Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.