On now at the National Archives, Femme Fatale provides a gritty look at our women criminals in the early 20th century—women who were arrested for poisoning their husbands, prostitution, assault and dealing cocaine.
It’s not a big exhibition, but it’s packed with intriguing artefacts, including confiscated weapons, original criminal records and a Darlinghurst Gaol jacket sewn by female inmates around 1845. You can see original photographs; pulp magazines that were banned in Australia because of their lurid illustrations and racy descriptions; and a show reel of film noir classics.
The surprising thing about the exhibition is that not all these women were the black widow types portrayed by screen sirens like Bette Davis in film noir flicks, or the scantily clad seductresses who pouted from the cover of the cheap pulp magazines of the 20s and 30s.
The fiction of femme fatales is full of glitz and glam, but the reality is nowhere near as glossy.
“The best part of the exhibit is the contrast between what we see in popular culture—the Jessica Rabbit type—compared to what the reality is,” explains National Archives Education Officer Rhonda King.
“The reality is grim and gritty. Sometimes it was glamorous but there was a lot of emotional, and even physical abuse in the lives of these women. We can see that in the real life images of Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine and Kate Leigh.”
Looking at their mugshots at the exhibition, the women seem worn, dreary, devoid of stilettos and red lipstick. The infamous Tilly Devine, who was a beauty with a peaches and cream complexion at 16, looks middle aged at 25.
“These reals queens of the underworld were both always vying to be the queen. They went to great extremes to make that happen, even through razor gangs, where they would slash their enemies’ faces. Darlinghurst got the nickname of Razorhurst because this was so prolific. You see, they could get put into jail if they were found with a concealed firearm, but not with a cutthroat razor.”
With 70 convictions to her name by her 25th birthday, Devine served time in prison for a razor attack. After her release, Devine went on to run 18 bordellos, through a legal loophole that didn’t preclude a woman profiting through such endeavours.
Her obituary read: “a vicious, grasping, high-priestess of savagery, obscenity and whoredom... one of the most frightening creatures spewed up by the razor gangs, a wretched woman.”
Just one of the fascinating stories of the exhibition.
Femme Fatal is at the National Archives until September 12. To hear the scandalous stories you won’t see in the exhibition, guided tours run from 2-2.30 pm every Thursday until the exhibition closes. Entry is free.