I’ll say it straight out – this book Martha Needle: The Spellbinding Story of Australia’s Most Infamous Femme Fatale is one of my top true crime reads of 2018.
This book is meticulously researched by author Dr Brian Williams and is an exhaustive story of the life of poisoner Martha Needle, who was hanged in Melbourne, Australia in October 1894 for the murder of her Louis Juncken, who was her prospective brother-in-law.
Martha’s case hit worldwide attention and she was dubbed a ‘black widow’ as her husband had died earlier. Martha elicited great sympathy before it was revealed she was a murderer because her three little daughters had also died from ill-health. Turns out Martha had poisoned them all. So Martha was a serial killer with five, probably six victims and to this day is still one of Australia’s most prolific female murderers.
Williams’s research is extraordinary. I have so much respect for the process and the passion that’s gone into this book.
There’s more to this story than Martha’s awful, cruel crimes. Williams delves into her childhood and it is horrific. Martha was neglected, raped by her stepfather and a product of extreme poverty.
If you want the hear the author talk more about his book I spoke to him for the podcast I co-host called Australian True Crime. It’s a fascinating chat.
In Australia at the time of the 1890s and her crimes there was the worst economic depression the world had seen. As Williams says “you couldn’t give children away” – there was abject poverty and parents unable or unwilling to care for their kids literally left them on the street. Martha and her family lived in the inner-city of Melbourne, Richmond Ave the living conditions were hard. This great blog post of the slums of Melbourne in the 1800s will give you historical context too.
Martha learned that to get what she needed and wanted she had to manipulate people. There’s also drug addiction in the mix as Martha was hooked on the strong over-the-counter remedies that were available during that time.
Get your hands on this book. Support the research and passion that’s gone into this story. Martha Needle is a chilling, fascinating character.