Sunday, April 25, 2010

Who Killed Betty Shanks?

Book Review

Who Killed Betty Shanks? by Ken Blanch

This is a very short (120pp) easy to read and interesting account of the murder of Betty Shanks. It is one of Brisbane's most famous un-solved crimes to date. This account was published in 2006 and written by Ken Blanch, one of the reporters from The Brisbane Telegraph at the time of the murder. The introduction is by Des Sturgess Q.C. - one of Betty Shanks' friends at University of Queensland. It is part of a True Crime series published by Jack Sims.

The book is interesting in a number of ways. It reflects the social mores of the time and Blanch says that the murder transformed the lifestyle of Brisbane forever..."in twenty-four hours...the city was changed from a place of unlocked doors and open windows, where women walked the night streets without a care to a place of shutters and bolts where they did not dare to venture out unescorted." And...."The effect of the crime on Brisbane social life was immediate. Within days of the murder, picture theatres were reporting massive declines audiences, city restaurants were complaining of dwindling dinner patronage, and taxi companies were experiencing a boom in business. Both new car distributors and used car yards reported a sales boom as young men invested in vehicles that would ensure the safe movement of their female companions at night, and the City Council and railway authorities noticed a sudden decline in night bus, tram and train patronage.' (page. 52)

This was an era when women wore gloves to work (even in the steamy heat of Brisbane) and when the trams were still running. It was an era when Lottery winners' names were published in the paper. This practice ceased shortly after the murder as this was one of the suspected motives behind the crime; Shanks having won a share of First Division earlier in the year.

The account is also interesting because it attempts to reveal as much as possible about the personal life of Betty Shanks. Whilst there was no evidence of rape, the body was left in such a manner as to indicate an attempt at sexual crime. Ms Shanks' virtue, as always seems to be the case in sexual crimes, was the subject of much debate. Her friends staunchly defended her honour, as did the pathologist.

There was also much rumour and innuendo regarding her membership of the Queensland Civil Liberties League and the University Radical Club. This was the Menzies era of fear of "reds under the bed" and the like.

The book concludes that heinous crimes such as this affect not only those close to the victims but also the rest of society in many ways.  One of Betty's friends included Barbara Blackman, first wife of famous Australian artist Charles Blackman.  Blanch says "The unsolved murder of said to have affected Ms Blackman deeply." (p. 104)  This in turn is alleged to have had "a profound influence on the life and fortunes of her former husband, who was in Melbourne at the time. "  His well-known Schoolgirl series of paintings/sketches was inspired by an unrelated murder over 30 years earlier in Melbourne - the rape and murder of a 12-year old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke in a lane in Melbourne's old Eastern markets.

Charles Blackman - Schoolgirl

The book cannot offer a solution to the crime. Many possibilities are posited e.g. Betty Shanks was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am forced to conclude that it was most likely a case of mistaken identity or sheer bad luck. I look forward to the release of the official police files of the case (one of the most extensive files in the CIB's collection) in 2017.

Blanch is to be commended for his multi-faceted account and also for the inclusion of detailed maps and murder trails of the crime scene, which may seem gruesome to some, but are invaluable to local historians and those interested in the history of Brisbane.

The book is available at the Brisbane City Council Library or if you would like to purchase others in the series click on this link


Kathy said...

Hello from Kurrajong. I came across your blog and am intrigued by your inclusion of "Who Killed Betty Shanks?" My sister and I have sketchy memories of our aunt and father alluding to a connection with our Mum to this awful murder. Apparently there was a concern that my mother had fallen prey to same peril when she disappeared with my baby half-sister (we were not born at this stage) in about 1952-1953.She was found then extradited back to Brisbane for contempt of court and the baby was given to her father for sole custody. My Mum was not even allowed to breastfeed her on her own! We believe now that it was a ruse to get the public involved in finding her however there is a bit more to the family mythology-My Mum always said that the baby's father was not her husband's.My Mum is now in a nursing home and is now 87. I think that I might do a little more research and see if I can clear up the mystery.

Luvvie said...

Hi Kathy

My husband's aunt wanted to read this book and after she had finished it, I got to read it before I returned it to the library. The case was very big in those days and impressed her enormously. Reading the book was amazing and I can't recommend it highly enough...I don't know why it got to me so it because I live in Brisbane? or is it just one of those unsolved mysteries that are always so intriguing....

Kathy said...

Hi again.I think that perhaps innately females need to solve. It is akin to having to find lost articles or whatever eg I can't rest until I have found the things that my husband can't find-his keys, wallet, glasses etc.
As casual teaching seems a little on the light side at the moment I am reading more than usual. Normally I prefer memoir style of writing and hate anything to do with horror or science fiction.
I too wonder if Betty was not the intended victim. I wonder if she went to Cloudland?

Luvvie said...

Cloudland was big in those days but I think she was too busy studying really. Do try and get hold of the book...I got it through my local library....if yours doesn't have it you might be able to get it through inter-library loan. I feel for police who have unsolved crimes like must be so frustrating for them ...and the families of course.

Kathy said...

I will get the book. I am finding that I am being drawn to get the facts right. Apart from my mother having been thought of temporarily as a second victim my yet to be father was a tram conductor at the time, although my Mum had not met her second husband (my father) at this stage. Curiouser and curioser.