Title: The Suicide Bride
Author: Tanya Bretherton
Published: April 23rd 2019
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Genres: Non Fiction, Historical, True Crime
Rating: 4 stars
From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the Ned Kelly and Nib awards – comes the chilling story of a charlatan, a murder-suicide, and a family tree so twisted that it sprouts monsters.
Whenever society produces a depraved criminal, we wonder: is it nature or is it nurture?
When the charlatan Alicks Sly murdered his wife, Ellie, and killed himself with a cut-throat razor in a house in Sydney’s Newtown in early 1904, he set off a chain of events that could answer that question. He also left behind mysteries that might never be solved. Sociologist Dr Tanya Bretherton traces the brutal story of Ellie, one of many suicide brides in turn-of-the-century Sydney; of her husband, Alicks, and his family; and their three orphaned sons, adrift in the world.
From the author of the acclaimed THE SUITCASE BABY – shortlisted for the 2018 Ned Kelly Award, Danger Prize and Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award – comes another riveting true-crime case from Australia’s dark past. THE SUICIDE BRIDE is a masterful exploration of criminality, insanity, violence and bloody family ties in bleak, post-Victorian Sydney.
Tanya Bretherton, the critically acclaimed author of The Suitcase Baby, returns with another fascinating and remarkably told Australian based true crime story. The Suicide Bride delves deep into a family mystery, defined by secrets and tragedy. At the same time, Bretherton offers a comprehensive guide of 1900s Sydney and she also provides the audience with a clear understanding of the conditions that allowed a crime of this nature to occur.
There are plenty of questions that swirl around the complex case of The Suicide Bride. One of the most important questions this book explores is nature versus nature. Can a horrendous event in your childhood and family history impact the person you become? Looking into one notable case that occurred in 1904 in Newton, Sydney, which is a classic example of a suicide bride situation are the deaths of Alicks Sly and his wife Ellie. Alicks, a known spiritualist, ended his own life after taking his wife’s life with a cut throat razor. The long lasting effects of this tragic event echoes down the lineage of the Sly family, which is tracked closely by author Tanya Bretherton. Unfortunately, the case of the Sly family tragedy is just a dip in the ocean, this was one of many cases across all states across Australia at the time. Raising themes of mental illness, domestic violence, poverty and crime, this true account of the darker side of human nature is incredibly gripping -from start to finish.
Tanya Bretherton is a storyteller and researcher that I admire. I like her focus on Australia of times past, her attention to the dark crimes of yesteryear and her intense focus on the social conditions that allow a litany of crime of this nature to occur. Sadly, the particular case that Bretherton has based her story on is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, there were many suicide bride cases that cropped up around the turn of the twentieth century. A suicide bride case is where a husband murders his new bride or wife and then kills himself for reasons largely unknown. There is no concrete evidence as to why these lives ended. We can only speculate with the evidence we have at hand.
Bretherton carefully outlines the context in which a crime of this nature may have occurred. She delves into the difficult economic conditions of the families, such as the case study family. The Slys were known to have been living in poverty. For some, links to the criminal world may have resulted in this tragic move to end both lives. Bretherton also hints at untreated mental illness and delusions as a possible factor. Whether it be one reason or many, there is no denying the impact of this heinous act on those who are left behind. In the case of the Sly family, the focus of the investigation, the children were abandoned and left in the care of the state. There is an interesting search into the biography the Sly children and Bretherton attempts to piece together how the deaths of both parents impacted each child in the long term. For these four children the results varied, from barely making an impact, to significantly altering the path in one child’s life into adulthood. There is also an interesting family twist in this case, which added an extra spin to this compelling historical act.
It was interesting to see how these suicide bride cases were treated, from the first police officers on the scene, to the basic forensics, including scene contamination, the photographs taken and the pertinent observations made. Bretherton provides a blow by blow account of the Sly crime scene, which was incredibly vivid and shocking. The procedures undertaken by the state in regards to the children left behind and how the Sly case was handled was definitely eye opening. At every moment in this book I could see the commitment Tanya Bretherton has shown to her topic and case studies. Bretherton has drawn on a range of sources to inform her account. These key sources include prison records, police gazettes, court transcripts, newspaper reports, witness statements and family accounts. These all worked together to provide a detailed picture of the Sly case and those of a similar nature.
What amazed or rather appalled me the most about this book was the possibility that some of these cases were disasters waiting to happen. Many of the suicide bride cases were also linked to ongoing situations of domestic violence, or other criminal based acts. I understand due to the practices of society and the moral codes of the time, outlined carefully by Tanya Bretherton, that rarely did anyone speak out against instances of domestic abuse. It makes me wonder if any of these victims could have been saved from their fate if the domestic violence or crime issues were appropriately dealt with. In the case of one fascinating case example in the book, a woman sought a divorce from her husband – which was virtually unheard of at the time. This man had a propensity towards inflicting violence towards her, and she knew she would surely die at the hands of her husband if she continued her relationship with him. These were such difficult times and Tanya Bretherton paints a chilling account of some of our hardest times at the turn of the twentieth century.
‘For houses do not keep secrets; people do. And any secrets held by Alicks and Ellie Sly died with them.’
The Suicide Bride by Tanya Bretherton is published by Hachette Australia. Out now. $32.99
To learn more about the author of The Suicide Bride, Tanya Bretherton, visit here.
*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Suicide Bride is book #81 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge