Safe As Houses: 48 Essex St, Fremantle

Angus Kidman 22 November 2016

Safe as houses 48 essex street fremantle

The victim was stabbed 73 times - and the killer was acquitted.

  • WARNING: The following articles contain descriptions of violent crimes some may find disturbing

The Western Australian Museum maintains a Welcome Wall covering the personal history of migrants to the state. The entry for Giuseppe Giaquinta notes that he migrated from Sicily to Perth in 1925, eventually finding work as a fishmonger in the dockside suburb of Fremantle. The story has a sudden end: "When life was improving, he passed away in 1948, aged 49, leaving wife & 3 children." But it doesn't mention the most remarkable aspect of Giuseppe's life: the time his wife Concetta stabbed their lodger to death in a violent frenzy and faced trial for murder.

In 1934, Giuseppe and Concetta were living at 48 Essex Street with their two children, aged nine and four; she was pregnant with their third child. Also lodging in the house: stonemason Carmelo Mentisano, who was Giuseppe's second cousin, and who had left his own wife and child behind in Italy.

InHappierDays

The Giaquinta family Picture: Trove

The murder: "An offender against the code"

On 11 September 1934, Giuseppe had left for work at six in the morning as usually, returning around eleven thirty for lunch. Concetta was sitting outside the house, sobbing uncontrollably. He soon discovered why: Mentisano was lying in the doorway to the bathroom, mutilated almost beyond recognition by an extensive series of wounds inflicted by a fish filleting knife. Still alive at that point, Mentisano died soon afterwards at Fremantle Hospital. Concetta was charged with his murder.

The case received extensive and lurid coverage, under headlines like SICILIAN SLAIN. "The dead man's body was hacked from head to heels, there being no fewer than 73 wounds," one paper reported. "There were signs of a grim struggle in the back rooms of the house: furniture had been overturned, kitchen utensils were lying about the floor, the walls and the floors were blood bespattered, and apparently, the deceased had endeavoured to protect himself in the adjoining bathroom, the door of which had been hacked with the knife."

Concetta spoke almost no English, the translator appointed for the inquest turned out to be a friend of Mentisano who refused to speak to her, and only the intervention of a local hairdresser enabled the proceedings to continue.

Giaquinta

Concetta Giaquinta, Carmelo Mentisano, Giuseppe Giaquinta Picture: Trove

There was an undisguised dash of racism in the form of a what-can-you-expect-from-these-Italians? attitude in much of the coverage. "Among Sicilians a strict moral code is observed that does not brook interference with the domestic felicity of husband and wife, and an offender against the code can expect to reap the extreme penalty, which will be exacted without a thought to the possible consequences," the Sunday Times breathlessly reported.

The trial: "I am going to give you a taste of this"

And that "offence against the code"? It emerged during the trial that Mentisano had repeatedly made sexual advances to Concetta, especially during the hours when her husband was absent. Giuseppe told one reporter: "Many a time he pester my wife, and three months ago she fight him. He no go away. She a good woman." Mentisano also threatened to attack Concetta if she did not succumb, she said.

When Mentisano made further advances on that September day, she fought back. Her statement to police described what happened:

He took an ordinary blade razor from his trousers pocket and showed it to me, and said, 'I have stopped away from work today and I am going to give you a taste of this' (meaning the razor). He said that unless I let him do what he wanted to do to me he would make me pay for it. He did not get hold of me but kept on threatening me and I refused to let him seduce me. He then threw a coffee pot at me, but did not hit me with it. It was an aluminium kettle that he threw at me. He also threw a sugar basin on the floor and broke it. He was then in a rage. After he threw the kettle and the sugar basin he sat down on a little stool or form at the kitchen table. I then picked up the fish knife which my husband uses for filleting fish and I hit Mentisano on the back of the head with it which brought blood. Mentisano got up and was coming towards me, and I thought he was going to take the knife from me and I struck him several times on the arms with it. The knife was the only weapon I used.

In November 1934, a jury acquitted Concetta Giaquinta of a charge of wilful murder, accepting she had acted in self-defence.

The aftermath

The house at 48 Essex St has long since disappeared due to redevelopment and renumbering, and that stretch of road in Fremantle is now largely commercial. The tourists and locals who walk those pavements in search of the nearby branch of Hungry Jack's are unlikely to ever know the grim history of its earlier incarnation.

Property values have skyrocketed throughout the district since 1934, however. The house at 93 Market St Fremantle, where the Giaquinta family lived later in life, last sold in 1994 for a mammoth $1.9 million, and now houses a cafe. In these Fremantle streets, old sins don't always cast long shadows.

Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders, and the effect those killings had on real estate values.

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