• Discovering Eugenia: One of Australia's most unusual murder cases
The trial of Eugenia Falleni is one of the most extraordinary murder cases in Australia’s history. A tale of misunderstanding and unrequited love, prejudice and discrimination. The Feed's Patrick Abboud puts the pieces of this bizarre story together.
Thursday, April 10, 2014 - 19:30

Imagine living at the turn of the 20th century with an unstoppable feeling that you’re a man trapped in a woman’s body.  This is the story of a woman so desperate to live a life of integrity as a man that she’d do whatever it took to keep her true identity a secret.

Eugenia Falleni was born a girl in Italy – she migrated to New Zealand at the age of 2.

In her teens she began dressing as a man, shunned by her family she took a job on a merchant ship.

She worked at sea disguised as a man until the captain of the ship discovered she was a woman.

He brutally raped her and she was offloaded in Newcastle.

Pregnant and alone she made her way to Sydney, giving birth to a daughter Josephine.

She convinced a childless Italian family to take Josephine. This was would see the beginning of her life as Harry Crawford.

Harry went from job to job, always working in very physically demanding, typically masculine roles.  

He was a hard drinking man spending most of his nights in Sydney’s pubs. Harry had everyone fooled.

For 22 years Eugenia Falleni lived in Australia as Harry Crawford.

"During those 22 years, Harry legally married twice," says Mark Tedeschi a New South Wales Crown Prosecutor and Author. "Neither wife was aware they were married to anything other than a full-blooded Aussie male."

"Clearly, his two wives never saw Harry in the nude. But they had an active sex life."

Lachlan Phillpott’s play The Trouble with Harry chronicles the fascinating life of Eugenia Falleni in the early 1900’s. Harry lived an elaborate lie, keeping his true gender a secret from all that knew him including his two wives.

"I was looking at really examining the story from the perspective of asking questions about what went on in the bedroom, what went on inside the house," says Mr Phillpott. "Our sex lives today are very secret and we all have things tucked inside a drawer somewhere that we wouldn’t necessarily want people to find if we died or if we ran away and we didn’t get to bury them first."

"It seems very problematic to assume that a woman just doesn’t know, that she’s been tricked for that long."

Eugenia Falleni or Harry Crawford’s story is one that never would have been told if it wasn’t for the murder of Annie Birkett – his first wife.  

But how and why Annie came to die is the very reason that Harry’s secret was revealed to the world.

Harry and Annie had been married for four years and were living in the Sydney suburb of Balmain. Annie had a young son from a previous marriage and the three of them were a happy family.

Until Josephine, the daughter that Eugenia gave birth to turned up at their doorstep.

Harry begged Josephine to keep his true gender a secret from Annie and everyone else but she didn’t. Letting on to a neighbour that Harry was not all that he seemed.

Four years into the marriage on October 1, 1917 Annie Birkitt’s charred body was found in a park in Lane Cove. Harry and Annie fought in the park when Annie revealed her intention to end the marriage after she had found out that Harry was actually a woman.

Court transcripts tell us Annie slipped and fell backwards hitting her head on a rock losing consciousness. She died within minutes and there were no witnesses to Annie's fall.

A distraught Falleni panicked over what to do with the body – she eventually set fire to it.

The police were unable to identify the body and she was buried a Jane Doe.

Soon after Birkett’s death, Falleni started a new relationship with a woman known as ‘Lizzie’. But there was still one complication in this twisted love triangle - What to do about Annie Birkett’s son?

Harry told him that his mother had run off with another man. But Annie’s son was suspicious and on two occasions Harry planned to kill him but could not go through with it.

Annie’s son eventually reported his mother missing to the police.

It took another three years until Harry was arrested right while hard at work in the cellar of a Sydney pub.

On July 5 1920, Harry Crawford was charged with the murder of his wife Annie Birkett.

"In my view there was not sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction for murder," says Mr Tedeschi. "The first occasion that Eugenia was in court... she would have realised that her life as a male as she knew it, had come to an abrupt end."

"She would have been very fearful and she was desperate about what was going to happen to her relationship with her second wife, Lizzie."

In an era where transgender or transsexual behaviour was unheard of, the full weight of the law and public cruelty came crashing down on her - branding her a complete outcast and menace to the moral fabric of society.

"She’d committed the unpardonable crime, not of murder but of crossing the gender divide," says Mr Tedeschi. "By the time it came to her trial, it was as though crossing that gender divide was a far more serious offence than the murder that she was charged with and faced trial for."

The Falleni trial was one of the most sensationalised cases of its time. The public were fascinated with the details of the case particularly the object Harry used to pleasure his women. It was even admitted as evidence.

Mark Tedeschi’s devoted years meticulously piecing together a book that charts Eugenia’s life and her trial. He says harsh media coverage surely had a negative impact on the juror’s perceptions of her.

"People didn’t understand anything about homosexuality or transexualism in those days," says Mr Tedeschi. "She was treated as being almost an animal in the zoo, a species from outer space that was placed in a cage to be viewed by all and sundry as the freak that they said she was."

That mixed with an over exuberant police investigation, an erudite judge, a determined prosecutor and a public clamouring for blood led to what’s today seen as an abuse of the law.

When the jury found Falleni guilty after two hours' deliberation, she was sentenced to death, later reduced to life in prison.

She was released in 1931 after 11 years on the condition that she lived as a woman. She assumed yet another name 'Jean Ford' and worked as a landlady.

But the truth to Eugenia Falleni’s story will never be known. Eugenia Falleni's freedom was short-lived after she was killed in 1938 by a car on Oxford Street in Sydney ironically it's now the epicentre of Australia’s largest gay, lesbian and transgender community.

"She went to inordinate lengths to live life as a male and there must have been this constant undercurrent of tension and of fear relating to any possible discovery of her true gender, of her biological gender," says Mr Tedeshi. "So I think she paid a very heavy price for living as a male."

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