Dulcie Markham was the prettiest prostitute in the razor gang era of inner-city Sydney
The underworld called her the Black Widow and the newspapers dubbed her the Angel of Death but ‘Pretty’ Dulcie Markham said she was a just an ordinary girl.
Markham was the most attractive and expensive prostitute to work the streets of Sydney when the inner city was ruled by the ‘razor gangs’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
But her main claim to infamy was the number of her lovers – at least eight – who would meet violent deaths at the end of a gun barrel or the point of a blade.
Between 1930 and the 1950s Markham racked up almost 100 convictions for offences including prostitution, consorting, vagrancy, drunkenness, keeping a brothel and assaulting police and members of the public.
Unusually, her offending ranged outside her hometown of Sydney to the capital cities of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.
Markham’s company did not come cheap – she could charge up to £2 for her services when that was about half the average weekly wage for a man and a few shillings less than the weekly wage for a woman.
The underworld called her the Black Widow and the newspapers dubbed her the Angel of Death but ‘Pretty’ Dulcie Markham said she was a just an ordinary girl. Markham was the most expensive prostitute to work the mean streets of Sydney in the late 1920s and early 1930s
Dulcie Markham first became involved with gunman Guido Calletti, who was married to the infamous prostitute Nellie Cameron, about 1936. He was shot dead at Woolloomooloo in 1939
She sometimes worked under exotic names such as Tosca De Marca and went through the courts using the aliases Mary Williams, Dulcie Johnson and Mary Eugene.
The feared Sydney policeman Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell once told a judge Markham was ‘past redemption’ but still gave the eulogy at her funeral.
Australia’s first female detective, Lilian Armfield, tried to reform the young Markham despite once saying she was ‘completely incorrigible’.
In the late 1940s she was arrested wielding an axe in her underwear as she chased a client down a Melbourne street.
‘The bastard insulted me about the price,’ she told onlookers.
Author and academic Leigh Straw has now told this extraordinary story in a new book, ‘Angel Of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman’.
‘Dulcie started out as a teenage streetwalker around eastern Sydney before working in brothels and becoming involved in the underworld mainstays of drugs, gambling and sly grog,’ Straw writes.
Nellie Cameron was Dulcie Markham’s only competition for sex appeal among prostitutes working in Sydney in the 1920s and 1930s. Cameron was married to gunman Guido Calletti
‘Violence was a part of life in the Australian underworlds, but it was the intimate nature of the violence that captured media interest in Dulcie.
‘Gangsters found it easy to fall in love with her but harder to stay alive. Newspapers wrote that she “had a closer view of violent death than probably any other woman in Australia”.
‘At least a dozen of her lovers and husbands were stabbed and gunned down, and she also witnessed or even, police would allege, encouraged other murders.’
Markham’s stunning looks stood out in an era when Sydney’s gangland, including prostitution, was dominated by women such as sly grog queen Kate Leigh and brothel madam Tilly Devine.
She once said of herself: ‘I was pert, more than ordinarily pretty, and fellows took a lot of notice of me.’
Her only competition for raw sex appeal among prostitutes was Nellie Cameron but not even she was compared favourably with the Hollywood star Ginger Rogers.
Notorious madam Tilly Devine ran a string of prostitutes out of brothels in inner-city Sydney during the razor gang era. She employed Dulcie Markham, who was one of her best earners
Former detective Bill Harris described Markham as having had ‘a magnificent figure and she walked better than any model’.
‘I’d rate her 12 out of 10,’ Harris said. He rated Nellie Cameron ‘a seven or eight’ and Kate Leigh ‘minus two’.
Straw writes that Markham’s life ‘played out like a Hollywood movie and she was the star attraction’.
‘Her highly charged sexual image could just as easily have translated into a 1930s or 1940s film noir role.’
‘Had she taken a different course in life, and not run away from home and become a prostitute, perhaps she could have been an actress.
‘In her real-life story, Dulcie is a beautiful, captivating and complex character regularly featured in sensational crime stories and horrendous murders.
‘The story of her life is one of love and loss, vengeance and violence, and offers a warts-and-all insight into what it was like to live and work in Australia’s underworlds from the 1920s to the 1950s.’
Between 1930 and the 1950s Markham racked up almost 100 convictions for offences including prostitution, consorting, vagrancy, drunkenness, keeping a brothel and assault
Markham kept company with some of the most violent criminals in Sydney and the other east coast capital cities. She was often called a femme fatale.
‘She ensnared her lovers, many of them married men, and kept husbands and boyfriends at the same time, one or two at once in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne,’ Straw writes.
‘In newspaper stories and courtroom testimonies, she was the underworld beauty who led her lovers into dangerous and deadly situations.
Guido Calletti was one of Dulcie Markham’s underworld lovers to meet a violent death
‘They didn’t like sharing her with others, though they were perfectly fine with profiting from her sex work.
‘Jealousy over Dulcie was behind many of the underworld shootings in the 1930s and 1940s.’
Dulcie May Markham was born in Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney’s inner-city Surry Hills on February 27, 1914.
She ran away from home and became a prostitute at 15 and was soon working for the notorious Tilly Devine.
An early lover was standover man Cecil ‘Scotty’ McCormack who ran a fruit barrow in Darlinghurst with gunman Guido Calletti.
While McCormack was in prison Markham took up with small-time crook Alfred Dillon, who stabbed McCormack to death at Darlinghurst in 1931.
Markham reportedly wore a black wig for some time out of respect for McCormack and wept and waved at Dillon in court when he was sentenced to 13 years for manslaughter.
In 1936 she married another criminal, Frank Bowen, and while that union did not last the couple never divorced.
Kate Leigh was one of two female crime bosses in the razor gang era in Sydney. Leigh sold sly grog and cocaine while Tilly Devine dominated prostitution in East Sydney and Darlinghurst
About that time Markham first became involved with Calletti, who was married to the infamous prostitute Nellie Cameron and the pair continued an affair for years.
In 1937 Markham was working in Melbourne and had taken up with another gunman, Arthur ‘The Egg’ Taplin, as her pimp and lover. Taplin was shot dead in a bar the same year.
Calletti was shot dead at Woolloomooloo in 1939. Markham’s first husband Frank Bowen was shot dead at Kings Cross in 1940.
WHAT WERE THE RAZOR GANGS?
Violent gangs ruled the roaring Sydney underworld of the late 1920s and early 1930s waging war with weapons including cut-throat razors
Razors became the gangs’ weapon of choice after strict laws banning pistols were introduced in 1927
The razor gangs built criminal empires based on sly (illegal) grog, prostitution, cocaine, extortion and gambling
Two leading figures in the ‘razor wars’ were women: London-born Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine and Dubbo-born Kate Leigh
That year Markham took another trip to Melbourne, where a new boyfriend, John Charles Abrahams, was shot and killed outside his sister’s home. The main suspect, Frederick ‘Paddles’ Anderson was another of Markham’s lovers.
World War II drew Markham to Queensland where by 1943 she was taking advantage of the influx of American servicemen wanting her services.
In November 1944 Markham was back living in East Sydney when she shot a soldier at her home. Markham took the solider to hospital, claiming she had found him in the Domain, and was not charged.
Another presumed boyfriend, gangland heavy Donald ‘The Duck’ Day was shot dead in Sydney in January 1945.
By the end of World War II Markham was back in Melbourne and in September 1945 her then partner, criminal Leslie ‘Scotland Yard’ Walkerden, was shot dead.
Two years later Markham stood trial in Sydney for conspiring to murder Valma Hull, the wife of Day’s killer, Keith Kitchener Hull, but the charges were later dropped.
Returning to Melbourne, Markham was herself shot in the hip during a wild party at St Kilda in September 1951. Her then beau, Gavan Walsh, was shot and killed at the same cocaine-fuelled shindig. Markham failed to identify Walsh’s killers.
‘A prostitute by the time she was 15, and a gangster’s girlfriend at 17,’ writes Leigh Straw. ‘With her dyed blonde hair and deep blue eyes, young flapper Dulcie made her mark on Sydney’
While still recovering from that shooting Markham married Leonard ‘Redda’ Lewis in the room where Walsh had been murdered and the couple settled in Sydney.
Lewis was shot six times at his parents’ flat in Melbourne in April 1952, and again in June the following year. Unlike his marriage to Markham, he survived.
Despite the trail of destruction Markham left in her wake she always objected to being called an angel of death or black widow.
‘Because men who have loved me have died, I’ve been called these silly names,’ she complained in the 1940s.
Angel of Death by Leigh Straw is published by ABC Books and is now available for $32.99
‘I’ve even been sketched in one newspaper, feet apart, hair flying loose and holding a smoking gun.
‘But I’m no gun girl. I’ve never touched a gun in my life. It’s just unfortunate that those men have died.
‘Believe me, I’m just an ordinary girl. These things have been thrust upon me.’
Straw writes there was speculation that a curse followed Markham as she moved through the small world of Australian crime.
‘We could explain this away as Dulcie simply living and working in criminal circles that brought with them their fair share of violence.
‘What sets Dulcie apart, however, is that she was directly connected to a number of violent deaths and seemed to have become the pin-up girl for Australian crime.’
Markham moved to Bondi in the 1950s but did not really leave her past behind. In 1955 a male visitor, presumed to have been a client, threw her off the first floor of a block of flats.
Having suffered broken ribs, a punctured lung and other internal injuries, Markham refused to report the incident as a crime.
‘There’s nothing to it, dear,’ she told one reporter.
‘I simply rolled down a flight of stairs. I’m a very sick girl, but don’t worry about me, honey, I’ll come good.’
Markham never fully recovered from her injuries and became known locally as the ‘limping blonde’.
Her days as a successful prostitute were over and she appeared in court for the last time in 1957, charged with soliciting and having no lawful means of support.
Dulcie Markham is pictured here arriving at the Supreme Court of Victoria where she appeared as a witness to the fatal shooting of her lover Gavan Walsh. Markham had also been shot
The now no longer pretty Dulcie Markham told a magistrate she had sold ‘the last of her jewels and furs to survive’.
Markham finally found one last love with sailor Martin Rooney and married him in 1972. The couple lived quietly in a two-storey house in Moore Street, Bondi.
On April 20, 1976, the retired prostitute and gangster’s moll fell asleep while smoking in bed and died of asphyxiation. She was 62.
Her husband told reporters: ‘I loved the woman.’
‘She was a wonderful housewife and we both wanted to forget the past. She was Mrs Rooney, not “Pretty Dulcie Markham”, and that’s how she’ll be buried.’
Markham’s funeral was held at St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Bondi, where Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell delivered a glowing eulogy.
‘There will never be another like her,’ Farrell told mourners.
‘She ran with a hard bunch and she was a hard woman.’
Angel of Death by Leigh Straw is published by ABC Books and is now available for $32.99 at all good bookstores and online.
Markham spent her last years with husband Martin Rooney at 12 Moore Street, Bondi. On April 20, 1976, the retired prostitute fell asleep while smoking in bed and died of asphyxiation