Title: The Suicide Bride: A Mystery of Tragedy and Family Secrets in Edwardian Sydney
Author: Tanya Bretherton
Genre: True Crime/History
Published: 23rd April 2019
Synopsis: From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the Ned Kelly and Nib awards – comes the chilling story of a charlatan, a murder-suicide, and a family tree so twisted that it sprouts monsters.
Whenever society produces a depraved criminal, we wonder: is it nature or is it nurture?
When the charlatan Alicks Sly murdered his wife, Ellie, and killed himself with a cut-throat razor in a house in Sydney’s Newtown in early 1904, he set off a chain of events that could answer that question. He also left behind mysteries that might never be solved. Sociologist Dr Tanya Bretherton traces the brutal story of Ellie, one of many suicide brides in turn-of-the-century Sydney; of her husband, Alicks, and his family; and their three orphaned sons, adrift in the world.
From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the 2018 Ned Kelly Award, Danger Prize and Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award – comes another riveting true-crime case from Australia’s dark past. THE SUICIDE BRIDE is a masterful exploration of criminality, insanity, violence and bloody family ties in bleak, post-Victorian Sydney.
I’ve only read a few true crime books, and the last one I read revolved around the last woman hanged in New South Wales – Louisa Collins in 1889. A mere fifteen years later, a spate of suicide brides would crop up in Sydney – women who were murdered by their husbands, and the husbands would later commit suicide. In the case explored in Tanya Bretherton’s new book, a husband a wife died, but also, four children were left parentless, orphaned and their fates were left to the state, which in the early twentieth century was a lot less caring than it is today, especially towards orphaned children like Mervyn, Bedford, Basil and their sister, Olive, who at the time of her parents deaths, was ill in hospital.
The lives of Alicks and Ellie Sly were taken with a razor, at the hand of Alicks – and nothing was left to help the children, apart from any money left over from the sale of all their possessions to pay off any debts, and then money would be given to orphanages for the care of the three boys, whilst Olive was adopted and given a new name, a new identity, and nothing much is heard about her after that happened. Her brothers went sent to Catholic orphanages, and as Tanya recounts, each had a very different experience and reaction while staying there, resulting in very different outcomes in their later lives as a result of the violence they had seen early on in their lives.
Tanya Bretherton looks at the circumstances surrounding the deaths, and the evidence and records that are available, and at the way society at the time dealt with the deaths and aftermath, particularly in regards to the children, and finding guardians, and paying off debts to them, and the sad fact that Alicks and Ellie had nobody come forward to mourn, or help with the children – much of their debts were paid off with the sale of their few possessions, and charity took care of the rest. Throughout the book, the stories of the children are woven throughout as Tanya tries to uncover what really happened – using the historical timeline and gazing at it through a sociological lens and the social implications of this within Edwardian society, and the importance placed on funerary rights and debt over the welfare of young children.
Where did Alicks get the idea to kill his wife, and then himself? This is a question that remains unanswered, as does the why scenario. Without any suicide note, the true motives of Alicks will likely never be known. We can only guess at why he committed the murder-suicide in 1904. Maybe Alicks had debts he couldn’t pay and saw no other way out. Maybe knowing someone, the church, would step in to help. Perhaps he assumed family or neighbours would step up. Or maybe his motives were much more nefarious, and he didn’t care what happened to his sons and daughter. Tanya Bretherton doesn’t appear to have uncovered any criminal links or issues beyond debt they owed. Yet it is the not knowing that suggests it could be more than the idea that only debts were owed, and because there is little, if any, evidence to suggest why this happened.
As we can only speculate, as Tanya has done, perhaps it was a combination of things: debts, societal pressures, and a combination of the age old debate of nature versus nurture: where the brain functionality of a person is determined at birth, or whether the way we are raised has an impact on who we become and what we do. Having studied some sociology, I like to think its a combination, that neither one nor the other can inherently determine the actions one will take. Of course, there is always the element of choice in these scenarios. What i found fascinating about this is that there are no definitive answers – given the policing and forensic processes of the time, a lot less notice would have been taken of compromising the evidence and crime scene. So we may never know the truth, but there were many suicide brides in the months surrounding this case, including one case from the same family, a sibling of Alicks weeks or months later. The Sly family appeared to have many secrets throughout the generations, and at least two of the brothers thrived quite well, and not much is known of Olive after her adoption. So for their father and relatives, were they predestined to kill, or did something awful happen to each Sly man to make the commit the crimes? This is where the nature versus nurture argument becomes tricky, because the nature of the family based on the murder-suicides would suggest a proclivity towards crime not really seen in the kids – at least, not violently. Nurture however, takes a look at how they were raised, first in the family and then the orphanage where it sounds like they weren’t nurtured in the way one might expect a child to be cared for. Which suggests that how we turn out is a combination of nature, nurture, our experiences and unique character – perhaps the younger children were able to adjust at a faster or easier rate than the oldest boy. What is certain though, is that we will never know all the answers, and the book, and my analysis is just mere speculation based on what we have present.