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The ABCs of bigamy case files

Rebekah Stretch, research assistant in collaboration with Mélanie Méthot

The term “archival case file” does not mean much to the vast majority of people. Analyzing dog-eared, hand-written, faded documents about people who died decades ago might sound about as exciting as watching paint dry to some, which in a way is understandable. Reading such documents is an acquired taste, and it takes practice to know what to look for and where. In an attempt to delineate what an archival case file is and why they matter to historical research, allow me to share my personal methodology for approaching and organizing information found in Victoria's bigamy case files. In lieu of handling the physical copies, I am dealing with the pictures Mélanie and her research assistant, Frédérique Heinrich, took of the case files in the Summer of 2018 at Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV). In essence, I am ‘flipping’ through PDFs of the documents they photographed.


Ranging between 15 and 40 pages in length, although some contain over 100 pages, the typical file includes at least one marriage certificate, depositions of witnesses, police reports/correspondence, statement of the accused, recognisance of bail, prosecutor notes, and indictment (who made the complaint). Less often, I stumble upon warrants, witnesses’ summons or to my delight, personal letters. The documents come in no specific order.


Marriage certificates

When I open a PDF, I search first for marriage certificates to ascertain how many spouses were involved. Believe it or not, some bigamists had more than two spouses, such as William Larcher and William Ball, though ‘serial bigamists’ are the exception rather than the rule.

Cover page

Next, I flip back to the cover of the file where one finds a wealth of useful information. For instance, Francis David Harrison (the cover page of whom case file is pictured), tried in 1916 in front of Judge Hodges in Melbourne’s Supreme Court, defended by Mr. Power, pled guilty and received a sentence of one-month hard labour. Tracking names of the judiciary may seem inconsequential, but after a while, we notice familiar names. These people became ‘experts’ in bigamy prosecutions. Harrison’s cover indicates the prosecution presented 14 exhibits, lists the witnesses and reveals that at some point Harrison was out on bail.


After gleaning all I can from the cover page, I check for any warrant/indictment/complaint documentation from which I can establish the informant's identity – most often a spouse, parent, in-law, or arresting officer. In the above example, Detective Rohan filed the Information for an Offence and Warrant to Apprehend Francis David Harrison in June 1916. The forty-year-old chemist was discovered as a bigamist in a rather unconventional way; a patriotic British man, he joined the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914. He marked on his Attestation Paper that he was aware that his wife would receive a Separation Allowance (military pension). What he had not bargained for was his legitimate wife claiming the Separation Allowance!

Though they had parted on good terms, Clara, the mother of their eight living children, asked for what was rightly hers. Since Harrison put his more recent ‘wife’ as his next of kin, authorities were alerted of the bigamy.

Marriage certificates

Let us return to my methodology. After having identified the informant, I come back to marriage certificates to pinpoint the alleged bigamist’s occupation, age, aliases, birthplace, and information about the weddings themselves (religious denomination, date, location, and witnesses). Intriguing discrepancies may arise between first and second marriages. For example, sometimes the bigamist does not appear to have aged at all between marriages, even if said weddings took place ten years apart! Researchers may assume that there is less likelihood of falsehood on the first marriage certificate, yet, one should remember that hasty marriage of convenience between minors may have provided an incentive to lie about one’s age.

Marriage certificates shine light on intent. When bigamists hide their identity by changing their origins, the name of their parents, age, and so on, the courts interpret such actions as an admission of guilt. In Harrison’s file, the list of exhibits includes marriage certificates, but they are not part of the file. In fact, many documents listed were returned to the owners, including pictures Clara had provided of her husband. In lieu of the missing photographs, I am including a mugshot published in the Victoria Police Gazette.

Depositions of witnesses

The bulk of a case file is usually composed of either written or typed depositions, which are testimonies taken outside of court under oath to determine if the Crown will prosecute. Some depositions are short and sweet (2-3 sentences long), while others are lengthy and detailed (multiple pages long). Since each deposition starts with the name of the person and his or her position in life, the researcher can easily record a list of habitual witnesses. In addition to spouses, one encounters the marriage celebrants as well as the people who signed the marriage registry. Arresting officers often give an account of what happened when they apprehended the bigamist. Depositions from spouses are usually longer than those of marriage witnesses, arresting officers, or clergymen, but of course, there are many exceptions to this pattern. Harrison’s two wives shared revealing conversations, living arrangements, and event timelines. Clara explained that she and Harrison had ten children together. One may imagine the court outraged at the father’s abandonment of his large family, but when Mr. Power cross-examined Clara, she admitted that five of the children were able to participate in the family economy. Harrison also made regular financial contributions, which was likely a factor in the court’s decision to give him a relatively short sentence. The depositions of both wives reflected favourably on his character and behaviour.

Contrary to most cases, the arresting officer had much to say about the well-mannered returning soldier. Although not part of the actual case file, his military contributions certainly influenced Judge Hodges. To know more on this topic, watch Stolen Valour: The Case of Arthur Roberts.

Police reports, subpoena, bail and prosecution briefs

Once I have carefully read the depositions, I switch to the police reports, which oftentimes reiterate much of the same information. Various subpoena sometimes clutter the file.

Not much can be gained from those. Contrarily, the Queries and Answers

contain some very interesting information since they point to the Crown’s strategy. Prosecutors try to ascertain harm, although sometimes they seem to provide potential lines of defense, especially when they ask if the spouse was violent, of good morals, or if the couple was drunk when they went through the form of marriage. It is likely that since Harrison pled guilty, the Crown did not go through the motions of queries and answers.


On occasion, researchers come across newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs. personal letters, character letters, or an explanation from the offender. Those are little gems well worth scholars’ time. Harrison’s letters disclose that he left Clara on account of her “devilish temper”, unreputable habits (swearing, drinking), and her tendency to drive a wedge between him and their children. Harrison claimed he asked on several occasions that Clara leave the children with him so he could properly raise them as a single father. She apparently refused, despite that he offered to pay her living expenses. When he eventually went away to work in a factory, Clara allegedly told him she could “get another man easy enough” and that she would “see that he got no rest”. In addition to these disturbing details about Harrison’s legal marriage, the father of eight disclosed how he became attached to Ida Bertha Buchanan. Harrison recounted in vivid details the kindness of Ida and her family, calling evenings spent in their home a “glimpse of heaven after coming out of hell”. He confessed that he was “madly in love” with Ida. Harrison ended his letter mentioning his experience on the war front, including his getting sent home wounded and ill part way through his military service. The returned soldier bemoaned not being able to financially support Ida once he was on leave.

Letters are not always as intimate or lengthy as Harrison’s, but they usually offer valuable insight into a bigamist’s relationships and motives. The job of the historian consists in putting those letters back into their own context. Although rarely able to reconstruct the exact sequence of events or get to the interior motives of each offender, the historian recognizes common discourses. Bigamists certainly gained in painting the first spouse in a negative light. Despite having had 10 children with his wife, Harrison could not help but describe her as a bad mother (one of the highest faults a woman could possess). He pointed to her loose morals. He stressed his own goodness and pure sentiments towards his younger wife, and he made sure to mention the sacrifices he made for the country. While he acknowledged his duty to provide for Ida, he completely disregarded that he had abandoned Clara and his children in South Australia, leaving them to fend for themselves.


As fun and intriguing as it is to explore the case files, I have encountered my fair share of unexpected challenges. The first difficulty that immediately comes to mind is trying to decipher the nearly-illegible cursive handwriting that many of the case files contain. With the help of deductive reasoning and considerable practice, I can usually figure out what was written, but not always. Another deceptively difficult task is keeping names, dates, and stories straight when more than two or three spouses are involved. Determining a motive and/or narrative in a case with limited information also proves to be a unique challenge. Some witnesses only offer a sentence or two in their depositions, and marriage certificates and other important documents are sometimes missing, leaving an analytical hole that is difficult to fill without making educated guesses. Thankfully, the researcher can fall back on other civil documents, divorce papers, wills and, not to dismiss, newspapers coverage. In the end, researchers have to remember that the case file remains only one part of the story, only one of the discourses.


PROV, 30-P0-1770, “Francis David Harrison”, 1916., “Frank Harrison”, Military papers.

“Francis David Harrison”, Victoria Police Gazette, July 19, 1917, p.401.

PROV, VIC30-P0-1683, “Myra Duffy”, 1914.

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