The unknown soldier of the war against women

In late 2013, a wall collapsed on Swanston Street in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, tragically killing three innocent bystanders. If any journalists from the city’s tabloids (we can call The Age a tabloid now, right?) recalled the significance of the address, they did not say so. But seventy-five years ago, the site of this heartbreaking accident fascinated of the press for an altogether different reason. Above a shop front at 589 Swanston St – in the very same strip – was a small residence where Antonio and Linda Agostini lived. The latter is more widely recalled in Australian historical memory as the Pyjama Girl.

In 1934, the unidentified body of a murdered woman was discovered outside of the Victoria–New South Wales border town of Albury. Her yellow silk pyjamas became emblematic of the ten-year murder investigation known as the so-called Pyjama Girl Mystery, a case that captivated Australians and international audiences alike. Thousands visited the corpse as it lay on public display in a formalin bath with the authorities hoping someone would identify it.

The body was eventually identified by police as 28-year-old Linda Agostini, whose husband Antonio was charged with murder. But an investigation by Melbourne historian Richard Evans seriously undermines this conclusion. Aside from noting significant differences between the physical features of the victim and those of Agostini, in his 2004 book The Pyjama Girl Mystery: A True Story of Murder, Obsession and Lies he points out that that a further 125 women’s names were placed on a list of possible identities: women who remained ‘uneliminated and untraced’.

Evans’ book is a powerful, disturbing read. Undermining the clear linear narrative that has become the dominant story (the claim that Agostini was murdered by her husband), he introduces a parallel tale of police corruption and desperation in the face of mounting public pressure for a solution to the crime. Evans agrees that Antonio quite probably murdered Linda Agostini but presents strong evidence that the body discovered in the iconic yellow pyjamas was not hers. The conviction of her husband, he argues, was just a good old-fashioned case of ‘police corruption and a miscarriage of justice’.

When the NSW Commissioner of Police read out in a court a statement allegedly made by Antonio Agnostini in court, it was taken as his confession. The investigating officers involved were nearing the end of their careers and simply wanted closure. Antonio Agostini was placed on a boat and sent back to Italy. Case closed.

The history of the Pyjama Girl has been predominantly written by men, whom – until Evans – tended to support the Agostini version of events. There are currently at least five publications related to the Pyjama Girl case: The True Horrifying Crime of the Pyjama Girl and Other Bizarre Australian Crimes (Horowitz, 1962); The Pyjama Girl (Robert Coleman, 1978); The Pyjama Girl Case: A Tale of Sex, Crime and Intrigue (Hugh Geddes, 1978), and Murder Research Publications’ The Pyjama Girl Mystery: Research Report File No. 1 (1988).

In terms of cross-media impact, the story still clearly has legs. Geddes’ book, re-released in 2005 by Five Mile Press with beautiful pulp-inspired cover art, was a novelisation of Flavio Mogherini’s giallo film La ragazza dal pigiama giallo from 1977. This film – whose tragedy unfolds more around the bloated, bewildered performance of the once-great Ray Milland than through any factual relationship to the case itself – was included in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s giallo program in 2013.

Agostini’s name may be still linked to the murder but what do we now remember about the other missing women whose names were raised during the initial investigation – women such as Beryl Cashmere, Anne Philomena Morgan and Jean Morris? Who were those other 125 ‘uneliminated and untraced’ women?

In recent years, especially, a number of women have found inspiration in the Pyjama Girl story, with their own explorations of the relationships between men, women and violence. I am thinking particularly of Emma Gibson’s 2013 play The Pyjama Girl, and the Adelaide performance group Ladykillers production Pyjama Girl in 2009.

I grew up with the Pyjama Girl story. My mother was a crime fiction addict, and I inherited, along with a pathological mistrust of geese and an inability to make a decent sponge cake, her obsession with the Pyjama Girl. Evans beautifully describes the case’s legacy: ‘like Ned Kelly, the Pyjama Girl story has floated free from reality. It has become an Australian myth.’

In one way, this is achingly tragic but in another I like to think there is something transcendent, something angelic, ethereal and heavenly about the image of her memory existing somewhere else than the ditch in which her beaten body was found.

A Wikipedia search for ‘pyjama girl’ still defaults to Linda Agostini’s page, which is perhaps correct: it is under her name that the body in grave L8341 at the Preston Cemetery is buried.

The description Evans provides of the funeral on 13 July 1944 – seventy years ago this year – is devastating. As Agostini had no near relatives, four journalists acted as pallbearers. A small article on page 3 of the Argus that day stated simply: ‘it was expected in official circles that friends of Mrs Agostini would claim right to bury the body, but as no application had been made to the Crown Law Department the decision for burial was made.’ Evans notes that about fifty people turned up to the funeral. Citing the Age, he describes the scene:

As the burial service was read, one woman wept and another knitted. One woman peered into the grave, with a small dog clutched in her arms.

Reverend C Woodhouse of Fitzroy’s St Marks Church conducted the ceremony. Evans says that he condemned the ‘morbid curiosity’ of those who turned up, horrified that some felt it appropriate to bring their small children.

I cannot speak for the curiosity – morbid or otherwise – of those who attended the Pyjama Girl’s funeral. But I know that my own relationship to this story speaks of a different kind of intensity, one that does not align with the ghoulishness identified by the good Reverend. Whether it is Linda Agostini who is buried in Preston or not is ultimately beside the point: whoever she is, for me, she is the Unknown Soldier of the Australian gendered-violence wars.

Many times, as a teenager and young woman, I thought often of approaching my mother and asking her to visit the Pyjama Girl’s grave with me but I never did. Perhaps I was concerned that such a request would be perceived as precisely this type of ‘morbid curiosity’ or maybe I was simply distracted by the everyday experiences that youth bestows on us.

Now that I am a mother myself, however, it is a pilgrimage I will one day make.

And – apologies to your memory, Reverend – I shall bring my young son with me.

It is difficult to identify a single moment that impacted me the most at the march in Brunswick in September 2012 when Melbourne united on Sydney Road, Brunswick, in memory of Jill Meagher but I do recall how moved I was seeing so many children there. The Meagher case and the Pyjama Girl case are, of course, substantially different for a multitude of reasons but when I am thinking about both I am haunted by a single, simple fact: they could have been anyone. If a tram ride to Preston is what it takes for me to begin teaching my son that violence against women is unacceptable, then I’m happy to take accusations of morbidity in my stride.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

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