administered on the boy. Witnesses had also come forward and testified to seeing Rendell swabbing Arthur’s throat, which was then followed by agonised screams and cries for help.

Many incriminating testimonies were made against Rendell, including by the arresting officer Harry Mann, who testified that Rendell ‘delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction’.

Rendell was eventually found guilty of the crime by the all-male jury despite the lack of motive, while Morris was acquitted as it was believed he had been unaware of Rendell’s actions.

Our story comes to a head on 6 October 1909, when Martha Rendell was hanged; her last words were ‘I will die brave’. Coincidentally, this day was the first anniversary of Arthur’s death. Rendell was then buried in Fremantle Cemetery, and shares a grave with serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke, who for unknown reasons, was buried there more than 50 years later.

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