Margaret O’Connor, Long Bay State Reformatory for Women, 12/11/1923. ‘Gaol Inmates/Prisoners Photos Index 1870-1930’. Photo No. 608. Series NRS249 [3/6007], page 110.
In 2016, I found an article filled with extraordinary amounts of hyperbole about my great-great grandmother, second-generation Irish-Australian, Margaret O’Connor. The article detailed her involvement as a witness for the prosecution in the 1915 murder trial of one of her Chinese clients.
A journalist for the known scandal-rag the Truth, claimed that neither the Russian, British nor American literary greats had given the public ‘more vivid glimpses of what may be called “THE UNDERWORLD”’ than did this particular trial. And yes, the capitalisation was in the original.
The article featured hand-drawn courtroom portraits of Margaret; her lover, William Moon (one of the accused men); and the murder victim, her client, Ah Chee. I have to confess, that despite the tragic subject matter, I felt a thrill of excitement at the discovery of this newspaper article. Until that point, I’d known very little about Margaret, other than she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Sydney. Who was this distant ancestor of mine?
Finding the article led to the discovery of Margaret’s string of 64 plus convictions, received between 1914 and 1923. It led to me finding her prison photograph, shown here. I’ve cropped the image because I don’t believe that Margaret’s prison record is all that she was. The nature of her so-called legal and moral ‘crimes’, and that of her younger sister, Annie O’Connor, included smoking opium, being drunk, swearing, being tattooed, doing sex work, and consorting with Chinese men. Both sisters were also arrested and imprisoned multiple times for ‘being of insufficient lawful means’ – a peculiar crime that effectively criminalised people for being poor. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Australian vagrancy laws and their application, see Policing the Poor: The History of Vagrancy Laws and the Criminalisation of Homelessness.
My forthcoming talk for the Genealogical Society of Victoria offers an insight into the lives of women who, like Margaret and Annie, were criminalised by poverty over a century ago, and of new ways to write about them. In doing my research, I kept asking myself, how can I best tell the stories of women who were only written about in a disparaging fashion by others? My talk emerges out research for A Most Undesirable Woman, a historical novel in progress, part of which was written during a residency at Frontyard, Marrickville, New South Wales. A version of the talk was first presented there on 8 March 2020.
Bookings can be made via the Register Now link. You will receive an email with the Zoom link.
When: 7pm to 8pm, 6 May 2021, Australian Eastern Standard Time
Location: Online via Zoom.
© Kristy Love 2021
Republished by the Genealogical Society of Victoria with the permission of the author