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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sodeman, Arnold Karl (1899–1936)

by George Marshall Irving

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Arnold Karl Sodeman (1899-1936), murderer, was born on 12 December 1899 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, son of Karl Sodeman, a German-born engineer, and his native-born wife Violet Esther, née Wood. As a child he was treated severely by his father and frequently witnessed Karl beating Violet. Aged 13, Arnold ran away from home and worked in the coal mines at Wonthaggi, South Gippsland.

In his youth Sodeman was twice brought before the courts to answer criminal charges. At 17 he was convicted of theft and forgery, and sent to a reformatory. Soon after his release, he was convicted in Melbourne in 1920 of attempted robbery under arms and given three years hard labour. Having escaped from French Island, he was apprehended and sentenced to another year. Released in 1926, Sodeman settled down to various labouring jobs, at first in Melbourne and later in Gippsland. To those who knew him he was a hard-working, mild and amiable man with a generous disposition. On 17 July he married Bernice Cecilia Pope at Collingwood with Congregational forms; a daughter was born in 1928. The marriage was a happy one; although Sodeman seemed to suffer from occasional bouts of depression and frequent drunkenness, he was never violent to his family.

On the morning of 2 December 1935 the body of 6-year-old June Rushmer was discovered, lying face-down in a patch of swordgrass, outside the township of Leongatha in Gippsland; she was bound and gagged, and had died from suffocation. The crime resembled three earlier unsolved killings: 12-year-old Mena Griffiths on 8 November 1930, 16-year-old Hazel Wilson on 9 January 1931 (both at Ormond, Melbourne), and 12-year-old Ethel Belshaw at Inverloch, Gippsland, on 1 January 1935. As a result of information received from a suspicious workmate, Sodeman was arrested and questioned about Rushmer's death. At first he denied any involvement with the victim, but after twelve hours interrogation broke down and confessed—to all four murders.

He was tried in February 1936 for the murder of Rushmer. The government medical officer Dr A. J. W. Philpott, his assistant Dr R. T. Allan and a psychiatrist Dr Reginald Ellery all gave evidence that Sodeman was suffering from a disorder of the mind which created an 'obsessional impulse' of such power that—under the influence of alcohol—he was no longer responsible for his behaviour. Since Sodeman was intoxicated on all four occasions, the doctors concluded that he was insane at the times of the murders. Their conclusion was reinforced not only by Sodeman's repetitive behaviour, but also by his family's medical history: both his father and grandfather had died insane.

At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Judge Charles Gavan Duffy advised the jury to distinguish between opinions given by expert medical witnesses on matters relating to the physical body, which could be proved by surgery, and those concerning the mind. Rejecting Sodeman's defence of insanity, the jury found him guilty of murder. The judge sentenced him to death.

After exhausting all avenues of appeal, Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged and buried in Pentridge Gaol, Coburg, on 1 June 1936. An autopsy disclosed that he was suffering from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease which could cause serious congestion of the brain when aggravated by alcohol.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Ellery, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (Melb, 1956)
  • J. P. Bourke and D. S. Sonenberg, Insanity and Injustice (Melb, 1969)
  • Victorian Law Reports, 1936
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 1936
  • People (Sydney), 31 Jan 1951
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10-13 Nov, 12, 13 Dec 1930, 19 Feb, 20, 21 Mar 1931, 4, 9 Jan, 4, 9, 12 Apr, 16 May, 3, 6 Dec 1935, 1 Jan, 27 Mar, 4 Apr, 30 May, 1 June 1936
  • transcript of Sodeman's trial, 17, 18 Feb 1936 (Supreme Court, Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

George Marshall Irving, 'Sodeman, Arnold Karl (1899–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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