Edith and George Smith married in Queenstown around 1913. They later moved to the Hobart suburb of New Town, where they ran a general store on the corner of Carlton and Pedder Streets. The building still stands.
The business was actually owned by Edith, who had received an insurance payout following the death of her first husband. who had also been employed at the city’s Zinc Works. The eldest of the Smith’s three children was Mona, Edith’s stepdaughter. George had told Edith that Mona’s mother died in the US city of Kentucky, when the baby girl was only six days old.
Unfortunately George Smith who was some ten years older than his wife, was violent and abusive.
On December 12 1923, Edith spent the evening at the shop. She was helping her husband and two assistants complete a stock-take. The children were away from home at the time staying with Edith’s sister, and after another argument and threats of violence, Edith felt she should leave. She tricked George into checking on a horse and trap at the rear of the premises and tried to slip out the front door.
Unfortunately her plan failed. George Smith returned, brushed past the assistants and demanded to know where Edith was going. When told it was none of his business, everything came to a tragic climax. Smith shot his wife several times in the back with a revolver, then turned the gun on himself. A bullet passed straight through his temple from right to left, though surprisingly it resulted in only a minor injury. As a report in The Examiner on December 17 explained, Edith was not so lucky. She was rushed to the Hobart Hospital, barely alive.
‘Dr Ratten [Surgeon Superintendant] was able to obtain an x-ray photograph….As a result of the photograph one bullet was located. An operation was performed, and the bullet extracted from a position close to the spine at the back of one lung. A representative of the ‘Examiner’ was given the opportunity by Dr. Ratten of seeing a photograph, and, further, to take a stereoscopic view by means of the special appliance installed at the hospital. The position of the bullet was clear, and it was noticed that the tenth rib had been broken near its junction with the spine……One of the ribs higher up on the other side of the spine was seen to be chipped. This Dr Ratten considers to have been brought about by the passage of another bullet, which passed right through the body. Both arms have been pierced by bullets.’
It was a full month before Edith was well enough to be discharged. George Smith had been charged with attempted murder, but before he was incarcerated he returned to the family home and scribbled a note to his daughter. The ramifications of this was to prove as shocking in its own way as the shooting!
At first Edith was inclined to ignore her husband’s strange message, but Mona had sometimes made odd comments about her father ‘stealing her’ and she had vague memories (ridiculed by George Smith) of her ‘real mother’. Edith decided to place an advertisement in a Bendigo newspaper asking for any relatives of her stepdaughter to come forward. Sure enough, a man called Owen spotted the ad and identified himself as an uncle. He wrote to Edith, and also to his sister, Mona’s mother. The poor woman had not died in the USA at all, but was alive and living in the Victorian town of Windsor, still pining for the daughter she had lost many years earlier. She had married George Smith in 1902, at Boulder City in Western Australia. It turned out that she too had found her husband to be violent, and had left him. Mona was correct….her father had taken her away and moved to Tasmania. Her Uncle Owen had been a child himself at the time, and was playing in the yard with Mona when the abduction took place.
This information left Edith, still recovering from her injuries, with two more heartbreaking issues to cope with. Firstly, the child she had loved and cared for since infancy really did have a mother of her own and would no doubt wish to be with her. Secondly, her ten year marriage to George Smith had been bigamous.
This story did have a happy ending for Mona. The young woman moved to Victoria as soon as possible to live with her birth mother and grandmother. She spoke of her contentment; ‘Mother and I go to the pictures twice a week. She is such a darling, and so is Grandma.’ However, her affection for her stepmother did not falter at all and she kept in touch with Edith.
THE TRIAL OF GEORGE SMITH – February 1924
Smith admitted to shooting his wife, but pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. His defence lawyer George Harvey claimed he was suffering from exophthalmic goitre, producing irritability, and severe mental depression. However, the prosecution argued that he was simply a vile, cruel man, that he had previously threatened his wife and had deliberately purchased the revolver and bullets a week prior to the shooting.
Dr Victor Ratten was called to give evidence regarding the injuries to Edith. It was interesting that exophthalmic goitre was introduced by the defence, because removal of goitres (the thyroid gland) was one of the surgeon’s rather controversial specialties. He performed so many operations in Hobart that the scars left on the throats of his countless patients were dubbed Ratten Smiles. I can’t help wondering whether he provided Smith’s lawyer with a bit of medical expertise!
In summing up, Judge Crisp stated that the only possible defence was insanity. If the jury did not consider the accused to have been insane they could find him guilty of wounding with intent to murder. After deliberating for only twenty five minutes the jury returned a verdict of guilty. Forty eight year old George Smith was sentenced to four years gaol. It seemed a light sentence, but at the end of that term he was to be placed in a reformatory (the Mental Diseases Hospital at New Norfolk) until the Crown considered him fit to be released.
What ultimately became of him is unknown, but I do hope he did not become someone else’s husband, legally or otherwise. Edith, then in her late thirties, continued to provide for her family by working hard in her shop. Presumably she reverted to her maiden name, but I have yet to discover what that was.
FOR MORE ON THE ‘EPIDEMIC’ OF GOITRES IN TASMANIA CLICK HERE.