This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
Caroline Grills (1888?-1960), poisoner, was born probably in 1888 at Balmain, Sydney, daughter of George Mickelson, labourer, and his wife Mary, née Preiers. On 22 April 1908 at the district registrar's office, Balmain South, she married, with her father's consent, Richard William Grills, a labourer; they were to have five sons and a daughter. Two of the boys died tragically, one as a result of typhoid contracted while working as a lifesaver at Maroubra beach. The Grills moved into a succession of rented houses in the city and the Randwick area, during which years Richard was employed as a real-estate agent. After the death of her father in 1948, Caroline inherited and moved into his home at Gladesville. Known as Aunty Carrie by her extensive family, she was a short, 'dumpy' woman who wore thick-rimmed glasses. She frequently visited her in-laws and friends, making tea, cakes and biscuits for them.
On 11 May 1953 Grills was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of her sister-in-law Mrs Eveline Lundberg and Lundberg's daughter Mrs Christine Downey, both of Redfern; the attempt had been made with thallium, a poison commonly found in rat bait. The symptoms of thallium poisoning included loss of hair, nervous disorders, progressive blindness, loss of speech and eventual death. Both Downey and Lundberg suffered these symptoms for some time, recovering only when Mrs Grills did not visit. They were not alone. In 1953 Sydney was in the grip of thallium panic. From March 1952 until the arrest of Grills there had been forty-six cases of reported thallium poisoning, involving ten deaths. In the few months after her arrest there were further reported cases of thallium poisoning, among them one of a prominent footballer.
Further investigation led police to charge Grills with four murders and one attempted murder. All of the victims, with the exception of a friend of her mother, were in-laws. Police speculated that her poisoning spree had begun in 1947 with the murder of her stepmother. Exhumation of the bodies of two victims revealed traces of thallium. While the police believed that a strong circumstantial case existed to substantiate murder, they only proceeded with the original charge of attempting to murder Mrs Lundberg.
At her trial in the Central Criminal Court, Grills professed her innocence, claiming that police had pressured her relations to convict her and that she 'helped to live, not kill'. Her behaviour in court, marked by outbursts of laughter, reinforced ideas that she was a malevolent killer. On 15 October 1953 she was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to death. Although her appeal was dismissed by the Court of Criminal Appeal in April 1954, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She was admitted to the State Reformatory for Women where she spent the next six and a half years.
Rushed to Prince Henry Hospital, Grills died of peritonitis on 6 October 1960 and was cremated with Anglican rites; her husband, daughter and three of her sons survived her. 'Aunt Thally', as she was popularly known, remains an enigma. The undercurrents of envy, anger or revenge that pushed her to kill so many of her family can only be guessed at. She was a disquieting case, a matronly figure who did what all favourite aunts were meant to do—serve tea and cakes.
Stephen Garton, 'Grills, Caroline (1888–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grills-caroline-10371/text18371, accessed 12 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996