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Alexander Smart (1857–1911)

by Mélanie Méthot

Alexander Smart, with Ethel Harris, when they were known as Mr and Mrs Wilson

Alexander Smart, with Ethel Harris, when they were known as Mr and Mrs Wilson

Sunday Times (Perth), 19 February 1911, p 3

Alexander Smart (1857-1911), bigamist, was born on 25 September 1857 at East Lothian, Scotland, the eldest son of William Smart (1818-1874) a bootmaker, and Agnes Turner (1834-1916). Shortly after arriving in Melbourne in 1858, Agnes gave birth to Alexander’s sister, Caroline Jane (1858). Four more siblings followed (Mary Ann 1861; Euphemia 1864, Agnes 1867 and Peter 1870). The family lived in Hawthorn. When their father died in 1874, Agnes unable to care for the large brood, the three youngest became wards of the State. 

Two months short of his twentieth birthday, Smart married Mary Jane Bailey (1860-1931) in St-Helena (Vic). Mary Jane was the eldest of two daughters of Edwin Bailey (1815-1874) and Jane Matthews (1822-1904). The young couple lived with Mary Jane’s widowed mother in her Eltham pioneer cottage and welcomed their first son Edward Alexander on 15 October 1878. Over the next twelve years they added four more children to the family (Albert 1881-1920; George 1885-1888; Alfred 1887-1966 and Ruby May 1890-1903). 

Around 1898, Smart left for Western Australia, where he worked as a carrier for four years at Midland Junction for Hoskins & Cie Ltd, boiler and piper makers, before transferring to the company’s foundry in Perth.[1] In his absence, Smart corresponded frequently with Mary Jane, sending her money, and visiting her at least three times, the last in 1902.[2] Communications ceased sometime after the death of his mother-in-law.   

By no small coincidence, Smart’s correspondence came to an end at around the same time he began living with Ethel May Harris (1884-1910), first daughter and middle child of John Michael Harris (1852-1917) and Mary Jane Hodge (1852-1931). Ethel and ‘Alfred’ lived as man and wife under the pseudonym of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson for about six years. From all accounts, the two lived on ‘apparently affectionate terms.’[3] Yet, on 15 March 1910, following a six-month courtship, Smart assumed the name of Alfred Smythe and purported to be only thirty-four-years-old when he went through a form of marriage with twenty-one-year-old Mary Jane Pemberthy. 

Despite their thirty-year age difference, Alfred and Mary Jane lived happily at 5 Cowle Street, West Perth,[4] at least until the Daily Press published a story on the disappearance of Ethel Harris.[5] It had taken over seven months for an acquaintance of Ethel’s to report her disappearance, it is not clear exactly who informed the press. Perth’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) immediately suspected foul play, and ‘The Perth Mystery’ captivated the nation for the next three months. No fewer than 273 newspapers mentioned the case, printing over 2000 articles dealing with Ethel’s disappearance, Smart’s trials for bigamy-and murder, the inquest and subsequent hanging of Alexander Smart. 

Detective Harry Mann of Perth’s CID showed in his deposition that he was well aware of Smart’s bigamy when he first interrogated him about Ethel’s disappearance. Mann testified that he succeeded in making the accused admit he had a wife in Eltham.[6]  Whilst Smart pleaded guilty of bigamy in November 1910, he asked to have an opportunity to explain his case.[7] He wrote to the judge and placed the blame at his wife’s feet. Smart complained that his mother-in-law had made things difficult between the couple, the last straw being her decision to leave the cottage to her daughter rather than her son-in-law, whereby he ‘had no voice in it any way.’[8] His plea failed to move Judge Parker who sentenced Smart to two-years imprisonment despite the good character letter his employer provided. 

Meanwhile, the search for Ethel Harris’s body continued. After two months of digging, aided by Aboriginal trackers, the CID discovered the alleged body of Ethel Harris buried under four feet of ashes at Hoskins’ foundry.[9] Charged immediately with the wilful murder of Ethel Harris, Smart pleaded not guilty. Calling over fifty witnesses, the Crown provided seventy-four exhibits consisting mostly of pieces of clothing found in the ground of 5 Cowle Street and various trenches at the sanitary depot alleged belonging to the victim.[10]

After four days of testimony, none of which brought to light new evidence outside that which the press had exposed, the Jury convicted Smart and Judge Roe sentenced him to death. Alexander Smart was hanged at Fremantle Gaol on 7 March 1911.

Subsequent analysis of the media reports and legal case files reveals that Smart was convicted on circumstantial evidence. His counsel, Mr. H. F. Keall pointed out that the prosecution had failed to identify beyond a reasonable doubt that the body found was indeed that of Ethel Harris.  According to the timeline provided by Crown witnesses, Smart could not have committed the murder and disposed of the body. More importantly, since he was not married to Ethel, Smart had no real motive to kill her.[11] Beside Truth, no newspapers questioned Smart’s guilt. The story continued to enthrall Australians, with papers sporadically reminding readers of Ethel’s fate. In 1933, the newspaper which began the media frenzy recounted with graphic language the gruesome end of Ethel Harris but ended on an interesting note, emphasising that Smart had never actually confessed reminding readers that: ‘On the scaffold he did not utter a single word.’[12]

Alexander Smart is the only convicted bigamist in Australia to be executed for murder.

Footnotes
[1] George Harris (Manager of Hoskins), ‘A. Smart’s character letter’, n.d. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart.

[2] ‘Deposition of Alfred William Smart’, 28 October 1910. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart; ‘Smart’s Home at Eltham’, The Age, 17 December 1910, 13.

[3] ‘West Perth Sensation’ Kalgoorlie Miner, 14 October 1910, 6.

[4] ‘Deposition of Mary Jane Pemberthy’, 28 October 1910. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart.

[5] ‘The Missing Woman’, Daily Press (Perth), 13 October 1910, 5.

[6] ‘Deposition of Harry Mann’, 28 October 1910. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart.

[7] ‘Accused statement’, 22 November 1910. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart.

[8] A.W. Smart. ‘Letter to the Judge’, 5 December 1910. AU WAS122- CONS 3473, 1910 Case 4263, Smart.

[9] Cowle Street Mystery’ Truth, 17 December 1910, 12.

[10] ‘Alexander Smart’s Indictment’ 1911. Crown Law Department file.

[11] ‘The Smart Sensation. Solving the Cowle Street Secret.’ Truth, 18 February 1911, 6.

[12] ‘Recollections of Some Notable Criminals’, Daily Press, 3 June 1933, 20.

Original Publication

Citation details

Mélanie Méthot, 'Smart, Alexander (1857–1911)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/smart-alexander-33353/text41661, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Alexander Smart, with Ethel Harris, when they were known as Mr and Mrs Wilson

Alexander Smart, with Ethel Harris, when they were known as Mr and Mrs Wilson

Sunday Times (Perth), 19 February 1911, p 3

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Smythe, Alfred
  • Wilson, Alfred
Birth

25 September, 1857
East Lothian, Scotland

Death

7 March, 1911 (aged 53)
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

executed

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