Murder In The Suburbs
The Australian Women's Weekly|March 2021
After WWII, a crime wave washed through Sydney proving women killers can be just as ruthless as men. Sue Williams investigates a new book that uncovers the wives who killed their husbands and other inconvenient family members with rat poison.
Sue Williams

By day, she seemed just another ordinary housewife, mother and wife living cheek-by-jowl with the neighbours in a rundown row of terraces in Sydney’s working-class inner west.

She looked like the perfect mum to her two children, and appeared to ignore the gossip that her husband, a known gambler and drinker, was secretly seeing other women. But in the evenings, when Yvonne Butler handed Desmond his favourite beef tea, Bonox, to keep up his health, she had exactly the opposite in mind.

For she was heavily lacing the drink with deadly rat poison and was actually killing her childhood sweetheart with kindness.

Their friends, family and neighbours in the tight-knit street where most had lived for over a decade were mystified about Desmond’s constant illnesses and his deteriorating mental health. Yvonne wrung her hands in despair. No one had a clue what could be going so wrong. So terribly, horribly wrong.

Years later, it was discovered that Yvonne was one of a number of women, in a short spell in the suffocating domesticity of Sydney in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who had turned to poison to rid themselves of the troublesome men, and women, in their lives. They were the quiet killers, the patient, cold-hearted women who watched and plotted and planned their deadly revenge for the perceived slights or wrongs that life had dealt them.

And, in most cases, they were caught far too late to save their victims.

Three of those women are now the subject of a new book, The Husband Poisoner, by one of Australia’s most successful true crime writers, Tanya Bretherton. She investigated a wave of women surreptitiously poisoning their husbands and lovers in post-World War II Australia, with the deadly rat-killer serum thallium – tasteless, odourless, colourless and easily available, back then, at every grocery store. Vermin were always a problem in the tightly packed areas of the inner city. Thall-Rat was always the answer.

But while Yvonne was spiking her husband’s Bonox with the poison, another was lacing her family’s favourite black tea. A third dripped it into Milo. “They did it sneakily and secretly, which is the classic archetype of the female killer,” says Tanya. “A lot of people are still aware of ‘the thallium murders’ of the postwar period as it’s still quite recent in our history.

“When I came across these cases, I was amazed by them and completely shocked by what they were doing.”

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