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The Death of Annie Birkett (and how one man's gender distracted everyone)

Written By: Naomi

Trigger Warning: Homophobic and Transphobic situations, suicide mention, sexual assault, and corrective rape

*A/N: Any usage of "queer" in this post and by this podcast is not done as slur against those in the LGBTQIA+ community. All hosts of NAMNAB are queer and use it as a reclaimed term for their gender identities and/or orientations. We actively try to use inclusive and correct vocabulary for this community and will not tolerate homophobia, transphobia, biphobia or bigotry.


October 3rd, 1917 the headline “CHARRED REMAINS OF A WOMAN” was printed in a paper in Sydney, Australia. It detailed that the charred remains of an unknown woman were found the previous morning and she had likely died a few days earlier on October 1st. Along with the body was a broken whisky bottle, a tumbler, and a mug. Police felt this was foul play but detectives in the case could not procure any solid evidence to support this claim, they did however think that she had still been alive when she was set on fire. The severity of the burns meant that there was no way for them to identify the body. The only clues they had were from the clothing she wore that had survived the fire and her height. The publishing of the discovery in the paper did not bring anyone forward to claim the remains so she was buried in a coffin marked “remains of an unknown woman” and her death was ruled a suicide since there had been reports of a woman acting strangely in that area at that time and a bottle kerosene was discovered nearby.

This is the article Harry Birkett read about a year later, an article that had been saved by his step father that he had been forced to read after a series of odd and unsettling situations he had been put in by the very same man. His mother had supposedly ran off with another man according to his step father but this was one of the final straws. A year and a half later, now in his early 20’s Harry would approach the police with his Aunt Lily and file a missing persons report for his 35 year old mother, Annie Birkett that would reveal the true identity of the unknown woman, and the twisted story of his step father.

They hadn’t seen or heard from Annie in a little over two years, the story his step-father, Harry Crawford, gave him of his mother running off did not sound right as she would at least try to get in contact with him to tell this to him herself. Shortly after she disappeared Crawford had moved to another part of Sydney and had taken Harry with him. Harry told police of the odd situations Crawford would put him in like taking him to a cliff known as “The Gap” where many were known to commit suicide. Crawford stood at the edge of the cliff and tried to convince Harry to stand with him to which he refused. The following week Crawford took Harry out to the middle of nowhere and made him dig a large hole but they left immediately after. The final odd situation that Harry listed to the police, was that Crawford had him read a newspaper article he had saved about the charred remains of a woman. Upon hearing these situations police felt confident that they knew the identity of the charred woman and that Crawford had tried to kill Harry Birkett at least twice but had not followed through. Harry was shown the personal effects that had been on the charred woman and identified them as his mother’s.

Crawford was found by police in July of 1920 living with his wife of 9 months Elizabeth. But it was his request to police when he was arrested that shocked them and shifted the focus of the media for the rest of this case. He requested that he be placed in a female prison as he had been born female.

Crawford told police that he had been born July 1875 in Italy as Eugenia Falleni and his family had immigrated to New Zealand when he was 2 years old. The family was a very conservative, Italian family and he was the first daughter of 22 siblings making it more difficult for him when he did manual labor with his father as a teenager and would dress in mens clothing. His family still forced him to marry a man who was already married to another woman and had a child. He left the man and started a life under the name Eugene. Throughout his 20’s he worked on ships but on one trip the crew had discovered that he was transgender due to a slip up in language and he was sexually assaulted by the captain and dumped in Australia. As a result Eugene had become pregnant and gave birth to a girl named Josephine in 1898. He gave the girl to a couple living in Australia to raise but he would come to visit her several times throughout her life, and the couple had told the girl that Eugene was her mother causing a strained relationship.

Now in Sydney Eugene changed his name to Harry Crawford and did a wide variety of manual labor jobs. In 1910, when he was 35 Crawford was working as a coach driver for a doctor, he met the widowed Annie Birkett on a job as she worked as a housekeeper and owned a sweets shop. They married February 1913 and Crawford felt he had a good life with Annie and her 10 year old son Harry but Annie’s family felt otherwise. They told that originally, Annie had been hesitant to marry Crawford as she felt he drank and partied too much, to this he promised to change and did until just after their wedding when he went back to drinking heavily. Their life was stable and unremarkable until 1917 when a teenage Josephine had located Crawford and had come to live with him and his new wife. Crawford begged Josephine to not tell Annie and Harry that he had been born female and neighbors noticed that Annie and Crawford fought substantially more after Josephine had moved in. It is unknown if Josephine ever told Annie, but Annie did find out about her husband being trans supposedly from their neighbors who Josephine had outed Crawford to but the couple lived together without discussing Crawford’s identity for about 8 months. Annie wrote a letter to her family to tell them that she had found out some shocking news about Crawford that she would tell them about at another time but that would never happen as on September 28th, 1917 Crawford and Annie went on a picnic and an argument broke out when annie revealed that she was planning to leave him. Crawford told police that Annie tripped, hit her head on a rock, and died; He tried to revive her but ultimately failed, he then decided to burn her body as he felt no one would believe his story and any investigation into the accident would reveal that he was a transman.

Just as he suspected the police did not believe his story and they figured that Crawford knew Annie was going to out him so he killed her to stop that from happening. Police charged Harry Crawford with Annie’s murder.

Crawford’s second wife Elizabeth had not known Crawford was trans and was shocked by what she was hearing. The media as I mentioned before, no longer cared about the murder aspect of this case, now only focusing on the fact that Crawford was a transman and how he had kept it a secret to his two wives, causing the trial to pander to this and even though it had nothing to do with the murder the “instrument used during sex”( spoiler: it was a wooden dildo) by Crawford was entered as evidence since he had mentioned that he had a healthy sex life with his wives but they had never seen him naked. The police had given Crawford a lawyer that did not have a lot, if any, notable history in a courtroom and he was being pit against one of the most difficult prosecutors the court had. In the case they focused on the fact that Crawford was considered a “pervert and freak of nature” and that being transgender was a bigger crime than the murder he was being charged of. The other thing that would eventually lead to the miscarriage of justice was that Crawford was Italian. Italians were hated in Australia at this time and this fact was broadcasted almost as much as him being transgender to further pit the public against him. The Jury (made up of only men as women were not allowed on juries until 1946) deliberated for two hours before deciding he was guilty of murder and was sentenced to death but it was later commuted to life in prison. In February 1931, 10 years later he was released from prison under the condition that he would have to live out the rest of his life as a woman. He took the name Jean Ford upon release and spent the following years buying, renovating and selling board houses. But on June 9th, 1938 at the age of 62 he was struck and killed by a car. The area he was killed in is now Sydney's LGBTQIA+ District.

The person that seems to be forgotten in this case is actually Annie Birkett, the police and media circus focused so heavily on the identity of Harry Crawford that her murder was never correctly brought to justice. Medical examiners on her body did not see any signs of violence but instead that she had likely died of her burns. Harry Crawford had been under the impression that being transgender was illegal which led him to a lot of his actions and a prosecutor that has done extensive research on this case and has written a book on it feels that he could of had Crawford acquitted of these charges. But the sentence he served was never actually for the death of Annie Birkett and was actually a scapegoat for them to punish and make a show of Crawford’s identity leaving me to wonder if this truly felt like justice to the Birkett family or if the death was forgotten in the midst of how twisted the case became. After Annie went missing those around Crawford reported that he had told them all that she had run off with another man and someone that rented a room from him was told by Crawford that they had gotten into a fight, he had cracked her head, and she ran off. Harry Birkett even felt that his mother had only married Crawford because he would constantly try for her attention and bother her and when they were married the couple would have consistent and violent fights even when Crawford wasn't drunk that would lead to him destroying furniture and throwing things.

Crawford should of been treated as a human and the trial should of focused on the clues they had to tie him to the murder so justice could be given to Annie Birkett as being queer* is not an excuse for murder but it is also not an excuse to treat someone like an animal, make a show of them, and them strip them of their identity.

(Mini rant because I am a nonbinary queer*: I noticed that a majority of resources on this case use Crawford’s dead name and love to harp on the fact that he is a trans man by using titles like “he was a she” which to me is fucked up - also another thing I wanted to bring up is that it is not cool to hide this sort of information from your partner and though it is something done out of safety initially, I also feel like that when your partner becomes long term or you decide that it is safe to have that discussion with your partner you should. )

Sources: Criminally Listed on Youtube, A book from Mark Tedescgi (Not putting the whole title because he speech on this included some problematic language and misgenders the person in this case), Murderpedia, Wikipedia, New South Wales Archives , Sydney Morning Herald

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