A Stab in the back

1 a stab in the back

Most of us seem to lead unexceptionable lives, despite our fantasies. Anyone who has researched their family’s history will know this to be true, because all they often have to show for their efforts is the date each ancestor was born, married, and died, and the names of their children. Yet each of us has a story, and these dates have nothing to do with it. I’ve interviewed lots of people in my time, and I’ve learned to recognise the phrase: “Nobody would be interested in what I’ve done”. It’s been the first woman aviator to fly across Australia, or someone roped into driving supplies into impoverished city areas during the Great Depression, who makes remarks like that. Meanwhile we walk around with our little bag of experiences, hopes, dreams, fears and disappointments, just as colourful a tale as any novel ever written.

So here’s a story of a relative of mine which reveals some of the drama we all experience, yet never talk about. It’s a disjointed story, one read by lightning flash not electric light, as so many details remain unknown. This is partly because the person I’m talking about is not a close ancestor. She was my aunt’s husband’s mother’s sister. I wasn’t willing to lay out $500 for documents held in government archives at $50 each for such a distant relative, so bear in mind I’m depending on educated guesses for part of the time in determining relationships, as one does so often in family history.

Elizabeth Norris was born in Sydney Australia sometime in 1846, the eldest daughter of Edward Norris and Bridget Vaughn. Edward’s rank or profession, or birthplace, are unknown, though I do know he was born about 1815. His wife was Bridget Vaughan, born in Broadford county Clare in Ireland about 1824, who migrated with her family, five siblings and her father, and came to live in Woolloomooloo in Sydney’s centre. There she married Edward Norris 28 August 1845 in St Marys Cathedral. Bridget and Edward had four children. One son, described as Edward’s second eldest, was a jeweller and watchmaker in George Street Sydney, and perhaps Edward was too (who his eldest was I don’t know). Given names vary in this family. Elizabeth was known as Lise, or Elisa, and second name sometimes Ann, Mary, or just J. The second son Edward Joseph was at times known as John.

2 Sydney street 1900The two brothers Edward and William were apparently a quarrelsome pair, and were before the courts several times, once for helping procure an abortion, twice for threatening the life of another man, once for beating him up. This has some relevance when looking at Elizabeth’s life. The fourth child was christened Mary, and at some stage added the name Norah (or Honorah). She later married a well known local politician, William Thomas Henson, and one of her sons of this marriage married my aunt, which is how I heard of the Norris family in the first place.

So imagine this unruly family living in Crown Street Woolloomooloo, with its sandstone houses and cobblestones and wooden verandas on the second story overlooking the street, in a property that was to stay within the family for at least the next generation. There Elizabeth grew up, no doubt feuding with some of her neighbours, and forming friendships with others. She seemed particularly close to her mother.

Enter a Frenchman, born about 1841 in Savoie, Rhône-Alpes, Jean Antoini Marie Quinquinet, known in Australia as Anthony. Anthony was a world class chef it seems, and may have travelled the world working as ship’s cook on any craft going where he wanted to go. He first appears in the record on 21 August 1863 when he was hauled before the courts in Sydney charged with deserting his post on his ship. He was sent back on board. But Anthony seemed to like Australia. In September 1865 he was back, working as cook at the Café de Paris, whose proprietor boasted that Anthony (Anthonie) was formerly from the Hotel du Louvre Marseilles. Anthony decided to stay in Australia, and was naturalised 08 August 1867. On 07 July the following year Anthony married Elizabeth Norris at St Marys Cathedral.

Perhaps things didn’t work out as planned. Perhaps Anthony was still restless and wanting to move on, but by 1874 the couple had moved to San Francisco. Here, as always, Anthony easily found a job as a restaurant chef. Here the couple began to have a family, with unfortunate results.

3 cours-amateurs

The local paper, The Morning Call, announced the birth of a son to the couple, John A M, born some time in 1874. John died in Sydney in 1895. A second son, Henry L, was born in 1875 but died two years later in 1877. A third son, Alphonse Eugene Edward, was born 1877, but died 1879, little more than a year old. In 1879 a daughter, Matilda A, was born, but died five months later in 1880. Then in 1884 a second daughter, Marie Josephine, was born. Marie Josephine died 18 May 1888 aged four in Sydney. It was not till the couple returned to Australia, which they did 03 July 1885, that another daughter, Antoinette (Annet), was born, in 1887. Annet was still alive 1901, mentioned in a funeral notice for her grandfather Edward Norris. The loss of five children, four of them babies, perhaps of Annet too, for she disappears from the record after 1901, must have been traumatic. Worse was to come.

In 1883 Elizabeth and Anthony moved to New York, where their next to last child was born, and where Anthony worked as a chef, at a restaurant where he formed a friendship with another French cook, Désiré Houvet. Anthony bought Désiré back to the apartment where he lived on Sixth avenue with Elizabeth several times, and unfortunately Désiré developed a passion for Elizabeth which he thought she returned. Elizabeth I imagine as an ebullient person, all smiles and jokes and laughter, who jollied customers along while they waited for the food prepared by Anthony. In the last restaurant Anthony worked at she was kitchen help, waiter and general host, and obviously had a personality to match. Unfortunately for Désiré Elizabeth was devoted to her husband, and the laughter and easy intimacy he imagined as originating in passion meant nothing like that. On a fatal visit to the Sixth avenue apartment Désiré found Anthony absent, and pressed his attentions on Elizabeth. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and when she pushed him away he became angry and attempted to rape her. Unable to fight him off, Elizabeth found one of a set of kitchen knives she had been sharpening, and stabbed Désiré in the back. He pulled away, and ran down the stairs, but by the time he reached the street he was dead.

4 Clam seller in Mulberry Bend, New York City, 1900

Elizabeth was arraigned for murder. The jury exonerated her and gave her an acquittal. The case was reported in the New York Times of 01 May 1883, and there was widespread sympathy for Elizabeth. But there must have been a lot of unwelcome publicity and curiosity on the part of strangers would have been unwelcome. The couple returned to Australia in 1885. Here they seem to have opened their own restaurant, where Elizabeth worked as host and manager, Anthony as chef. There was more drama to come.

On 01 October 1901 the Sydney Evening News reported an incident at the restaurant run by the Quinquinets. A kitchen man named Domenicia Cotalia arrived at work drunk, and demanded food with threats, saying he would smash everything in the kitchen. Told to go away by Elizabeth, Domenicia seized a chopper and attempted to strike her with it, chasing her around the kitchen with it till other staff caught him and removed the chopper. He was charged and got 21 days in prison, not having much to say to the court.

It was about this time that Anthony began to suffer pain from the illness that eventually killed him, on 10 June 1895. As Elizabeth said in a memorial notice 1897, “all his pain and grief are over”. Perhaps he was buried at Sydney’s beautiful Waverley cemetery.

Elizabeth still had a few surprises up her sleeve. In 1911, aged 65, she married again, a man named Etienne Ernest Leroux. I don’t know where Etienne came from, though of course his name is French. He was five years younger than Elizabeth. He was naturalised in 1910 in Sydney.

Elizabeth died 08 November 1918 aged 72, and is buried at Waverley cemetery. He second husband Etienne died 29 March 1919 aged 68. He too is buried at Waverley.

I hope a novelist will one day retell the story of Elizabeth and Anthony. We can all relate to it. We might not have killed anybody, but we have all wanted to at some stage of our lives. Many of us have lost children, or been abandoned by them. Elizabeth and Anthony loved one another for 27 years, despite all that happened. That’s quite another story.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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