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Media Depictions of Indigenous Australians in Bigamy Cases: Limited but rather positive

Mélanie Méthot and Elijah Schumland

The upcoming referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution with an Indigenous Voice in Parliament offers an opportunity to reflect on past prosecutions involving Indigenous people as offenders and/or as victims. What does our bigamy dataset reveal about the administration of justice when it comes to Australia’s First People?

If we were to limit ourselves to bold titles such as those printed in 1936 reporting on the bigamy trial of “Half-Caste” Murphy Sprinkle, we might be tempted to argue that Australian society was overtly racist.

The Brisbane Telegraph, 30 June 1936, 20

First, let’s point out that amongst the 3000+ prosecuted cases of bigamy in Australia, we have identified merely five involving people of Indigenous descent as offenders, and only one as the victim of a white bigamist. Clearly very few fell under the gaze of the judicial apparatus. It should not surprise us since the authorities so restricted the lives of Aboriginal people. Our final corpus comprises 86 newspaper articles, two divorce files and two bigamy case files. ( to discover what is included in a case file).


In a tale that only the context of war could produce, young Phyllis Adele Clampitt found herself in front of the NSW Supreme Court in 1918 for marrying Wilfred Gordon Lane in Brisbane three years prior, and a mere thirteen months later newly uniting her destiny to James Leslie McMaster, moments before he left for the front. Phyllis justified the second marriage with reference to her mother’s announcement that a letter from her husband, (in active service with Lane) declared that the young man was sentenced to be shot.[1] Unfortunately, before Phyllis’s mother learned that Lane’s sentence had been reduced to 12 months’ imprisonment and the loss of his stripes, the matriarch had already consented to the marriage of her 18-year-old daughter (a mother to two) to James, a young man who had been in love with the girl since they were 14.

As other bigamy cases involving Indigenous People, Phyllis’s legal troubles did attract more attention than white bigamists, though her indigeneity does not appear to have played a part in the increased coverage.

Only one of the 13 articles devoted to Phyllis’s story alluded to her race. In “Clampitt’s Catches”, Brisbane Truth referred in its subtitle to a “dusky damsel” and later described the accused as having “black blood running through her veins.” The journalist also implied fraudulent motives on the young woman’s part, reporting that Phyllis did not deny receiving allotments from both husbands who were fighting overseas. Truth quoted the arresting officer: “‘I understand’ stated the sergeant, ‘that you have been drawing all these allowances for over 12 months’,” the girl candidly replied, as to justify the allotments, that James was the father of her third child.[2] Phyllis’s mother, a “coloured” woman, as specified by the paper, backed her daughter’s statement. The fact of being defended by Mr Falker, considered a “well-known Sydney solicitor”, probably played a part in Judge Scholes remanding the young mother to appear for sentencing if called upon.[3]


The next case also involved a woman bigamist. Again, of the 16 articles covering the story, Truth is the first to refer to the race of the offender.

Sydney Truth, 11 October 1931, 13.

According to Mary Hanchett, her husband Arthur came back home one night completely intoxicated and proceeded to tear up their marriage certificate. Although she continued to live with him for some time, Mary was under the impression she was free to marry again. Truth specified that “Mary swore the incident with the marriage lines was about seven years ago,” a detail pointing to a possible line of defence, that of the oft used seven-year absence exception (hold on to your hats for the future blog on the seven-year exception!). As the papers reported, at the end of May 1931, Mary went through a form of marriage with Clyde Henry Walker, believing herself free to do so. As soon as Arthur found out about his wife’s new marriage, he informed the police.

In its usual manner, Truth embellished the story with imagery: “But up among the tall trees, the dense scrublands and peaceful orchards of Kurrajong, Mary never gave a thought to the consequences of her caprice.” The weekly highlighted the accused’s race when it commented: “Nor did her ancestry in any way destroy the attractiveness of this wildwood nymph.” and returned to the idea when it specified “Mary’s mother was a true Australian aboriginal.”[4] The journalist disclosed his assumptions that Indigenous People were not typically considered good looking. Perhaps playing on another stereotype, papers then reported on the below-average intelligence of the accused, something Mary’s counsel counted on to attract mercy from the judge. He had Mary’s white father describe his daughter as having a “weak intellect.”

Interestingly, just as Phyllis in the previous case, Mary counted on the services of an experienced barrister: the famous and able Ronald Bruce Walker (no relation to her second husband) Walker succeeded in painting Mary as the victim and the Judge sentenced her to be on good behaviour for two years.[5]

When newspapers reported on the subsequent divorce proceedings, none mentioned race, not even the salacious Truth. Each of the papers sympathised with the woman, all quoting Judge Stephen who reduced the waiting period from 6 to 2 months for the decree nisi (a court order before the divorce is officially granted) to become absolute: “Although in the eyes of the law adultery has been committed by the petitioner, it is in the circumstances no bar to the dissolution of the marriage.” Represented once more by Walker, Mary repeated her story: “I really thought that the destruction of the certificate completely annulled the marriage.” [6] The poor woman confessed that there was one child from the marriage, but he had died, and she was expecting to give birth in three months to Clyde’s child, a fact which the divorce judge must have taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the divorce archive file does not bring anything new to the story, if only that the cabinet of Walker and Son undertook ‘not to charge her more than £7 for services rendered up to including the decree absolute.” Judge Stephen ordered Arthur to pay the costs of the divorce. [7]


Five years later, and in a different jurisdiction, Murphy Sprinkle’s counsel adopted an interesting strategy. He claimed that his client “being an aborigine, […] would not have as high ideas of morality as a white man.”[8] Before showing how the strategy backfired, let’s recap the marital story of Sprinkle. At 19, he married Doreen Coochie at the Barambah Aboriginal settlement. After living together for a few years, they parted ways. Then in late December 1935, Catholic Priest Father Kelly married our man, under the name Jack Walsh, to Emily Clarke. The couple had duly obtained permission to marry from the “Aboriginal Department.” Less than six months later, Sprinkle was charged with bigamy. Once more, we find the Indigenous defendant represented by a very experienced legal counsel. If H. F. McGrath did not score points with his reference to the lower morality of Indigenous men, he did use the same strategy that landed Mary Hanchett a suspended sentence. Sprinkle stated: "I did not know I was properly married to Doreen Coochie. I never got no papers or nothing.”[9]

Brisbane Telegraph, first paper to report on Sprinkle’s legal troubles, did not refer to the skin colour of any of those involved, suggesting that race did not matter.[10]

Truth changed the course when it published a long piece accompanied with pictures of the bigamist, his wife, and a witness. The images worked in emphasising the Aboriginal roots of the protagonists. The reporter described Mrs Sprinkle as “plump, black and well-dressed” and noted that she did not give evidence. He mentioned other witnesses but only included a description of wife #2: “snuggly dressed in brown, a feather in her brown hat.” Emily had good words to say about Murphy.

Historian Mark Finnane finds that in NSW, “the courts proceeded with a greater attention to due process. Aboriginal offenders were commonly assigned legal defence, whether or not they were charged with capital crimes – and while some of these lawyers were indifferent, others were leaders of the bar and included a number who would become judges.”[11]

Concerns about fair treatment of the accused surfaced when a Brisbane daily reported that: “The Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr. J. W. Bleakley, was present and assured his Honour that the defendant understood the nature of the charge, and he was satisfied that there had been no duress or pressure used to induce the defendant to plead guilty He approved of Sprinkler’s plea.”[12] The paternalistic attitude of the government towards Indigenous people seeps through. Not only did Sprinkle need to ask permission to marry his Aboriginal bride, but the Chief Protector is also consulted to bestow his approval of his treatment.


The story of William Thomas Mandair also attracted considerable attention. Once again, his skin colour does not seem to have played an important role in garnering notoreity. The first six articles simply gave the basic aspects of the case without mentioning his race. In 1907, Mandair married Lily Nida Higgins and left her in 1915 on the grounds that she was carrying on with other men. Six years later, he married Mary Gome and lived with her until 1937, the year he married his third and current “wife”, hence committing bigamy once more.

When Sergeant Snowdon arrested him, Mandair first denied his marriage to Lily boasting that “I have lived with about six different women but was never married to them.” After being shown a letter his wife wrote to Mary Gome, his second spouse, he confessed: “I may as well tell the truth about it. I thought I may get away with it."[13]

The double charge explains the wider coverage. Eleven newspapers from four different states picked up the story of the thrice married man, but the articles were all short, consisting of less than 1000 words. The Sydney Sun first mentioned Mandair’s “mixed South Sea Island and aboriginal (sic) blood,” but in a matter-of-fact way. Papers did get a kick of Mandair’s catch phrase: “It will never happen again.” The Sydney Sun described how the Judge, “Suppressing a smile” bound the bigamist over to be of good behaviour for two years.[14]

MHNSW, NRS-857-1[10/39232]-270/1938

Though he was refused legal aid, Mandair succeeded in avoiding jail time. He must have been a friendly character, as the Queensland Judge who granted him his divorce in 1946 teased him and said: “Don’t worry what has been said here this morning William, you [will] get married again.”[15]


If the above studied four indigenous bigamists escaped jail time, this would not be the case for 24-year-old Allen Bean Copley who wronged “an Aboriginal widow with five children”.

The press painted Copley as disloyal to his wife, the mother of their two children. Not helping his case, the young man was also a deserter.

All articles, often in bold and capital letters, emphasised his second spouse’s race, describing her as “half-caste” or a “Black Gin”.

The Canberra Times, 13 August 1942, 3.

Mrs Copley’s testimony certainly did not help the plight of the young oft married soldier: “I told him I was absolutely finished with him. I don’t want anything more to do with him and I have no affection for him now and I positively dislike him. I have felt like that since I had the letter where he told me about this other woman.” When meting out the sentence, Adelaide Chief Justice Mayo admonished:

Adelaide News, 12 August 1942, 3.

“You have pleaded guilty to the charge that on the 13th May 1942 at Adelaide, being married to Marjorie Sylvia Copley, you went through the ceremony of marriage with Kathleen Winifred Warrior during the life of your wife. You are 24 years of age, and by your marriage have 2 children. Mrs Warrior is 34 years old and is a widow with 5 children. It seems she is a half caste aboriginal. You kept company with her from December 1941 until 13th May 1942 when you went through the form of marriage with her. I do not claim to understand your actions, but it is possible your intentions in relation to Mrs Warrior did not include marriage with her, but you may have discovered your objectives could not be achieved without going through the ceremony. This discovery may have been made too late to withdraw. Be that as it may, the offence is serious and must be treated as calculated and deliberate.”[16]

The sentence of 18 months that Copley received was relatively severe compared to those of other South Australian bigamists. In summarising the offence, the Adelaide News raised as aggravating factors the racial identity of the victim and her status as a widow with five children.[17]


In the final case, Gordon Leslie Anderson, who was arrested and tried in Queensland, saw his race plastered across newspaper headlines. After living with his girlfriend Gladys Ruth Addo for many years, he left her and married Nancy Rossen. Three weeks after his marriage to Rossen, Anderson returned home to Addo and married her. Truth published the first report including two photographs.

Brisbane Truth, 18 June 1944, 18.

The papers focused on the racial identity of Anderson and his two spouses. A week after the first article, Truth quoted the Crown Prosecutor, who had quipped that: “Anderson, a half-caste Maori, kept to a colour scheme in his break into bigamy.”[18] The three weeks gap between the two marriages, however, also contributed to the public’s fascination with the case.

Justice Mansfield considered 2 years should be the minimum sentence for bigamy, nevertheless, he recommended that the two bigamists he had just sentenced to gaol could be free on bond after 6 months in the case of Anderson and 9 months for the other one.[19] In the end, the judge’s bark was much worse than his bite: “Bigamy was becoming prevalent and it was necessary to impose sentences as deterrents to people who might be minded to commit such offence, said the Judge.”[20]

Queensland State Archive, RS1953-1-13, prison registry.


Very few Indigenous men and women came in front of Australian courts when it came to bigamy. More than likely, the requirement that they obtain permission first from the Chief Protector for Aborigines served as a deterrent. For those who found themselves in front of a tribunal, race did not automatically come to the forefront, but when it did, the courts adopted a paternalistic approach. Newspapers, except the sensational Truth, did not jump on the occasion to create a divide between white society and Indigenous people.

*Thanking Marian Lorrison and Mark Heinrich for their comments.


[1] “Clampitt’s Catches”, Truth, 30 June 1918, 12. [2] “Criminal”, Sydney Daily Telegraph, 5 July 1918, 8. [3] “Woman Charged with Bigamy”, Sydney Evening News, 17 June 1918, 5. [4] “He Tore Up Marriage Lines”, Truth, 11 October 1931, 13 [5] “Torn up Marriage Certificate, Both Free”, Sydney Sun, 6 October 1931, 11. [6] “Sackville Divorce”, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 12 August 1932, 1. [7] Museum History New South Wales (MHNSW), NRS-13495-14-96-382/1932 [8] “Judge’s Comment on Morals of Blacks and Whites”, Brisbane Telegraph, 30 June 1936, 20. [9] “Police Allege Abo. Is Bigamist,” Truth, 22 May 1936, 22. [10] “Remanded on Bigamy Charge”, Brisbane Telegraph, 9 May 1936, 15.

[11] Mark Finnane, “Aboriginal defendants in NSW courts 1850-1914, final draft “– published in History Australia, (2020), Volume 17, 2020 - Issue 3, 448-470. [12] “Haft Cast Second Venture”, Brisbane Courier Mail, 1 July 1936, 3.

[13] MHNSW , NRS-857-1[10/39232]-270/1938, “Deposition of Sgt Snowden”. [14] “I won’t do it again”, The Sun, 23 August 1938, 2. [15] “Decrees Granted in Undefended Divorce Cases”, Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 29 May 1946. [16] State Records of South Australia, GRS3391/00001, Unit 197, File 19, Sept 1942. [17] “6 Men Sent to Gaol”, Adelaide News, 22 September 1942, 3. [18] “Six Months’ Gaol for Bigamist”, Truth, 25 June 1944, 20. [19] “Unusual Story of Half-Maori’s Bigamy”, The Brisbane Telegraph, 22 June 1944, 2. [20] “Gaol for Bigamy”, Brisbane Courier-Mail 23 June 1944.

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Shauna Wilton
Shauna Wilton
09 באוג׳ 2023

Really interesting! You almost have a full-length article here!! :)

09 באוג׳ 2023
בתשובה לפוסט של

I know! I was thinking the same thing, especially as I was adding the footnotes! But a blog comes out so much faster, even if it takes weeks to do the research. 😁

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