Cossins decided to tell the story of Sarah and John Makin after she played the role of Sarah in a television docu-drama. Cossin writes:
Despite evidence to the contrary, Sarah was portrayed as the ‘deadly woman’ who murdered all the babies found buried in the backyards of various houses in which she had lived with her husband John. By doing so, the program sacrificed many of the facts as carelessly as Sarah was supposed to have sacrificed 13 babies 120 years ago.
Cossins has written an engrossing account of the gruesome life of the Makins, the social conditions of the poor, and the precarious position of unmarried pregnant women in 1800s New South Wales. Vice, poverty, crime, corruption, moral and religious hypocrisy towards unmarried women forced many to take drastic actions to conceal their pregnancies and hundreds, possibly thousands of deaths remain unexplained.
The Makins were arrested in 1892 and ‘crowds of people clambered to snatch seats in the courtroom when they were finally put on trial.’ There were obviously no televisions to watch such events on and the trial was the most popular show in town. Cossins explains the difficulties of telling the story of ‘under-class’ people like the Makins as official documents often do not exist and the author must rely heavily on contemporary newspaper reports.
Newspaper reports, of course, are written by journalists who are good storytellers but also freely express their own opinions. Cossins, too, allows herself to give her own opinions but only ‘if they are supported by the facts.’ Her detective work is thorough but occasionally, where she expresses opinions about the emotional responses of the various characters, I found myself wondering how she could have known that. The author is multi-talented — a criminologist, Associate Professor of law, expert in evidence law and sexual assault law reform, and also an actor and storyteller. This combination of skills is evident in the writing and presentation of this disturbing and important book which makes a significant contribution to Australia’s social and legal history.
Cossins argues convincingly that the Makins were probably convicted of the murder of the wrong baby and her account of the court proceedings and the similar fact comments made by the judge — which would not be allowed these days — is disturbing. Forensic investigations at the time were certainly in their infancy. However the Makins were far from innocent people and the babies in their care were drugged with various baby elixirs, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, and they were starved. The persistence of Constable James Joyce, who pursued and arrested the Makins, is a gripping part of the whole story.
While these days we may gripe about discrimination, corruption, welfare cutbacks, injustices and ongoing threats to women’s reproductive rights, reading this book certainly shows we have come a long way. However reforms such as those to the Victorian law on abortion have involved long battles, and it was not until 2008 that abortion was finally decriminalised in some jurisdictions in Australia. Millions of women internationally still die because contraception and abortions are unavailable to them and restrictions on abortion in some states of the US reveal all too clearly that we still have a long way to go.
BETH WILSON is the former Health Services Commissioner in Victoria.