Secrets of the housekeeper

It was about 8pm on Sunday 17 December 1922 and an 18 year old Ruby Anderson had been screaming out in pain for about an hour. Her father, Thomas, no doubt worried, went to fetch the horse and trap from the paddock to take Ruby into Geelong Hospital. As it was a Sunday, there would be no doctor available for a house call, especially at this late hour.

Thomas was a widower, his wife Sophia had died three years earlier. He was now alone and was left caring for his two daughters – Ruby and twelve year old Violet – his eldest son Leslie lived close by with his wife. Thomas was a farmer at Sparrowvale, about five miles from Geelong; a large acreage that was the original Geelong Racecourse and location for the early Marshall Railway. Thomas and his daughters would likely have occupied one of the purpose built employees cottages on the land leased by the Geelong Harbour Trust for the purpose of land cultivation, irrigation and running stock.

Ruby had been the housekeeper for her father for six years. She would cook and clean and her father would allow her out to spend time with her lady friends a few nights a week, often returning home after 11pm. Thomas had no reason to believe that his eldest daughter was hiding anything from him and she had not once indicated that she had been feeling unwell. But on that Sunday night when her father was racing to get the horse he was stopped before he could get far out the door. Violet yelled for her father to ‘come quick…Ruby got a baby’. Thomas ran straight back into the house and moved Ruby to his bed. Meanwhile, Ruby had asked her old brother Leslie to find some castor oil for the pain. As he left the house he heard the ‘squeal of a youngster…it sounded like a baby’s cry’. Confused, he rushed back into the bedroom where Ruby was, thinking that’s where the cry had come from. Upon re-entering the bedroom Leslie saw ‘blood all over the floor and a baby underneath the bed’. An almost identical depiction of what Thomas has seen when he rushed into Ruby’s room. Leslie ‘struck a match and saw the baby under the bed…the baby had its throat cut’.
Separately, both men asked Ruby what she had done. She told her father she had no idea what had happened and looked at him as if she had no idea who he was. What is possible Ruby was mentally unstable and had no recollection of what she had done to her newborn son?

Detective Sickerdick’s interview notes from VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1994, Item 53.

Soon after the discovery of the newborn baby boy, Thomas alerted the police. Detective Frederick Sickerdick from Geelong arrived at the house two hours after the events took place and saw the horrific, bloody scene. The child with afterbirth still attached was lying on the floor and he noticed a knife covered in blood was placed on a shelf above the bed. Detective Sickerdick questioned Ruby about her memories of the events which had obviously recently taken place in the bedroom and made notes about his findings. The Detective’s impressions of the house in which Thomas and his two daughters were residing painted a sad picture when he stated that it ‘was in a frightfully filthy condition consisting of very little furniture and no home comforts’. He also noted that Thomas had no control over his eldest daughter who ‘visited Geelong 3 or 4 nights during a week and her company whilst in Geelong were girls who have a bad reputation, she would walk home and arrive there at all hours’. Asked who the father of the baby was, Ruby’s story changed when initially she told the Detective that ‘some elderly man was responsible for her trouble, she did not know his name nor did she know where he lived’. Although, further into her interview she told Detective Sickerdick ‘that a youth named Russell who [was] 18 years of age resided at Barramunga [was] the father of her child’.

Two months later, in February 1923, Ruby May Anderson was to stand trial in Geelong on the charge of murder. Her father, brother and sister all made statements about the unknown pregnancy and subsequent cold-blooded murder of a newborn baby, only a few minutes old. Doctor Frederick Wallace, a resident surgeon at the Geelong Hospital undertook the post-mortem and testified that the cause of death for the newborn male child was ‘caused by haemorrhage and shock’, that there was an ‘extensive incision transversely across the front of the neck’. There was conjecture about whether the birth had affected Ruby’s mental condition, which was Doctor Wallace said was, ‘very frequent in females at that particular time…the mind might possibly take some time to become normal [after birth]’. Asked at the end of the trial if Ruby wanted to make a statement about the events, to which she bluntly answered, ‘I have nothing to say’.

Ruby was initially sent to Geelong Gaol before being transferred to Coburg’s Female Prison and finally ending up at the Melbourne Gaol. After spending less than two months behind prison walls, Ruby Anderson was released to freedom ‘by special authority’.

Phoebe, May 2018


Ruby Anderson prisoner photo, c1923


PROV, VPRS 30/P0, Unit 1994, Item 53

PROV, VPRS 516/P2, Unit 14, Prisoner no. 7492

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Heritage Council Victoria, Victorian Heritage Database