In January 1900 twenty-three year-old Maggie Heffernan drowned her illegitimate son in the Yarra.  He was just three weeks old. She was soon traced, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. But Maggie’s case attracted widespread sympathy.  While they found her guilty, a reluctant jury strongly recommended mercy and her case attracted some powerful advocates. In the end mercy prevailed.  Maggie’s sentence was commuted by the Governor-in-Council to four years’ imprisonment with hard labour. She was released after less than two years.

Maggie Heffernan
Public Record Office Victoria image.

Maggie’s story

Maggie was a country girl who grew up on her parents’ isolated farm near Gundowring on the Kiewa River in regional Victoria. The nearest sizeable town was Wodonga. Her parents were strict and Maggie was said to have led a sheltered life before she went out to service in Albury at about the age of 21. From about June 1898 she was employed in the household of local miller Fred Hayes. She remained with the Hayes family until February or March 1899 when she left, claiming that she was going to be married.  Her movements between this time and the middle of October 1899 are unclear, but she must have become pregnant shortly after leaving the Hayes’ household. Sometime in May she was apparently at home and unwell. A letter later written by her mother to Vida Goldstein mentioned that she was seen by a doctor, who said that she was suffering from ‘debility’. In fact she would have been in the early stages of pregnancy.

It was later revealed that Maggie had been seeing a young man who had promised marriage but had soon abandoned her, leaving her with a false address in Melbourne. An article in the local newspaper some months later suggested that he had gone to another colony (probably the Western Australian Goldfields – a common escape route at this time). There was some suggestion in letters written to Vida Goldstein on Maggie’s behalf that the young man in question was known in the district as a ‘flirt’ and that Maggie had been warned to be careful, but she would hear nothing against him. We know only that she was a bridesmaid at her cousin’s wedding in mid-October and that she left for Melbourne immediately afterwards. A description of the wedding was printed in the Ovens and Murray Valley Advertiser on 21 October 1899. The details confirm that Maggie Heffernan was no ordinary servant girl. Her family was obviously comfortably-off and well-connected in the district. ‘Miss Heffernan’ (Maggie was the eldest daughter, so this was her title) for example ‘wore cream cashmere, trimmed with silk and chiffon’. After the ceremony the party drove off in buggies to a ‘sumptuous wedding breakfast’. It was a far cry from the Women’s Hospital and a desolate river bank!

Maggie may have gone to Melbourne expecting to meet her lover and marry him, but he had given her a false address. We can only imagine her fear and anguish on finding herself abandoned.  Perhaps when she realised that she had been deceived, she chose to stay in Melbourne rather than go home and face her parents. Many young country girls had made similar decisions. Whatever her reasons, later in October Maggie found work as a general servant with Mrs Ralph, licensee of the Junction Hotel, South Preston. By this time she was some seven months’ pregnant, although it is not clear when Mr and Mrs Ralph became aware of her condition. They certainly expressed satisfaction with her work and with her general character. Maggie went into labour on 29 December 1899 and her baby was born at the hotel, with medical assistance. On the same afternoon she was transferred to the Women’s Hospital, accompanied by Mrs Hayes. According to his birth certificate, Maggie named her son George. She did not name his father. There was one oddity in the certificate, which confused us for a time. Maggie gave her name at the hospital as Johanna Margaret Heffernan, perhaps in an attempt to mask her true identity.

‘She suckled her child and was a good mother’

Maggie remained in the Women’s Hospital for eleven days. According to nurse Lilian Farrington, who was in charge of Ward 2 when Maggie was admitted, Maggie ‘attended to her child while she was there’. Under cross-examination Nurse Farrington expanded on this statement, observing: ‘She suckled her child and was a good mother.’ When Maggie left the Women’s Hospital Nurse Farrington suggested that she was ‘weak but well enough to go out from the Hospital when she left,’ a statement supported by Dr Harold Smith, who confirmed: ‘I saw her just immediately before her discharge.  She was as far recovered as midwifery cases are.’ Under cross-examination he clarified: ‘She was not more weak than healthy women usually are leaving here.’ In response to further questioning Dr Smith added: ‘There is a liability to mental derangement during the whole 9 months ’. The reason for this comment is not clear in the transcript, but it may have been in response to a question from either the defence barrister, or the judge.

Maggie was discharged from the Women’s Hospital on 9 January and was sent to Mrs Cameron’s Home in Armadale. According to the testimony of two other inmates of this home, women from ‘the Hospital’ were entitled to stay in this home with their babies for a fortnight, presumably to allow them to recover further and to establish breast-feeding.


‘I then let the baby drop gently into the river.’

For reasons that were never established, Maggie and George left Mrs Cameron’s Home on 15 January after only six days. She told two of the other inmates that she was ‘going to give the child to the father’s mother’. Agnes Voges, one of these inmates, also gave evidence that Maggie had said ‘that she was going to meet her mother at the Menzies’ and then she was going to Albury’. According to her own signed confession, she did neither of these things.  Instead she took the train to Northcote, intending to go to the Junction Hotel to collect her box, but changed her mind and returned to Melbourne, where she ‘walked about the town with the child’. At about 5 PM she went into the Treasury Gardens to feed George and then tried to get a bed for the night.  She was refused at the YWCA on the corner of Spring Street and Flinders Lane (she called it ‘Little Flinders Street’) and at another similar institution, which did not take women with babies. She then tried two hotels and the Victoria Coffee House in Collins Street without success.  The Victoria Coffee House would have given her a room for 2/6d, but since she only had 2/8d she kept trying. Eventually a woman in the street told her of a restaurant ‘in Bourke Street near the Parliament House where I got a bed for myself and baby’. She left there the next morning after ‘being given a cup of tea.’ By this time she probably had not eaten for more than 24 hours.

Maggie then walked about the streets with her baby. She bought an Argus to try to find a ‘situation anywhere’, then walked over the Princes Bridge to the Botanical Gardens, where she remained ‘until about 11 o’clock’. Sometime after this she walked back along St Kilda Road to some steps near the Princes Bridge.  She walked down the steps to the river. By this time she must have been both hungry and exhausted, especially if she had been carrying the baby in her arms all of this time. Almost certainly she was also dehydrated, especially if it was hot. We can only assume that baby George was equally uncomfortable. Maggie made no reference to changing his clothing and may have had no means of doing this. It scarcely bears thinking of!

The following account is taken from her confession.

I walked up and down the river side for about an hour.  I then sat down with the baby. The baby was clothed with a little gown and a small piece of flannel only. …I sat close up to the edge of the water I took the gown from off the baby.  I took off the flannel too. I then let the baby drop gently into the river.  The baby was alive when I dropped [him] into the river. I did not look to see whether the body sank or not. I then walked away carrying in my hand the gown and flannel. It would be about one o’clock in the day then. (‘Copy of Exhibit IB, statement by Maggie Heffernan, p. 10-11)

Maggie then caught the train to Preston where she stayed overnight with the Ralphs. She told them that George had died later on the day of his birth at the hospital and that she was going to ‘a situation that Dr South had got for her.’ In his evidence John Ralph later said that she ‘looked weak and ill’.


The confessions

There are two versions of Maggie’s confession, the first tabled at her trial as Exhibit IB and the second as Exhibit C. They are very similar, but not identical. Exhibit IB was signed by her but not dated. It was probably the statement taken down in his book by Detective Sergeant Gleeson when he first arrested Maggie in Hawthorn on 20 January 1900. The second statement was taken down in the detectives’ office (it is headed ‘C.I Branch’) later on the same day.  This second confession includes an account of Maggie’s actions on the day after she left Ralphs’ hotel (17 January), when she went to the Women’s Hospital ‘and spoke to Dr South about a situation as a wet-nurse.’ (Exhibit C, p. 14) This evidently bore fruit, because later on the same day, she was first interviewed by the police about the whereabouts of her child at the home of a Mrs Guest in Hawthorn, where she was acting as nurse to Mrs Guest’s infant.



On the morning of 17 January 1900, against all the odds, George’s tiny body was seen by a local labourer floating near the South Melbourne Wharf. He retrieved the body and handed it over to the police, who immediately took George’s body to the Women’s Hospital. That same afternoon the police came to interview Maggie.

When first asked about George’s whereabouts by Detective-Constable John Murray, Maggie repeated her claims that her lover’s mother had taken him. She told an elaborate story about a ‘Mrs Hardy’ who came from Sydney on 15 January and took the child by train.  Maggie claimed that she had travelled with them as far as Wangaratta, where they all stayed ‘at Mr Allen’s Hotel’. She then returned to Melbourne on the following morning while ‘Mrs Hardy’ travelled on to Sydney.  She gave Mrs Hardy’s address as 204 King Street Sydney.

Within three days the police were back, having checked the story they had been given. Maggie attempted at first to change some of the detail of this story, but was told by Detective-Sergeant Lawrence Gleeson: ‘It is no use telling us any more falsehoods…Speak the truth and fear nothing’.  At this point Maggie was alleged to have said: ‘Yes, I know I did wrong.’ Her first confession was then recorded in situ. When asked about the gown and the flannel from her baby, Maggie retrieved them from her box and handed them over to the police. The police then arrested her and took her into the ‘Detective Office’ where they took down another statement and charged her formally with murder. No thought seems to have been given to the fate of Mrs Guest’s baby, who was deprived of milk abruptly when Maggie was arrested. Later that evening Maggie was transferred to the Gaol Hospital where she was admitted, according to The Age, in a ‘state of exhaustion.’ (2 March 1900, p. 7)


The trial

Maggie’s trial took place at the Supreme Court before Justice Hodges one month later, on 20 February 1900. Despite her confessions, both of which were tabled in evidence, Maggie entered a plea of ‘not guilty’. Several of her supporters after the trial insisted that both the police procedures in taking down her confession without a proper caution, and later advice given to her in gaol that she should accept state legal aid, prejudiced the trial outcome, because insufficient financial allocations were made for such defence cases. Certainly it must have been one of the swiftest murder trials on record - the jury retired after only an hour and 40 minutes of proceedings. Although Maggie was represented by Sir Bryan O’Loughlen QC, very little evidence was presented in her defence. No witness was called to testify to the good character that many of her supporters later emphasised and Maggie was not put on the stand to give evidence, although an amendment to the Evidence Act 1890 (Vic) would have allowed her to do so. Although according to press reports O’Loughlen put forward a defence of puerperal mania, he called no witnesses to support such a defence, leaving Justice Hodges to seek enlightenment from the medical men who gave evidence for the prosecution – Dr Richard Stawell, who had conducted the post mortem, and Dr Harold Smith, who had discharged Maggie from the Women’s Hospital. In a formal comment on the trial process some time later Justice Hodges expressed surprise that further evidence was not tendered by the defence.  Unfortunately the detail of Dr Stawell’s response to Justice Hodges’ enquiry was not recorded in the trial transcript, leaving the only record the newspaper accounts of the trial. As in other court records, newspaper reports were also the only source for either the defence address, or the Judge’s remarks to the jury.

The Age reported on the trial in some detail on 22 February 1900. This account included reference to Dr Stawell’s response:

Dr Stawell, in answer to a question from Mr. Justice Hodges, stated that a woman who had suffered from puerperal mania would be unable afterwards to give a distinct account of her actions.

Mr Finlayson QC, in prosecuting, had earlier claimed that the ‘clear and correct statement’ included in Maggie’s confession ‘was sufficient to discredit any statement that the woman was of unsound mind at the time of the painful occurrence.’ This point seems to have been accepted by Justice Hodges.  In addressing the jury he was reported as saying that:

While the case was very sad, it was perhaps more painful because it was so extremely plain. The issues the jury had to deal with were whether or not the accused woman intentionally took her child to the river to drown it. …If the young woman intentionally dropped her child into the river, she was guilty of the charge of murder. He had asked Dr Stawell whether she would be able to state what had occurred if she had been suffering from a temporary mania to which women were liable. The doctor had answered that she would not: yet here was her description of the whole of her movements at the time of the crime. That the woman was hard pressed was beyond question; and all that might demand sympathy. But it did not prevent her legal responsibility however it might affect the extent of her moral responsibility. Her own evidence showed that she intentionally, under pressure of her circumstances, committed the crime.

The court transcript records that the jury retired at 11.42 AM. According to the Age (although not noted in the transcript) the jury came back into court ‘after a short retirement’, to ask if a verdict of manslaughter might be recorded, but was advised that it could not. Several hours then elapsed before the jury returned with their verdict (at 3.38 PM). They found Maggie guilty of murder but ‘strongly recommended to mercy on the ground [sic] of her weakness of mind and state of her destitution at the time of committing the act.’ (transcript, p.8). The Age recorded the recommendation slightly differently: ’strongly recommending the prisoner to mercy on the ground of her weak mental condition at the time of the murder and her great distress.’ (p.9)


The sentence

There was only one possible sentence when a defendant was found guilty of murder, as Justice Hodges pointed out in passing sentence of death on Maggie Heffernan. Nevertheless, he expressed his sympathy:

I need not say that one may have very strong sympathy with you, as well as for the poor child who was cast into the river.  That sympathy I may have, but at this time and in this place I have but one duty.

Sentence of death was then passed upon the unfortunate woman, who was carried out of court in a swooning condition.

Under the system of criminal justice at this time, any sentence of death was then considered and either confirmed or mitigated by the Governor-in-Council (the Executive Council), which then (and now) met in the Executive Council Chamber in the Old Treasury Building. At the meeting of the Executive Council held on 11 March 1900 the fate of three condemned prisoners was discussed – William Jones, who had murdered a little girl in December 1899, John Foster, who was found guilty of wounding with intent to murder, and Maggie Heffernan. The Executive Council determined that it would not interfere in the fate of Jones, whose date of execution was set down for 26 March, but it commuted Foster’s sentence to ten years with hard labour and Maggie’s sentence to four years. (Reported in the Argus, 13 March 1900, p.6.) In determining Maggie’s sentence the Executive Council undoubtedly took into account the jury’s recommendation, but also a letter sought from her former employer, Fred Hayes, in Albury, which testified to her general good character. This testimony was apparently organised by the police immediately after Maggie’s trial and was filed with other testimonies in her capital case file. (Letter from Fred Hayes, 27 February 1900) The Executive Council was undoubtedly fully aware of public sentiment, which was strongly supportive of Maggie.

One factor that was never stated explicitly, but that must have been very clear to the court, was that Maggie was a very unusual prisoner. Even though she was not put on the witness stand, her appearance, speech and bearing must have marked her out as different from most of the poor girls who appeared in these situations. Her former respectability was undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the strong public response in her favour.


Public response

Maggie’s conviction provoked an immediate and very strong public reaction. Letters to the newspapers expressed their ‘outrage’ at the sentence and were quick to blame the trial process. Such public opposition continued long after the sentence was commuted.  As Georgina Rychner has pointed out, ordinary members of the public with no legal or medical training were happy to argue that the trial process had erred and that the medical evidence given by Dr Stawell had mislead the jury on the question of puerperal mania.  (Rychner, p. 92) One correspondent to the Age, who signed his or her name as ‘Jus[stice]’, wrote on 2 March:

The public sense of justice is outraged at the verdict given in the case of the unfortunate girl Maggie Heffernan, and more particularly so when the evidence – and want of it- is carefully considered. (p. 7)

Some of the most touching letters were those written by members of Maggie’s local community near Wodonga, many of whom only learned of her ‘trouble’ when they read the outcome of the trial in the newspapers. That apparently included her parents, who were said to be ‘heart-broken’.  A selection of these letters has been preserved with the trial transcripts in the capital case file. They include letters written by former employers, neighbours who had literally known Maggie ‘all her life’, a former school friend and the local priest, who implored the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne’s wife to intercede for Maggie with the Governor. Mrs Goe promptly obliged, despite the fact that Maggie was a Catholic.

The letters were sent in support of a reprieve for Maggie and they stressed the Heffernan family’s respectability, Maggie’s general good character, the fact that she had always been a ‘good girl’, that she was quiet, kind and had always been willing to help others, but was perhaps naïve. Several referred quite directly to the man who had ‘seduced’ her, claiming to know his questionable reputation. One neighbour, Maria Theat (?), a mother of twelve children who had grown up with Maggie, wrote to Vida Goldstein, one of Maggie’s most prominent supporters stressing that Maggie had always been:

a good and quiet girl…I can really testify that there was no vice or wickedness in her… Her parents are highly respected and therefore I have much pleasure in giving my word for a reprieve for the poor girl who has been more sinned against than sinning. (Maria Theat to Vida Goldstein, 28 March 1900)

One thread that stands out in many of the letters and in some newspaper commentaries is a growing sense of moral outrage that young women like Maggie had no recourse against the men who had betrayed them and that they stood alone before the law. J Crosthwaite, who also wrote to Vida Goldstein on 28 March 1900, introduced himself as ‘one who has lived in this district for the last forty years, well acquainted with the family of the Heffernans’. He wrote:

Betrayed as I believe under promise of marriage, like many another country girl before her, it seems a terrible miscarriage of justice that the betrayer should go scot free while she is condemned to suffer as heavily. (J. Crosthwaite to Vida Goldstein, 28 March 1900).

Bessie Barton, another neighbour, agreed. She also wrote to Miss Goldstein expressing her view as

a woman and a Mother, I hope the Victorian Government, in the near future, will see its way to frame a law, so that the man may take his share in the disgrace that too often unfortunately, our sex have to bear alone. [sic] (Bessie Barton to Miss Goldstein, 28 March 1900)


Petitions and public meetings

Vida Goldstein and her mother Isabella were amongst the prominent citizens who rallied to Maggie’s cause, hoping to influence the government to grant her a reprieve. Immediately after the trial, the Women’s Political and Social Crusade organised public meetings and a petition to present to the Attorney General. The petition gathered an astonishing number of signatures in a short space of time. We estimate that more than 15,000 people signed it and possibly more. (Rychner estimated 17,000 – the same number who signed the petition in favour of Ned Kelly.) It was presented to the Attorney General before the meeting of the Executive Council in March. This petition is shown in the exhibition.

Several large petitions were also gathered calling for a reprieve for Maggie, and signed by residents of the communities around the area in which the Heffernan family lived.  These were huge petitions, testimony to the strong feeling of many in these areas. Public meetings were also held and local newspapers in the Albury-Wodonga area called on local readers to support the cause. One of the obstacles that all of these groups faced was the extraordinary speed with which justice was dispensed at this time. As we have seen, Maggie was tried just one month after her arrest and some three weeks later the Executive Council had determined her fate.


Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein, who had long campaigned against the sexual ‘double standard,’ took a personal and very active interest in Maggie Heffernan’s case. She visited Maggie in prison and made copious notes to inform the campaign to win a reprieve for her. One set of notes, compiled in tiny script on a double-column page, was used to inform a petition to the Governor in December 1900. These notes were submitted with other testimonials and were preserved in Maggie’s file. We present them in the exhibition. She also wrote about Maggie’s case in the Woman’s Sphere, emphasising her pitiable condition on the day of the crime, her inability to feed her child, and her generally distraught state. (Woman’s Sphere ’Maggie Heffernan: Her Case Stated’, copy included in case file, no date)

A deputation to the Premier

After a public meeting held in the Temperance Hall in Melbourne in April 1900, a high-level deputation waited on the Premier (at that point Allan McLean) to present their arguments in favour of Maggie’s immediate release. The deputation was led by Dr Maloney MP, and Mr McKenzie, and members included the well-known socialist and journalist Henry Champion, Rev. Canon Tucker and both Vida and Isabella Goldstein. They tried to persuade the Premier that the trial process had erred in not calling medical experts qualified to testify on puerperal mania, and argued that had such testimony been presented, the jury would have returned a different verdict. They also summarized what they had learned subsequently of Maggie’s frame of mind at that time. It was suggested that she was exhausted and starving, that her milk had dried up leaving her unable to feed her baby, and that she was desperate because a letter sent to her parents had elicited no reply. It transpired that the post office that had received this letter burnt down on the very same evening and that her parents were unaware of her plight.

Vida observed in her presentation that several women in similar circumstances had been released with no threat to the community (she cited Rosanna Plummer and Bella Ferguson), that they were ‘now respectable members of the community, and that the circumstances in their cases were far more revolting than in this case.’ She stressed: ‘This movement for Margaret Heffernan’s release was not dictated by maudlin sentiment, but by a firm conviction that she was convicted on false and unscientific evidence.’ (Document stamped 2113, ‘The Case of Margaret Heffernan, Deputation to the Premier, 10 April 1900, p. 4)

Their arguments are preserved in a typewritten document dated 10 April 1900, which also records comments made by the Premier. These suggest that he was unconvinced by their presentation. Near the conclusion of the meeting he was recorded as saying:

There was not a tittle of evidence to prove she was suffering from puerperal mania, nor was there a suspicion of it in the minds of those who tried her. He would, however, have the statement of Dr. Stawell inquired into, in the light of the statements of the authorities who had been quoted by Mr. Champion. (p. 7)

Later in the meeting he also agreed to raise the Heffernan case again with the Cabinet and to consider further how women in such situations might be assisted in the future.  The deputation had argued in favour of a ‘South Australian law’ that enabled women to sue putative fathers for support. The Premier advised that preparations for Federation might delay such legislation to the next parliamentary session, ‘but he would bring it before the Cabinet, by whom it would receive the fullest consideration.’ On that note the meeting ended. It seems likely that this last action did indeed follow, with the enactment of the Marriage Act Amendment Act, 1900 (Vic), which allowed a woman to obtain maternity expenses and maintenance from the father of her child.


Justice Hodges provides further advice

Some weeks after the deputation the Solicitor General wrote to Justice Hodges, enclosing a report of the deputation, and enquiring whether Justice Hodges believed that Dr Stawell’s evidence had been instrumental in convincing the jury to return a guilty verdict. Justice Hodges’ replied that it was impossible to know what might have transpired in other circumstances.  He also included his own recollections of his address to the jury, which not surprisingly differed again from reports in the press. In this letter Justice Hodges recalled that he said :

Gentlemen there is no evidence of insanity, there is evidence that she was weak, was very depressed, was in very straightened circumstances, had been deserted in her hour of need by the man who ought to have stood by her, all of this makes every one of us disposed to sympathise strongly with the accused, but it does not relieve her from responsibility for her criminal acts. (Hodges, J. to Solicitor General, 7 May 1900)

Justice Hodges also indicated that he ‘thought that the accused was going to call evidence on the subject’, and added: ’I should have made no such Enquiry from the Witness had I known that there was no other Evidence than that which was given.’ His comments seem to support claims made at the time that the defence case was inadequately presented. However on receipt of Justice Hodges’ comments the Solicitor General determined that he was unable to advise the Lieutenant-Governor to ‘interfere with the criminal sentence in this case.’ (Handwritten file note, 22 May 1900) Maggie remained in prison.


Ill health and release

Neither Vida Goldstein, nor the residents of Maggie’s home region was prepared to give up on her case. They continued to collect signatures on petitions and Vida continued to advocate on her behalf. A further petition was presented in May 1901 and in response a report on Maggie’s conduct in prison was sought. Vida also continued to visit her in prison. Concern for Maggie’s health grew as she was hospitalised on several occasions, and according to the radical newspaper the Tocsin, she was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis). When Vida learned this she immediately petitioned for her release on the grounds of ill health. (Tocsin, 16 January 1902, p. 16) Maggie was eventually freed on 21 December 1901. In the end she had served less than two years in prison.


The plight of the single mother

Maggie Heffernan’s case highlights once again the utterly precarious position of women abandoned with illegitimate children. Charitable assistance could be available, but as Maggie’s case makes clear, it was short-lived and limited. Maggie’s only other recourse might have been to apply to give up her son to the Neglected Children’s Department, for placement in foster care or in an institution, but there is no indication that Maggie considered this as an option for her. Most women who appeared before Magistrates asking that their children be made state wards were helped to do so, and even so this was by no means a guaranteed outcome. In Maggie’s case, given her family connections, it was most unlikely that a magistrate would have agreed to accept the child.

Cases like this one leave many unanswered questions.  Not least is the reason why Maggie left the home in Armadale after only a few days, when she did not seem to have plans or another place to go. None of the documents in her case file shed any light on this decision and it was not pursued at the trial.  It may, however, have been one of the reasons why her defence counsel did not call Maggie to give evidence.


What happened to Maggie Heffernan?

For a long time we were unable to find any further trace of Maggie Heffernan.  She seemed to have vanished from the historical record. Then Marian Quartly managed to trace her birth certificate – registered as ‘Heffernen’, not ‘Heffernan’ in an apparent error at the time. This unlocked access to other records and allowed us to confirm that in fact Maggie Heffernan did manage to re-build her life. In 1909 she married Joseph Henderson, a farmer in Koo Wee Rup, near Bunyip, and they went on to have two children. A copy of the Electoral Roll for 1909 lists both Joseph and ‘Greta’ Henderson. Greta was a pet name that Maggie used earlier in life in her home town, as many letters from her supporters at the time attest. Joseph died in June 1915, killed in a railway accident at the Garfield Railway Station. He was working as a train driver for the Drouin Butter Factory and was hit by a train while unloading. (Bunyip Free Press and Berwick Shire Guardian, 24 June 1915, p. 2)  Maggie stayed on in the area and lived to the ripe old age of 88.  She died in February 1966 and was buried with her husband in the Bunyip Cemetery.

The impact of Maggie’s conviction on the Heffernan family was probably profound.  These were small communities and the Heffernans were well-known in the district. We know that in April 1902, just three months after Maggie’s release from prison, Edward Heffernan, Maggie’s father, handed his farm at Gundowring over to his sons, selling the stock and household effects at a clearing sale. (Ovens and Murray Valley Advertiser, 14 April 1902)  He was aged only 55 years at this time, which seems very young to ‘retire’. Of course he might have owned other properties, since he was still listed on the electoral roll for Gundowring in 1903. We located him again in 1912, by which time he and his wife Julia were living in Clyde, not far from Maggie and her husband. From 1914 they were listed on the Electoral Roll as living near Maggie in Koo Wee Rup and they remained in this area thereafter. Edward died in 1936 at the age of 89, while Julia died in 1939 aged 83. They too were buried in the Bunyip Cemetery.

Author: Margaret Anderson



Margaret Heffernan – Capital Case File – PROV, VPRS 264/P1, unit 3

Margaret Heffernan – Prison Register – PROV, VPRS 516/P2, unit 12

Records of the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria.

Newspaper articles as cited.


Further reading

Shurlee Swain & Renate Howe Single Mothers and Their Children: Disposal, Punishment and Survival in Australia Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Georgina Rychner, “Murderess or Madwoman? Margaret Heffernan, Infanticide and Insanity in Colonial Victoria’, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, No. 23, 2017, pp.91-104.