A transgender man who was tried for the murder of his wife in 1920 in Sydney suffered a 'terrible injustice' says the author of a new book
The story of a transgender man at the turn of the twentieth century in Australia – featuring running away to sea, a viscous rape at the discovery of his biological sex, an abandoned child, a new identity, marriage, murder and the most high-profile court trial of the decade – would make a riveting plot for a novel, but this is all part of the real life of Eugenia Falleni.
Sydney barrister Mark Tedeschi author of a book (published this month in the UK by Simon & Schuster) about the life and trial of Falleni speaks to Gay Star News about how he got interested in the story, the twists and turns of Falleni’s unusual life and what researching it has taught him about transgender issues today.
How did you hear about the story of Eugenia Falleni?
I first found out about Eugenia and her life and the trial when I was doing some research for a speech that I gave in 2005 for the 175th anniversary of the crown prosecutors in New South Wales.
I decided that I would try to locate for four or five most significant criminal trials that have been prosecuted by our predecessors and Eugenia was one of them. I realized then that it was an amazing story and I managed to get hold of the transcript of her trial in 1920.
What is the story of Eugenia’s life?
Eugenia was born in Italy but at the age of two she went with her parents to New Zealand. At a very young age she realized that she was a male trapped in the body of a female and as she got a a little older she was interested in doing things that generally only males in that age did. She was very good with horses and was able to ride very frisky wild horses much better than the men were able to.
She tried working in a factory as a male but she got discovered by somebody who knew her. She got into terrible trouble and her family were completely lacking in any sort of understanding. She was their first born child and they were a conservative Italian family.
So eventually in her late teens she decided to leave New Zealand and became a seaman on a merchant shipping vessel in the Pacific. She was a very successful seaman. She was strong and wiry and loved being at sea and got along very well with his fellow seaman – he was by this stage using the name Eugene Falleni.
Then her biological identity was discovered and she was viscously raped. She was offloaded from the ship in Newcastle in Australia, completely alone and pregnant. She went down to Sydney where there was an Italian family who knew her family and she had her child, a daughter, in their home and convinced this Italian couple, who were childless, to take on the child.
Eugenia then adopted an identity as a man by the name of Harry Crawford, which was an identity that he maintained for the next 22 years, very successfully.
In those 22 years he legally married twice. Neither wife had any idea that he was anything other than a working class Sydney man. He was popular at his work. He did a lot of laboring work and drinking in pubs and was very popular with his mates. He fitted into working class Sydney in the early part of the twentieth century very well.
But the first wife, after about three years of marriage, learnt his true identity. And several months later she disappeared off the face of the earth.
After a while Harry Crawford married again, a lady by the name of Lizzie. It was only after about two years of marriage to Lizzie that the police came to where he was working and took him to the central police station in Sydney and questioned him about the murder of the first wife. He then went to trial.
The first section of the book is about Eugenia’s life before the trial, the second part of the book is an analysis of the trial and the terrible injustice that was done to Eugenia, in my view, mainly because her barrister was just not up to representing her. And the third part of the book is about Eugenia’s life after the trial.
How did the police find out about the murder, if there was a murder?
The first wife was called Annie and Annie’s body had been completely burnt beyond recognition in a bushland park in Sydney. When the body was found it couldn’t be identified. It wasn’t until three years later that the body was finally identified. And it was only then that the police went and questioned Annie’s husband.
But there was complete insufficient evidence about how Annie had died, but despite that, Eugenia was convicted of murder and served a lengthy sentence.
My analysis of the trial has convinced me that if the trial was held today there would be a very different result. Harry/Eugenia would either be completely acquitted and found not guilty or at the very most convicted of manslaughter.
Over the course of researching this book have you learnt anything about transgender issues and has it informed your opinion about the legal situation for trans people today?
Yes it has. I see Eugenia as being a transgender warrior at a time, in 1920, when the world knew nothing about transgender issues. She suffered terribly at the hands of the media and the public because they had no understanding of transgender issues.
How do you think she would be treated differently today?
For a start there are a whole lot of support services that would be available to her today that were not available then.
There is undoubtedly still a lot of prejudice against transgender people but I think that the legal system would be much fairer, much kinder, much more understanding than it was back in 1920.
Do you think there need to be any changes to the legal system today to protect transgender people?
There are already a lot of changes in terms of legally recognizing people with reassigned genders. Here in Australia people can legally change their birth certificates and passports.
Do you have to have had gender realignment surgery to make those changes on official documents?
I’m not really up on it but I think one has to have had the gender realignment surgery before one can [that is the case]. That raises interesting issues in itself.
I think what’s more important is there’s still a lot of work to be done to change public opinion about transgender people and to make them more comfortable with transgender people and accepting.
I’ve very recently read a very good book by one of the transgender people here in Sydney, Katherine Cummings, called Katherine’s Diary. It’s an excellent book.
I think the biggest hurdle for transgender people is to receive acceptance and support from those who are closest to them – getting acceptance from their family, friends and work mates. Those are the most important and difficult steps.
Do you think there needs to be education in schools about transgender issues?
Yes and what I’m very confident about is that my book is going to be read by many legal studies students. And I think it will teach them a lot about the legal system but it will also teach them about people who are different.
Do you see protecting people who are different as a central purpose of the law?
Very much so. Anybody who breaks the law should be treated equally but people shouldn’t be persecuted because they are different.
Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi is published by Simon & Schuster. Read a chapter for free here.