In her handsome suburban home in 1920 Sydney, Australia, Dorothy Mort was anxious, preparing a surprise for her lover, Claude Tozer. Christmas was just four days away, and their time together had grown more precious than ever. She presented him with a gift-wrapped package. But this was a deadly decoy.
As he focused on the present, she pulled out a gun, and fatally shot him twice in the head. Then, she knelt down before his bleeding body, which sat on the drawing room’s sofa. She unbuttoned his vest, shot him once more in the chest, then delicately re-buttoned the vest. Mort then turned the gun on herself, aiming at her left breast. In her mind, it was likely to be a grim but poetic tableaux of slain lovers with literally broken hearts. But rather than die, Mort lived on to face national scandal, becoming the face of the adage “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Newspapers relished this story of a semi-successful murder/suicide, not only for its grisly details, but for all the shocking bits that led up to it. Mort was married. Hers and Tozer’s was a secret affair that had gone on for months. When he called it quits, she killed him. And as she was arrested, she wailed, “If I cannot have him, then no other woman shall.” On top of all that, Tozer was a local celebrity: a first-class cricketer on the rise, a recognized hero of World War I, and an admired doctor. But here’s the detail that’s often scuttled in the story of his tragic end: he was Dorothy Mort’s doctor, responsible for treating her suicidal depression.
Today, it’s easy to find articles about Tozer, his athletic achievements, military honors, and his grim end. But few acknowledge the part he had to play in his own demise. Even less bother to include any details of Mort’s life before the affair. However, Greg Growden’s book Bowled by a Bullet uncovers that Mort (nee Woodruff) grew up in a brutal home, rife with domestic abuse. In one nightmarish scene, her father took an axe and threatened his wife and children with it. He was committed to an asylum, while his daughter sought happiness in a marriage to Harold Mort, a wealthy wool-broker from an esteemed Sydney family.
Dorothy Mort built a respectable life for herself, caring for their home, hosting lively parties, and caring for their two children. But at 32, her happiness was shattered when she learned her father committed suicide by hurling himself down a elevator shaft. Once a beloved figure of high society shindigs, Mort became reclusive and subject to “nervous problems.” She spoke often to her husband of suicide. Her depression grew so deep that she could not tend to her children, or some days could not even get out of bed. Harold was sick with worry, and so sought a doctor to rescue his beloved wife.
Enter Dr. Claude Tozer, the dashing doctor/war hero/batsman, whose teammates called him cricket’s greatest “pants man,” because of all his sexual conquests. Poor Harold had no idea that when he opened the door to the doctor, he was welcoming in a sexual predator, who cared more about his own lust than the wellness of his patients. Tozer made house calls to the Mort’s home almost every day. To his credit, his treatment did seem to lift Mort’s pain. But to his discredit, he did it by seducing a married woman who was struggling with mental illness, grief, and a family history of suicide.
Hungry for a sensation beyond her hurt, Mort fell hard and fast for the charming and athletic doctor. She later recounted, “I loved him immediately. He was so handsome and big and splendid that I thought how wonderful a son would be of his.” Meanwhile, Tozer lamented to his mother, “I don’t know why God made these neurotic women.”
Nonetheless, he encouraged Mort, writing her a string of love letters. One read:
“You have stirred me to such an extent, little lady, that you are now sitting metaphorically on a sleeping volcano. I am pretty restrained, I know, because I have tried to be for years, but for you that restraint is very nearly gone. I can’t explain why.”
The two carried on in trysts masquerading as check-ups for six months, before Tozer decided to break it off. With his prospects in cricket on the rise, he realized an affair with a patient could make him look bad. So, he made up a fiancee as an excuse to leave Mort behind. On December 15th, Tozer dropped by to drop this bombshell. Then he sent the mixed message of offering his lover one last chance for farewell. He told her he’d return. Mort prepared by buying a gun and some laudanum.
On December 20th, the lovers said goodbye. First by sneaking in one last session of lovemaking. Then Mort ushered Tozer into the drawing room to execute him. He was a predator, whose prey had turned on him.
After killing Tozer and shooting herself, Mort lumbered back to her bedroom. There she made a second attempt at suicide, trying to overdose on laudanum. However, she was rescued by her housekeeper, Florence Fizzelle, who discovered Mort, bleeding, barely conscious, and loopy on the drug.
When the police arrived, Mort was quick to confess. The newspapers were cruel, publishing her love letters along with much salacious suggestion. But the courts were surprisingly kind. Her defense team admitted she had shot Tozer, but argued that he had betrayed his duty as a doctor by seducing a patient, and a mentally unwell one at that. Acquitted on the grounds of insanity, Mort was committed to the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay for treatment. There it seems she may have gotten the help she truly needed. After eight years, she was released, her doctors stating, “Mrs. Mort to be normal mentally.”
Picture: Justice & Police Museum / New South Wales. Dept. of Prisons
Dororthy Mort returned home to Sydney, to the house where she’d shot Tozer, to her still loyal husband Harold. She lived out her days in obscurity, passing away in 1966. Though today, she’s often remembered in the shadow of Tozer (because sports sports sports). Mort was a flawed woman whose struggle for mental health and happiness feels all too timely.