‘A life lived at the messy intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, criminality and motherhood.’ This was the perfect description of the narrative told to workshop attendees by Meg Foster, a PhD student from the University of New South Wales and a visiting student at Cambridge, of her research into the life of Ethel Page, wife of convicted murderer Jimmy Governor. One element of a broader thesis analysing non-traditional Australian bushrangers (generally speaking, outlaws who committed crimes, often robberies, in the Australian wilderness), Foster’s presentation focused on how Ethel’s relationship with her husband, as well as his crimes and short-lived life on the run, transfixed 19th century Australian society. Instead of focusing on Jimmy, as many true crime accounts of this case have done, Foster allowed Ethel to take the central role in this story, thereby allowing her to tease out broader themes regarding gender, race, and journalism.
For those unaware (as I was), Jimmy Governor (1875-1901) was an Indigenous Australian labourer who shot to infamy following the Breelong Massacre, where he and another man killed five women, four from the same family and three under the age of 18, in their home in July 1900. Jimmy had worked as a labourer on the family’s property in the period prior to the murder, while his wife had worked for the household in some capacity as well. While his partner was soon apprehended, Jimmy evaded arrest and, utilising his skills as an outdoorsmen, lived as a bushranger for roughly two months before being captured. He was eventually brought to trial, convicted, and executed for the murders.
Subject to scrutiny for his crimes, and called to testify before the court, was Jimmy’s wife Ethel, a working-class white woman and the mother of his two children. Foster explained how, as an interracial marriage in which the woman was white, Ethel’s marriage to Jimmy was distinct. According to their marriage licence, Ethel had married Jimmy at the age of 16, already pregnant with her first child, in a ceremony conducted in a church rectory, not the chapel itself. The peculiarity, Foster noted, of a marriage in the rectory may have been the result of Ethel’s pregnancy or a subtle expression of discomfort over the fact that they were an interracial couple.
Despite this, Foster highlighted that Ethel viewed her marriage to Jimmy with pride, noting how Ethel expressed satisfaction at her ability to marry a man so many other local women found attractive. Given that one of the suspected reasons for the murder stemmed from alleged racial abuses Ethel experienced relating to her decision to marry a non-white man from one of the victims, I was particularly interested by Ethel’s claim that there was competition among local women for his affection. Moreover, following the murders, Jimmy cooperated with authorities but never denounced her husband, despite critics and the potential benefits disavowing him might have accrued for her in white society. As Foster pointed out, while a white woman, Ethel had two interracial children with Jimmy, which necessarily influenced how Ethel navigated the attention being paid to her.
The murder of white women by an Aboriginal man, on top of the ongoing the manhunt to find Jimmy, captivated newspapers and the public imagination, with scores of men offering to search the bush to apprehend Jimmy and numerous articles covering his trial. Foster read excerpts from a variety of newspaper sources from this period, which captured the layered societal responses to both the crime and those implicated in it. Ethel faced accusations of her impropriety from onlookers for her decision to marry Jimmy—as a white woman married to an indigenous man, she was an exceptional case—but also manipulation by the judicial system as she was called to testify against her spouse.
The juxtaposition of the pride Foster attributed to Ethel with regards to her marriage to Jimmy and the judgements she faced by others following the murders presented an interesting study in the nature of racial prejudice in print and in practice in nineteenth-century Australia. By focusing on Ethel instead of Jimmy, Foster also opened up new avenues of consideration in this sensationalised case, as it allowed for a richer understanding of how race, gender, and social expectations inform the narratives told about a person. While Foster noted the massacre has perennially inspired pop-culture retellings—something that may speak to the mass appeal of true crime stories even through today—embedded within them are are other stories to be told which may prove just as dramatic and informative.