© Michael Shelford 2019
Mary Ann Smith, alias ‘The Woman In Black’, was born at sea in 1826. NSW prison authorities were not sure which year she arrived in their colony, nor which ship brought her to them.
She was, for long periods, a lone wolf pickpocket - but she also ran an all-female assault and robbery gang in Sydney in the early 1870’s.
Her prison record is the only one that I’ve noticed, where ‘Thief’ is listed as the prisoner’s trade or occupation.
In October 1870, Mary Ann Smith, along with accomplices - Mary Smith, (yes another one), and Wentworth Dixon, found herself undergoing trial for assault and robbery. A man named Thomas Beard testified that, on the previous Saturday night, he had met a woman on the street in downtown Sydney, and accompanied her to a house in nearby Cohen’s Court. His new friend had quickly absented herself, leaving him in the company of the aforementioned women: Mary Ann Smith, Mary Smith and Wentworth Dixon. Shortly afterwards, Mary Smith decided to break the uncomfortable silence by snatching Beard's hat and running upstairs with it. When Beard went upstairs, in pursuit of said hat, Mary attempted to steal some money from his side-pouch - but the money fell to the floor and he was able to secure it. It was then explained that if he wished to be reacquainted with his hat, he must shout them all drinks at the pub.
He went with Mary Ann Smith, Mary Smith and Wentworth Dixon to the Ship Inn, on Clarence St, where he shouted two rounds. He was rewarded, as promised, with the return of his hat – but then Mary snatched it again and ran off. He chased her all the way back to the house where they were soon joined by the others. The four of them were sitting together on the couch, engaged in amiable conversation, when suddenly one of them grabbed hold of his beard. The two others secured his arms and he was forced to the floor. After a violent struggle, he managed to free himself from their grasp. He raced to the front door but found it to be securely locked. He looked around in a panic for other avenues of escape and saw a closed window. Without hesitation he ran and dived through it, shattering the glass and cutting his arm.
He was in possession of his freedom, he still had his money - but I’m not sure what became of his hat.
After a lengthy court process, Mary Ann Smith, Mary Smith and Wentworth Dixon were found not guilty.
In the early 1870's, Mary Ann Smith's gang were also known to rob people on the street: often attacking them physically, before dragging them into a side alley and going through their clothing for valuables. This occurred mainly around the Clarence Street area of the Sydney CBD. They also went through the pockets of drunken men who were unwise enough to fall asleep in public places. The Ship Inn, on Clarence St in downtown Sydney, was Mary Anne’s local boozer, and she was known to ‘knuckle on’ at this establishment on a regular basis. In 1872, Police Inspector Rawlinson described her as “one of the cleverest thieves in the colony”.
Mary Ann Smith was referred to as “The Woman In Black” in newspaper articles, police records, and on her prison entries.
Photo courtesy of NSW State Archives
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.