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Bigamy-Murder: A favorite fictional trope

Mélanie Méthot in collaboration with Rebekah Stretch and Katie Stobbe, research assistants



Popular fictional trope


In Canada’s treasured television series Murdoch Mysteries, recent coroner Mrs. Violet Hart is a hardworking prodigy who has proven to be calculating and ambitious to a fault, with a life full of secrets. Over the course of several seasons, Mrs. Hart has fabricated evidence, married a scoundrel for his money, and been exposed as a past con-artist. Viewers have come to expect the unexpected from Mrs. Hart. In the two-part Season 15 finale, her shady past catches up with her yet again when the coroner’s no-good father shows up and exploits his offspring’s secrets as leverage to gratify his own needs and wants.


What starts out with Mrs. Hart handing over huge sums of money quickly escalates to selling the blackmailer one of her businesses, and in the process, betraying a friend. While this scenario plays out, the people around Mrs. Hart are confused and concerned by her suspiciously accommodating attitude towards her father. When a friend questions her decisions, Mrs. Hart responds, “I have no choice!”, to which her friend replies, “What kind of hold does that man have on you?” It’s not until the end of the episode that the audience is let in on the secret hold her “father” has on her: “You seem to misunderstand the predicament you’re in. I want that club. Either you give it to me, or I’ll tell everyone about you . . . you do what I say, or everything you have will be gone when I tell your ‘husband’ that you’re already a married woman . . . that’s right Mrs. Meadows! You give me what I want or your perfect life is over.”


The stakes are high


While such a threat may seem melodramatic or extreme, the blackmailer’s assertion that being exposed as a bigamist would ruin Mrs. Hart’s life holds some truth. Beyond the possible stint in jail (less so in Canada, more so in Australia), Mrs. Hart is forced to consider that as someone’s wife, the property she had carefully amassed (legally or otherwise) would automatically belong to her legal husband. With the stakes this high, one can understand why a bigamist might resort to murder. So at what point do the serious consequences of being found guilty of bigamy seemingly warrant murder (which if caught comes with the death penalty?)


More popular in fiction than in real life


Despite its popularity as a fictional trope, in real life bigamy-murder was extremely rare. Our Australia corpus of some 2500 cases has yielded only a handful of bigamist-murderers. One of them, serial killer Frederick Deeming (thought possibly to be Jack the Ripper), killed his wife and four children in 1891 after first “marrying” another young woman.

He then took this latest conquest to Australia. Soon after arriving in Victoria, Deeming savagely murdered his young bride, and buried her in the house he had rented. When apprehended, he was on the lookout for a third victim, having contacted the famous Holt’s matrimonial agency to meet a potential wife. Australians saw Deeming as someone merely killing out of blood lust.






Killing to avoid charges of bigamy


Contrary to the Deeming case, the 1910 bigamy case of Alexander (Alfred) Wilson Smart

in Western Australia has greater parallels with the fictional Murdoch episode. In order to embrace his life with a new conquest, Smart had to “dispose” of the woman with whom he had been living as man and wife for the previous five years.


Since Smart’s story has more than one twist, let’s rewind and start at its beginning.










Family man


In 1878, Alexander Smart, the eldest son of Scottish immigrant William Smart, married eighteen year old Mary Jane Bailey in Eltham, Victoria.

They had five children between 1878 and 1890. According to Mary Jane, around the turn of the century Smart left the family, lured by the Gold Rush. Her testimony reveals she did not hold a grudge against her husband, painting him as a good father and husband. At no stage did Mary Jane file an order for maintenance. Smart visited his family a few times, and even sent money. By the time the money stopped, her youngest son provided for her.


Meanwhile Smart, living in West Perth, and now going by the name of Wilson, befriended young Ethel May Harris, writing to Harris’s father to ask for permission to marry his new flame. We have not found any marriage record, but they lived in harmony (at least according to neighbours) under the surname Wilson as man and wife for about five years. Smart was working as a carrier/carter, making enough money to provide a nice living for his young “wife”.



Committing bigamy


While still living peacefully with Ethel, Smart met and started “keeping company” with yet another young and beautiful woman! After a six-month engagement (juggling the two women at the same time) fifty-year old Smart, under the alias Alfred Wilson Smyth, married Mary Jane Pemberthy on her twenty-first birthday. Neighbours testified that Smart brought his new bride to the cottage he had occupied with the now missing Ethel. Quite bold behaviour, when you think about it! Six months of marital bliss ended when the Western Australia police finally began investigating Ethel’s disappearance.

If neighbours did not initially go to the police when the new Mrs appeared at the No. 5 Cowle Street cottage, they had a whole lot to say when they realised that Ethel was nowhere to be found.


According to testimonies of several witnesses, Smart had married Miss Pemberthy only one day after Ethel was last seen. Newspaper reports make it look like Smart believed he could escape bigamy charges by murdering Ethel, a rather twisted thought given that he had not actually married poor Ethel. While under suspicion of murder, Smart must have realised a bigamy charge would be much less consequential. He quickly confessed he had a wife and children in Victoria. From all the coverage of the case (more than 300 articles!) one is left with the impression that Smart seemed anxious to plead guilty and get the trial over with. The judge sentenced him to two years in prison with hard labour.












Fremantle Prison


The plan backfires


Serving his two-year hard labour sentence, Smart may have thought he had outsmarted authorities by confessing to bigamy. But from the moment they started investigating Ethel’s disappearance, Perth detectives suspected foul play.



When the police finally found Ethel’s body buried under the floor of a disused shed at Smart’s old worksite, the jailed bigamist was charged with her wilful murder.



Fiction takes over


Knowing that Smart had not actually married Ethel Harris, it is hard to imagine that the confessed bigamist killed her to avoid bigamy charges. He wrote four letters the day before he was executed; one to Miss Pemberthy, the other to his employer, another to a certain Mr. Turner and one to the press (but none to his wife and children!). Smart never admitted to Ethel’s murder.


It is not our place to rejudge the man. We will only point out that it is clear that the fictional trope of the bigamist-murderer appears to have taken over the imagination of turn of the century Australians who ascribed certain motives to Smart. If Smart killed Ethel, it was not to escape bigamy charges, though that was the assumption made. There were later reports of the possible involvement of witchcraft, for example.


The popular fictional trope, the bigamy-murder plot, likely misinformed contemporaries’ and prosecutors’ reasoning about exactly why Ethel was killed. We should remember that the Murdoch Mysteries’ plot is not inspired by reality: Like most other bigamy-murder plots, they remain products of the imagination!


*Again, I want to thank Senior Archivist Damien Hassan for generously providing Smart's prison record.

I am also acknowledging Mark Heinrich and Marian Lorrison for their helpful comments


References


-“Missing Persons.” South Australia Police Gazette, November 2 , 1910, 272.

Accessed 14 June 2022.

-“The Missing Woman”, Daily News, October 13, 1910.

-State Records Of Western Australia, series 672, cons 4173, item 9, “Alfred Wilson Smart”.

-“Murderers I Have Known” Sunday Times, August 15, 1943.










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