Few cities have experienced such overt corruption as Sydney during the 20th century. From crooked police, politicians and members of the judiciary, through to the ingenious criminals who had them in their pockets, Sin City examines some of the big names and illicit activities associated with this controversial topic
It has been produced in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name which opened in May 2010 at Sydney’s Crime and Justice Museum.
This is a history of everything we have come to know about crime and corruption, Sydney style. With a strong emphasis on The Cross, Sin City has been produced in conjunction with a fascinating exhibition which is currently on at the Crime and Justice Museum.
The thoughtful forward has been written by Hon. Justice Michael Kirby.
Reviewed By Toni Whitmont, Booktopia Buzz Editor
Forget Las Vegas. Sydney is Sin City. Glamorous as she may appear to the world, this has always been a city where a risk is worth a thousand dreams. Founded by sinners sent to the dark side of the earth, Sydney is today synonymous with the second life, the force of personality over privilege, the underdog’s defiance of the overlord.
From our convict origins, a curious new species was spawned in the 20th century: the Colourful Sydney Identity. Typically, these were chancers – good crooks with bad habits playing themselves off to the public as loveable rogues profiting by “victimless crime”. Alas, in Sydney, a CSI was just as likely to be a judge, politician or cop as it was a crim.
It’s the riotous proliferation of the CSI in the roaring, scoring, whoring years between 1940 and 1980 that underpins Sin City, the wonderfully lurid exhibition of photography, biography and archival artefacts opening at the Justice & Police Museum this month.
“You don’t need to embellish the truth in Sydney – it’s all out there in your face,” says Sin City’s curator Tim Girling-Butcher. “In fact, some of the stories we tell have the potential to sound like wild conjecture without first-hand testimony to prove it.”
The most vivid testament to that wild side comes via Sin City’s documentary of interviews with key figures in the Sydney subterrain. Thugs, hucksters, pimps, journos, lawyers, strippers, bookies and magistrates all speak openly of the vice that bankrolled corruption at the highest level in Sydney and the men and women it embroiled.
“Most of the figures behind these illicit activities are dead – Stan ‘the Man’ Smith and Abe Saffron died as the project was in development,” says Girling-Butcher. “That paved the way for more extreme, bizarre and forgotten stories than even we knew existed.”
Amidst the murk, the photos of Rennie Ellis and Wesley Stacey cast a sinister glow. Currently enjoying a renaissance with Up the Cross at the Museum of Sydney, the pair capture Sydney through a lens darkly. “What’s most amazing about the photography is it’s utterly unstylised,” observes Girling-Butcher. “It shows Sydney at ease with its sin.”
It’s the “ease” in the sleaze that will most chill the marrow today. “No city in the world can rival Sydney’s tolerance for organised crime,” surmised Professor Alfred W McCoy in 1980. Yet despite past Justice & Police Museum exhibitions City of Shadows and Femme Fatale, Sydney’s vanity often precludes it holding a true mirror up to itself, says Girling-Butcher.
“The current Underbelly is pretty open about being a ‘colourised’ version of true events. In that sense it’s no different to George Freeman being called a Colourful Sydney Identity when he was, without doubt, a Godfather. But he’s romanticised because he drove fast, ran a slick business and believed in crime policing crime to keep it out of the public eye.”
“The opportunities for vice aren’t as varied today as they once were but Sydneysiders haven’t changed much – we still love underdogs and we still love sin.”