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History Lab Ep2: Lindy Chamberlain and the afterlife of evidence

ARCHIVE: A full scale search in the Ayers rock area today failed to find any trace of a nine week old baby girl believed to have been taken by a dingo or wild dog last night. She is Azaria Chamberlain

Tamson Pietsch: Why are we so fascinated by tragedy?

Elizabeth Guy: Yes we were on a caravan trip in 1981 and we stayed at Ayers rock in the same camping ground where all this happened. Close to the rock.

Tamson: Why do we always want to get to the bottom of what happened?

Elizabeth Guy: And that’s where I first became involved, talking to the locals there and everything. They were quite certain that Lindy Chamberlain was innocent.

Tamson: In 1980 the death of nine and a half week old baby captured Australia’s imagination and set off an epic legal battle. Her mother LIndy was tried for her murder.

ARCHIVE: The Chamberlain case was novel and unique both in the evidence it received and the publicity it generated.

Tamson: Welcome to History Lab –  where we explore the gaps between us and the past. I’m Tamson Pietsch –  your host and historian and today we’re looking at the afterlife of evidence.

What happens when evidence collected in a court case no longer proves there was a crime, but just a tragedy. And why do we preserve  things that has been touched by the law?

Elizabeth Guy: We could just well imagine it had happened, because cooking at the barbecue there these big dogs came around, if you turned your back I think they would have grabbed the meat. Well I thought how easily some dingo or dog could get into a tent.

Tamson:Elizabeth Guy was one of thousands of people who wrote Lindy Chamberlain intimate and personal letters.  We’ll be hearing from Lindy herself a little bit later. But first what inspired a nation to become pen pals with one of the most misunderstood women in modern Australia?

Olivia Rosenman: Do you remember the very first letter you wrote?

Elizabeth Guy: I probably wrote to her about having been at Ayers rock. In the same spot and everything. Stayed there. And how I how I knew that she was innocent.


Voice 1: Dear Lindy

Voice 2: Dear Mrs. Chamberlain

Voice 3: Hi Lindy

Voice 1: My mum said there was not enough enough to prove you were guilty

ARCHIVE: Described as the murder trial of the century.

ARCHIVE: The Crown will allege that Lindy Chamberlain had cut the throat of her baby daughter Azaria, while sitting in the front seat of their family..

Voice 4: What a story! What a piece of work!

Voice 5: The shock and disbelief at the jury’s decision…

Voice 6: The truth will be reveleaved

Voice 7: We could clearly see if was a dingo who took your beautiful daughter..

Voice 8: I’m sick of hearing about it, all the media hype about your case!

Voice 9:Yours sincerely

Voice 3:Have courage dear friend

Voice 10: I love you as only another mother in trouble could

Voice 3: Richard

Voice 4: Phoebe

Voice 11: Fred

Voice 12: Barbara

Voice 13: Sam

Voice 1: Margaret

Katherine Biber: These letters were all triggered by a legal event. Which is either the charging of the Chamberlains or the coronial process, or the trial, or the conviction of the Chamberlains. These letters record how ordinary people, nonlawyers, responded to a legal event.

Tamson: Katherine Biber – she’s a criminologist, historian and Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney. She’s dedicated over a decade of her life to understanding how we preserve the evidence used in criminal trials.

Katherine Biber: I suppose in my field which is in criminal procedure, criminal facts are often traumatic and dreadful and violent. The way that these materials are presented in legal judgments is usually quite arid and quite emotionless. And that is one of law’s aspirations, is to strip all the emotion out of law.

Tamson: In August 1980 Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s tent during a camping trip at Uluru then known as Ayers Rock. Her mother Lindy was tried for her murder.

ARCHIVE: Described as Australia’s trial of the century

Tamson: The prosecution devised an elaborate theory that Lindy had killed Azaria.

Katherine Biber: In order to believe that Lindy was guilty, you needed to believe that she briefly excused herself from a barbecue where she was preparing food for one of her children, took herself and the baby to the passenger seat of the car, cut the baby’s throat with nail scissors, hid the baby in a camera bag, and then returned to the barbecue. So just the weirdness of the proposition, that she must have done all of those things in killing her baby, is incredibly striking and doesn’t even tell a kind of coherent narrative that you could possibly believe about a woman who’s killed her baby. So I think just the strangeness of the Crown case tells us a lot about what people must have been willing to believe at that time.

ARCHIVE: The court has decided what happened to Azaria Chamberlain at Ayers rock in August 1980. But whether this puts an end to the rumours is another question.

ARCHIVE Is the story over yet or is there more to come?

I don’t think the story will be over for many years to come.

Tamson: It wasn’t until a fourth coronial inquest in 2012, 32 years after the death of Azaria, that that the Northern Territory Coroner determined that she had been killed by a dingo, as her parents had said all along.

Elizabeth Morris: What occurred on the 17th of August 1980 was that shortly after Mrs Chamberlain placed Azaria in the tent, a dingo or dingoes entered the tent, took Azaria and carried and dragged her from the immediate area. Mrs Chamberlain Creighton, MR Chamberlain, Aidan, and your extended families. Please accept my sincere sympathy on the death of your special and loved daughter and sister Azaria. I am so sorry for your loss.

Katherine Biber: The evidence left behind after the Chamberlain’s legal saga, that lasted decades, is complex. Some of it no longer exists, some of it’s not publicly accessible and a lot of it’s the personal property of the Chamberlain family.

Tamson: So let’s just step back for a minute –  how do things become evidence in the first place?

Katherine Biber: So the access to evidence, the use and interpretation of evidence, is governed by lots and lots of rules and procedures during the trial. A lot of material that we regard as evidence existed before the trial when it wasn’t evidence, it was just somebody’s personal possessions. So it’s only regarded as evidence for the narrow period during which the rules of evidence apply. But those rules and procedures don’t continue to operate after the conclusion of the criminal trial. But of course a lot of the evidentiary material continues to exist.

Tamson: But what happened to the clothes baby Azaria was wearing that night? What happens to a murder weapon in a criminal case? Where does this stuff end up?

Katherine Biber: So at the end of proceedings, the materials are distributed and then they continue, sometimes, to live their own life not governed by legal processes. And some of the lives that evidentiary materials live are very surprising sometimes a little bit creepy and weird and so I’ve been trying to investigate all the different ways that evidence continues to live after it’s not required for an evidentiary purpose anymore. And one of the best examples of the afterlife of evidence –  here in Australia – is the Chamberlain case

Tamson: And despite all the criminal evidence that was generated in the case – the strange reality is there was no crime.

Katherine Biber:  And so after we’ve all agreed that the Chamberlain case was a miscarriage of justice, this isn’t criminal evidence anymore, even though it continued to survive because it was criminal evidence. It was kept in a forensic institution until we all agreed that it wasn’t criminal evidence anymore but we need to preserve it to now preserve the memory of a miscarriage of justice.

Tamson: Most of the Chamberlain evidence has ended up in our public institutions; the National Library and the National Museum. But its collection and curation presents a lot of contradictions.

Sarah Streatfield:They came to us still with the tamper-proof seals intact.

Tamson: The jumpsuit that Azaria was wearing on the day she died is not on public display. This tiny, but monumental item of clothing is safely stowed away in the National Museum’s archive in Canberra. Lindy gave Katherine special permission to view it.

Sarah Streatfield: So this is the jumpsuit.  It is quite stained so I’ll just warn you.

Katherine Biber:  Yeah so I was very surprised that I wasn’t better prepared for the experience of seeing this clothing. And when I saw it I saw it in a museum repository in a very, kind of, sterile room. The items were all stored individually in plastic tubs. They had some kind of tissue paper or other kind of material surrounding them. The curator and the conservator were wearing latex gloves. Nothing was to be touched with the naked hands. There was this huge white sterile table that we looked at things on and they put these kind of shiny white pads on the table so that these garments didn’t have to touch a hard surface.

Sarah Streatfield:  It’s pretty confronting.  I think also the first time I saw it I didn’t have nieces and I didn’t really think about babies and now I see it and I see how small it is and I think oh, yeah, that’s pretty full on.

Katherine Biber: Well I’m having a little cry.

Sarah Streatfield: Yeah.

Katherine Biber:  So I  was struck firstly by all of the markings that represent the attack of a wild dingo, all of the markings of something that’s been dragged through desert sand and it’s filthy and dirty and gnawed. And all of the markings that show the forensic scientific processes that were conducted upon it. So you can see ruled lines and you can see razor cuts and all of those things are preserved. But then once they assumed their form and they started to look like for instance a jumpsuit I saw how small they were and it reminded me of how small Azaria was and it reminded me that these were her clothes. She’d once worn these clothes and she was this tiny baby and she kind of lived and died in these garments and that her death had triggered this massive, epic, misadventure for the Chamberlain family but that that whole misadventure was resting upon these kind of tiny filthy scraps of material. And so I was kind of overwhelmed that I’d forgotten that Azaria was this important person, and this important character, we kind of forget that she’s was a living breathing child and she’s imagined as this kind of never seen character in the national imagination but seeing her clothing reminded me of the importance of her as a person, as a child, as this loved baby of this family who’d gone on this holiday together. And so I was kind of overwhelmed by all these different realisations. That she was small, that she existed, that these were her clothes, these were the last clothes she ever wore. But they were so damaged and that also now they were so carefully cared for and that they will survive to remind us about this case.

Tamson: So why do we need to preserve these things and their memory?

Katherine Biber: Look all of this material was brought into existence or preserved because it was associated with coronial and criminal proceedings and this is often referred to as a criminal case. Certainly a lot of the popular books about it you might find in bookshops under true crime. And I think it’s really important that the survival of this material reminds us that this was in the end and that Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were victims of a miscarriage of justice.

So I think if we’re going to take on the responsibility of preserving all of these materials in the afterlife, we have to remember that this is the afterlife of the tragic death of a baby. But this is not the afterlife of a crime

Olivia Rosenman: Hello? Is that Lindy?

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: Hello?

Olivia Rosenman: There we go I just had to turn it off and turn it on again. That old trick

Tamson: That’s Olivia Rosenman our producer, on the phone to Lindy Chamberlain Creighton,

Olivia Rosenman: How did you decide to start keeping certain items?

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: Well I think after death it’s natural that you look at a person’s belongings and you know some of them mean more to you than others and you’ll immediately discard maybe some things, and others you just keep because they mean something to you.

That’s where you start and once it evolved into a court case you realise that all sorts of things that you didn’t initially realise to begin with are going to be important and needed for court. And so you begin to deliberately keeping things.

Tamson: And while a lot of those things were returned to Lindy, they were often irrevocably changed by the legal process.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: Things that you give them come back with holes in them. My shoes they cut down every seam that existed.There’s holes in your blanket and there’s cuts in your clothes.You know you can’t mend them after that.

Tamson: But Lindy wasn’t just keeping her own belongings.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton:  Everywhere in the house had been overtaken by court material and letters, letters, letters. There were boxes and tea chests in the garage and on the back verandah and it’s like you can’t move in this house.

Katherine Biber: So people wrote to the Chamberlains who identified themselves as other campers at the campsite who had not previously been interviewed but could potentially be available witnesses. People were writing with evidence about the capabilities of dingoes which was not otherwise well-known or presented and they were collecting this material in the hope that it might be useful evidentiary material.

Tamson: Lindy received tens of thousands of letters from ordinary Australians containing condolences, comfort and blame.

Katherine Biber: This is a large collection of letters and it’s one of the last large collections of Australian correspondence before the advent of email. So there probably won’t be another similar large personal collection correspondence again. So the scale of the collection of letters is important but the fact that it blends material that might have an evidentiary use with material that is not evidentiary and personal is connected by the fact that Lindy herself thought to keep all of these letters and at first she kept them because she didn’t have an alternative plan for dealing with them. But after a while there scale the scale of the collection itself was a reason to keep it.

Tamson: And now that collection lives in the archives of the National Library.

Katherine Biber: An evidentiary life might be followed by what I’m calling a kind of cultural life or a creative life where materials might survive or be revived or be destroyed or be recreated and re-understood. And I think that particularly in the last decade or so we’ve experienced what some creative practitioners would call the ‘archival turn’ where people are turning towards the archive. Not because they want to find old documents that contain transactions and facts from the olden days but because those materials can be reused and be understood in another way.

Alana Valentine: So the first actual experience was walking into this this treasure trove where they have, if you can believe it, 21 kilometres worth of manuscripts and papers.

Tamson: Alana Valentine is a playwright.

Alana Valentine: On the very first day the manuscripts librarian took me up to where Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s papers were and there were 199 boxes at that stage.

Lindy has since given more and there’s now 213. But she said “Here they are” and they are all in small filing cardboard boxes and it just stretched for, you know, a very long aisle. Again these waves of fear and dread swept over me because I just sort of thought how am I going to get through this?

Tamson: Alana wrote a play based on the letters people sent to Lindy.

Voice 1: Dear Lindy

Alana Valentine: I went in everyday for three months and just I’d read through a box

Voice 2: To Mrs Chamberlain

Voice 3: With many loving thoughts

Voice 4: I want to send my greetings and warm admiration.

Alana Valentine: I actually was incredibly excited as I started reading because I realised that I was just going to be privy to this extraordinary act of intimacy.

Voice 5: How can people be so self-seeking, so perverse, so incorrigibly dishonest as to not admit when they were wrong? I was wrong.

Alana Valentine: It was just so beautiful what people wrote to her. It was kind of astonishing for a playwright to see the kindness of human beings in this collection it was it was really humbling.

Voice 6: I still cry for you, but not as much. In bed, in the pantry or in the laundry. When I’m in the garden Is eem to be more joyful, Remember too that you can hold your head up high. Which is more than some people can do.

Olivia Rosenman: Can you tell me a bit about this one?

Elizabeth Guy: Yes, well this one was written especially for her:

Tamson: Remember this voice?

Elizabeth Guy: My name’s Elizabeth Guy and I’m 92.

Tamson: Elizabeth now lives on the NSW Coast in a retirement village . She started writing letters to Lindy after she visited the campsite where Azaria was taken from her tent.

Elizabeth Guy: I had to do something. So that was all that I thought I could do at the time was write her, to support her. You know, let her know I knew she was innocent.

Tamson: Alana Valentine, who poured through thousands of these letters saw many like Elizabeth’s.

Alana Valentine: They would talk about how they enter her story through their own story.

Elizabeth Guy: I did send one her of the poems that I had written actually, the poem I had written over it a tragedy in my own life.

Alana Valentine: Mothers would often, talk about near misses that they’d had with their own children. They would talk about experiences in their life…

Elizabeth Guy: Oh well my sister and her family were coming over to stay with us. Hadn’t seen them for two years and got everything, beds ready for them to stay in and everything. The minister came to tell me that he got a message they’d had an accident, car accident, and that’s the only time in my life I fainted because it was a terrible shock.

Alana Valentine: …in their religious life, in their life as parents, they would try to understand her perspective from where they were.  Prisoners were writing to her. There were a lot of Seventh Day Adventists of course. Some for, some against and it was really fascinating to me how this archive is not really just about the Chamberlain case. It’s actually this kind of snapshot of life in the 80s and how people were telling their story to Lindy to show her that they either understood her or condemned her.

I had one day come across these very nasty letters and Lindy said to me ‘oh yes they’re the comic relief’. And I said to her ‘What do you mean the comic relief?’ They’re abominable, you know various expletives but really nasty, vulgar. There was one that had, I don’t know what it was, some form of dried body fluid had been put onto it and there was a pornographic cut-out of a head and it really was very ugly. And she is calling them the comic relief. And she said to me ‘Look once you’ve read 10,000 people saying oh you’re a Christian martyr and you remind me of Christ and you remind me of Jobe and you remind me of all these biblical figures’, she said they all mean beautiful things but actually the ones that are unusual then do actually become this distraction.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: By the time you’ve read a few hundred of these in a row then you’re starting to feel depressed. You’re starting to feel like ‘oh my goodness what is my life like?’ And then you get one of these other letters and it puts it all back in perspective. It’s like ‘life is normal now’ and you can continue on.

Probably the one that, um, holds the essence of everything I suppose. Very early on I’d been getting, you know, our sympathies are with you and all sorts of cards and then I got one that simply said ‘My heart bleeds’. And that’s the one that stands out in my memory because it was so apt and it meant the person couldn’t put their thoughts into feelings and it was how I felt and it just said so much. And still does

Tamson:  After the death of her child Lindy has carefully kept every piece of mail sent to her.

Alana Valentine: Lindy knows not just every letter but she has annotated every letter

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: The initial process is sorting them, stapling the letters together

Alana Valentine: Every letter has its own individual manila folder

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: Drop them in a folder with a name on it

Alana Valentine: every manila folder has a little summary on a yellow post it note.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: So that when you’re looking for something, you only read the tag.

Alana Valentine:She has summarised them at the top on the right hand corner of the file.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: So that you do no more than read say anything from 10 to 30 words and you know everything in that whole letter.

Alana Valentine: There was a dingo letter which had ‘witness?’ When I say Dingo letter, a letter about people’s own experience of dingoes and she wondered whether that would be interesting to be used as part of the evidence.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton: At one stage I was getting about four hundred a week I I think it was.

Olivia Rosenman: Lindy I want to ask, were you ever overwhelmed by the volume of letters you received? Was there ever a day that you just felt like I just don’t want to read another letter?

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton:  Many a day! (laughs) Many many a day! It’s certainly true that the censors in prison they ended up giving the job to one lady and she’s like ‘oh my goodness Lindy if i read another one of them I am going to go mad!’

Katherine Biber: At one point Lindy said to me when I was talking to her about all of these materials and why she’d kept them. She said to me Look this is all we have that remains of Azaria. And of course from her perspective I understand that what she doesn’t have is her child. But on the other hand what she does have is this huge huge trove of materials. And I couldn’t imagine any other baby that had generated so much paperwork, so much correspondence so many material artefacts, so many stored records and objects and so I think Azaria must be one of the most archived babies ever. I can’t imagine another. Probably Jesus Christ I guess. But he lived longer than that.

Tamson: For Alana Valentine, Lindy’s archiving is a discipline in grief

Alana Valentine: This woman, who everyone said you know was a kind of indifferent mother, has taken 38 years to file every piece of paper that has her daughter’s name on it. In this extraordinary collection and treated it like the most beautiful scholarship to me that’s what that’s what I’m interested in not just what we record but but what that grieving process has been for her.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton:  In the background of your mind it doesn’t matter whether your child is 45 or died as a nine and a half week old. They hold the same level of thought. There is no differentiation.

Tamson: I’m your host and historian Tamson Pietsch and you’ve been listening to History Lab – the afterlife of evidence. If you want to find out more head to History

Next time on History Lab – we look at the history of love and the strange places it can be found.

Alecia Simmonds: One of them I opened up and all of these love letters fell out and I thought my god this is an incredible kind museum of love in a way, this is a secret history of love within this archive of law.

Tamson Pietsch: History Lab is an original series created by the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney and made by 2ser 107.3

This episode was produced by Olivia Rosenman.

Additional reporting by Ellen Leabeater and Ninah Kopel.

Collaborating Historian is Professor Katherine Biber.

Our Executive producer is Emma Lancaster.

Miles Martignoni is our supervising producer and he also did the sound design.

Marketing and communication by Andy Huang.

Special thanks of course goes to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and The National Library of Australia, The National Museum of Australia.

If you want more history for your ears, head to History


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