When Australia lost its innocence

BY AMY BUTTERFIELD

Warning: Some of the content and descriptions in this article are graphic and violent in nature and may be upsetting to some people.

Amy Butterfield takes a closer look at several of the cases featured in our Australian True Crime Mysteries curated collection.

The 1960s is often thought to be a period when Australians enjoyed a simple and carefree way of life. But, with a wave of heinous crimes that captured public attention, the 1960s has became known as the decade when Australia 'lost its innocence'.

With television networks expanding at a rapid rate around the country, and national news becoming more accessible and delivered much faster, sadly 'the Beaumont kids', 'Wanda Beach murders', 'Graeme Thorne' and Perth's 'Night Caller' became familiar phrases and household names in Australia.

Two tragic crimes, one year apart

On 11 January 1965, two 15-year-old girls, Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, were sexually assaulted then murdered at Wanda Beach, near Cronulla in Sydney. They were discovered the next day, their bodies partially buried in the sand dunes. One year later, on 26 January 1966, the three Beaumont siblings – Jane (9), Arnna (7) and Grant (4) – disappeared from Glenelg Beach in Adelaide. Both cases captured the attention of the nation, which became consumed by the search for their assailants. Both cases remain unsolved to this day.

Initially, police encouraged interest in both cases, using media appearances to call for information from the public. Detective Inspector Haynes, who led the initial investigation into the Wanda Beach murders, issued such an appeal in this interview with Ian Ross on National Network News in January 1965:

Public interest in these cases was often so intense that it became the news. In February 1966, Nine News reported on the overwhelming turnout of volunteers to assist police in combing the beach for clues to help find the Beaumont kids.

Crime reporting evolves

In 1980, the Wanda Beach murders were again the subject of media interest when reporter Harry Potter filed this report for Ten Eyewitness News:

Potter’s broadcast presented no new evidence. But his style of delivery was indicative of recent developments in news broadcasting, particularly in crime reporting. Compared to Ian Ross, Potter frequently uses subjective, even sensational language. Schmidt and Sharrock are described as ‘pretty and popular’, the Wanda Beach sand dunes as a ‘playground for deviance’. The report also began with a warning to young women ‘to be on their guard’.

The trend towards sensationalism also affected media coverage of the Beaumont children's disappearance. Every lead, however tangential, was reported as a discovery which could solve the case. In 1990, Seven News reported that police were following leads from a clairvoyant and in 2013, Nine's A Current Affair interviewed the author of a new book that claimed to know who was responsible for the crime. Despite the sensational headlines, the case remains unsolved.

The combination of reportage, entertainment and editorial has become a distinguishing feature of true crime. The proliferation of true crime podcasts – such as Casefile, True Blue Crime, True Crime Down Under and All Aussie Mystery Hour, all of which have covered both cases – attests to the considerable popularity of the genre.

'Innocence lost' or media construct?

However, the Wanda Beach and Beaumont cases, like several other equally notorious crimes committed during the 1960s – such as the Graham Thorne kidnapping and murders committed by serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke – are cited as the moment when Australia ‘lost its innocence’. It is a phrase repeated so often that it is assumed to be fact, as was evident in the Channel Seven documentary special 55 Years of TV News: The 10 Biggest SA Stories (2014):

Unfortunately, Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt were not the first, nor the last, young women to be sexually assaulted and murdered. Theirs was not the first cold case, nor even the first to generate such intense media interest. The Wanda Beach murders were not indicative of an increase in homicide rates, which had declined since the 1930s and would only slightly increase in the 1970s, before falling again.

In the Beaumont case, whether or not it affected how parents supervised their children, or popularised the concept of ‘stranger danger’, is a subject worthy of examination. At present though, such research has not been undertaken in Australia. What is true is that Adelaide is no more dangerous or crime-ridden than any other Australian city, despite its reputation as ‘the city of corpses’.

If Australians ever thought of themselves as innocent, it was a perception that was consciously constructed and repeatedly challenged. In the postwar period, the image of Australia as a safe and prosperous nation was officially sanctioned and promoted all over the world, as evident in the documentary series Life in Australia, produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit.

But the violent deaths of two teenagers and the disappearance of three young children at the beach were a reminder that Australia wasn’t always a place of safety. Sadly, it is a fact that crime reporting reminds Australians of again and again.

If you have information about any of the cases mentioned in this article, please call Crime Stoppers Australia.

See reporting of more cases in our Australian True Crime Mysteries curated collection.