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#AceHistoryDesk – If you want to understand changing social attitudes to marriage, looking at the people who’ve chosen to do it a second time while still legally married to their first spouse can provide a unique insight
Mélanie Méthot, a professor of history at Canada’s University of Alberta, has been researching bigamy “to better understand our idea of marriage, not only the legal definition, not only what the courts thought about it, but our religion or society,” she said.
[Through their evidence] you get to know what people believed marriage was and what you could expect in marriage,” Professor Méthot told Sam Longley on ABC Radio Perth.
She has researched bigamy in Canada but found on Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digital archive, a richer source of records than she’d ever dreamed of.
“When I got to Trove, I put [in] bigamy as a search term and there were more than 100,000 hits. I knew I had hit the jackpot,” she said.
Alexander William Smart
A missing persons announcement in the Police Gazette featuring a photo of Ethel Harris and Smart.(Supplied: State Records Office WA)none
One particular case piqued her attention — that of Alexander William Smart (who also used the name Alfred Wilson Smart) and the three women who were considered his wives.
Smart’s marital history started in 1878 in Victoria, when, at the age of 20, he married a woman named Mary Jane Bailey and had five children with her.
“He lived with her until 1898, [for] 20 years, and then he left to go to Western Australia,” Professor Méthot said.
“She didn’t want to follow. She decided to stay home with her mother who was still alive and raising their children, but he continued communicating with her, and continued to send her money.”
However sometime around 1904 Smart met a 21-year-old woman named Ethel Harris, told her his name was Alfred Wilson and asked her parents’ permission to marry her.
While her family believed they were married and the couple lived together as Mr and Mrs Wilson in West Perth, Professor Méthot said the pair never went through a marriage ceremony and it’s likely Ethel knew that Smart had a wife in Victoria.
A third woman
However, around 1910, while still living with Ethel, Smart began courting another woman, Mary Jane Pemberthy, and after a six-month engagement, bigamously married Mary Jane on her 21st birthday and brought her back to the house in West Perth he had shared with Ethel.
Professor Méthot said they probably wed because Mary Jane was so young and likely insisted on getting married.
“I have seen the marriage certificate, and he pretended that he was 34. He was 51 years old, by the way,” she said.West Perth circa 1905, where Ethel and Smart were living until her disappearance.(Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)none
Meanwhile, Ethel had disappeared and when the police began investigating, witnesses said the last time they remembered seeing her was on March 14, 1910, just one day before his wedding to Mary Jane Pemberthy.
It was the search for Ethel that led to the discovery of his bigamy with the second Mary Jane.
A search for a body
While the search continued for Ethel, who police believed had been murdered, Smart was charged with bigamy.
He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years hard labour in Fremantle Prison.
When Ethel’s body was found in December 1910, buried in the foundry where Smart had been working, he went on trial for her murder.
The case and trial were a sensation. Professor Méthot has found more than 350 newspaper articles about the Smart case.The Ethel Harris case was reported nationwide. This story was published in Tasmania in December, 1910.(Supplied: Trove)none
“The newspapers were very keen on portraying him as guilty. I think there’s about two or three reports which they’re questioning [his guilt] of the over 350 articles,” she said.
Smart never confessed to killing Ethel, but was found guilty and was executed at Fremantle Prison on March 7, 1911.
The grim story continued to fascinate the public for decades.
“All the way to the 1950s people were talking about the Ethel Harris murder,” she said.The gates of Fremantle Prison, where Smart was executed for Ethel’s murder.(Supplied: State Library of Western Australia)none
Unearthing the files
Professor Méthot has travelled to Perth to do further research on the case and to delve into the court records of all historical cases of bigamy in WA.
Damien Hassan, senior archivist with the WA State Records Office, said his offices held “huge amounts of records from the Supreme Court, in this case from criminal trials”.
“The first bigamy case was from the Supreme Court in 1867 and through to World War II, there were about 109 cases of people found guilty of bigamy, both men and women,” he said.
“And the Supreme Court has kindly granted Mélanie access to go through those files, up until to the 1960s.”
“I think, for Mélanie’s purposes, it provides such a great reason why we do keep these records so we can look to these past cases and understand what was going on 100 years ago or more.”The Supreme Court record of Smart’s bigamy charge, 1910.(Supplied: State Records Office WA)none
Professor Méthot is excited about what she might find.
“It is so exciting for me to finally get access to the post-1947 records, because I believe this is where the understanding of marriage for individuals is changing,” she said.
“I can go and look at those depositions and try to tease out, ‘What is it exactly that these people expected in marriage?’
“Other historians of bigamy have argued that [bigamy] is actually because they believe in marriage, that’s why they marry again.
“What is it that they defined as so attractive about marriage?
“That’s what I’m trying to tease out here.”
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