Arts Review: Mark Tedeschi QC & Cleo Gardiner In Conversation About Eugenia Falleni-Harry Crawford - Empire Hotel Annandale (03.10.13)

In 2013 the Annandale’s Empire Hotel has been decorated with ornate furniture, flowers and candles. In 1920 it was an arguably different place, the scene of the arrest of Eugenia Falleni AKA Harry Crawford who was working there as a general rouseabout. It was also where Falleni met her second wife, Lizzie Allison and the pair were spouses when Falleni/Crawford was arrested for the murder of her first wife, Annie Birkett.

On this particular evening, the hotel was the environment for a lively discussion and Q&A with two people who are very passionate about the Falleni-Crawford story. Cleo Gardiner is a queer, interdisciplinary-media artist who has created the work “Harry Crawford” about this individual. The work is now owned by the Empire and is a screen-print that’s filled with important symbolism. The word “Fallen” is coloured red in her name, while a halo has been placed around her head in a photograph taken from her mug-shot. Falleni was named after a saint but her trial was more a witch hunt that saw her branded a pervert and deviant, among other things.

Senior Crown Prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi is very knowledgeable about Falleni’s story, having written the book, Eugenia about her life and trial. He was prompted to write about her story as he shares an Italian heritage with the subject and he also lived near Lane Cove River Park as a boy (and this is the place Birkett’s body was found). The 1920 trial was also conducted by William Coyle KC, the very first senior crown prosecutor for NSW and Tedeschi’s predecessor and the trial was conducted in court room five at Darlinghurst Court House, Taylor Square where Tedeschi has been involved in defending and prosecuting numerous cases himself over the years.

In 1920 the whole of Australia knew about the Falleni-Crawford case. She was outed in the media as having been born a female but who lived as a male for 20 years and was branded a “she-man”, “sex deviant” and “circus freak”. The media sensationalised the case so she was basically tried by them before the actual two-day case had even begun (these days Tedeschi estimates that such a complex matter would take upwards of three months from start to finish).

The trial was one of the most significant ones in the history of NSW. It’s one that Tedeschi refers to as being about the “Quintessential outsider”, a person who was different from the mainstream community and who ultimately suffered a miscarriage of justice. The case also proves how things have changed and the areas where there is still room for improvement.

The conversation between Tedeschi and Gardner was an interesting one as they each offered up snippets of the subject’s history plus their own opinions about the legal and gender identity issues that are thrown up by the story. The pair was articulate and knowledgeable and the night was highly informative. It was also very clear that the topic is an important one for the two of them.

The Falleni-Crawford trial was and still is a very significant case. It’s something that still resonates today, especially in cases like the transgendered individual who recently made the news after she opted for euthanasia as the result of a botched sex change. The story highlights the problems with the prudishness of the past and the lack of support for LGBTI individuals and is something we should all take a leaf out of a book and learn from.