By Michael Shelford © 2016.
Margaret Dougan was a ‘rogue and vagabond’ - and a street siren of the small stage at the local courts of judicature.
To read Part II click here
A popular form of entertainment in Melbourne in the early 1900’s was the real life theatre provided at the local courthouse. Crowds would attend the weekday trials in their Sunday best to gather fuel for front-gate gossip. The public gallery was a place of excited whispers, raucous laughter - and expressions of shocked disbelief betrayed by twinkling eyes.
One of the audience’s favourite entertainments was to witness men of high social standing explain how they came to be lured into dark alleys by women of ‘ill fame’.
All of the major newspapers would be there, and detailed accounts of the court proceedings would be published the following day. The Truth newspaper, in particular, would revel in every lurid detail, even reporting on which statements caused the most laughter in the public gallery. The newspapers made stars of many a courtroom performer; turning the monikers of petty crooks into household names. For the residents of Fitzroy, a suburb labelled by Superintendent Davidson in 1919 as “the home of Melbourne Criminals” - the headlines added an element of prestige and criminal standing in the local community.
The darling of the courtroom press was the glamorous Margaret ‘Rita’ Dougan. She was very attractive, a stylish-dresser, had an abundance of charm, flaunted expensive jewellery and carried a gun. She was referred to in the press as “the beauteous bilker and bejewelled bail-absconder”, a “street siren” and “the gorgeous, voluptuous demi-mondaine”.
Dougan was a dress maker who preferred to make her money without having to make dresses. She was known to be one of Melbourne’s best known ‘bilkers’ and frequented the city’s central business district after dark. She was drawn into town from her home in Fitzroy by the treasures contained in the trouser pockets and waist coats of wealthy gents who had over-imbibed. Her favoured haunt was the Paris end of Collins St, where the upmarket business clubs, fashionable cafés and restaurants prospered. With a flutter of the eyes and a cheeky smile she would entice men into side alleys, give them a long active hug, and relieve them of their money. She was so skilful that she would replace their wads of pound notes with tissue paper so that they wouldn’t feel that anything was missing – and all without their purse leaving their waistcoat pocket. If the men were carrying their wealth in coins she’d replace the crowns in their trouser pockets with pennies. She would then pass her plunder to an accomplice, usually one of the working girls who paraded the same strip.
Of all the times Dougan was searched by female officers at the lockup, only once was she found to be in possession of the items she had stolen. She knew that if her quarry were in a suitable state of intoxication it would work as a distinct advantage to her probability of success. Firstly, it rendered the men more vulnerable i.e. they were more likely to believe that an attractive stranger found them irresistible, more likely to follow the attractive stranger into a laneway and less likely to object to the attractive stranger’s unusually aggressive methods of caressing. Secondly, the intoxicated state of her target added additional insurance against conviction. An inebriated person was often regarded by the police and the judicial system as an unreliable witness. They were less likely to have an accurate recollection of the circumstances and less likely to positively identify the culprit. There was also the chance that they may have lost their valuables through any number of drunken acts of stupidity.
Born in South Australia in 1890, Margaret Dougan first came to prominence in the Melbourne crime scene around 1908. She was keeping company with the already notorious Mary Rous alias Corned Beef Maud. Corned Beef Maud would later become one of Melbourne’s best known brothel keepers and professional bail agents but in 1908 she was bilking with the best of them. What was bilking you may ask? Bilking was a term used in the early 1900’s for obtaining money from someone in a deceitful or dishonest way. It was usually used to describe the act of illegally obtaining money or valuables whilst feigning interest in future-coitus. Dougan could have had no better mentor for her apprenticeship in this trade than the wily Corned Beef Maud. Maud maintained a high-profile career on the wrong side of the law for over three decades without obtaining a gaol sentence. As for Dougan - her good looks, charm and classy demeanour were a gift for someone of her chosen profession. And to add to her armoury, she was smarter than most and confident to the point of arrogance. She knew the system and played it with ease.
In the earlier mentions of Margaret Dougan in police records she was referred to as a prostitute, and though this may have been the case at the beginning of her career, she would soon have discovered that better profits lay elsewhere. The going rate for the services of a street prostitute in the early 1900’s was a mere £1 for the whole night. So why did they do it? There was virtually no social welfare in the era and work for a female was often hard to come by. Even when employment in a boot factory or as a ‘typiste’ or in a department store was available, the wages for females were much lower than for their male counterparts. As far as jobs with a chance of career progression - they were rare for females indeed. Married women were expected to be dependent on their husbands for money and single females were expected to be dependent on their families. So what did a woman do to feed her children and put a roof over their heads if her husband disappeared to the gold fields of Western Australia or failed to honour a financial support agreement? Unfortunately there was only one answer for many, and that was to go out and battle on the dangerous streets of Melbourne. And ‘battle’ was the term used for this occupation during the era: by prostitutes, the press and even the police. For example, an anonymous letter to the police in 1915 stated:
“Dear Sir, I want to draw your attention to a Bludger named Cyril Ewart. He lives in Little Lonsdale St and his wife Lizzie Ewart, she battles at 105 La Trobe St. This man has not worked for 6 months. He lives off his wife’s prostitution and he can be seen every day and night taking his wife to where she battles at 105 La Trobe St.”(PROV VPRS807, R4493)
As suggested in the above letter, it was not always just the single mothers who went out to battle, often their husbands or partners would force or convince them to do so. I should mention that there were also sex workers in the era that liked their job and there were women with regular employment who worked in high class brothels for the extra money or the thrill or the champagne or the cocaine. But for the battlers on the street, each night presented danger and most nights included at least one distasteful experience.
When faced with battling on the streets for very little money, bilking would no doubt have seemed an attractive alternative. A woman who was skilful in the art of bilking could return home with £10 or £50 and not have to go through the ordeal of a night sleeping with a stranger who was possibly dangerous and likely repulsive. A lot of the street prostitutes would bilk when an opportunity arose. Taking the contents of a customer’s purse when they were snoring in drunken-post-coital-slumber was like accepting a tip when you were underpaid. Other battlers were rewarded by male criminals for decoying drunken men to the sly grog shops of Fitzroy where they would be fleeced and then ejected.
Though the pay could be good, there were inherent dangers in the game of bilking. Punishments for ‘theft from the person’ were generally much higher than those for prostitution. Prostitution was not illegal as such - but soliciting for prostitution was against the law. The punishment for soliciting for prostitution was usually only a fine. The particularly troublesome prostitutes, those who were known for public violence, noisome drunkenness or theft from the person, they were generally charged under the vagrancy act i.e. they were tasked with demonstrating to the court that they had legal means of support. Vagrancy convictions attracted lengthy sentences which usually meant a 6 to 12 month term. A ‘theft from the person’ conviction could get a known bilker anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. The other more immediate danger for someone like Dougan was that when caught in the act, she had to deal with the anger of a person who had been robbed - a mood which was often further enflamed by drunkenness and injured pride.
Margaret Dougan had a close call early in her career. In 1909, she and another bilker known as ‘Ginger Liz’ picked up a drunken commercial traveller by the name of Carl Heinrich and returned with him to his room in Melbourne’s grand Menzies Hotel. On entering the hotel room, Heinrich placed his purse, sovereign case and loose coins on the dining table before transferring to the bedroom to get changed into something more comfortable. He returned in his dressing gown to discover that his money was missing and that his female admirers were making for the door. Things turned ugly very quickly as the drunken, enraged Heinrich attempted to capture them both. Dougan managed to skip out of his way and if it hadn’t been for her screams of “Help! Police! Murder!” - then murder it may have been. A police constable raced into the room to find a crazy-eyed Heinrich on top of Ginger Liz with his hands around her throat and seemingly choking her to death. She was bleeding from the mouth and the head and there was blood on the stairs. Heinrich’s temper dissipated on the arrival of the police officer, who subsequently allowed the travelling salesman the dignity of getting dressed before being transferred to the watchhouse. Whilst this was taking place, the ever-alert Dougan took her opportunity to slip out of the building. She was arrested later when visiting the watchhouse where Ginger Liz had been detained. When the matter came before the court, Heinrich requested that the charges of theft be dropped and in return, the lawyers for Ginger Liz dropped her charges of assault.
It was around this time that Dougan started carrying a gun. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be that vulnerable ever again.
To read Part 2 of Margaret Dougan: ‘Rogue and Vagabond’ click here.
*(By commenting on the conditions of 100 years ago the author does not intend in any way to take away from the struggle which still exists for gender equality in the workplace today).
The photograph at the top of this article was reproduced with permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria.
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.