Australia Today: The 'Pyjama Girl' Murder Case

Australia Today: The 'Pyjama Girl' Murder Case
Enterprise Film Co.
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This 1930s newsreel recounts the coronial inquest into the Pyjama Girl mystery, one of the most baffling unsolved murder cases in Australian criminal history.

It reconstructs courtroom scenes and the witness account of Detective MacCrae, who calls for the body to be preserved in the ‘interests of justice’.

The clip also shows footage of pieces of fabric from the pyjamas the woman was wearing when she was found.

Her preserved body is taken to the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University and, despite displaying her corpse to thousands of curious people, her identity remains unknown. Summary by Poppy De Souza.

In Depression-era Australia, silk pyjamas – especially those with exotic embroidery – were a luxury. According to the ABC’s Rewind program, which ran a story on the ‘Pyjama Girl’ mystery in 2004, in the 1930s pyjamas were seen as exotic, ‘the sort of thing worn by young flappers’. According to the program, the moral guardians of the day held up the Pyjama Girl as an example, a warning of what happens to young women who go astray.

Richard Evans in his book The Pyjama girl mystery: a true story of murder, obsession and lies, however, points out that the pyjamas shown in Kathner’s film were not the genuine pyjamas but a replica, despite the voice-over saying that they were the ‘actual pyjamas’ that the victim wore.

Australia Today – The ‘Pyjama Girl’ Murder Case Synopsis

This Australia Today newsreel, produced in the 1930s by Rupert Kathner, investigates the famous ‘Pyjama Girl’ murder case.

On 1 September 1934, the body of an unidentified woman was found on the side of a road outside of Albury, NSW, dressed only in silk pyjamas. Because of the brutality of the crime, the young age of the victim, and the unusual clothing she was wearing when found, her case captured the imagination of the Australian public.

The newsreel uses reconstruction, re-enactment and voice-over narration to sensationally dramatise the events surrounding the Pyjama Girl’s disappearance.

Australia Today – The ‘Pyjama Girl’ Murder Case Curator's Notes

Between 1934 and 1944, the Pyjama Girl mystery was considered one of the most baffling unsolved murder cases in Australian criminal history. This Australia Today newsreel special reconstructs the events surrounding the 1938 Coronial Inquest into the Pyjama Girl’s murder, and the emergence of fresh evidence found a year later.

The newsreel makes use of re-enactments, reconstruction and voice-over narration and puts it together as a crime thriller. At the time, it was unusual for newsreels to use this format, although reconstructed true crime is now the staple of contemporary television programs like Australia’s Most Wanted and most commercial current affairs. The blurring of fact and fiction within the narrative makes it difficult to sort out myth from reality. According to Richard Evans, who wrote a book about the Pyjama Girl mystery in 2004, Kathner’s film did much to enshrine the case into urban folklore.

Australia Today was set up in the late 1930s by Kathner as an alternative news source to established newsreels Cinesound and Movietone. In various issues it addressed crime, poverty and contemporary social problems in Depression-era Australia. The Pyjama Girl newsreel originally screened in August 1939 at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. It was screened again briefly in 1944 at the time of the inquest into the murder of Linda Agostini (finally identified as the Pyjama Girl) until the Coroner ordered it to be pulled (Evans, 2004).

Rupert Kathner made several films for his Australia Today newsreel with his filmmaking partner, Alma Brooks, through their production company Enterprise Film Co, including the feature films Wings of Destiny (1940) and The Glenrowan Affair (1951).

Notes by Poppy De Souza

Education Notes

This clip shows an extract from a 1939 black-and-white newsreel report about a case dubbed the 'Pyjama Girl murder’, the murder of an unknown woman whose battered and partially burnt body was found in a culvert in Albury, New South Wales on 1 September 1934. The report reconstructs aspects of the murder investigation, showing re-created scenes of the 1938 coronial inquest, police detectives combing the crime scene, a man examining a fragment of the pyjamas worn by the murdered woman, the post-mortem, and people filing past the preserved body of the victim in the hope of identifying her. The clip includes dramatic narration as well as music by German composer Richard Wagner.

Educational value points

  • The Pyjama Girl Murder Case newsreel, produced in 1939 after the coronial inquest, is considered to be Australia’s first true crime film. Filmmakers Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks defied a ban by the New South Wales Police Commissioner, William MacKay, on newsreel coverage of the case and even tried to break into Sydney University to film the body. The use of adverbs such as 'stealthily’ and emotive phrases such as 'fiend in human form’, as well as the re-creations of various episodes of the case, indicate the ways in which the filmmakers sought to sensationalise the case.
  • The Pyjama Girl Murder Case was the first edition of a newsreel called Australia Today. Unlike the two main newsreels in Australia, Cinesound and Movietone, which had policies of avoiding controversial topics, Australia Today covered social issues such as inner-city slum housing, poverty, unemployment and alcoholism. The newsreel was a major source of news prior to the advent of television in 1956 and was usually shown in cinemas before the feature film, though some cinemas ran newsreels continuously.
  • The 'Pyjama Girl murder’, one of the most baffling cases in Australian criminal law, involved an extensive police investigation and began after the battered and partially burnt body of a woman dressed in yellow silk pyjamas was found in an open drain in Albury on 1 September 1934. The victim’s head was wrapped in a bloody towel and her body was pushed headfirst into a hessian bag. The body had then been set alight. A post-mortem revealed that she had been shot below the right eye, but the cause of death was probably eight blows to her face.
  • The 1938 coronial inquest into the case failed to establish the identity of the 'Pyjama Girl’. Her body was preserved in formalin in a zinc-lined bath at the Anatomy Department of Sydney University and shown to hundreds of people in the hope that someone would be able to identify her. Artists’ sketches and a forensic facial reconstruction were produced to represent what the victim may have looked like in life.
  • The NSW Police made use of forensic science to finally identify the 'Pyjama Girl’. Forensic science, which involves the collection, preservation and analysis of crime scene evidence, was still in its infancy and though fingerprinting was available to police, DNA testing was not in use until the 1980s. The 'Pyjama Girl’ was ultimately identified as Linda Agostini through the use of forensic odontology (the study of teeth and gums).
  • In 1944 dental records established that the 'Pyjama Girl’ was Linda Agostini, a missing person who had earlier been ruled out as the victim. Errors made by a local dentist with no previous experience in forensic odontology meant that it was only when the teeth were re-examined in 1944 that a match was made with Agostini’s dental records. However, historian Richard Evans has suggested in his book The Pyjama Girl Mystery (2004) that the new records were fabricated by corrupt police in order to 'solve’ the crime.
  • After Linda Agostini was identified as the 'Pyjama Girl’ in 1944, her husband Antonio Agostini confessed to NSW Police Commissioner William MacKay that he had accidentally shot Linda during an argument. However, he maintained that the 'Pyjama Girl’ was not Linda. Richard Evans also argues that while Agostini killed his wife, she was not the 'Pyjama Girl’. He suggests that MacKay, who was under intense pressure to solve the crime, persuaded Agostini to confess in exchange for the lesser plea of manslaughter rather than face a murder charge, which still attracted the death penalty. He served 3 years 9 months and was then deported to Italy.
  • Filmmaker Rupert Kathner and his partner Alma Brooks produced Australia Today to finance their feature film ventures. Kathner and Brooks, who were the subject of Alec Morgan’s film Hunt Angels (2006), were mavericks who often used elaborate scams to make films. In a period when Hollywood films dominated Australian cinemas and distributors were not interested in local product, the couple were committed to making Australian films. Between 1934 and 1951 they produced 14 newsreels and 5 feature films, including The Glenrowan Affair (1951).

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia