On 16 March, 1907, the Western Mail newspaper published this full page cartoon, portraying Perth woman Alice Mitchell as Mrs Gamp.
The cartoon, penned by Ben Strange, created some controversy. At the time, Mrs Mitchell was sitting in prison, awaiting trial for the murder of baby Ethel Booth. John Norton, the editor of the rival newspaper Truth, claimed that it amounted to contempt of court. Or as he put it:
This woman, now literally lying in the shadow of the gallows, is caricatured in a most callous and cruel manner. A more wicked and wanton attempt to interfere with the due administration of Justice, and to deliberately prejudice the case of a person awaiting trial on a criminal charge, was never committed by a newspaper published within the jurisdiction of a British Court of Law, than that made in the Perth “Western Mail” of the 16th inst…
Given that his own newspaper had printed several scandalous articles about the case, Norton was being somewhat hypocritical.
But he did have a point. Mrs Gamp, otherwise known as Sairey Gamp, was a comical figure from Charles Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Dickens described her as a rough, red-nosed woman, smelling of alcohol. As a self-proclaimed but untrained nurse, she “went to a lying-in or a laying-out with equal zest and relish”. She was not the sort of character that Alice Mitchell’s lawyer wanted associated with Alice in the minds of the jury or the public.
The caption, “Hush-a-bye baby, don’t you cry, you’ll be an angel by-and-by” was equally controversial. The phrase “angel making” was in common use to describe murderous baby farming practices. Australian newspapers also sometimes used “angel making” as a euphemism for abortion. Either way, it suggested something disturbing about Alice Mitchell’s activities.
Alternatively, Ben Strange, the cartoonist, might have been thinking of a racist song written by Monroe Rosenfeld in the United States in 1884, with the title “Hush little baby, don’t you cry”. The chorus included the phrase “You’ll be an angel bye and bye”. It occasionally appeared on Australian song lists in the 1890’s.
Was Strange making a statement about Alice Mitchell’s guilt? Or did he perhaps want to make a more subtle point about the portrayal of Alice in the press and in public discussion? Either way, his cartoon was quite startling.