6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorescence’ to ‘The Media and the Massacre’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate)!

Because I’m in the throes of hosting Southern Cross Crime Month on this blog, I thought I’d try to stick to a theme… every book in my chain is true crime. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

This month, the starting book is…

Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird (2020)
I haven’t yet read this book about finding internal happiness and appreciating the wonder of life, even though I bought it not long after it was released based on the fact that it just looked gorgeous and was a rare hardcover (most books in Australia only ever get published in paperback format).

Another book I bought, albeit many years ago, because I liked its hardcover treatment was…

‘Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?’ by Richard Shears (2008)
This large-format hardcover, which features beautiful endpapers and sepia photographs, is about the mysterious disappearance in 1954 of Margaret Clement, an eccentric recluse living in rural South Gippsland (the part of the world where I was raised), who was better known as the “lady of the swamp”. She was once a beautiful, rich socialite who was well-educated and well-travelled, but in old age was living in abject poverty in the decrepit mansion built by her father, a Scottish immigrant, who had become one of Australia’s richest men.

Another book about a Scottish immigrant in Australia fallen on hard times is…

‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
This is the true story of Sarah Boyd, an impoverished Scottish immigrant, convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923. The book looks at why Boyd did what she did and asks whether her trial and subsequent punishment was fair.

Another book that looks at the fair (or otherwise) treatment of a historical crime case is…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
Regular readers of this blog will know this isn’t the first time I’ve included this book in a Six Degrees chain, but it’s one of those true life stories that has stayed with me and often pops into mind. Eugenia Falleni scandalised Australia in 1917 when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him!

Another book about a female murderer is…

My Mother, A Serial Killer

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, 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. 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. She was clearly a very troubled individual.

Another true crime book about a troubled individual is…

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Serial Killer’ by Robert Wainwright and Paolo Totaro (2010)
In the story of the world’s worst massacre (at the time) by a lone gunman, the authors of this controversial book try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the murder of 35 people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996. This tragedy had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

Another book about the Port Arthur massacre is …

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard (2016)
This book explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of the Port Arthur massacre. Its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? (referenced above) and the ethical and legal dilemmas it posed to its authors, two respected broadsheet journalists, who were later sued by the murder’s mother, Carleen Bryant, after she withdrew her support for the book.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about finding happiness within ourselves to the complex relationship between journalists and their subjects, via a string of true crime books from Australia.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Australia, Author, Book review, New Holland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Richard Shears, Setting, true crime

‘Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?’ by Richard Shears


Non-fiction – hardcover; New Holland; 191 pages; 2008.

When I was a child growing up in Australia, the “Lady of the Swamp” was part of local folklore. She had mysteriously disappeared in 1954 and was rumoured to haunt the house in which she once resided. The house, known as Tullaree, was an Edwardian “mansion” surrounded by flooded swamp land, about 20km from where my family and I lived.

As a young kid, I knew little of the woman’s background, nor the circumstances surrounding her disappearance. And I only vaguely recall the discovery of a skeleton — believed to have been her body but never proved — buried in the dunes behind Venus Bay in the late 1970s.

But something about the tales I was told — that she was an eccentric recluse who had probably been murdered — stuck. I’ve always been intrigued by the possibility of a woman living in an isolated rundown mansion, surrounded by flood waters, going missing. How did she end up living there alone? Who was she? What was her story?

Cue my purchase of Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement? earlier this year when I was visiting my parents in Australia. This large format hardcover, which features beautiful endpapers and sepia photographs, is a revised and enlarged edition of The Lady of the Swamp, first published in 1981. New Holland press have done a fabulous job with the design, because the book is a truly beautiful object. But I can’t be the first person to think that it’s kind of odd to give a true crime book this sort of treatment…

That said, this is a fascinating account of a real life murder mystery, with the emphasis on mystery.

What happened to the Lady of the Swamp?

No one will ever know what really happened to the “Lady of the Swamp”, although journalist Richard Shears hints at the most likely scenario. However, I’m not about to reveal it here, because that would be telling. But even without a “solution” — no one, for instance, has ever been charged with Margaret Clement’s murder if, indeed, she was murdered — this is a wonderful tale about one enigmatic woman’s life story and her unexplained disappearance.

What I didn’t know until I read this book was that Margaret Clement was once a beautiful, rich socialite — “the belle of Melbourne society” is how the author describes her — who was well-educated and well-travelled. Her father, a Scottish immigrant, had built himself up out of nothing to become one of Australia’s richest men. Upon his death, Margaret and her siblings inherited a fortune that would supposedly last them a lifetime. It didn’t.

Margaret and her elder sister, Jeannie, lived a rather cossetted life. In their 20s they set-up a mansion together — “Tullaree” in Tarwin Lower, about 150km south-east of Melbourne — where they farmed prized cattle with the help of their younger brother and domestic staff. They threw lavish parties for their friends visiting from Melbourne and served them caviar and smoked salmon.

When they weren’t socialising they were travelling the world — England, Scotland, Japan and China were just some of the places they visited. They would always bring back exotic furniture and tapestries and other household items for their much-admired home.

From riches to rags

The book traces how the sisters lost their fortune and ended up living as paupers in a crumbling mansion with not a penny to their name. It is unbearably sad in places. Both Margaret and Jeannie were well educated, had good manners and spoke in “cultured voices”, but they had no real life skills. They did not know how to run the farm and when their brother returned from the First World War he was too shell-shocked to help them.

Their naivety and their generosity was taken advantage of by a succession of domestic staff, scoundrels, thieves and gangsters. Even the lawyers and bankers got in on the act.

It was not until Margaret was quite elderly, living in squalor with just her cats and dog Dingo for company, that things took a turn for the better. She was a proud woman who had always refused all offers of help and friendship — indeed, she refused to ever leave Tullaree, even when the windows were smashed and the floorboards rotted through. But when new neighbours, Esme and Stan Livingstone, moved in, she let her guard down and became very close to them.

But were the Livingstone’s motives genuine? And what of Margaret’s nephew, a rogue with an eye on his inheritance — did he have his aunt’s best interests at heart?

A tale of greed and deceit

This true life story reads very much like a novel, and if I were to quibble with the author over anything, it would be this: he records some conversations that he could not possibly know happened and has a tendency to embellish scenes with extraneous — and unconfirmed — detail. It’s clear he has fictionalised some elements of the story, which is a shame, because it makes it harder to trust the “facts” as he reports them.

But regardless of this, I found Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement? a deeply intriguing read about the exploitation of two well-to-do women, whose privileged and refined upbringing had blinded them to the wickedness of the world.

I came away from this tale of greed and deceit feeling that Margaret’s wilfulness, her stubbornness, her pride and her fierce independence, all qualities to be very much admired in a woman of that era, were ultimately her downfall. It is a sad tale and will linger in my memory for a long time to come…

Note that the print edition of this book does not seem to be available outside of Australia, but USA- and UK-based readers can buy a Kindle version from Amazon.