Martha Needle

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Martha Needle
Martha Needle c1880s.jpg
Martha Needle c1880s/1890s
Born 1863
South Australia
Died 1894
Old Melbourne Gaol
Other names Black widow of Richmond
Criminal status Executed by hanging
Spouse(s) Henry Needle (murdered)
Children 3 (all murdered)
Conviction(s) One count of murder

Martha Needle was an Australian woman known for poisoning her husband, three children and future brother-in-law. She was hanged on 22 October 1894 at the age of 30. Martha was convicted for the murder of Louis Juncken, brother of her fiance Otto Juncken, on 15 May 1894. Although Martha collected substantial sums of insurance money, her exact motive for murdering her family has not been determined. Several times she stated her innocence, but she was eventually hanged.

Early life[edit]

Martha was born near Morgan, South Australia in 1863. An attractive woman with a kindly disposition, she grew up in a violent and abusive household, and she showed signs of mental instability from an early age. At 17 she married Henry Needle at North Adelaide and in 1882 gave birth to a daughter, Mabel, followed by Elsie in 1883 and May in September 1886. The family moved to the Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1885.

The killings[edit]

On 23 February 1885, little Mabel Needle died after a short illness. Martha stated that she "seemed to fade". Martha later collected 100 pounds (2010: $40,000) life insurance on Mabel's death. Henry, who was insured for 200 pounds, died of a mysterious illness on October 4, 1889, followed by Elsie in 1890 and May later that year. Doctors were baffled. Martha spent almost all the insurance money on an elaborate family grave which she visited regularly.

Louis Juncken, a friend from Adelaide, operated a saddlery business with his brother Otto at 137 Bridge Road, Richmond and in 1891 Martha sub-let the attached house and took in lodgers. Martha began an affair with Otto in 1893 but Louis and his other brother Herman disapproved and attempted to prevent their engagement. The following year Louis became ill and died of suspected typhoid. In June 1894 Herman travelled to Melbourne from Adelaide to handle his late brother's affairs, he ate a meal prepared by Martha and suddenly became ill. He recovered but became ill again the next day after eating breakfast. Two days later Herman had fully recovered but while eating lunch, prepared by Martha, he was seized by painful violent cramps. Doctor Boyd treated Herman for suspected poisoning and took a sample of Herman's vomit and sent it to the Government laboratory for analysis. The analyst reported that the sample contained arsenic.

Arrest, trial and execution[edit]

Doctor Boyd informed the police of his suspicions and a trap was set, the police asked Herman to ask Martha to make lunch. After being served a cup of tea, Herman literally "blew the whistle", summoning detectives who arrived as Martha was struggling with Herman to upset the tea cup, which was found to contain enough arsenic to kill five people.

Martha was charged with attempted murder. The body of Louis Juncken, interred in Lyndoch, South Australia was exhumed and samples sent to Melbourne. The bodies of Henry Needle and the three girls, interred in Kew, were also exhumed. All five bodies were found to contain fatal levels of arsenic and Martha was charged with the murder of Louis Juncken. The trial lasted three days; Martha pleaded not guilty, but was found guilty and sentenced to death.

She was executed at 8.00am on 22 October 1894. When asked for her last words, she replied, "I have nothing to say."

During the Great Depression the Brighton City Council built bluestone walls to protect local beaches from erosion. The stones were taken from the outer walls of the Old Melbourne Gaol and included the headstones, with initials and date of execution, of all those executed and buried on the grounds. Although most were placed with the engravings facing inwards, Martha's stone was faced outwards, and the initials MN and the date are still clearly visible in the Green Point wall. Over time, sand drifts buried her headstone until its precise location was rediscovered near Wellington Street. [1]

Martha was the third of four women hanged at the Old Melbourne Gaol, where her death mask can be seen. The others were Elizabeth Scott (1863), Frances Knorr (1894) and Emma Williams (1895).

Execution of nephew[edit]

On 15 July 1920, Alexander Newland Lee, the son of Martha's elder sister Ellen, was hanged at Adelaide Gaol for the April 1 murder of his wife Muriel. Muriel had been poisoned with strychnine.


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