In brief: The true story of a woman who lived her life as a man and a shocking court trial.
The good: I’m really pleased Australia law is now more evidence than speculation based.
The not-so-good: I found some of the courtroom chapters a little overlong but oh! the ending (not that the author could do anything but say what happened).
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Setting: New Zealand, Australia and the open seas
True crime is not my usual go-to genre, but after a myriad of happy endings I mentioned to a friend that I was after a book that ‘completely ignored happiness’. In Eugenia I found what I was looking for, but what made it all the more tragic was the fact that this is a true story from my home country of Australia. After reading it, I was shocked at the injustices suffered by Eugenia Falleni, the protagonist in the book.
Looking at the cover, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m talking about a woman when there’s a man on the cover. Actually, that’s a woman – Eugenia Falleni. Brought up in New Zealand, she had always wanted to be a man and ran away to sea as a man. When her secret was discovered by the ship’s captain, she was raped and fell pregnant. Eugenia gave birth to a daughter, who was raised by friends of the family and she started a new life as a man called Harry Crawford. Nobody suspected anything of Harry – he could swear and drink with the best of them, not to mention carry out heavy physical work. Then Harry fell in love and married Annie Birkett. Their marriage was happy initially, but then Annie began to get suspicious about why Harry would never show her his body. Their marriage started to fall apart. On a fateful picnic one long weekend, Annie didn’t return home. Harry told neighbours she had ‘cleared out’ and eventually married again. But then Annie’s son and sister became suspicious and an unclaimed body from years ago was thought to be Annie. Harry was arrested for murder and that’s where his secrets started to unravel. It turned out that Harry was a woman called Eugenia, which had the press in a frenzy with the most sensational case Sydney had ever seen. Did Eugenia kill Annie? Or was it an accident?
Through fastidious research, Mark Tedeschi tells the story of Eugenia’s upbringing and life with warmth. He doesn’t pick sides, but tells the story based on what is known about her. I found the first section about her life very interesting. It must have taken guts and effort to live as Eugenia wanted as Harry in a society that did not accept transsexualism (in fact, very little was known about it). The second part about the trial was interesting but Tedeschi’s notes on how the case could have been better occasionally lost me (and proved that law is not my chosen field). I was shocked by the evidence and speculation that occurred in the courtroom (and was allowed by the judge – not his fault, as this kind of thing was standard for the time, 1920). It became obvious that Eugenia was not allowed a fair trial and that the media had a large role to play in the sensational reporting of the ‘man woman’. While Tedeschi doesn’t make a stance on whether Eugenia murdered Annie, he points out the flaws in the case and where things were not as black and white as some witnesses claimed. The final section about Eugenia’s life in and out of prison has an ending that is very powerful – even more so because it’s real life.
While I won’t be turning to the true crime genre all the time, Tedeschi has written an interesting and sensitively handled book that shows how far Australia has come as a nation in its treatment of people who are part of the LGBTQIA community.