Spotlight on woman's tragic life
Karen Collins has shared the story of her great-grandmother, Minnie Eason, following a decade-long investigation, uncovering the historical brutality of the treatment of women and women’s health, finally giving Minnie a voice after many years of silence, cruelty, and violence.
Karen first learnt of Minnie Eason’s profoundly sad and disturbing mental health records in 2011, setting on a journey to uncover the truth and emphasise the wrongs of the past, giving acknowledgement to her great-grandmother’s untold suffering and powerlessness after her husband discarded her into the chilling world of mental institutions.
Minnie was eventually laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Rosedale Cemetery after 11 long years of institutionalised incarceration. A life seemingly erased from existence.
In July 2022, after 11 years on a dark and challenging journey, Karen published her book, Into the Darkness: The Story of Minnie and William Eason, giving Minnie Eason the voice she so deserves.
“I felt a responsibility to reveal the intolerable suffering she must have endured as a result of the death of her child and an unhappy marriage,” Karen said.
“And significantly being an involuntary patient of three asylums for 11 years, in degrading, overcrowded conditions, vulnerable to violence and cruelty.”
Born on June 30, 1882, Minnie Eleanor Watts was the 13th of 14 children to parents Eliza and William Alfred Watts, growing up on a farm, ‘Oakvale’, roughly four kilometres south of Rosedale.
Minnie was baptised at St Rose of Lima, Catholic Church, Rosedale, on September 24, 1882, a place she would spend many a time over the years, attending mass, playing the organ for services, where she would marry and baptise her two eldest children.
The Watts children attended Rosedale State School, where Minnie received an academic award for third prize in her Grade 3 examination results.
In the final months of 1893, Minnie competed in the combined Willung Gormandale Hiamdale State Schools Sports Picnic hosted at Gormandale, where she placed second in a girl’s running race, receiving a skipping rope for her achievement.
Minnie Watts recited the poem, ‘What Dolly has and what Dolly has not’ by John Shaw Nielson at the evening concert at the Gormandale Mechanics’ Institute Hall following the State Schools Sports Picnic.
Her love of music and performance remained into adulthood, which would later lead her to play the organ at the Rosedale Catholic Church services and train children in singing for school concerts after she married.
While Minnie excelled in school and showcased physical, musical and performative talents, her childhood was not easy.
The youngest of the Watts children, Arthur Henry Watts, was born with down syndrome three years after Minnie on October 12, 1885. Arthur grew up on the farm with limited vocabulary and was permanently admitted to Kew Asylum in 1910, at the age of 25.
It is assumed Minnie, being the closest in age to Arthur, most likely was charged with her younger brother’s care during her childhood.
Four years after Arthur was born, when Minnie was just five-years-old, her father William Watts died in Sale on January 27, 1888, aged 57, from stones in the bladder, an ailment he suffered for many years.
Just two years after her father’s death, the fourth eldest Watts child, Ellen Watts, died suddenly on January 16, 1890, from severe hepatitis.
In August 1899, when Minnie was 17, 22-year-old William Lewis Eason arrived in Rosedale and was appointed the headteacher of the small rural schools, Holey Plain and Coolungoolum.
William Eason was active in the community and competed in Rosedale’s local football, cricket, golf, and Easter athletic competitions, captaining the Rosedale football team in 1901.
During this time, he began courting Minnie Watts, marrying the young woman on December 23, 1902.
The wedding of William and Minnie Eason was awarded an entire column on page three of the Rosedale Courier, providing a comprehensive account of the event. On November 23 1905, Minnie and William welcomed their first child, Karen’s grandfather, Arnold Lewis Eason.
Three years later, on February 22, 1908, William and Minnie’s second child, Elma Moira, was born in Rosedale, and on April 10, 1911, their third child, Norma Alvina, was born at a private hospital in Traralgon.
Life for Minnie Eason took a terrible turn following a horrific accident on October 10, 1912, in which her 17-month-old child, Norma Alvina Eason, burnt to death in their Welshpool schoolhouse.
Karen describes the death of Norma Eason as a defining moment for Minnie, causing the unravelling of the Eason family and marking the beginning of a grieving mother’s torment.
At the time of Norma Eason’s death, there was a great divide between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. During her investigations into the profoundly sad events which shaped the life of Minnie Eason, Karen uncovered an added layer of guilt and distress for the bereaved mother following the death of her baby.
“Arnold (Eason, Minnie’s first child) told my father that a priest cruelly blamed Minnie for Norma’s death because she had married a Protestant,” Karen wrote.
“It is understandable and possible that the burden of Minnie feeling responsible for the death of Norma, not only through her temporary absence of supervision at the time but also for disobeying the Catholic Church, would have seriously affected her mental health.
“MINNIE COULD WELL HAVE BELIEVED THAT SHE WAS PAYING FOR HER SINS, FIRSTLY BY HER ELDEST CHILD BEING SERIOUSLY BURNED YET SAVED IN A PRIOR ACCIDENT, AND SECONDLY BY HER TODDLER BEING HORRIFICALLY BURNT TO DEATH.”
One month after the death of her daughter Norma, Minnie’s mother, Eliza Watts, unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage in Rosedale, aged 73.
According to the Victorian Mental Hospitals’ Record, Minnie Eason had her first ‘attack’ at 31-years-old, sometime between eight and 20 months after Norma’s death, but symptoms and the duration were not recorded.
After Norma’s death, confirmation of Minnie’s mental health struggles was revealed in her younger brother, Arthur Watts’ mental health records from the Kew Hospital for the Insane. The Eason family moved to Koo Wee Rup in 1914 when William was appointed headteacher of the local school.
Minnie and William’s youngest child, Gwenda Eason, was born at a hospital in Warragul on March 3, 1916. After the birth of Gwen, William continued to volunteer for leadership positions on public committees, leaving his wife Minnie to cope alone with the children and household chores while still grieving over the loss of little Norma.
Minnie Eason’s Patient Clinical Notes, dated August 17, 1917, reveals that she suffered a second ‘attack’ from April to August 1917.
While the symptoms of this ‘attack’ are unknown, the patient records state that Minnie was diagnosed with Dementia Praecox, a term previously used to describe a psychotic disorder in which patients experienced symptoms such as insomnia and malnutrition.
In the months leading up to this ‘attack’, William volunteered for three more committees in the community, played tennis and was First Master of the Lang Lang Masonic Lodge.
Karen Collins continues to reveal the unrelenting challenges in Minnie Eason’s life, writing, ‘during the four months, Minnie suffered from this second ‘attack’, her brother, 31-year-old Arthur, died of pneumonia on July 22, 1917, in the Kew Hospital for the Insane’.
A person was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in one of three ways in 1917: voluntarily, ordered by a court, or privately requested by a relative or friend.
William Eason made a private request to have his 35-year-old wife, Minnie, committed to the Royal Park Receiving House in Parkville, based on his statement that Minnie kept accusing him of infidelity and that she was violent.
Doctors Sewell and Spiers supported William’s request, stating in their committal certificates, ‘the patient is suspicious and erratic in her behaviour’, ‘refuses reasonable attempts at treatment’, ‘says her husband goes as he pleases’ and ‘suspects her husband has intercourse with other women.’
Minnie was committed as a result of her alleged behaviour being attributed to ‘jealousy’ and ‘baby burnt to death.'
Karen’s research established that William had long absences from home with voluntary work, club memberships and sports, giving credibility to Minnie’s statement she believed her husband went wherever he pleased.
Minnie Eason was committed to the Royal Park Receiving House in Parkville at 2pm on August 17, 1917. On October 19, 1917, two months after being detained at the Receiving House, Minnie was declared insane by the Medical Superintendent, Dr Clarence Godfrey, and was transferred to the nearby Royal Park Hospital for the Insane.
“During Minnie’s 11 years of incarceration, her life had tragically become one of abandonment, insignificance, isolation and unimaginable suffering until the very end,” Karen Collins wrote.
“WITHOUT A FRIEND OR RELATIVE IN HER FINAL HOUR, IT WAS AS THOUGH SHE NEVER EXISTED.”
“This disregard for her life and dignity continued with the mandatory autopsy on her body the day after she died, followed by her burial in an unmarked grave at the Rosedale Cemetery on January 8, 1929.”
William Eason died in 1936 while headteacher of Koo Wee Rup State School. After his death, the Koo Wee Rup community erected two stone pillar memorial gates to mark the entrance of the local school, now the Koo Wee Rup Secondary College. The Koo Wee Rup Sun, in December 1936, reported that these memorial gates were constructed in honour of a ‘greatly esteemed and trusted citizen’.
William Eason had devoted an extraordinary amount of time to public committees, many in leadership roles, and assisted many of his students in earning scholarships. Into The Darkness: The Story of Minnie and William Eason is a recount of Australia’s disturbing history, highlighting the horrendous treatment of women, the wild misconception of mental health and illness, and the fundamental lack of power women possessed.
On Saturday, July 2, Karen Collins, accompanied by descendants of Minnie Eason and friends who supported Karen throughout her journey, acknowledged the life of Minnie Elanor Eason by unveiling a headstone on her unmarked grave at the Rosedale Cemetery “to honour the memory of a life not forgotten”.
“Minnie is now coming out of the darkness and into the light as she begins her journey of significance after so long being insignificant,” Karen said.
Gippsland Women’s Health chief executive officer Kate Graham commended Karen on her courage in telling Minnie’s story.
“Thank you, Karen, for your courage in telling Minnie’s story, for your generosity and time, and for your endurance in making a seemingly impossible task possible,” she said.
“The stories of our women, past and present, will always play a vital role in shaping the lives of women well into the future.”
Karen published Into The Darkness online in late July, and it is available to download for free at https://www.intothedarkness.com.au/, asking only those who can to make a donation to Gippsland Women’s Health to continue helping other vulnerable Gippsland Women.