Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Femme Fatale of the Australian Underworld, Leigh Straw
Dulcie Markham might have been known as "deadly to know" according to newspaper accounts from the time, but all these years later, it's more striking how little is really known about a woman who was notorious at the time. Coming from the same era as Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, Markham was young when she left home, got involved in the Sydney underworld of the 1920's, and young (only 62) when she died. She lived a life blighted by violence, and loss, a prostitute by the age of 15, a gangster's "moll" by 18, she saw multiple lovers and/or husbands stabbed and gunned down; she was charged with conspiracy to murder in 1947. Frequent court appearances, moves from state to state in Australia, didn't keep Markham safe though - she was shot in the hip in 1951, in the same attack that killed a then boyfriend.
A wild ride needless to say. Although, as is often the way with these sorts of books, particularly when they are about women, there are known facts - like charges, court appearances, the newspaper reports of deaths and the violence to which she was witness, but not a lot about Dulcie's inner thoughts, reactions or motivations. She didn't give interviews, she didn't make comments, she didn't go on the record at all. Reading the events of her life, setting them in the context of the Razor Gang times, and the Sydney of violence, drugs and standover merchants, Straw makes an interesting observation:
Women lead complex, diverse and varied lives. Dulcie Markham epitomises the girl who refuses to fit in, the young woman with a drug problem who seeks solace in people she thinks can protect her, the sex worker who sees herself as a representation of femininity and not a fall from it, and the resilient woman who after all her years of living a life ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ decides to get out and lead a quieter existence.
There's still quite a bit of Markham's life that remains unknown - a daughter that may or may not exist, eventual retirement from the gangster life and a home and husband in the Sydney suburbs, which ended in tragedy in a house fire in 1976 that killed her.
The tricky part of reading this book was decided what to make of Markham herself. Was she a victim of the circumstances of her birth, was she a woman who made the best of the bad cards dealt to her, was she a willing participant or a pawn in the wider criminality of the time? Without her word, the reader is left to their own devices in making a decision.
The newspapers called her 'Australia's most beautiful bad woman' and she was deadly to know...
This is the story of 'Pretty' Dulcie Markham, a key figure of the underworld of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, who, according to one crime reporter, 'saw more violence and death than any other woman in Australia's history'. Nicknamed the 'Black Widow' and 'Angel of Death' by the crooks, reporters and police who knew her best, Dulcie's lovers were stabbed and gunned down in the most violent years of Australian crime, the 1920s to the 1950s.
Not always by her ...