Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 228 pages; 2018.
Hazel Baron was nine when she first suspected her mother was a murderer.
So begins My Mother, A Serial Killer, by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans, which tells the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police.
Dulcie Bodsworth was a community-minded wife and mother, who was well respected as a talented cook and caterer. But underneath her likeable exterior lurked a manipulative and conniving individual.
In 1950, when her second husband, Ted, a former railway ganger now crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, was holed up in hospital in rural Victoria, Dulcie took up with Harry, a man 19 years her junior “to help with the kids” (there were four children, including Hazel, the co-writer of this book). Circumstances were dire (this was before the welfare state) and the family were living in two old army tents on the NSW side of the Murray River, opposite the town of Mildura.
On the night that Ted was discharged from hospital, Dulcie put the kids to bed with warm milk (a rare, and memorable, treat) and Aspro tablets, to help them go to sleep after such an exciting day.
Hazel’s mum shook her awake the next morning. The flap to the tent was ajar, the shaft of light showing that her dad’s bed was empty. Dulcie was bending over her, her face all teary: ‘Hazel, Hazel. Your father’s gone. He wasn’t here when I woke up. I think he fell in the river and drowned last night.’
[…] On the banks of the river, Ted’s faithful dog, Toby, howled into the morning air.
A few days later Ted’s body was found upstream. An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death.
But Hazel wasn’t so sure. Why had her mother taken her and her siblings out of school immediately after her father’s disappearance? Why were they not allowed to talk to the police? Why had Dulcie told the police that Harry was Ted’s brother but then later claimed he was her brother? And what were Dulcie and Harry arguing about all the time? When she heard them talking about “getting our story right”, what did they mean?
On the run
In the years that followed, Dulcie and Harry dragged their young family from one town to another, mainly in a bid to avoid Ted’s relatives.
By 1955, they were living on a sheep station, outside Wilcannia in north-western NSW, where Dulcie took a job as housekeeper. Her second victim was the manager of that station, Sam Overton, whom she killed by putting arsenic on his lamb chops.
She wanted him out of the way in the mistaken belief that Harry would then be able to take over the farm. His death was attributed to natural causes — acute gastroenteritis and inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall.
Her third victim was Tommy Tegenza, the town drunk, whom Dulcie had befriended. At the time Dulcie had the lease to operate the dining room in one of the three hotels in Wilcannia.
She knew Tommy had £600 and managed to convince him to leave it to her in his will. She staged an accidental fire in his room — a shed out the back of the hotel — and he was burned alive. In a weird twist of fate, the money from his will did not go to Dulcie, but helped cover his enormous bar bill.
Brought to justice
As well as looking at Dulcie’s complicated, shambolic and often impoverished life — from her first marriage to her third — and examining in great detail how she went about killing three men who simply got in her way, My Mother, A Serial Killer also charts how she was brought to justice.
Hazel, who got married against her mother’s wishes and became a nurse, had been suspicious of Dulcie ever since her father’s death. When she finally went to police (because she was frightened that her mother had turned her malicious and deadly attention toward’s Hazel’s own husband), her whole life got turned upside down. She had to go into hiding.
The investigation was not straight forward. But eventually this mundane-looking middle-aged mother was charged with three murders and sent to prison. She served thirteen and a half years and later became a consultant on the TV series Prisoner (or Cell Block H, as it was known in the UK). One of the characters, Lizzie Birdsworth, is based on Dulcie.
My Mother, A Serial Killer is a heart-rending account of a daughter’s anguish, but it’s also a tribute to her courage, tenacity and honesty — all written in a forthright style, with only the bare minimum of tabloid flourishes. It’s one of those amazing stories that seems too outlandish to be true. I found it completely fascinating.
You can read an abstract of his book on the News.com.au website and listen to Janet Fife-Yeoman’s talk about the book on the Nightlife podcast. It is available in the UK in Kindle edition only.
This is my 9th book for #AWW2018