Eugene Falleni was a transgender man of Italian-Australian descent who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1917.
Eugene Falleni was born in Italy in 1875 as a female, and was given the name Eugenia. Falleni was the eldest of 22 children, in which seventeen survived childhood. He migrated with his parent to Wellington, New Zealand in 1877 at the age of 2. His father, who was a stern disciplinarian, was working as a carrier with a horse and cart and as a fisherman. After constantly dressing in men’s attire to work in brickyards and stables as a teen, Falleni left home and changed his name to Eugene, getting work as a cabin boy. His family made little effort to locate him as they opposed his lifestyle. Falleni was allegedly married to someone named Martello Falleni before arriving in Sydney, Australia.
Falleni said that after a few years at sea, he accidentally revealed his gender during a drunken conversation with the ship’s captain. He was shunned by the ship’s crew and often raped by the captain. Since having a woman on a ship was traditionally thought to be bad luck, Falleni was left ashore pregnant and poor in 1898 at the port of call in Newcastle, South Wales.
Falleni gave birth to a daughter that she named Josephine Crawford Falleni in Sydney, and gave her daughter to an Italian woman named Mrs. de Angeles. He started calling himself Harry Leo Crawford under the guise of being a Scottish descendant.
Relationship with Annie Birkett
In 1912, after working several manual jobs in pubs, meatworks and a rubber factory, Falleni entered the establishment of Dr. G.R.C. Clarke in Wahroonga, Northern Sydney, as a sulky driver. This is where he met Annie Birkett, who was Dr. Clarke’s housekeeper. Birkett had been a widow for several years and had a son named Harry. Birkett and her son left Wahroonga and moved to Balmain, where she used her money to open a confectionery shop. Falleni had followed her there and took up an interest in the building. Falleni and Birkett were married at the Methodist parsonage on February 19th, 1913. The couple soon moved to Drummoyne, where Falleni had jobs working in hotels and factories.
According to witnesses and Falleni at his trail, Birkett was unaware of his true gender until a neighbor told her in 1917. Birkett confronted Falleni with this, but he refused to confirm the truth, fearing she would have him arrested.
Birkett suggested the two of them have a picnic near Lane Cove River on October 1st, 1917. According to Falleni’s statements to police, the two of them quarreled after she revealed her intention to leave him. Falleni stated that during their argument, she slipped and fell backwards, hitting her head on a rock. He claimed that he tried to save her but she died within a few minutes, and he panicked thinking he would be investigated and exposed as a transgender. So he attempted to burn the body beyond recognition. Falleni told Birkett’s son Harry that she had run off with another man, and a witness at the later trial also claimed Falleni told them that Birkett had ‘cleared out’.
Birkett’s charred body was discovered in scrub land off of Mowbray Road, Chatswood. The medical examiner reported “no definite marks of violence” and concluded that she died “probably due to burns”. The body was not identified at that time, and newspapers reported that the police believed the death to be a suicide, based on accoumts of a woman ‘whose manner has been regarded as strange’ being seen recently in the area, along with a small bottle of kerosene that was found. An open verdict was returned at the inquest, and the body was buried in a coffin marked ‘the body of an unknown woman’ at Rockwood Cemetery.
Falleni met a woman named Elizabeth King Allison in 1919, and she was over the age of fifty. They were married at Canterbury in September 1919, and Falleni gave his name as Harry Leo Crawford and listed his birthplace as Scotland, and his occupation as a mechanical engineer.
Arrest and Trial
After Birkett’s disappearance, her soon took up lodgings in Wooloomooloo. He visited his aunt in 1920 and said that after returning from a holiday weekend, he discovered his mother was missing, and Falleni took him to a well known suicide spot called the Gap, where he threw stones off a cliff. About a week later, Falleni took him to scrub land near Manning Road, Double Bay, to dig a hole. Harry did and they returned to the city.
This placed suspicion on Falleni, and he was arrested July 5th, 1920. Falleni asked police to place him in the women’s cells of the jail, and requested that his wife Elizabeth not be told that he was transgender. His lawyer, Maddocks Cohen, did not apply for bail.
Birkett’s remains were exhumed, but a post-mortem did not reveal any new information, and her body was released to her family for burial. Falleni’s daughter was found and interviewed by police.
At the committal hearing in August 1920, witnesses included the dentist who made the false teeth that was found with Birkett’s remains and Birkett’s sister, Lillie Nugent, who identified a gemstone that was found with the body as belonging to her sister. Harry testified that his mother only married Falleni because he was very persistent and that ‘there were always rows and they were never happy’. He mentioned a time that they left for his aunt’s and then another location, and how often Falleni ‘worried’ his mother. He also described an incident when Falleni found them and ‘smashed up everything’. He added to his story of his trip with Falleni to The Gap and testified that Falleni tried to lure him over the fence at the cliff’s edge. Falleni’s lawyer objected to Harry’s story of Falleni taking him to dig holes in the scrub, but the magistrate allowed it on the grounds that it indicated Falleni’s frame of mind.
Dr. Palmer, the Government Medical Officer, repeated his testimony from the post-mortem that he believed Birkett died of burns and was alive when the fire was started due to the blistering on the skin, but he could not confirm if she was conscious or not. He also identified small cracks to her skull, which could have been caused by the fire, but a more substantial one could have been evidence of violence.
Another witness, Henrietta Schieblich, whom rented Falleni a room after Birkett’s death, claimed Falleni told her his wife had left him and added, “we had a jolly good row, and I gave her a crack on the head, and she cleared”. Schieblich also claimed Falleni was going to kill Birkett’s son Harry on the night he took him to dig holes in the scrub. Another witness supported Harry’s evidence that Falleni, who could not read nor write, asked others to look in the newspapers for mentions of a murder in the weeks after Birkett disappeared.
The prosecutor was granted permission to treat Falleni’s daughter Josephine as a hostile witness, and submitted her earlier statement to police as evidence:“I first remember my mother when about seven years of age. She always wore men’s clothing, and was known as Harry Crawford. I was brought up at Double Bay by Mrs. de Angeles, whom I used to call ‘Granny’. Granny told me Harry Crawford was my mother, and that my father was the captain of a boat. My mother was very cruel to me when I was a child, and often forgot me. Granny told me my mother tried to smother me when I was a baby. Mrs. de Angeles died when I was about 12 years of age, and my mother took me to a little confectionery shop in Balmain, kept by a Mrs. Birkett, who had a son named Harry. My mother told me Mrs. Birkett had some money, and always thought my mother was a man. I said to my mother, ‘She’ll find you out one of these days.’ My mother replied ‘Oh, I’ll watch it. I would rather do away with myself than let the police find anything about me.’ My mother told me always to call her father, and not let Mrs. Birkett nor anyone else know that she was a woman. I did not know that my mother was married to Mrs. Birkett, but they occupied the same bed-room. They quarreled a great deal, and mother used to come out and say, ‘More rows over you. I cannot get any sleep.’ I replied to my mother, and she said, “Oh, a lovely daughter I’ve got.’ I said, ‘What can you expect? A lovely mother I’ve got.’ In 1917, I met my mother, who told me everything was unsettled and upside down, as Mrs. Birkett had discovered she was a woman. My mother seemed very agitated, and always reticent about herself.”
At the end of the trial, Falleni was committed for trial and refused bail. A few days after the committal hearing, the magistrate Mr. Gale, was criticized in a Sydney newspaper for personally escorting a popular actor and actress into the courtroom, and providing ‘box seats’ for them.
At Falleni’s trial at a Darlinghurst courthouse in October 1920, the ‘Man-Woman’ case caused a press sensation, with the accused appearing in the dock wearing male clothing first then appearing in women’s clothing. The Crown’s (functions of the government) case followed the evidence presented at the committal, although the Prosecutor was reserved when ‘referring to the relations between the accused and the deceased’ because ‘there were some matters to which he did not care to refer to in the presence of women’. He was chastised by Sir William Cullen, the presiding Chief Justice, who said that ‘if women came to a Criminal Court they must not be considered for a moment’. The Prosecutor presented a dildo found during a search of Falleni and Elizabeth’s home in Stanmore as evidence that he was ‘practical in deceit’ about his gender.
Evidence from other witnesses didn’t always support the Crown’s case. While on his way to work, David Lowe saw a woman holding a suitcase behaving in a ‘half-witted’ way, who then disappeared into the scrub 200 yards from where the burned remains of Brikett was found. Police-Inspector Mayes was one of those who originally suggested the body may have been of a woman who accidentally set herself on fire.
Falleni pleaded not guilty to murder, but the jury disagreed. They took two hours to reach their verdict, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. When asked by the Chief Justice of he had anything to say, Falleni replied after consulting with his attorney, “I have been three months in Long Bay Gaol. I am near to a nervous breakdown. I am not guilty your honor. I know nothing whatsoever of this charge. It is only through false evidence that I have been convicted.”
In mid-October, Falleni filed an appeal against the conviction, stating:“…..that the jury’s verdict was against evidence, that the evidence tendered by the Crown was weak and merely circumstantial; that the case against the accused set up by the Crown was destroyed by the evidence of the Crown’s medical witnesses; that the identification of the appellant with some person alleged by the Crown to have been in the neighborhood of the place where a charred body was found was unsatisfactory, and that owing to nervous prostration at the trial, the appellant was physically unable to make a statement of facts, which would have answered the circumstantial evidence….”
The Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed the case, finding that if the original jury ‘came to the conclusion that the accused was the person who brought about the death of the woman, no matter by what means, it was justified by finding a verdict of guilty’.
Falleni’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but the matter of his gender and the supposed deception of it was very popular with the press, which portrayed him as a pervert and monster.
Falleni’s friends and ‘prison reform workers’ petitioned several times for his release. In February 1931, after an hour long visit with the prisoner, Minister for Justice Joe Lamaro granted Falleni is freedom, due to the fact that he was nearly sixty years old and was ‘not of robust health’.
After being released from Long Bay Prison, Falleni was taken by car ‘for an unknown destination’. Questions were put forward by the press about the case, as there was still uncertainty about the body being Birkett’s, the skull fractures and the fire, the possibility of poison and the lack of ‘definite evidence that Falleni had taken the woman’s life’.
Falleni used the name “Mrs. Jean Ford” and became the proprietor of a boarding house in Paddington, Sydney. On June 9th, 1938, he was hit by a motorcar near Oxford Street, and died of injuries sustained the following day in Sydney Hospital. He was identified only by fingerprint record and the 100 pounds he had gotten from the sale of the boarding house business found in his bag. The inquest ruled it was an accidental death. He is buried in the Church of England section of Rockwood Cemetery under his last assumed name.