Arnold Sodeman

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Arnold Karl Sodeman
Born (1899-12-12)12 December 1899
Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia
Died 1 June 1936(1936-06-01) (aged 36)
HM Prison Pentridge, Coburg, Victoria
Other names The School-Girl Strangler
Criminal charge Murder
Criminal penalty Death
Criminal status Executed by hanging
Spouse(s) Bernice (née Pope)
Children Joan
Parent(s) Karl and Violet (née Wood)
Conviction(s) Murder

Arnold Karl Sodeman ((1899-12-12)12 December 1899 – 1 June 1936(1936-06-01)), also known as the School-girl Strangler, was a serial killer who targeted children. He confessed to four killings before being executed at Pentridge Prison, Victoria in 1936. Sodeman was the second of eleven people to be hanged at Pentridge Prison after the closure of Melbourne Gaol in 1929.

Early life[edit]

Arnold Karl Sodeman was born in Victoria in 1899. His mother suffered from bouts of amnesia and both his father and grandfather died in mental institutions.[citation needed] At 18, Sodeman was sent to a reformatory prison for larceny.[1] Shortly after his release from the reformatory, he was charged with armed robbery and wounding the station master at Surrey Hills railway station. Sodeman was sent to prison to serve three years hard labour. Sodeman escaped from prison and was sentenced to a further 12 months imprisonment with hard-labour.[citation needed]

Upon his release, Sodeman settled down to various labouring jobs, first in Melbourne and later in Gippsland. He married Bernice Pope at Collingwood and their daughter was born in 1928. The marriage was considered a happy one; although Sodeman seemed to suffer from occasional bouts of depression and frequent drunkenness, he was never violent towards his family. He was reported[by whom?] to be hard-working, mild and amiable, with a generous disposition. He led a normal, law-abiding existence until 1930.[citation needed]

The murders[edit]

On November 9, 1930, Arnold Sodeman abducted a 12-year-old schoolgirl, Mena Griffiths. He came upon his victim at the local playground playing with a group of friends. He gave the other girls some money, and told them to go to the shop to get some ice-creams; meanwhile, he told his victim that he had a different errand for her to run. By the time the little girl's friends returned to the playground, there was no sign of the man or their friend. Griffith’s body was discovered two days later at Ormond, in an abandoned building. She had been gagged, bound and strangled to death.

On January 10, 1931, he abducted 16-year-old Hazel Wilson and strangled her to death. Her body was also found in the suburb of Ormond. He had gagged both girls and tied their hands behind their backs with portions of their clothing.[2]

Sodeman struck for the third time on January 1, 1935. His victim, Ethel Belshaw, was a 12-year-old girl whom he strangled at the sea-side town of Inverloch. Belshaw was intending to buy an ice cream when she disappeared.

On December 1, 1935, Sodeman killed his fourth victim, a 6-year-old girl named June Rushmer. He met her while she was walking home from a local park. Her body was found the following day less than 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from her Leongatha home. She had also been bound, gagged and strangled. Witnesses stated that they had seen the child with a man on a bicycle shortly before her disappearance.

Sodeman at the time was on a work crew repairing roadways. During a morning tea break a fellow worker jokingly stated he had seen Sodeman on his bike near the crime scene. Sodeman replied angrily that he wasn't there. He had answered with such anger and rage, which was very out of character for him, that the workers told police.

Police rushed to Sodeman's worksite and took him away for questioning. As soon as police had him in their custody, Sodeman confessed to the crimes. Police were initially skeptical of the confession, but Sodeman gave details of the crimes that only someone present could have known. Whilst confessing to the crimes, Sodeman told police how he would link his thumbs together to simplify the choking of his victims.

June Rushmer inquest[edit]

The little court house at Leongatha was crowded when the inquest on June Rushmer, aged 6, whose bound and gagged body was found in the scrub on December 2, was resumed. Arnold Sodeman, 36, of Leongatha who has been charged with murder, was present in court. The Government Pathologist, Dr. Mollison, said that the dead girl's hands were tied behind her back with a piece of cloth, and a bloodstained garment was pushed into her mouth. A piece of torn sock was tied around her neck. The body bore bruises. Death, he thought was due to suffocation.

Nancy Viola Smith, aged 12, said that she played with June Rushmer on the Leongatha reserve on December 1. June Rushmer left the park at 7.15 p.m.

William Henry Money, of Leongatha said that at 7.15 p.m. on December 1 he saw Sodeman riding his bicycle in the direction of the reserve. Sodeman had a strange look on his face and the witness thought it peculiar. Sodeman did not speak to him.

Vincent Desmond Ryan of Leongatha, said that between 7.15 and 7.30 p.m. on December 1 he saw a man with a little girl on the front of his cycle. The child was similar in build to June Rushmer, but witness was 90 yards away and could not see him properly.

Senior Detective O'Keefe said that Detective Delminico said to Sodeman : "If you care to tell us what you had to do with the death of the girl, I will leave the room. " Sodeman replied, "No you can stay." He continued, "there is not only this one." He then made a statement.

The statement set out "I saw June Rushmer on the footpath walking towards her home near the tennis court and she said, 'Give us a ride.' I knew her and she knew me. I agreed, and rode down the stock route and turned down the road leading to the sanitary depot. About 100 yards from the corner, she said, 'This is far enough.' I got off the bike and said 'You can walk home.' I made a run towards her and she ran into the bush. I ran after her, and caught her round the neck, and she started to scream. I held her by the neck and she went limp all of a sudden. I then took off her bloomers and jammed them into her mouth. I got a belt from her frock and tied it over her mouth and round the back of her neck." Sodeman was committed for trial by the Coroner.[3]

Trial and sentencing[edit]

At the conclusion of the two-day trial, in February 1936 the jury found him guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death for the murder of Rushmer.

Judge Charles Gavan Duffy advised the jury to distinguish between opinions given by expert medical witnesses on matters relating to the physical body, which could be proved by surgery, and those concerning the mind. The jury rejected Sodeman's defence of insanity.

The defence[edit]

The government medical officer Dr A. J. W. Philpott, his assistant Dr R. T. Allan, and a psychiatrist Dr Reginald Ellery all gave evidence that Sodeman was suffering from a disorder of the mind which created an 'obsessional impulse' of such power that—under the influence of alcohol—he was no longer responsible for his behaviour. Since Sodeman was intoxicated on all four occasions, the doctors concluded that he was insane at the times of the murders. Their conclusion was reinforced not only by Sodeman's repetitive behaviour, but also by his family's medical history: both his father and grandfather had died insane.


An extract from the Argus, Friday 24 April 1936, read, "An English King's Counsel has now been engaged to plead the case before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Arnold Sodeman, who has been condemned to death for the murder of June Rushmer at Leongatha. Sodeman's solicitor (Mr. C H. Auty) said yesterday that he had arranged by cable message for Mr D. N Pritt, K C, a leading Kings Counsel, and a member of the House of Commons, to appear for Sodeman in the proposed application by him for special leave to appeal against the refusal of the High Court of Australia to grant him special leave to appeal against his conviction. Mr Auty said that his agents in London would instruct Mr. Pritt and another barrister, who would act as Mr Pritt's Junior, regarding the details of the application Meanwhile, Mr. Auty has addressed a written request to the Premier Mr. Dunstan) that the Government should grant a further reprieve to Sodeman until such time as the condemned man's application to the Privy Council has been determined Mr Auty said yesterday that he was now 'preparing the petition for special leave to appeal and other necessary documents. He expected that those documents would be ready in time to be despatched to England next week'. One of the documents which must shortly go forward to London is an affidavit in support of the application. This must be signed by Sodeman, whose present reprieve expires on May 4, for which day the execution has been fixed. It is expected that the Executive Council will grant the reprieve now asked for by Mr. Auty It is expected that a report will be received from the Crown Law Department next week, and if the Cabinet decides that the request should be granted the necessary action will be taken immediately by the Executive Council. Sodeman's appeal against his conviction was unsuccessful. The grounds of the appeal were:-(1) That the learned trial Judge wrongly admitted evidence, namely, the evidence of the deaths of Mena Griffiths, Hazel Wilson, and Ethel Belshaw; (2) that the learned trial judge misdirected the jury (a) as to the onus of proof in a case of insanity, (b) as to the requirements of the law in relation to insanity, and (c) as to the law relating to drink, insanity, and manslaughter; and (3) that the prosecution and the learned trial Judge made comments on the failure of the accused to give evidence.[4]

Execution eve[edit]

Sodeman had not wanted a reprieve because of the fear that if he lived he may have committed more murders. Sodeman spent a good deal of his time playing draughts with Edward Cornelius, who was under sentence of death for the murder of the Rev. Cecil in Fitzroy in November of last year.[5] His last words to the Governor of the Gaol last night were: "I am glad it is nearly over." [5]


Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged and buried at Pentridge Prison, Coburg, on 1 June 1936. Asked by the Sheriff whether he had anything to say, Sodeman replied: "Nothing, sir." He walked to the scaffold, apparently unmoved.[5]

An autopsy disclosed that he was suffering from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease which could cause serious congestion of the brain when aggravated by alcohol. [6]

75 years later[edit]

On the seventh-fifth anniversary of the murder of Ethel Belshaw, Leongatha newspaper ‘’’The Great Southern Star’’’ published an interview with Maureen Lewis (née Keighery) who was the Soderman's neighbour in 1935. Maureen was with the Sodeman family on the same day Arnold brutally murdered 12-year-old Ethel Belshaw in Inverloch. She counts herself lucky Sodeman’s wife, Bernice, did not allow him to buy her an ice cream on New Year’s Day 1935. Ethel was last seen buying an ice cream from a Beach Road milk bar in the town. Maureen had travelled with the Sodemans from Leongatha, for a fun day in the sun. She was friends with the Sodemans’ child, Joan, a girl of similar age. “On the day Ethel was murdered he wanted to take me for an ice cream. It could have been me that day,” she said. “I went down there with them to Inverloch on that day with the Sodemans. They lived next door. He wanted to take me for an ice cream and Mrs Sodeman wouldn’t let him take me unless he also took Joan, his daughter.”

But Maureen, like many others in Leongatha, always suspected there was something not quite right about the man. “We were always frightened of him. In those days you didn’t call anyone ‘Old Sodeman,’ because your dad would pull you up and insist you call him Mr. Sodeman. But to us kids he was always Old Sodeman,” she said. “He wore sandshoes and he was sort of creepy.”[7]

Fictional representations[edit]

In 1965 the popular Australian television series Homicide based episode 39, "A Lonely Place", on the case. The episode first went to air in November 1965, and was introduced by actor John Fegan warning of the importance of protecting children. Unlike many episodes, "A Lonely Place" ended without a voiceover stating what the legal results of the case had been (for example, whether the offender was sentenced to death but later reprieved).


  1. ^ "30 Aug 1918 - SENT TO REFORMATORY". 1918-08-30. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  2. ^ "18 Feb 1936 - FOUR CONFESSIONS TO MURDER MELBOURNE, Monday". Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  3. ^ "01 Jan 1936 - DEATH OF CHILD AT LEONGATHA EVIDENCE AT INQUEST". Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  4. ^ "21 Feb 1936 - SODEMAN'S APPEAL Notice Lodged in Court Will be". 1936-02-21. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  5. ^ a b c "02 Jun 1936 - SODEMAN HANGED Quadruple Murderer Pays for Crime". 1936-06-02. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  6. ^ Marshall, George. "Biography - Arnold Karl Sodeman - Australian Dictionary of Biography". Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  7. ^ [1][dead link]