Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Colemans & Dwyers: The Death of Mary Dwyer Coleman

This is the fourth post in a series about my Coleman and Dwyer ancestors.

Footscray Cemetery.  Mary Dwyer Coleman and her son Albert are buried in unmarked graves near this spot.

When you research family history, you come across some sad stories.   I’ve discovered ancestors who were killed in Indian massacres, accused of witchcraft, drowned in storms at sea and succumbed to now-preventable disease.  There is great tragedy in the past.  However, learning the fate of Mary Dwyer was particularly shocking and very difficult to process.  It was the first time in my research that I really paused to consider what this information would mean to others in my family.  Did I want to pick up the phone and tell my father what happened to his great-grandmother, the mother of the grandmother he adored?   Was it just too sad and awful?  Eventually, I did relay this story to my father, and then to the rest of our family, but it still makes me a little uncomfortable.  Did my Granny know about this?  Did her mother keep it a secret?  Would she have wanted us to know, or would she be upset by my discovery?  We can’t know the answers to these questions.  This story does, however, give me extra admiration for Kathleen Coleman, who rose above a calamitous childhood, immigrated to America and raised two lovely daughters.  Her survival is the reason I am here.

Our biggest glimpse into the lives of the Coleman family in Melbourne occurs in 1905.  On October 27, 1905, Mary Dwyer, aged 44, committed suicide in the home where she was living with her daughters.  Kathleen was not at home when Mary shot herself in her bedroom, but it appears that her younger sister, Maggie, arrived home not long afterward.  Mary’s body was discovered by the family that shared the house, the Browns, and they sent someone, either Maggie or one of the Brown women, to summon the police.

At the time of Mary’s suicide, the family was living at 3 Church Street in South Melbourne.  Mary, Kathleen (19) and Maggie (17) had been sharing a home with the Brown family, comprised of Mr. William Brown, his wife and his mother.  In the statements given to the police after the suicide, it is revealed that Andrew Coleman had gone to South Africa two years prior to Mary’s death and that the family had had virtually no communication from him.  I have found news articles in Melbourne that indicate he may have been a heavy drinker, arrested on more than one occasion for public intoxication.  The statements given by Kathleen, Maggie, Mr. Brown and Andrew Coleman’s step-brother Charles Nolan also reveal that Mary Dwyer had been seriously depressed for some time, had been seeking help for health issues at the local hospital, and had previously threatened suicide on at least one occasion.  She had also threatened to kill her children.  While the statements are full of misspellings, indecipherable words and confusing phrasing, they lay out clearly the events of the day and the circumstances leading up to the suicide.

Statement by Kathleen Coleman to the Coroner:

This Deponent: Kathleen Coleman
On her oath saith, I am residing at 3 Church St. South Melbourne

I have seen the body of deceased at the morgue and identify it as that of my mother Mary Coleman.   My father’s name is Andrew Coleman. 

She was 44 years of age and lived at South Melbourne.  I was not at home when my mother was found dead.  I know nothing about the shooting.  I last saw my mother alive last Friday morning at 8am.  My sister took her breakfast to her.  My mother was not in good health.  She had been attending the women’s hospital, she went about a fortnight ago.  She was very depressed and had threatened to take her life.  I always slept in the same room as her.  She did not sleep well.  She has been more depressed last week, and she said all pains(?) had left her since the previous Sunday(?).  I knew she had a revolver.  I have not seen the revolver (produced).  I saw a revolver last Wednesday (the 1?)  My mother took it from a chest of drawers that evening and told me that she bought it on the previous Wednesday.  I have no brothers.  My father is in South Africa.  I have a sister she is 17 years of age and is present.

I screamed when I saw the revolver and my sister came and saw it.  When I left the house last Friday there was a Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown at the house.  We had half the house.  I did not tell them.  I told them that I had found a revolver.  I believed that my mother would take her life.  She threatened to take our lives also.  I am 19 years of age.  She was always telling other people that she would take our lives.  I did not call Dr. (Rothwell?) or Dr. Hall.  I went with her to the Hospital.  My sister did not go to the hospital.  I have no idea where she got the revolver.  I know of no reason why she took her life except she was so miserable on account of her illness.  I did not think she would get another revolver, as she said she would not get another.

She was without want.  My father has been in South Africa 2 years last July.  I (?) that preyed upon her mind.  He only sent two letters and no money.  They did not part in anger.  He meant to better his condition.  By his letters he was not successful.  He(?) did not live happily with in my mother’s (habits?) were temperate. My father’s were not.  My mother had a bad head also a internal complaint.  She did not leave any letters referring to her death.  She was not a (determined? deformed?) woman.

Kathleen Coleman
Taken and sworn before me the 30th day of October 1905 at Melbourne

This letter indicates that the marriage of Andrew Coleman and Mary Dwyer had not necessarily been a happy one.  It alludes to Andrew’s drinking problem.  In two years away, he’d sent his family only two letters and no money, which could not have made them think fondly of him.

It also sounds as though, in addition to her mental condition, Mary Dwyer may have been experiencing physical pain that drove her to suicide. The words “illness” and “internal complaint” hint at a problem other than simply depression.

It's heartbreaking to think of my 19-year old great-grandmother experiencing this kind of family tragedy.  She must have been very strong to get through such a difficult situation.  

The next post will contain more statements to the coroner, and news about the fate of Andrew Coleman.


  1. Wow, what a heartbreaking story. You were justified in wondering about telling others in your family and courageous in resolving to do so. The statement made that "all pain had left her", to me, speaks to her resolve to commit suicide. From what I read in college during all of my psychology classes, people who finally make up their minds to kill themselves usually look at peace and appear happy prior to doing so. This may be the pain Mary was referring to: she had made up her mind and the pain was now gone. Just an observation from an outsider - I could be completely off base. Such a tragedy.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Piper! That is definitely a good way to look at this situation, and makes me feel a little better about Mary's fate. I wish I knew exactly what was wrong with her and whether it was mental, physical or both. None of the statements are clear about it, there are just vague phrases about pain. It's such a sad situation.