We love an unsolved mystery here at the Gimcrack, and Australia has plenty of them. In 1934 there was the famous case of the Dead Girl in the Silk Pyjamas. Her partially burnt body was discovered lying beside a culvert in the road.
The dead woman was in her 20s, she was about 5’1″ and she had bluish eyes. An X-ray revealed that she had been shot below the right eye. But the most probable cause of her death were around eight really horrific blows to her face. It was very hard to work out who she was; a problem the police had to solve first.
Artists drew their impressions, police made masks. Photographs of each were published but without result. The police then took an unusual step and had her body preserved in a formalin bath at Sydney University. She would remain there for 10 years.
In the 1930s, pyjamas were exotic, the sort of thing worn by young flappers. These so-called ‘new women’ dressed in skimpy clothes, they smoked, they drank, they partied and they laughed at convention. The straitlaced moral guardians of the day held up the Pyjama Girl as an example, a warning of what happens to young women who go astray.
The press leapt on this bandwagon and began to use the unsolved Pyjama Girl case to put pressure on the police commissioner, Bill Mackay. The police had a list of young women who had disappeared at the time. High on their list was Linda Agostini. She was a young English woman who’d married an Italian with fascist leanings named Antonio Agostini. Police questioned Agostini; he claimed that Linda had deserted him and that he had no idea of her whereabouts. They suspected Agostini but were faced with the fact that his wife Linda physically looked very different from the Pyjama Girl. Linda Agostini was full-breasted and she had brown eyes but the Pyjama Girl had small breasts and blue eyes. And the dental records didn’t match. Linda’s dentist had given her two porcelain fillings and these were not found in the corpse of the Pyjama Girl. So she was crossed off the list, which makes what happened 10 years later all the more incredible.
Commissioner Bill Mackay was a regular at a posh Sydney restaurant called Romanos. Antonio Agostini just happened to be a waiter there. One day in the restaurant, so the story goes, Mackay noticed that Agostini seemed unusually sad. The commissioner asked him why and Agostini explained that he was a widower, indeed, widowed by his own hand. He confessed that 10 years before he had killed his wife, Linda. Suddenly, the police commissioner himself, Bill Mackay, single-handedly had identified the Pyjama Girl and had solved Australia’s greatest murder mystery.
Richard Evans, who wrote a book about this mystery thinks that the official explanation, the one police put forward at the inquest in 1944 and at the trial of Antonio Agostini later that year was fabricated and false.
What previously undiscovered documents appear to reveal is that Mackay, driven to solve a case that just wouldn’t go away, may actually have set up Agostini as the Pyjama Girl murderer. First, there is the question of the teeth. In February 1944, Mackay arranged for leading Sydney dentist Professor Everett Magnus to re-examine the corpse’s teeth, to look once again for the missing porcelain fillings that by now three experts had failed to find. Astonishingly, he found them and the evidence of the other experts was ignored.
And then there was the question of the eyes. Linda Agostini had brown eyes. An autopsy performed by Professor Arthur Burkitt showed that the Pyjama Girl had blue eyes. But at the coronial inquest, police called two expert witnesses who both gave evidence that the colour of the eyes must have changed from brown to blue after death. Medically, this is highly improbable but the coroner accepted it.
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And then there’s the matter of the confession. Agostini’s story was that Linda had become neurotic and an alcoholic. He said one morning he woke to find her holding a gun to his head. There was a struggle, the gun went off and Linda died. Panic-stricken, he put her in his car and drove off, finally dumping her body in a culvert and setting it alight with spare petrol he kept in a can. And, this is crucial, he used the rest of the petrol to fill the tank to get back to Melbourne. Yet Police Sergeant Kelly, the first policeman on the crime scene 10 years before, was very clear indeed – he smelled kerosene, not petrol.
By the time of the coronial inquest, Kelly had changed his story to say it was either kerosene or petrol, which smell nothing alike. And in Agostini’s confession there is no mention of the extensive injuries to the head. Eventually, he makes a ridiculous story of the body having fallen down a flight of stairs and hitting a flowerpot.
flower pot ring found here
Agostini said later that Mackay gave him whiskey and helped him to confess. Evans suspects that the confession is a fabrication – an attempt to make the events of one crime fit another. Agostini confessed to killing his wife, but she was not the Pyjama Girl. Evens also thinks Mackay had made a threat and a promise. The threat was that “If you don’t confess, you’ll be convicted anyway and you’ll be convicted of murder.”
At his trial, Agostini did get off with only manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years jail, but served just three years and nine months before being deported back to Italy.
There’s a postscript to this. A suitcase of police evidence has turned up which contains a microscope slide with a tiny slither of the iris from the eye of the Pyjama Girl. A DNA test matched against one of Linda Agostini’s relatives might just solve the mystery. We’ve asked the police if they’re prepared to do it. But the situation is an historian’s nightmare, because the test would probably destroy the iris, which is the evidence.