The Death of Betty Curtain

Grave of Betty Marie Curtain II, Katoomba (2019) by Zoe Alderton

“In loving memory of our little daughter”

There is a hospital at the highest point of Katoomba’s hills. Behind the hospital lies a nursing home, and behind that, a cemetery. A morbid soul might see an implied progression.

The graves are scattered on hard rock and sparse, yellow grass. Erosion is rubbing away the topsoil and the vegetation is eaten by the rabbits who build holes under the graves. Wealthier patients from the Tuberculous Hospital lie here, as do the victims of murder, suicide, and accidents. Many of their lives and stories are already forgotten, with only the more dramatic deaths living on via newspaper accounts and community rumor.

Eva and Violet Hallett, lost to suicide by Aconite and Veronal, are buried under a broken column to signify life cut short. Kindly, they were placed at rest with their adopted townsfolk and not left on the outskirts of consecrated ground like so many others who died by similar means. The grave of Stella Reynolds is also here. She was murdered by her husband during a Billy Graham broadcast at the local Anglican Church. Her grave is set up for a married couple — her name is present and the other half is blank. Still, it seems happier than sharing a resting place with her murderer, who was deported back to Ireland for his crimes.

It’s not a wealthy graveyard. One memorial is composed of a wooden heart nailed on a cross, another is an upright stick in the earth with no details of the departed. Many resting places are outlined by loose piles of rocks, some of which have rolled away under cattle hooves and the spreading roots of the gum trees.

This state of disrepair is nothing new. In 1895, an anonymous local took to The Mountaineer newspaper with a demand that the cemetery be improved after a visitor had dubbed it a “devil-possessed hole”. The correspondent found this a little “dark”, but agreed that Katoomba Cemetery was a “God-forsaken and man-forsaken place”, and “not a fit place in which to lay our dead… Its condition is between a scandal and a disgrace”. During the First World War, other writers bemoaned the irresponsible locals who let their sheep and cattle graze in the cemetery, making its erosion and sad state even worse. A century later, the damage lingers.

But, although no one has ever seemed content with this graveyard, it is still home to a great number of stories, mysteries, and memories — including that of Betty Curtain.

Russell Hawke Park, Katoomba (1935) by Harry Phillips

On December 19, eight-year-old Betty was playing with friends in Russell Hawke Park. She slipped and fell backwards on to one of the decorative rocks, which can be seen in the photograph above. The rock pierced Betty’s abdomen. After being rushed to Katoomba Hospital, she was diagnosed with a ruptured kidney. Surgeons did their best to save the little girl, and were heartened when she briefly regained her strength. Nevertheless, the damage was severe and Betty passed away soon after due to complications from the surgery. The coroner deemed her death an unfortunate accident.

A great amount of mourning followed. Betty was well-known around town as the youngest daughter of Constable Fred Curtin from the Katoomba Police. The pallbearers were his fellow constables, and wreaths were laid by many of his colleagues. Mourners gathered at St Canice’s Church on December 21 to farewell “little Betty” and pay their regards to a well-known family. They formed a long cortège to escort Betty’s body to her resting place at the top of the hill.

Among the 43 wreaths forwarded in memory of the child was one from “Mummy and Daddy” and her two devastated brothers. We can assume it was a rather maudlin Christmas for those who knew Betty.

Next to Betty’s grave is that of her mother: Betty Curtain Snr. The elder Betty did not outlive her daughter by long, and accounts of her final years suggest the family retreated into solitude after the younger Betty’s funeral. Very little can be found of their activities, save one dramatic incident where Betty Snr lost the top of her finger to the slip of a hatchet. The next newsworthy event was her death at age 37 on November 11, 1940. No cause of death is given, and the newspaper notice of her passing is very plain.

Both of the Betties tell a common story that can be found in any local cemetery. As much as the death of a child feels like an inversion of the natural order, there are countless parents who have buried their babies and been left behind to carry the grief.

Things are a little easier for us today. In 1950, an Australian child of Betty’s age had a 6.9% chance of dying within the year. By 2017, UNICEF reported that this chance had shrunk to 0.9%. Australian children are among the safest in the world, and can expect to live well into adulthood. Congenital diseases are far more likely to claim their lives than accident and injury. Lifesaving procedures such as renal surgeries are more advanced due to new knowledge and improved equipment. There is a much better chance that a child with the same injuries as Betty could be revived. Greater support also exists for grieving families, with awareness of the mental illness that can arise out of their trauma.

Nevertheless, we should still take a moment to ponder our recent history and appreciate our dry and patchy graveyards that remind us of the townsfolk we have lost and their many stories lost in time.

PhD in Religion and Economics communications specialist by day. Angsty writer by night.

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