My Melbourne: Melbourne General Cemetery

Melbourne General Cemetery

I enjoy a visit to a graveyard: these markers of the end of everyone’s story (or, for believers, the end of the fist book and the beginning of the sequel).

One of my favourite cemeteries is Melbourne General Cemetery, which dates from 1853.

Kitty Carrasco lives opposite this graveyard in Kitty and Cadaver, and there’s a very uncomfortable encounter with the dead rising from their graves and the ensuing musical battle where the minstrels try to sing the dead to rest again.

The Melbourne General Cemetery contains the remains of hundreds of Melburnians from all walks of life. Residents include great politicians, social reformers, explorers, singers, public servants and sportsmen from the early days of the colony.

Naturally, there are writers and other contributors to Melbourne’s literary history among the cemetery’s residents. These include Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of His Natural Life; city co-founder John Fawkner, who produced Melbourne’s first newspaper; and John Stanley James, an early journalist who wrote for “The Argus” newspaper under the pseudonym ‘The Vagabond’.

Explorers Burke and Wills were buried here after their remains were recovered; opera singer Frederick Federici, whose ghost is said to haunt the Princess Theatre, is interred here.

One of the charms of the Old Melbourne Cemetery (and, indeed, of all cemeteries) is the occasional eccentric tombstone; whether it’s a pithy epitaph or an unusual design carved in stone.

One of the most distinctive and evocative headstones in the cemetery is that of Emily Mather, murdered in 1891 by her husband Frederick Deeming (a serial killer who some believed to be Jack the Ripper).

The headstone remarks upon on her murder and gives some frankly victim-blaming advice on being careful who you marry.

Walter Lindrum’s headstone

The 1960 grave of world champion billiard’s player, Walter Lindrum, is much less gruesome – a few stone billiard balls and a cue lie across the polished marble, as though Walter has just stepped away for a moment and will be back to finish his shot shortly.

Another unexpected memorial in Melbourne General Cemetery is the one to Elvis Presley – curious, given Elvis never made it to Australia.

The Elvis memorial

The memorial is said to be the only officially approved shrine outside of Graceland. It was commissioned by the Elvis Presley Fan Club in 1977 and still attracts visitors each year on the anniversary of the hip-swiveller’s death.

Graves can be sad; they can even be morbid. I find them melancholy but restful, a reminder that every life, however, brief, has it’s own story, filled with love, drama, tragedy and joy.

Every story ends. I want to make sure the pages of mine are full.

My Library: Folklore and occult history

I have a growing collection of books about myths, legends, folklore and occult history that I’m working through and flagging with sticky notes. Whenever I find something music-related, in goes a tag while I consider how I might use it in a Kitty and Cadaver story.

The next Kitty & Cadaver book is being planned and will be set in the UK – its working title is currently Rivers and Ravens so naturally I’m also looking for material about waterways and corvids. 🙂

I’m also interested in the history of occultism and the paranormal in the UK, as you never know when I might want to slip a little weirdness into a canon-era Holmes/Watson story.

Merlin Coverley’s Occult London has some cool background information on the likes of Dr John Dee, the 16th century scientist who was equally involved in ‘natural magic’. Queen Elizabeth I consulted him a few times. His name pops up in paranormal fiction set in the era – he was name-checked in KJ Charles’s first Green Men book, Spectred Isle. (I can’t recommend KJ Charles highly enough, by the way!)

Other personalities and places covered by Coverley are the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, From Hell, speculates that Jack the Ripper used Hawksmoor’s 18th century churches as part of ritual magic); Madame Blavatsky, the Victorian-era occultist behind the popularisation of the Theosophical Society in London; the notorious Aleister Crowley, who appears in Charlie Raven’s The Compact (with Dr John Watson having a supporting role as well!); and Caxton Hall, where Crowley operated in London for a while in 1910.

A Celtic Book of Days is a much lighter read, filled as it is with little snippets for every day of the Celtic year, which counts nights instead of days and begins on 1 November at Samhain, the end of summer.

The entries are short and not always particularly relevant to the paranormal for my purposes, but it’s scattered with lots of lovely little hints and ideas about folklore.

Among the ideas for further reading, I’ve learned about the Merrows (the females are beautiful but the male half of this mermaid sketch is described as having green teeth and hair, pig’s eyes and red noses); Saint Gobnat, the patron saint of bees, and the bird who built a nest in the hand of St Kevin, who perforce had to patiently hold still until the eggs hatched.

Musical folklore includes the Welsh belief that if a baby cries at baptism, it’ll be a good singer; the Furry Dance Song from Cornwall; a flurry of morris dancing that goes on in June; and St Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians.

I have some very fat books on folklore in the shelf too, so I expect they’ll be positively fluttering with sticky notes by the time I’m done!

two books on the paranormal, bristling with sticky notes.

Review: The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts by Federica Magrin and Laura Brenlla

I loved the idea of a kids’ book charting the location of monster stories around the world – it’s in part what I look for in a destination!

The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts by LonelyPlanetKids.com is a gorgeous looking book, with Laura Brenlla’s fabulous Tiki-esque style (which reminds me a bit of Shag’s art). It’s an atlas, so the large maps of continents and regions give a cute overview before each section, and an appendix introduces various water monsters of the world as well as a checklist of the ghosts of famous figures, including Anne Boleyn.

The conceit of the whole book is given in the introduction, where Dr Van Helsing welcomes young readers to his version of Monster Hunting 101 on where to find all these creatures and what to do if you encounter them.

Because The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts is aimed at young readers (9-12 years) the entries are fun and on the silly side. For some readers they might be a little light on, though some better known beasties, like Dracula, have double-age entries with more detail.

The book also places folklore, urban legends and fictional characters all on the same footing without mentioning origins. An entry on Frankenstein’s Monster makes no mention of Mary Shelley any more than the one on King Kong mentions RKO Pictures or creator Merian C Cooper. Actual locations thought to be haunted, like hotels and ghost towns, are noted with the same weight as indigenous folklore. (Having said that, I was amused to see drop bears and bunyips listed with equal weight in the Australian section.)

I don’t know if kids will find that as frustrating as I did – it’s a shame that the origins of these stories aren’t acknowledged, especially for entries that have an individual creator.

Still, The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts is a charming book and a great starting point for doing some extra googling on folklore, fiction and urban legends before heading for these parts of the world!

Buy The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts:

Review: The Secret Art of Poisoning by Samantha Battams

When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance.

That’s as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.

As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle’s guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha’s tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Battam goes into Martha Needle’s life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha’s harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge’s summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams’ observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.

On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it’s a minor niggle in the presentation.

It’s a solid account, but if there’s a disappointment, it’s in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle’s story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle’s nephew.

The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I’d have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes “I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?’ while the back blurb reads “What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives… to commit virtually the same crime?” Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.

Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like “The Richmond Poisoner” can ever hope to show.

Buy The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner:

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