A desperate woman and a desperate act

In the second half of the nineteenth century, twenty women were sentenced to death in the Victorian Courts. This is the story of one of them. Mary Cox, alias Malone, was arrested on 28 December 1864 for the wilful murder of a female infant.

The following notice appeared in the Police Gazette on 15 December 1864:

At 7 am on the 10th instant, the body of a female child, about 10 days old, was found near the Park Lodge, St Kilda road, the face evidently discolored by strangulation produced by a piece of calico tied tightly round the neck. The dress consisted of a new white calico shirt, a baby's long white flannel shirt plaited in front, and bound round the top with a piece of new white calico for tape, and herringboned round the bottom and sides; an infant's new white calico night-gown, with a strip of white calico for a running string, plain, but neatly made; a blay calico napkin, and a piece of blay calico round the neck. An inquest was held on the 12th instant, when the jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against a person or persons unknown. - 14th December, 1864.

Mary Cox came to Australia from Ireland, an 'assisted' passenger aboard the Atlanta which arrived in May 1860. In Victoria, Cox worked as a nursemaid for two employers. For the two years prior to her arrest she had worked for Mr George Watson near Sunbury.

On 25 November 1864, she was admitted as Mary Malone to the Lying-in-Hospital in Melbourne by the resident surgeon, George Featherstone. She told staff that she was a married woman from Sunbury. When questioned, Cox explained the absence of clothes for herself and her baby by stating that in her hurry she had left them at the railway station. She gave birth to a healthy baby girl at 8 pm that evening. A nurse and another patient at the hospital helped Cox to make clothes for her daughter from calico and flannel. The baby was dressed in these clothes when discharged on 9 December, and both Mary Cox and her baby were healthy when they left the hospital. Two people saw Cox in town that day without the baby - Dr Featherstone and the patient who had helped her with her sewing. She told each of them that her daughter was with her sister.

On the evening of the ninth, Cox met a man near Clarendon Street from whom she asked directions and the time. It was just after 9 pm, and she was carrying a bundle under her mantle which the man believed to be a baby. He last saw her heading towards the park on St Kilda Road. She stayed at the Cork Screw Hotel that night, but did not have a baby or bundle with her. [1] The next morning, just after 6 am, John McAuley found a body in the park: 'I noticed there was a piece of flannel tied over the face and two ... [illeg.] right over the mouth tied very tightly. The child was quite cold'. [2]

Mary Cox's case was heard on 16 February 1865. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Several people submitted petitions to Governor Darling seeking mercy. Her sister Catherine pleaded:

That the said loss of mind and reason and said fit of temporary insanity was produced by the lonely and deserted condition in which the said Mary Malone otherwise Cox was placed and the sense of shame which she experienced upon her quitting said Lying in Hospital contrasted with the good and virtuous life she had led previous to her committing the moral offence for which she had entered into said hospital. [3]

Cox's employer also pleaded her case, explaining that she had been seduced under promise of marriage by a man also working on the station:

During the two years that she was in your petitioner's (George Watson) service she filled the situation of children's maid and owing to her steadiness and kindness to the children was often left for considerable periods in the country with their entire management.

Your petitioners have had such frequent opportunities of observing her kind and gentle manner which endeared her much to young children that they cannot believe that she was in her right or usual mind when she committed the terrible crime of which she has been guilty. [4]

On 27 February 1865 Mary Cox's sentence of death was commuted to ten years imprisonment, of which she served nearly seven years.


1.   VPRS 30, Unit 287, Mary Malone, February 1865   [Return to text]

2.   VPRS 30, Unit 287, Mary Malone, February 1865   [Return to text]

3.   VPRS 264, Unit 4, Mary Malone   [Return to text]

4.   VPRS 264, Unit 4, Mary Malone   [Return to text]


VA 466 Governor's Office

VPRS 7583 Register of Decisions on Capital Sentences, Unit 1, Entry 174

VA 667 Office of the Crown Solicitor

VPRS 30 Criminal Trial Briefs, Unit 287, Case No. 1 Mary Malone, February 1865

VA 1464 Penal and Gaols Branch

VPRS 10879 Alphabetical Index to Central Registers of Female Prisoners, Unit 1, registration No. 1136

VPRS 516 Central Register of Female Prisoners, Unit 2, page 385, registration No. 1136

VA 2825 Law Department

VPRS 264 Capital Case Files, Unit 4, Mary Malone

Police Gazette, 15 December 1864

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