It was the most sensational criminal trial of its day; a murder trial of a woman who had passed herself off as a man for years. Eugenia Falleni had married Annie Birkett under her male alter ego, the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Scotsman Harry Crawford.
By the time Falleni was charged with murder, Harry Crawford had married a second woman, again successfully maintaining the elaborate ruse. After a tragic twist of fate led to Harry’s first wife, Annie, discovering the truth, the two quarrelled and Annie disappeared. Her burnt body was discovered at Lane Cove but not identified until years later.
In Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage, an outstanding new true crime story and the first entry in the genre by Crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, the sensationalism is stripped back to reveal a grimly fascinating and completely extraordinary tale.
Born into a large Italian family, Falleni began passing herself off as a man at a young age. She was skilled with horses and easily able to hold her own in construction jobs and the rough and tumble of male life. But her clandestine existence was always a perilous one and a spell on a merchant ship ended in horrific circumstances after her gender was uncovered and she was brutally raped.
He fashioned himself a dildo to sleep with women, and the sexual mores of the time allowed Harry to carry off this astonishing deception for years.
The murder trial is discussed in some depth, and perhaps is most interesting for its coverage of the adversarial system, not least because of the author’s day job as senior Crown prosecutor.
Tedeschi explains how the fairness of the adversarial system relies on the presumption that each side is represented by an equally accomplished advocate, which clearly wasn’t the case in this trial.
Falleni’s lawyer proved ”out of his depth”, made a series of tactical errors and, crucially, failed to force the prosecution into proving beyond any reasonable doubt that Annie’s death was not an accident.
The prosecution, meanwhile, was run expertly by the best silk of his time, William Coyle.
Despite its scarcely believable details, Eugenia ultimately proves a sobering tale, thoughtfully told.
It is a story of its time and an examination of outdated notions of sexuality and the fallibility of the criminal justice system, but most of all it is a human tragedy.
Originally appeared in: Sydney Morning Herald