Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the road

Howdy. Just a quick post from Nashville, while I have good internet access. The radio silence on the blog is due to me being away on what may now seem like an unfortunately timed holiday--immediately after completing my first round of interviews for the Pyjama Girl Project. But don't worry, the project is not on pause. While I may not be at work, I'm still working.

Over the last week, I spent some time in Chicago, where I went on a mobster tour--obviously. Purely for research, of course. In fact, there were some interesting tidbits to come out of the tour, including questions around identity (which is a key theme running through the Pyjama Girl case) and the Black Hand. The contrast between the 20s, 30s, 40s in Australia and the US is quite interesting, and the similarities, particularly the two I noted above, even more so.

While I'm away, my Magical Typewriter Monkey is transcribing the interviews/conversations I've already recorded. Most of these took place following a meeting of the Albury and District Historical Society. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm and generosity of the people who came to meet with me. Also with the offers to lend books, photocopies and other sources of information for my research. I'm looking forward to meeting with more people.

I was also blown away by interest in this project. It just goes to show that it is still relevant today. Just weeks ago, a drop of blood from the Wanda Beach murder site raised fresh hopes that the 1965 case--the murder of two schoolgirls--might finally be solved. A few people have asked me about the possibility of exhumation and forensic testing, like DNA to confirm the identity of the woman buried in the grave marked Linda Agostini. As a playwright, it's not a question I can answer, but it is one I plan to ask of those more qualified.

Already, I've had some media coverage of the project, which all started with ABC Goulburn Murray breakfast announcer Gaye Pattison--no media release necessary. I haven't yet had a chance to thank her, but I imagine she must have acted as my publicist, fielding calls and forwarding my contact details to other local media outlets.

Coincidentally enough, Howard from the Border Mail called me when I was sitting in the Albury LibraryMuseum looking at 1934 issues of the paper on microfiche. I'd been lamenting the fact that the Border Mail isn't available on Trove (the National Library's digitised newspaper collection) and Howard explained that it was due to a fire, which destroyed all the archives several years ago. You can read the article here.

Prime News also did a story. In it, you'll see me standing in front of the Pyjama Girl's actual death mask. You can watch the video here.

Thanks to newspaper syndication, the story was even picked up in Brisbane. The good folks at 4bc have posted the interview online.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I don't have answers but I do have questions

“I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been--a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her an anonymous end, relegated her to a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known.”

So begins James Elroy’s novel “The Black Dahlia”, describing itself as a novel based on Hollywood’s most notorious murder case.

The two cases of course, have some things in common--attractive young women, found dead, brutally battered. It’s interesting to note that the Pyjama Girl murder took place in 1934, well ahead of the 1947 Black Dahlia murder--although this is certainly one thing we wouldn’t want to claim as a first.

It’s no an exaggeration to say that the Pyjama Girl is Albury’s most notorious murder case, if not Australia’s.

But with other cases before and since--mysteries with the same elements of the salacious, the gruesome, the tragic--why has this particular murder mystery endured?

That’s what I’m here to find out.

In 1932, in Ayr in Far North Queensland, a man from the electrical company was checking the meter on a house when he made a gruesome discovery within. Clad only in her nightgown, the body of the beautiful Jean Morris was pooled in the blood resulting from a reported 35 stab wounds. It’s certain that Morris wasn’t her real name, so the intrigue of alternate identities is something this case has in common with the Pyjama Girl mystery.

And there’s another important thing in common--a potential victim. Anna Philomena Morgan was considered a possible match for the dead girl found just outside Albury. 

Much of this was due to the efforts of a Dr Palmer Benbow, who fancied himself a detective. Eventually, much of his evidence was dismissed. 

And Anna Philomena Morgan was crossed off the long list of names as it was believed ‘She was identical with Jean Morris’. This is an idea that since seems to have been dismissed as the ugly duckling photograph of a young Philomena hardly suggested that she could turn into the beautiful Stiletto Jean.

Tonight, I meet with the Albury and District Historical Society, where I'm looking forward to hearing more stories, connections, and contradictions.