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BOOK REVIEW: My Mother, a Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans

| 19 August 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: My Mother, a Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans

Harper Collins
March 2018
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories / True Crime

6.5/10

Dulcie Bodsworth murdered three men. And she would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for her pesky daughter. This is not an episode of Scooby Doo or some other such fiction. This is a real life, Australian story as told by Bodsworth’s daughter, Hazel Baron, and award-winning journalist, Janet Fife-Yeomans. My Mother, a Serial Killer is a gripping, true crime book.

‘WOMAN ON THREE MURDER CHARGES’ THE PAPERBOY SHOUTED as the cars pulled up at the traffic lights on Sydney’s busy Crown Street.
Hazel Baron didn’t need to see the headlines on Monday afternoon’s Daily Mirror to know who they were written about. She didn’t need to see the photograph of the alleged killer on the front page to know who she was. It was her mother.

While the title here suggests a first-person account from Baron, the actual prose is told in third person. It details the brave and courageous ordeal that Baron faced in order to see her mother brought to justice. Baron first suspected that her mother was a murderer when she was nine years old and her father, Ted Baron drowned in the Murray River near Mildura.

While Dulcie was crying and appeared to be really grieving while the police were around, Hazel…was suspicious even if she wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to her dad.
Hazel noticed that when the family was alone again, her mum was nervous and on edge. She had heard her mum tell the police Harry was her brother and then Harry said he was Ted’s brother but Hazel knew Harry wasn’t their uncle from either side of the family. She knew enough about life to know her mother shouldn’t have been sharing the small tent every night with Harry, except of course when her dad was home and she slept with the kids…
From inside the tent, she overheard Dulcie and Harry talking about ‘getting our story right’. For several days, Toby the terrier had continued to bark and howl at the river and would not be silenced. ‘’If that bloody dog could talk, we would be dead,’ Dulcie said.
Hazel couldn’t move or she would give herself away. She didn’t even realise that she was holding her breath. She knew she had heard something she wasn’t supposed to have heard.

One thing that is apparent in this book is how manipulative and conniving Bodsworth was. She seemed like a kind and caring woman who was a great cook and who sweet-talked her way into men’s hearts. But in the case of all three killings, she conspired to make these appear like accidental deaths. Ted Baron’s passing was made to look like an accidental drowning even though she later admitted to drugging him in his sleep and having Harry throw him into the river. Before local town vagabond, Thomas Tregenza was burned alive (after Bodsworth poured methylated spirits on him and set him alight) she had told the local police she was worried that the homeless man was smoking in bed and would collapse there after drunken stupors. With station manager, Sam Overton, Bodsworth poisoned his breakfast and convinced the hospital doctors that he had a severe bout of gastroenteritis (an autopsy many years later would reveal that Overton had consumed enough arsenic to kill an entire family of people).

During the first days that Overton was sick, Allan [Dulcie’s son] had walked into the kitchen and seen Dulcie preparing what she said was Sam’s ‘medicine’.
‘It was some capsules that were open on the sink’ he told his big sister. ‘She had them spread apart on the sink on some paper and I asked what they were.’
…‘She said that Sam wouldn’t eat and they had to feed him through the capsules,’ he said.
Hazel wanted to know what Dulcie was putting into the capsules but all Allan knew was that it was a white powder which he thought looked like powdered milk.
It was some days before Dr Potts had been called out to see Overton but at the time Allan hadn’t thought too much about it. Now he told Hazel that it may have been Calarsenite. In the light of Overton’s death, it was a chilling observation. They feared Dulcie may have poisoned him.

This title is nicely-written but the story jumps around a bit and could have been structured in a more linear way. You do however, get a pretty good sense of what Bodsworth was like. She was a woman of many contradictions. On the one hand and despite her living in poverty, she always appeared prim, proper and well-kept in her attire. This was certainly the case when she was arrested in a conservative overcoat, gloves and a hat on a hot December day. But it was Hazel who could see through her mother’s smoke and mirrors. Hazel saw her mother’s cunning and manipulative ways and the woman’s brutal desire to kill in order to get what she wanted. Dulcie even broke down in an elaborate show of tears during one of her police interviews:

Dulcie began to cry. When Hazel heard much later about the tears, she thought it was another remarkable performance from her mother. As far as she was aware, Dulcie never cried. She shed no tears when she dumped her four children, nor when she lost the other four to miscarriages. She could tell hard-luck stories until the cows came home but it was all for sympathy. Dulcie wasn’t the sort of person to feel sorry for herself. She had killed three men including her own husband without shedding a tear. She possessed no conscience. She was lethal.
Hazel figured that like the stories, the tears were put on for pity. As an act, it didn’t work on the cops who just watched on patiently, but it worked on Harry [Bodsworth, Dulcie’s third husband] even as he realised she had hidden half her life from him. He would still walk over hot coals for her.

It is obvious from the title that Hazel Baron is the primary source behind much of the material here. Fife-Yeomans also relied on court transcripts and records to piece together parts of the story from the inquests and trials. But this story would have benefited from a few more direct quotes from those affected by this tale. Bodsworth’s third husband Harry, a man 19 years her junior was an accessory to the murder of Bodsworth’s second husband and would have made an illuminating interviewee. Similarly, Bodsworth’s other children (she was a mother of 13 and had abandoned four of them at a young age) could have made vital contributions and helped paint an even richer story than the one offered here, because very little is known about Bodsworth’s life prior to her meeting Baron.

While they had become well known in town and the surrounding area by then, Dulcie still did not let all her fences down. She never drank nor smoked nor swore, not even a bugger or bloody or shit. It was not appropriate for women to talk like that, she said. Ever the hypocrite, Hazel thought; she had murdered but she wouldn’t swear. Dulcie still hid the real person with all her secrets. Hazel knew that behind her smile and her façade of kindness, she had not changed one bit.

No one can discount the principles and convictions of Hazel Baron. She is a pillar of strength in this story. She is also proof that good can triumph over evil. Hazel married Bill when she was a teenager and the pair have been together for over six decades and have four children, six grandchildren and have fostered 100 children. Even though she was responsible for putting her mother behind bars, Hazel stood by Dulcie and was often her only visitor when the latter was in jail.

Every girl needs her mum. A young girl’s relationship with her mother shapes her life; it makes her what she is whether for good or bad. It’s a complex but powerful bond that no one outside it can ever understand, psychiatrists and psychologists included – even though they may profess that they can provide insights. It is personal and all-encompassing.

Dulcie’s life story is ultimately an intriguing one. Some readers may already be familiar with aspects of it though. In the television show, Prisoner a character named Lizzie Birdsworth was inspired by Bodsworth. Dulcie received a consultant’s credit for this contribution to the program and it confirms that Bodsworth was one brazen and opportunistic character if there ever was one. My Mother, a Serial Killer is ultimately a tragic and shocking true crime tale.

The man (Detective Sergeant Raymond William Kelly) who would help put Dulcie away for murder knew it wouldn’t be easy. The case wasn’t straightforward; Hazel had no direct evidence – so far it was all hearsay and circumstantial – but all police know that a circumstantial case can sometimes be more persuasive before a jury than a witness, a body, and a confession. Kelly was at the starting gate but building up to a gallop.

My Mother, A Serial Killer details one incredible chapter in Australia’s crime history. Dulcie Bodsworth was one charismatic psychopath, arsonist, poisoner and killer who showed no remorse or regret for her brutal crimes. Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans’ warts-and-all account of the proceedings is plainly horrifying but should also hearten us that the scales of justice can work, even when the odds are completely stacked against your favour. Incredible.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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