The story of a Dubbo girl who became one of the most notorious underworld crime figures in Australia is about to be played out on television sets around the nation.
Kate Leigh was a feared vice queen in Sydney during the roaring 20s and her bloody battle with legendary madam Matilda “Tilly” Devine is tipped to be a ratings success when the fourth Underbelly crime series screens on the Nine Network.
Based on the chronicles of award winning author Larry Writer, Underbelly Razor will detail terrifying criminal wars waged in inner Sydney during the 1920s and 30s.
As gang fought gang with razor and gun, streets echoed with the sound of violence and ran with blood.
Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine ruled a nether world financed by the spoils of illegal drugs and alcohol, prostitution, gambling and extortion.
The world of violence and vice was a long way from Dubbo where Kate was born on March 10, 1881.
Nicknamed Bonnie, Kathleen Mary Josephine was one of 13 children born to Timothy Beahan, an impoverished boot-maker, and his wife Charlotte.
Mother and daughter were close but Kate was forever at odds with her father. He thrashed her and used food deprivation as a punishment.
The harsh treatment steeled Kate’s rebellious streak and from age eight she was in strife for stealing from family members and shops, whacking other children and playing truant.
After running away from home at age 10, Kate was incarcerated in the Parramatta Girls Home as a neglected child.
Four years later she was working as a waitress and in factories in Glebe and Surry Hills.
According to research undertaken by Larry Writer, young Kate was sexually precocious and ran with the wildest of youths.
Relationships with law breaking men, including at least three marriages, led Kate into Sydney’s underworld.
She became an organised crime entrepreneur, charging excessive prices for a full range of illicit goods and services, including after-hours drinking venues, sly-grog, prostitution, illegal betting, gambling and cocaine.
Kate obtained loyalty and protection from a male network of gangsters, but often had to protect them and was adept with a rifle. Rival gangs eroded her profits from cocaine by standing over and slashing decoys (often working prostitutes) with razors. She was also engaged in a violent feud with rival Tilly Devine, a Sydney madam based in Woolloomooloo.
Kate notched up 107 criminal convictions and served 13 jail terms. Appearing in courtrooms draped in furs and dripping with diamonds, her wealth was legendary.
Despite all the money Kate enjoyed shoplifting and frequently secreted goods from Grace Bros and Mark Foys in her voluminous bloomers.
Despite surviving the depression and two world wars, the empires of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine crumbled in the 1950s when new, hungrier criminals emerged and the taxation office pounced.
Kate eventually lost her houses, money and possessions.
She no longer bothered going to central criminal court to support friends because most of them were dead. She stopped staging parties for local children and helping the homeless and remained at home living in the past.
Kate suffered a stroke on Friday January 31, 1964 and was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital. She slipped into a coma and died on February 4. Her funeral three days later was attended by Kate’s daughter, a few surviving siblings, “old lags” from the underworld, police and masses of people from Surry Hills.
“In the church and at the grave-side, praise rang for the deceased,’’ Larry Writer recorded in his book.
“Nowhere to be found in the eulogies was the venal gangster who rode roughshod over East Sydney’s harshest men, the profiteer who sold cocaine and illegal alcohol, the biting, king-hitting street fighter, the harridan who thought nothing of ordering a rival’s murder or the crime czar who helped create (the part of Sydney known as) Razorhurst.
“Invoked instead on that hot, cloudy day was the other Kate Leigh - the gruff but good-hearted, more-sinned-against-than-sinning samaritan.’’
Tilly Devine sat at the back of the congregation. She survived Kate by six years.