Schippan grew up in the dark and isolated forests of Germany where his little brother was killed and eaten by a wolf. After his mother died his father became an alcoholic. As a young boy he arrived in South Australia, changing from a landscape of gloomy forests, bogs, snow, rain, howling wind and immense cold to a land of heat, dust, flies and droughts. After his marriage he fathered seven children and remained a poor struggling farmer.
After a hard day’s work, by parents and children, the only relaxation at night around the kitchen table was story telling. Those from Mathes forests back in Germany were often in great demand. One much enjoyed by the children was that of the Mittagsfrau, or Noon Lady, a malicious witch from Wendish-German folklore, who kidnapped children and then drowned them.
Few people at that time, even in South Australia, had heard of Towitta but that changed on 1 January 1902 when the newspapers all over Australia reported the gruesome murder of young Bertha Schippan who had been butchered in her bedroom. Not only the Adelaide newspapers but also those from Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and even Tasmania kept their readers for three months up to date with the latest developments of the case.
Based on the actual facts, The Noon Lady of Towitta relates the horrific event that changed the isolated township forever. Sumerling has used Mary Schippan, who was charged by Coroner Mulligan with the brutal murder of her sister, to tell the tale. Not only is there the ever present wind and red dust, there is also the romance with a bronzed handsome male, later reviled by everyone, flirting, illegal abortions, an exhumed body and blood everywhere. Even though Bertha's body, buried at Sedan, was twice exhumed and her head severed for closer inspection in Adelaide, no clues were found about the killer.
The case was investigated by some 30 policemen, detectives and an Aboriginal tracker but to no avail. Numerous journalists used horses, bicycles, homing pigeons and a car to get their reports to the telegraph stations at Truro or Angaston. When the case went to trial in Adelaide, German sympathisers volunteered funds to provide the best lawyers and Sir Josiah Symon K.C. to defend Mary.
Thousands of people assembled near the court on Victoria Square eager for information about what was going on inside. Due to her part in the investigation, and the imaginative rumours that abounded, Mary was soon referred to as The Noon Lady, despite her acquittal and the loving relationship she had shared with her sister. Mary was buried at Bower. Among others suspected of the horrible crime were her father who had previously been involved in shooting unwanted visitors, and Mary's ex-lover.
The Noon Lady of Towitta, entwines fact and folktale to delve into the secrets of a family haunted by its past and ruled by a devout but tyrannical father. In doing so Sumerling’s historical novel brings the Schippan family to life, describing a poor migrant family steeped in old Germanic customs, superstition and fear trying to make a living from farming. Her excellent description of the area, its land and climatic conditions as well as the life and times in Adelaide and surrounding country in 1902 would have impressed even Arthur Upfield. There is only one problem with the book, once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down until you have devoured the whole 171 page story.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Patricia Sumerling was awarded Historian of the Year in the South Australian History Awards, presented at Government House on Monday 29 July 2013.
The Noon Lady of Towitta by Patricia Sumerling is available at $24.95 from Wakefield Press
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