Maggie Heffernan may no longer be a household name, but the basic facts of her life and crime are surprisingly easy to come by. Her desperate tale is frequently referred to in journal articles and histories dealing with 19th-century Australian women; there is even an honours thesis that devotes an entire chapter to Maggie 's story in its analysis of ``reproductive crime''. Contemporary accounts of the crime are easy to find, too: blurry microfilm facsimiles of century-old newspaper articles detail Maggie 's arrest, her trial, the public outcry, the commutation of her death sentence, her eventual release.
There's enough information in these somewhat matter-of-fact accounts to whet my imagination, to provide inspiration and motivation. Sufficient information, too, to send me off on a search for the world Maggie inhabited.
I'm not even familiar with 20th-century Melbourne, but somehow I need to get a feel for the fin-de-siecle metropolis. I read contemporary writings (novels, diaries, treatises) as well as 20th-century interpretations. I become familiar with bewilderingly disparate elements of 19th-century Australian social history: the conditions of the poor, of the affluent; the day-to-day duties of a young domestic servant; the women's suffrage movement; female immigration; public policy; definitions of insanity; obstetrics and gynaecology; maternal refuges; prison conditions.
The list of things I need to know, to find out, is always increasing, seemingly inexhaustible, ultimately exhausting. But finally, finally, I've enough to construct a framework, a background, to Maggie 's tale. But that's not quite enough to get me writing.
Victorian Public Records Office, Laverton, July 1999
On the desk in front of me, an unlikely treasure trove. Two grey boxes jammed with curling, discoloured papers. Victorian Public Record Series 30, file No.1122, case No.73. The trial of Maggie Heffernan .
The official records are invaluable: statements, letters, trial transcripts, prison records, public petitions. Documents prepared by and for Significant Public Personages: the Premier, the Attorney-General, the Judge, the Prison Governor, the Celebrated Suffragist.
This bureaucratic paper trail is an integral part of Maggie 's story, essential to any faithful rendering of what happened, when it happened and why.
I discover that a human presence can be discerned in even the most cold-blooded legal documents. There are notes scrawled in margins, underlinings in shaky blue pencil (whose?) through many of the papers; missives between public figures are strangely intimate.
The tidily written trial transcript becomes uncharacteristically ornate when the single-word sentence -- Death -- is recorded: the capitalised D is dark and curling, as if inscribed with a solemn, ceremonial flourish.
There is some exciting new information -- occasionally in conflict with the authorised version of events -- that provides intriguing possibilities, new directions.
Mention of a letter that didn't reach home because of a burned-down post office, allegations of a forged reference, the remarkably elaborate alibi Maggie concocted when she was first questioned. And if events are never clear, people are even more opaque. There are personal documents: letters from Maggie 's acquaintances, friends, family and former employers. Letters attesting to her good character, her kindly nature, her poor health, her straitened circumstances.
Some are businesslike, matter-of-fact; others poignant, heart-wrenching.
Here's where I start to really find Maggie , but she's not exactly the Maggie I expected to find. She's more complex, more contradictory than I've imagined. Just like a real person.
One letter from a former employer states that she is a smart, sensible girl; another from a family friend that she is something of a simpleton and thus easily duped by her predatory lover.
Her mother states that she has never been well, has suffered from fits, indigestion and nervous debilitation throughout her life, but no employer mentions her delicate state of health.
Even her name is in contention: she is referred to as Margaret, Gretta and Rita as well as Maggie .
Finally there's the voice of Maggie : obscured, perhaps even a little distorted by plodding police prose, but still affecting in its simple recount of events:
The baby was clothed in a little white gown and a small piece of flannel only. The flannel was of a white colour and the gown was white too. I sat close up to the edge of the water. I took the gown from off the body. I took the flannel off too. I then let the baby drop gently into the river. The baby was alive when I dropped it into the river. I did not look to see whether the body sank or not. I then walked away carrying in my hand the gown and flannel.
I have enough now, enough to flesh out the bare bones of this story, background and foreground. Enough to get me writing.
*This article was first published in the Weekend Australian, April 8, 2006.