Who was Marie Stella Hewitt?

Marie Stella HEWITT was admitted to the Beechworth Lunatic Asylum on 23 July 1907 suffering from dementia but it was the cause of her illness that caught my eye: “Supposed Cause: The Deeming Case (she being the discoverer of body & chief witness)”
Was this an early case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? I had to know more.

The Deeming Case was a notorious murder in Melbourne. Frederick DEEMING, alias Albert WILLIAMS, was found guilty of murdering his wife on Christmas Day 1892, and burying her body under concrete in a house he had rented in the Melbourne suburb of Windsor. The body was not discovered for three months, when the landlord and a prospective tenant noticed a dreadful smell in one bedroom. On returning later to investigate, the landlord discovered the decomposed body and called the police. This was surely the stuff of madness.

Marie Stella HEWITT had been transferred to Beechworth from Yarra Bend asylum in Melbourne, a common practice in those days. According to the case book entry, she was aged 39 years (born about 1868), married and Roman Catholic. She also had several sons, one of whom was a M.A. and tutor in Chancery Lane. Unusually, no names or other details were provided for her family, nor was a native place or previous address noted. She died only three months after admission, and one son removed her body to Melbourne for burial.

My curiosity was aroused so I set out to find out more about Marie HEWITT but searching for records on her proved so fruitless that it was easy to believe she had been given a new identity in a forerunner of witness protection. Newspaper reports of the Deeming case also had no mention of Marie HEWITT as a witness. One record on Ancestry confirmed her admission to Yarra Bend asylum on 21 July 1904, and the record of her death stated that her parents’ names were unknown, which was not unusual for asylum patients. No marriage record could be found for a Marie (Stella) marrying a man called HEWITT.

A close examination of her details in the case book revealed a number of anomalies. As a married woman with adult sons, it was surprising that no names or addresses were recorded for her spouse or sons. Furthermore, it was possible but perhaps unlikely that a woman aged 39 years would have a son old enough to have completed a Master’s degree.

There was one possible record of the birth of a son. In 1884 in Fitzroy, Melbourne, a Mary HEWITT gave birth to William Alexander HEWITT, father unknown. No further records relating to this child could be positively identified, but there were many William HEWITTs in Victoria. Is it possible that Mary HEWITT, a young unmarried mother, created a new identity for herself, either deliberately or as a result of her illness? As a Roman Catholic she would have been familiar with the term Stella Maris, used by a number of Catholic institutions, and this is similar to Marie Stella. Perhaps she had been an orphan herself and been given the name by an institution. Whatever the explanation, it seemed she had at least one son who cared enough for her to arrange her burial.

Wishing to know more, I obtained her full death certificate. This confirmed the name, age and marital status shown in the case book, which were probably supplied by the asylum, but there was no information about her place of birth, spouse or parents. However, I learned that she was buried at St Kilda Cemetery in Melbourne on 30 October 1907.

The cemetery records are available online but they only added to the mystery. A Maria Ann HEWITT was buried in St Kilda cemetery on that date, but her age was stated as 61 years, and she was not interred in the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery. She was buried in the same plot as Horace Wellesley HEWITT, interred 30 July 1894 aged 16. His death record stated he was the child of Charles HEWITT and Marie HUNT, although I could find no birth record for him. Charles HEWITT, presumably the father of Horace, was also buried in the same plot on 02 August 1912. He had died in Stawell in western Victoria aged 76 years.

So was Marie Stella HEWITT, born 1868, actually Maria Ann HEWITT, born about 1846? Birth records showed that in 1849 in Geelong, Victoria, George and Maria HUNT had a daughter, Anne Maria, who married Charles HEWITT in 1865. Charles and Maria Anne (or Annie) HEWITT went on to have twelve children. One son was Horace Wellesley HEWITT drowned in a boating accident on 27 July 1894. Horace’s mother but not his father gave evidence at the inquest. One daughter, Rosa Maud, born in 1871, was married on 28 March 1907 and the newspaper announcement described her as the daughter of Charles HEWITT of Stawell and the grand daughter of George and Maria HUNT. No mention was made of her mother.

Another son of Charles and Maria HEWITT was named Herbert, and further newspaper searches revealed that a Herbert HEWITT had graduated with an M.A. degree from the University of Melbourne in 1899 and worked as a private tutor near the Law Courts in Melbourne, in the area known as Chancery Lane. This confirmed the information provided about Marie Stella HEWITT in the Beechworth case book and added credence to the belief that she was really Maria Anna HEWITT. Herbert married Flora SAUNDERS in 1903, and in the marriage announcement he was described as the second son of Charles HEWITT of Stawell but no mention was made of his mother. Electoral rolls showed that Charles HEWITT was working as a photographer in Stawell in 1903.

In 1900, Maria HEWITT, ‘a well dressed middle aged woman’, appeared in St Kilda Police Court charged with false pretences. She was described as the wife of Charles HEWITT, photographer, who was estranged from her and now living in the country. She was cautioned and released into the custody of her husband. However, she was in court again in 1902, suing her husband for maintenance. He declared he sent her money and that she was of drunken habits. In 1903 Maria HEWITT was jailed for three months for vagrancy. According to the Yarra Bend case book, this was a regular occurrence. Her claim of being a major witness in the Deeming case also appeared to be false because her name did not appear in the transcript of the trial. The house where the body was found was in the part of Melbourne frequented by Maria, and she may have been the unnamed woman being shown over the house immediately before the body was discovered.

It would appear that the patient admitted to Yarra Bend on 21 July 1904 and later transferred to Beechworth as Marie Stella HEWITT, born about 1868, was in fact Maria Anne HEWITT, born 1849. Charles and Maria HEWITT had had a daughter, Stella, in 1879 who died in infancy, so perhaps in confusion at her committal Maria used this name. Estranged from her family, probably an alcoholic and petty criminal, it is easy to understand how she was committed to an asylum, yet her physical and mental condition were good enough for her to pass herself off as 20 years younger than she was, as ladies in their ‘middle years’ sometimes tried to do. She also retained the affection of at least one son, who was willing to pay the not inconsiderable costs of transporting her body to Melbourne for burial in a family plot rather than in an unmarked grave in Beechworth, 275 km away.

Background on the Deeming murder case – Frederick Bailey Deeming (1853–1892)

Written by Dr Eileen Clark, Adjunct Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University.
See Eileen’s full bio here

Victoria BDM indexes online
Victoria, death certificate, Marie Stella HEWITT
Public Record Office Victoria. Bigamy, theft & murder. The extraordinary tale of Frederick Bailey Deeming. http://www.prov.vic.gov.au/online-exhibitions/deeming/story01-murder.htm
Public Record Office Victoria. Beechworth Lunatic Asylum, case books of female patients. VPRS 7395 P1. Online at http://www.prov.vic.gov.au/
Public Record Office Victoria Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, case books of female patients. VPRS 7400 P1.
Public Record Office of Victoria. Inventory book of lunatic estates. VPRS 6767. Collection: Victoria, Australia, Lunatic Estates and Register, 1867–1906. www.ancestry.com.au
Public Record Office Victoria. Transcript of trial, Albert WILLIAMS [alias DEEMING]. 28 April 1892. Capital Sentence Files. VRPS 264/P0, Unit 21. http://www.prov.vic.gov.au/online-exhibitions/deeming/vprs264-p0-21-92-2994DeemingTrial.pdf
St Kilda Cemetery. Deceased search. HEWITT, Maria Ann. http://stk.smct.org.au/deceasedsearch/result/42936S
Electoral roll. 1903. Australia. Stawell, Victoria. Collection: Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980. www.ancestry.com.au
National Library of Australia, Trove digital newspapers http://trove.nla.gov.au/
Marriage announcements. (1907) The Australasian. 01 June. STEINWART, Ferdinand William Christian and HEWITT, Rosa Maud. p. 64b. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/139763152
Advocate. (1894) Boating fatality at St Kilda. The Advocate. 04 August 1894. p. 9b. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/169712545
Australasian. (1899) University of Melbourne. The Australasian. 25 March 1899. p. 37b. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/138674468
Age. (1902) Professional engagements. The Age. 07 June 1902. p. 5d. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/199405373
Marriage announcements. (1903) The Argus. 18 April. HEWITT, Herbert and SAUNDERS, Flora Olive. p. 9a. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/9831619
Age. (1900) A fraudulent charity appeal. The Age. 26 September 1900. p. 5e. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/188641029
Prahran Telegraph. (1902) St Kilda Police Court. Prahran Telegraph. 05 April 1902. p. 3g. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/144684288
Prahran Chronicle. (1903) [No title] Prahran Chronicle. 21 March 1903. p.3a. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/165400972/19546826
Argus. (1892) Ghastly crime at Windsor. The Argus. 4 March. p. 5h. Collection: Digitised newspapers and more. National Library of Australia. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/8404428

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