Bigamy common in days gone by

Ethel Harris & Alfred Wilson Smart, The Sunday Tines, March 12, 1911

THIS week from the archives at the Vincent Local History Centre: A look back at bigamy, a now-rare crime that was once a commonly reported malfeasance in the newspapers of olde.

A PERTH man was recently charged with bigamy, which is the act of going through a marriage ceremony despite being already married.  

Bigamy is a crime in Australia and carries a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment. 

While bigamy cases are rare today, old newspapers before no-fault divorce was introduced in the 1970s were filled with stories of men and women charged with or accused of bigamy.

In 1911, one of the most scandalous bigamy cases in Western Australia took place in Cowle Street, West Perth.  

At the centre of the case was Alexander Alfred Smart.  

Smart, who went by several aliases including Alfred Wilson, worked as a carrier or carter at the Hoskins and Co. foundry on Murray Street, Perth. 

He came to Perth from Victoria in the late 1890s, like many ‘othersiders’ lured by the prospect of gold.  

He left behind a wife and five children, who he sent money to and occasionally visited in Eltham, Victoria.  

In 1910, he was living with Ethel Harris in Cowle Street where they were known to locals as Mr and Mrs Wilson.  

Harris was born in Ballarat and moved to Boulder in Western Australia with her family in the early 1900s. 

Around the age of 20, she met Smart in Perth who wrote to her father asking for Ethel’s hand in marriage.  

While there was no official record of a marriage having taken place, the couple lived as husband and wife. 

Harris was described by her West Perth neighbours as a ‘quiet, respectable woman who kept to herself’.

Unbeknown to Harris, Smart was also dating a young woman named Mary Pemberthy, who he promised to marry when she turned 21.  

Pemberthy married Alfred William Smyth (an alias for Smart) at St John’s Church in West Perth on 15 March 1910.  

The Cowle Street neighbours later testified that they last saw Harris right before the wedding in March 1910. 

After their wedding, Smart and Pemberthy lived together in the cottage in Cowle Street where he had formerly resided with Harris.  

Smart told his neighbours that Harris had moved to the eastern states.     

Months later, the suspicious neighbours together with Harris’ family in Boulder raised their concerns about her disappearance with the police. 

Smart was questioned and subsequently charged with bigamy for his marriage to Pemberthy. 

He was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour in Fremantle Gaol.  

While imprisoned, police began a more intensive search for Harris’ body assisted by several local Aboriginal trackers. 

They eventually located skeletal remains of a woman resembling Harris who had been bludgeoned to death at the foundry where Smart worked and buried under the forge.  

Smart was charged with murder but pleaded his innocence. 

His trial in March 1911 attracted large crowds scandalised by the bigamy-murder plot and by his calm, unruffled demeanour in the witness box. 

Smart was found guilty and executed at Fremantle Prison on 7 March 1911.

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