‘Headless horror’: Most notorious woman
"I have shot a man," Nurse Hannah Mitchell told Richmond police in a phone call on 13 January, 1923.
With those five words, she'd set in motion events that would help earn her the reputation of "Melbourne's most notorious woman".
Mitchell's victim was Frank Bonfiglio, a petty crim who also happened to be her abusive ex-husband. She'd shot him four times before leaving him to bleed out in a locked bedroom, but the wounded man had escaped through a window and made his way to St Vincent's hospital.
Discovering he'd gotten away, Mitchell knew she had to tell her version of events to the police first, and so she made her phone call to "confess".
When a constable, along with Detective Frederick Piggott, then thought of as "Melbourne's Sherlock Holmes", arrived at her Richmond house, she told them that Bonfiglio had beaten her, threatened to cut off her head and pointed his revolver at her, which she'd managed to get her hands before shooting him in self defence.
Piggott went to see Bonfiglio in his hospital bed, where the wounded man claimed his ex-wife had tried to murder him to stop him from revealing her terrible secret, the evidence of which lay rotting in a gully in rural Coldstream.
"If you go into the bush you will find a dead body of a woman," he said.
"At the end of a road you will see a gate with Yarraban on it and through that down into a gully you will find the body."
Bonfiglio claimed that two months ago a dark-haired woman in her late twenties had come to Mitchell's house seeking an illegal abortion. The operation had gone badly - really badly - and, fearing prosecution, Mitchell refused to call a doctor, resulting in the woman's death. Mitchell had then demanded that he help her get rid of the body and destroy the evidence. She'd also made accessories of her sister, Margaret Millward, and her own daughter, Margaret Mitchell.
Late the night the woman died, Bonfiglio said, he and Mitchell had borrowed her son-in-law's Studebaker. They wrapped the naked corpse in a blanket and dumped it in that remote spot, covering the corpse with ferns and branches.
"She will be eaten by some animal in a few days," Mitchell had supposedly said.
"Nobody will know who she is if they find her."
This was a sensational confession. But Piggott knew he had to proceed with caution.
Bonfiglio was a convicted criminal creep with plenty of reasons to lie about his ex-wife, who he'd repeatedly violently assaulted during their short marriage and whose testimony had put him in jail recently for six months.
Mitchell's claim that she had shot him in self defence might very well be true. Yet so might his story about her botching an abortion because - as the detective knew well - the unlicensed "nurse" made good money from illegal operations. Until he gathered more information, Piggott could only arrest Mitchell on the obvious charge of shooting Frank Bonfiglio with intent to murder.
Hannah Mitchell was born Hannah Elizabeth Thomas in Poulton, Cheshire, in October 1877.
In 1895, at age 18, she married an engraver, and the following year they had a daughter.
After her husband died, she married an Irishman named John Mitchell. Their first daughter, Margaret, came along in 1904. Three other children followed, so that by 1911 they were a family of seven. While John worked as an engine driver, from 1908 Hannah was a certified midwife. The family sailed from England for Australia in 1913 and settled in Richmond in Melbourne.
In 1917, John was killed in action on the Western Front, leaving Hannah a widow for the second time.
Two years later, she took Frank Bonfiglio as her third husband. For the next three years they had a brutal relationship that ended in her divorcing him while he was in jail for assaulting her. Nevertheless, when he got out, they got back together.
On the evening of Bonfiglio's hospital-bed confession, Detective Piggott and his men searched the Coldstream gully. They didn't find a body, though there were signs something had recently been moved. Back in Melbourne, the police checked the Studebaker owned by Mitchell's son-in-law and found a floor mat that bore dark stains that looked like blood. Even more sensationally, Piggott was approached by a secret informant, who told him that the dead woman's decomposing remains had recently been moved from the gully, put into two sacks and dumped into a body of water. When they were found, one bag would contain the head and the other the torso. The informant said she knew this because Hannah Mitchell herself had told her.
For the next few weeks, police and black trackers searched the hills and waterways around Coldstream. They didn't find the body. But Detective Piggott thought he might know who they were looking for. Based on Bonfiglio's description, Mitchell's alleged victim could be Bertha Coughlan, a 28-year-old woman from Omeo in northeastern Victoria, who'd vanished in Melbourne in mid-November but only been reported missing by her family at Christmas.
On 2 February, 1923, Piggott finally got the break he needed when his men pulled a sack from the Yarra River. It contained the nearly liquefied remains of a headless torso - and another sack held the mostly toothless skull of a woman with long dark hair. While the remains were impossible to identify at that moment, Piggott knew this was the woman who had been dumped at Coldstream because these bags also contained fern species identical to those from the gully.
The discovery of a decapitated woman was newspaper sensation, reported in gory detail all over Australia. Piggott arrested Mitchell for the murder of Bertha Coughlan, with her daughter also charged with being an accessory after the fact. When Piggott came to arrest Mitchell's sister at her home in St Kilda, she confessed her involvement and confirmed that some of the possessions she'd helped get rid of had been marked with the name "Coughlan". She was arrested as an accomplice after the fact, though she would agree to testify against Mitchell. Further investigations revealed that Bertha, with the help of a male "friend" from Omeo and a female go-between, had gone to Nurse Mitchell seeking an abortion - and had never been seen alive again.
At the inquest, the coroner reported that the woman pulled from the Yarra River was too decomposed to determine the cause of death. But the presence of fly larvae confirmed the water hadn't been her first resting place. The head had not been hacked off - none of the vertebrae were damaged - and the coroner thought it had simply fallen off due to decomposition when the body was moved. The skull had few teeth, which, a dentist testified, matched the extractions he had performed on Bertha Coughlan. An analyst confirmed the ferns matched those found in the gully.
The female go-between testified she had taken Bertha to the Richmond house for an abortion. When she returned to check up on her a few days later, Nurse Mitchell claimed her young patient had already left.
The inquest's most sensational evidence came from Frank Bonfiglio. He testified that when Bertha had started bleeding badly, Mitchell had tried to treat but refused to call a doctor. She had then convinced him to help her dispose of the corpse. This grisly business done, Bonfiglio took off to Kalgoorlie. When he returned nearly two months later, Mitchell urged him to remarry her so he couldn't testify - and when he refused she shot him four times in cold blood.
Bonfiglio's story was compelling but his credibility was undermined by his criminal history - including reputed links to Squizzy Taylor - and his motive to avenge himself on Mitchell. Yet there were other witnesses - including the accused's own sister - who backed up his testimony. More people gave evidence that they had seen Bertha at the Richmond house or claimed Mitchell had ruefully told them of the young woman's death. One even claimed the nurse had offered a bribe to falsify exculpatory evidence.
Concluding the inquest, the coroner said he believed that Mitchell had "no intention to kill" but as the death was allegedly caused by a "felonious act" he had no option but to commit her to stand trial on the charge of murder. If Mitchell was found guilty, she'd automatically receive the death sentence, though this was likely to be commuted to a lesser punishment.
On 18 April 1923, at Melbourne's Criminal Court, Mitchell entered a plea of not guilty. For the next three days, the jury heard much the same evidence that had been presented in the inquest, although one new witness - Piggott's secret informant - testified in detail that the accused had told her of the botched abortion and about how she'd moved Bertha's body. This woman also said Mitchell had threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone.
Yet the prosecution faltered when the Crown brought up the possibility of a manslaughter conviction. The defence counsel objected strenuously, arguing that it had never been raised previously and that the jury had to either find the accused guilty of murder or set her free. From Bonfiglio on down, the defence painted the witnesses as untrustworthy because they were criminals, liars, adulterer and/or fantasists out to frame Mitchell. The only parts of their testimony that could be believed, the defence lawyer argued, were those that pointed to Bertha having suddenly suffered from a natural miscarriage and haemhorrage, which Nurse Mitchell had tried valiantly if unsuccessfully to treat.
Taking the stand, though Victorian law then didn't require her to be put under oath or be subject to cross-examination, Mitchell followed this story. Bertha, she said, had come to her house simply to consult about her pregnancy and for a week of rest. When she'd suddenly started bleeding, Mitchell had done everything in her power to save her - and repeatedly tried to call doctors without success. As for dumping the body? Mitchell said it had been all Bonfiglio's idea and that she'd gone along with it because she had been in such a grief-stricken daze and was so under his brutal control.
"I never did anything wrong to the girl," she said, "nor did I do anything to cause her death."
Hannah Mitchell had spoken unchallenged, but the Crown had the last word in trying to convince the jury of its key arguments that the accused had caused the death by performing an illegal operation and then denying the proper medical attention that might've saved Bertha's life.
Was Melbourne, the prosecutor asked the jury, such a dreadful place that if one of their own wives was bleeding to death on a Saturday night they would not be able to get doctor? Mitchell, he said, knew she was guilty of performing an illegal abortion and that's why she hadn't called a doctor and why she'd wanted to dump the body. Guilt and fear of discovery, the prosecutor argued, also explained why she had moved the corpse and why she had shot Bonfiglio.
At 5:30pm, the jury retired to consider the verdict. At 8:12pm, they returned. The foreman read the verdict on the murder charge: "Not guilty".
Mitchell was a free woman - at least until she faced Melbourne's Criminal Court on 24 May on the charge of shooting Bonfiglio with intent to murder. There, he repeated his story about her trying to stop him from ever spilling about Bertha, and she recounted his brutality and how she had shot him in self defence. This time the jury took only an hour to find Mitchell not guilty.
A writer for The Australasian newspaper put Hannah Mitchell's not guilty verdicts down to her persuasive courtroom speeches.
"That they influenced the jury powerfully in each case may be judged from the fact that until her address was delivered the Crown had a case which seemed unassailable, unless direct and contradictory sown testimony was available to the defence.
"Such evidence was not forthcoming, but the jury was swayed by a woman with a ready tongue, and Mitchell is now at liberty to resume a business in which she had recently become notorious."
This was true. But in the case of Bertha the law also worked in Mitchell's favour because it demanded such deaths be treated as murder, which automatically triggered the death penalty. All-male juries, some of whom had no doubt used illegal abortionists, were loathe to convict because the punishment seemed to far exceed the crime. As for the Bonfiglio shooting case, it was her word against his, and he was far less believable.
But what the juries in her 1923 trials weren't allowed to know - or take into account if they did - was that this wasn't the first time Hannah Mitchell had faced court for performing abortions or for murder.
Back in May 1918, Mitchell had been charged in Richmond Court with performing an abortion on a woman named Charlotte Freeman. At the first hearing, this woman testified that she'd gone to Mitchell and had paid £15 for the procedure. After enduring two shoddy kitchen-table surgeries, Charlotte went to hospital before eventually seeing a doctor who informed police she was suffering the after-effects of an incomplete abortion. Under questioning, Mitchell denied knowing the woman, denied ever having met her and denied ever performing abortions. Police took Mitchell to the nearby house where Charlotte still lay recovering in bed. The victim identified her as the woman who'd operated on her. Now Mitchell did remember her, but claimed Charlotte had come to her, confessing both she had taken drugs to induce an abortion that had caused bleeding.
This appeared to be an open-and-shut case. Police had a live witness who had made a positive identification and who had confirmed that a crime had been committed. Further, it was a reputable doctor who'd first made the complaint and who could testify that Charlotte had come to him suffering the effects of a partial abortion.
Yet when the case went to trial in November 1918, Charlotte Freeman suddenly didn't remember anything of what she'd previously told police and what she said under oath during the committal hearing. With her stonewalling, the Crown's case collapsed and the Judge had no choice but to direct the jury to acquit the accused. It was suspected that Mitchell - who had her own underworld connections - had succeeded in buying off her accusers.
Then, in September 1920, Mitchell was charged with the murder of Ada Crutchett. In court, a friend of the dead woman said Ada had said she was going to Richmond for an operation. One of Mitchell's own employees also said she'd taken Ada from Mitchell's house to the Alfred Hospital. Before Ada succumbed to blood poisoning, she made a dying declaration saying Mitchell had operated on her. When the case went to trial, Mitchell stated she had not treated Ada and instead only taken her to the Alfred Hospital and left her outside. After deliberating for just 40 minutes, the jury found her not guilty.
Just six months after she walked free in the 1923 Bertha Coughlan case, Hannah Mitchell was again in trouble. At the end of October, Mabel Harriet Hodgkinson was admitted to the Women's Hospital. After doctors examined her, they contacted police. The following day she admitted to detectives that she had undergone an illegal operation performed by Mitchell. Police took Mitchell to Mabel's bedside, with the patient identifying her as the woman who'd performed the operation. The woman's husband confirmed the story. Mitchell faced another charge of performing an illegal abortion. But it was upgraded to murder of 1 November when Mabel died of septicaemia and blood loss.
In February 1924, Hannah Mitchell stood trial for murder. The crown presented all the same evidence and witnesses as the inquest. But this time the defence produced a new and convenient witness who testified she had been Mitchell's house guest and carer for months. The accused, she said, had been sick and bedridden through much of late 1923 - including the date of the alleged abortion - and so there was no way she could be guilty. In her own defence, Mitchell denied everything, saying she'd never met the poor dead woman or her husband. Remarkably, the jury believed her and she was again found not guilty.
Just seven months later, Mitchell faced another charge of performing an illegal operation - and again the victim "forgot" her previous testimony, causing the case to be thrown out. The echoes of the 1918 Caroline Freeman case were deafening, even if inadmissable in court and not reported by the newspapers.
Six months later, in early March 1925, Mitchell was back in Richmond Court, charged with the murder of Eva Pitt, 33, who'd died of blood poisoning. Despite the dead woman's statements to police implicating Mitchell, another positive hospital bedside identification and corroboration from her husband, the accused again beat justice when the prosecution, having been down this road so many times, abandoned the charges against her.
For the next three years, Mitchell was out of the news. Then, at the start of 1928, she was back in the spotlight in a case almost as sensational as that of Bertha Coughlan. On the Boxing Day just past, a young couple from Corowa in NSW - dressmaker Inez Martin and draper's assistant George Rosser - got married at a church in the western Melbourne suburb of Essendon. But there wasn't going to be a honeymoon because Inez was already pregnant. That night the newlyweds went to see Mitchell. George paid her £30 and left his wife. He visited his new bride three times while she recovered from her abortion. On New Year's Day, Inez's condition seemed serious to George. But Mitchell reassured him she'd be fine - and asked him not to tell anyone about the illegal operation. When he returned on the afternoon of 5 January, Mitchell told him that he had just missed his wife. Inez, she said, was fully recovered and had left. Yet she hadn't returned to her family - or been seen by anyone.
The case of the "Missing Bride" was an Australia-wide sensation, not least because it emerged that Inez had been having an affair with a naval officer almost up until the day she'd married. Further, George had at first lied to her family and to the police about where Inez had gone.
As usual, Hannah Mitchell denied absolutely everything. Nevertheless, police charged her with performing an illegal abortion and she was committed to stand trial. When the case was finally heard, nearly a year after Inez's disappearance, it failed due to a lack of evidence and because George Rosser's testimony was undermined by his admission that he'd lied repeatedly.
Mitchell was yet again found not guilty. Inez Rosser's body was never found.
In one of the very few acknowledgments of how many times this woman had beaten serious charges, a Truth writer commented: "Nurse Hannah Mitchell has faced courts so often that it almost requires a statistician to keep tally of these appearances."
But this would be the last time she'd appear before a judge and jury. After the Missing Bride, Mitchell, now in her early fifties, dropped out of the spotlight.
All that's known about her after her final acquittal is that she died in Melbourne in 1940, aged 63, no longer notorious enough to warrant an obituary.
Michael Adams is the author of Australia's Sweetheart, about forgotten movie star Mary Maguire, and he is the creator of the podcast Forgotten Australia. You can hear more amazing true stories at www.forgottenaustralia.com.