Who was Eugenia Falleni?
Stephen A. Russell

19 Jul 2017 - 1:01 PM  UPDATED 19 Jul 2017 - 1:01 PM

Who was Eugenia Falleni? The simple answer would be an Italian woman born in 1875, whose family set sail for Wellington, New Zealand, when she was two. But Falleni led many lives, some male, some female, several of whichcoalesce in Half Wild, the painstakingly researched, mesmerising and ambiguous debut novel of bookseller, poet, and Imperial Broads band member Pip Smith.

The history books record her dying as Jean Ford, a boarding house owner in Sydney in 1938, shortly after being struck by a car on Oxford Street. Before that, Falleni had escaped Wellington and run away to sea, now identifying as Harry Crawford. While we cannot know for sure, it seems his biological gender was discovered on board, and that he may have been raped.

Giving birth to a daughter, Josephine, shortly after being dropped off in Newcastle, Australia, Crawford continued to identify as male and went on to marry twice. His first wife, Annie Crawford, née Birkett, disappeared after four years. Three years later, the charred remains of an unknown woman were identified as Annie, leading to Crawford’s arrest and a sensational murder trial. Insatiable, salacious reporting on Crawford’s “man-woman” consumed countless newspaper column inches and packed out courtrooms.

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The only record we have of Falleni’s will is an interview she gave, now identifying as Ford, from the female wing of Long Bay Gaol, where she was initially sentenced to hang. As such, this article will use gender pronouns applicable to the various identities Falleni went by as it discusses them.

Smith was cautious of pinning down the gender identity of her protagonist, and notes that she is cisgendered, 80 per cent straight and looking back from 2017, when trans identity is beginning to be far more visible.

“I don’t want to retrospectively claim for Falleni who Falleni was, because I think that would be obnoxious of me,” she says. “At that time, doctors were trying to say Falleni was a ‘sex invert’, and that was the best term they could come up with. And every term always seems to crumble. In a way, Falleni’s existences seem to prove the insufficiencies of language and I wanted to preserve that and let the absences in source material - even though they are frustrating - stay.”

Swirling with contradictory viewpoints from friends, family, and foes, the fictionalised biography revels in its playfulness, blurring already scant fact with real court transcripts and newspaper clippings relayed in fragments.

With so many gaps in the history, Smith notes it’s possible that no longer living as a man was a condition of Ford’s eventual release from prison, after her death sentence was commuted. It’s safe to assume a female wing in prison was also a safer place. Perhaps, too, the invisible anonymity of living as an older woman offered its own respite once released.  

Smith was inspired to write Half Wild after seeing an arresting image of Falleni in police custody, dressed in a man’s suit, intense eyes burning, displayed as part Sydney’s Justice & Police Museum City of Shadows exhibition in 2005.

The novel is at its most powerful when it is told from Falleni’s experience, particularly as a child living in poverty in Wellington, with an interminably pregnant mother and the spectre of death never far away. A young tomboy dreaming of another existence, Falleni idolises the local butcher boy and loathes school. There’s also a macabre creation myth as Falleni, now going by the nickname Tally Ho, rips off the head of a lizard and a cicada and combines the two to make a third creature which her imagination gives life.

“I found it much easier to access the story through the character Tally Ho because I remember being a girl and being completely frustrated by the roles that were offered to me - ‘this is what girls do, this is what women become’ - and I could expand upon those frustrations and the anger that left me with,” Smith says.  

Acknowledging that leaving how Falleni identified ambiguous could be perceived as problematic, Smith consulted with two trans men at very different points in the process, Tom Cho and Kaya Wilson. Cho noted that he couldn’t speak for all trans experience throughout history and Wilson added that yes, in embracing uncertainty, Smith could be seen to be contributing to trans erasure. “Because trans people have struggled for a long time to say, ‘no, we’ve always existed in history’,” Smith says.

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“Falleni wouldn’t have necessarily been aware of a trans community under any other name, and in the only interview given, [as Ford] she said that she took on a male identity because women were earning half of what men were and she had a daughter, so there was no other option,” Smith adds, but with the caveat that Falleni’s interview was conducted under duress in prison.

“It was intended to secure Ford’s release and she would have wanted to build sympathy in a public that would not have any framework for understanding trans experience, so of course she’s going to downplay any same-sex orientation or trans identity and of course that rationale, economic reasons only, just goes up in smoke when you consider Falleni had a dildo and clearly had sexual relationships with women.”

That dildo scandalised the febrile media during the court case. Smith notes that Peter Doyle, who curated City of Shadows, said in an interview with ABC radio that the public imagination at the time was more taken by cases of assumed identity than murder. “There were lots of stories about men masquerading as naval officers and trying to woo women, so that was the story newspaper men were chasing, then the Falleni case just happen to be made even more sensational by the presence of a murder,” Smith says. “Poor Annie, I think she was definitely a supporting character used as a way of making Falleni appear more monstrous.”

Whatever happened to Annie – her death could have been a terrible accident covered up in panic, with Falleni always maintaining innocence – mistrust of the “man-woman” almost certainly deprived Falleni of a fair trial.

Smith points to an essay by La Trobe academic Ruth Ford, whose work focuses on gender and identity. “She says if Harry Crawford had been on trial, all they could pin on him was manslaughter, because the police built their entire case around the deception indicating guilt. They built this whole narrative of Annie not knowing because they knew that that’s the only way they could get Falleni.”

Pip Smith’s Half Wild, published by Allen & Unwin, is out now. Buy a copy here