Eugenia Falleni was born in Florence, Tuscany in 1876 and went to New Zealand with her parents as a child. At 19 her father forced her into a marriage with an Italian man named Braseli. When it turned out that Braseli was already married, Eugenia ran away to sea, told people her name was Eugene and, dressed as a man, worked as a cabin boy on a Norwegian barque. It is believed that she dressed as a man so that she could go to sea, and for the next couple of years she carried off this deception on a variety of ships plying the South Pacific.
One man, however, knew her secret. Martello, a fellow Italian sailor, got Eugenia pregnant in 1898. Eugenia returned to the New South Wales port of Newcastle, where Martello disappeared from her life. Eugenia moved to Sydney and gave birth to a daughter named Josephine and resumed her life as a man. By now she was accustomed to passing herself as a man, and could earn more at a job than what she would receive if she was a woman. Eugenia may have been a lesbian, but there is no indication of this in what is known of her private life, and the fact that her first wife, Annie Birkett, was shocked to discover her deception suggests otherwise.
Calling herself Harry Crawford, she told a childless couple that Josephine’s mother had died and asked them to raise her as their granddaughter. Sporadically, ‘Harry’ visited Josephine in the couple’s home in Double Bay, Sydney.
Harry Crawford was unstable and quarrelsome and drinking exacerbated his dark nature. He was in and out of menial jobs until in 1912, a Dr Clarke of Wahroonga employed him as a general hand and coachman. Dr Clarke’s housekeeper was a pretty widow, Annie Birkett, 30 who had a young son, also named Harry. For two years Crawford courted Birkett, until in 1914 she Dr Clarke’s employment, opened a corner store in Darling Street, Balmain and married him.
Soon after, Josephine moved back into the Balmain home. By this time she knew Harry’s real identity, but told no-one. Discovering that your father is your mother must have been traumatising, and soon Harry and Josephine fell out – Josephine stayed out late at night and caused much anguish, which lead to Harry and Annie fighting constantly. Annie gave up on the marriage, and moved to Kogarah to live with her sister, taking young Harry with her. When Josephine found a job and moved out to her own lodgings , Harry persuaded his wife to return, and they moved to a house in Drummoyne.
In September 1917, Annie told a relative that she had found something amazing about her husband. What that was she didn’t say, and she never revealed what she had discovered.
On the 28th of September, Harry and Annie went for a picnic in the Lane Cove National Park. There, in a secluded spot, Harry battered Annie to death and threw her body onto a bonfire where, three days later, a boy stumbled upon her charred remains. The discovery of the unknown body was reported and quickly forgotten, due to the news of Australian troops suffering heavy casualties in the fighting on the Western Front.
Harry Crawford went home and told young Harry that Annie was visiting friends, and then took the boy to Watson’s Bay. The two climbed up to The Gap and Harry, slipping through the safety fence, went to the edge of the cliff and invited the boy to join him. Feeling nervous, young Harry declined.
Harry Crawford told his neighbours that his wife had run off with a plumber. He sold their furniture and moved out with young Harry to a boarding house in Cathedral Street, Wolloomooloo in October 1917. Later that month, he told young Harry they were going out. The two walked out of the boarding house into a thunderstorm and trudged through the rain – Harry carrying a spade and a bottle of brandy, young Harry following behind. When they got on a tram at Kings Cross, young Harry started feeling nervous again, as he was watched his stepfather sitting silently, brooding and clutching the spade. When they got off the tram at Double Bay and walked into the scrub young Harry was frightened, which turned to absolute terror when they came to a secluded clearing and Harry started to dig into the ground. Harry then ordered his stepson to keep digging. The two of them took turns, digging while the thunder rolled and the lightning lit up the scene. Young Harry realised that the whole was a grave, which was big enough – for him. Luckily for him, Harry threw the spade into the trees and told the boy there were going home.
By the time they returned to the boarding house, Harry was totally drunk and told the landlady, Mrs Schieblich that the room they were staying in was haunted. Mrs Schieblich replied ‘I think it is your wife haunting you. I think you killed her.’ Harry slumped to the kitchen table and began sobbing. He virtually admitted killing Annie, telling Mrs Schieblich he had argued with his wife and given her ‘a crack over the head’.
Mrs Schieblich was no fool, and didn’t go to the police. She was of German background, and it was wise for people with such a background to keep a low profile at a time when her countrymen were killing Australians by the thousands. But she wanted Harry out of her house. Young Harry was living safely with Annie Birkett’s sister, and Mrs Schieblich sent Harry packing when she told him the police had called the house looking for him. Harry left the house at once.
Amazingly, Harry married again in 1919, and was able to deceive his new wife, who praised her ‘dear loving husband’. But young Harry, now aged 16 and his aunt, never having heard from Annie or the plumber she was said to have run off with, finally decided to go to the police. Dates were checked, dental remains were shown to Annie’s dentist and on the 5th of October 1920, three years after the fatal picnic, Harry Crawford was charged with the murder of his wife and taken to Long Bay Goal. There he was told to undress, have a bath and put on prison clothes. Harry agreed, but said he would have to do it in the women’s section. At first the prison authorities refused to believe her. A doctor was called, and after an examination he immediately declared that Harry Crawford was a woman.
The trial of the ‘man-woman’ Eugenia Falleni was a sensation. She appeared in court in women’s clothing, the first time in 30 years she had worn them. Found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Falleni was released in 1931 and lived the remainder of her life, in women’s clothing, as Mrs Jean Ford.
Mrs Ford bought a house in Glenmore Road, Paddington where she lived quietly, always maintaining her innocence to those few who knew her real identity. On the 9th of June 1938, she stepped off the kerb in Oxford Street and was hit by a car, dying shortly afterwards. No-one could trace Mrs Jean Ford’s relatives, or discover her background. Fingerprints were taken, and it was discovered that the dead woman was Eugenia Falleni. She had outlived her daughter Josephine who died in 1924, aged just 26.
“Australian Ripping Yarns” by Paul Taylor (Five Mile Press, Rowville, Victoria, 2005) was used as the main source for this blog post.