CONNIE’S SECRET by Anne Lovell

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Author Anne Lovell found out by accident that her aunt, Connie Sommerlad, had been murdered by John Trevor Kelly in 1939. John Kelly goes down in Australian history with the dubious honour of being the last man to be hung in NSW.  Connie’s name had never been mentioned by any of the older members of the family – her life, and death, had remained a secret.  Why?  As Anne investigates her late aunt’s life, she discovers that it was not the horrific murder that embarrassed the family into silence but something quite different.

Connie and her younger brother Eric ran the family farm near Tenterfield in NSW.  John Kelly was their farm hand.  One Saturday night in early 1939, Kelly hacked Connie to death with an axe, attacked Eric with it and left him for dead, jumped into the farm ute and headed for Brisbane.  Here he was quickly apprehended by the police and immediately confessed to the murder.  He was sentenced to death by hanging, and this was carried out 24/08/1939. So if her horrific murder was not the cause of the family’s embarrassment – then what was? 

In the 1930s marriage and religion were the backbone of society and a woman having choices over her own life was virtually unheard of.  So when young Connie fell pregnant her choices were very limited.  She chose to not tell the family about her condition and had her son; who became a horrendous embarrassment to Connie’s family when the truth came out just before her murder.  So great was the potential scandal that the family were able to convince the doctor who did the inquest to omit the fact that Connie had had a child and just to mention that she had not been sexually assaulted.  This meant that Connie’s ‘shame’ would not be on the public record.

The keeping of this secret affected the whole family right down to the current generation.  When the truth started to come out in the 1970s and Anne Lovell began to investigate the story, she and her cousins were amazed at the attitudes about a situation that no-one would bat an eyelid at today.  It was actually considered as far worse to be an unmarried mother than the victim of a heinous crime.   CONNIE’S SECRET gives an absorbing insight into another era, an era from not that long ago. There is a lot more to the story to be discovered than I have revealed here.  The story is all the more poignant because this is a family member relating all the events around Connie and her family and how their impact continues to be felt by those who were involved, even today.

Year of Publication

On 4 February 1939, Connie Sommerlad was brutally butchered and her brother left for dead in their family farmhouse in rural Tenterfield. 

It was a murder that would rock the tight-knit community; a murder made all the more shocking by the fact that their assailant was a local man working for the Sommerlads. Jack Kelly, who was to become the last person to be hanged in New South Wales, struggled to explain his awful crime even as he faced the gallows.

Yet this was far from the only mystery to be exposed by Connie's tragic end.

What really happened to Connie in those lost years between her move to Sydney as a young woman and her fateful return to her home town? And what was the secret so shameful that, even as Kelly stood trial for her murder, the Sommerlads conspired to keep it from the public record? 

Vividly evoking small-town Australia in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, Connie's Secret brings to life the story of a highly respectable family desperately trying to protect their talented but wayward daughter's reputation at a time when religion, virtue and maintaining appearances held sway over every thought and deed. 

This fascinating insight into another era is written with the emotional force of a novel, but these events did happen - and their devastating impact continues to be felt by those left behind even today.  

Review CONNIE’S SECRET by Anne Lovell
Karen Chisholm
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

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