Friday, 30 October 2015

Weary with the march of life. Charles (Charlie) O'Hagan, 1888

An awful early morning discovery. At the entrance to Tararu Cemetery Road.

Through the dim dawn of a mid-winter morning an astonished Francis McCormick noticed a body lying on its back, eerily on the Cemetery Road at Tararu.

Francis, a farmer who lived on the Puru Road, was coming to town by horse and cart  to deliver milk when he made the awful discovery about 6,30 on a June morning in 1888.

 He at once made for Thames along the isolated coast road to inform the police.  On his way home a sidelong glance revealed vomit on the road close to the body and pieces of paper alongside it.

Constable Bern proceeded at once to Tararu.  He examined the vomit which seemed to consist of nothing but Rough on Rats, a vermin poison made of arsenic and coloured with a little coal.   He also found some of the powder on the grass and several scraps of paper torn from the box.  There were marks on the ground as though a struggle had taken place, the grass being trampled and torn up.

He had the body removed to the Royal Hotel, Tararu, where it was identified as that of Charlie O'Hagan, aged 41,  a bushman employed by Mr Thomas Webb, contractor at Kauaeranga,

A search of the body yielded 3d in coppers, a pipe and a box of matches. There can be no doubt, stated the Thames Star, that the man committed suicide.

Charlie O'Hagan was a steady man, but when he came into town he was very much given to drink, according to his mate of about 10 years, Richard Toomey.  The drink sometimes made him violent and on two occasions he had suffered from delirium tremens. For the past week Charlie had been drinking but he had been fairly sober whenever Richard saw him.  Except for Tuesday when his conduct was unreasonable, and they had a difference about some business matters.  Richard had had enough and forbid Charlie in the house until he was sober, which he seemed to take very much to heart.

Charlie had been staying at the Imperial Hotel of James J Foy that week. He had arrived on Monday evening in a state of intoxication and had some bread and cheese and beer.  He slept at the hotel each night till Friday, but did not remain there during the day, leaving at breakfast time and returning in the evenings.  Mr Foy did not see him drunk during the week  and his conduct was quite rational. Nothing in Charlie's behaviour suggested that he was thinking of suicide.

Charlie had recently received two letters from his brother in Wairoa South, which revealed he was in difficulties about his land.  After reading the letters Charlies remarked to Richard "My poor brother, he is going to be without a house or home."  Richard suggested Charlie send his brother some money, as he had a cheque in his pocket, but he declined to do so.    Charlie left him about noon on Saturday but was not the worse for wear from alcohol.    In fact he had remarked that he had just made up his mind to leave the Thames and go to Mercury Bay.  The cheque had been for about 17 pounds, which Charlie cashed the previous Monday.  Richard gave him one pound when he left on Saturday.

Sometime after leaving Richard, Charlie went to the Pacific Hotel where he met Henry Ladner whom he had known for several years.  It was around 2.30 and they spent about five minutes together having a glass of beer.   Charlie asked Richard to get a box of Rough on Rats for him, saying that his place at Tapu was infested with rats, and he could not obtain the poison himself, as the chemists would not sell it to him as he was a stranger.  Henry purchased one box of Rough on Rats at Mr Hall's, chemist, and gave it to him.  Although he had known Charlie for awhile, Henry was unaware that he didn't actually live at Tapu.

Dr M H Payne said of the postmortem examination that there were no bruises or any marks of violence but the walls of the stomach were fearfully corroded and inflamed.   The constable had given him some grass and vomit which he analysed and found arsenic in it in a large quantity.  Dr Payne believed that death had been caused by the action of the corrosive poison Rough on Rats and the coroner agreed, finding that "that the deceased came to his death by taking Rough on Rats while in a state of temporary insanity."

There are many gaps in the story of Charlie O'Hagan whose death was put down to the almost dismissive  cause of  temporary insanity.  He must have felt extremely hopeless to make the awful decision to end it all with something as caustic as Rough on Rats which delivered a ghastly death of severe abdominal distress.

 Charlie O'Hagan was buried at Tararu cemetery at the end of the road where he was found. 

Rats on the Thames goldfield were a huge problem and they were accused of all sorts of vile deeds as a letter to  the Thames Advertiser a year prior to Charlie's death illustrates.
"The dwellings of the humble classes . . .are built of combustible material in the shape of logs,"  wrote VOX,  before alluding to the arsonistic tendencies of rats.   "These man-hated vermin do sometimes act as the probably four-footed and tailed incendiary . . ."

He related a tale from the picturesque and isolated district of Whangapoua, at a sawmill kitchen some distance down the tramway,.  The workmen,   having enjoyed a satisfying supper, were sitting puffing  their pipes around the cheerful fireplace, others were engaged at the rough, long table with the 'Devil's pasteboards' (playing cards), when suddenly in one of the bunks that lined the walls,  a flame of light shot up .  A rat, with a match alight in its mouth, came running out and deposited its burden on a carpet bag in an adjoining bunk.  The bunks consisted of the inflammable brush and on top of them had been left a paper with matches lying on it .  Willing hands, in a  trice, extinguished the blaze, but , what if, he asked,  "the rat been holding its high carnival when all the inmates were away?"

A month after Charlie's death the Thames Advertiser rued the amount of money spent by the government introducing ferrets as well as the cost of rabbit proof fencing in the South Island; money it felt could be better spent on eliminating  the rampant rat.  "The prolific bunny is no doubt a great source of annoyance to the large run-holders  . . . and there is no question that a large amount of damage is caused by the hoards of rabbits which burrow beneath the fertile plains of Canterbury and Southern NZ . . ." but why could the government not grant money to eradicate the rats which infested the grain merchants premises on the Thames?  The town was overrun with "large numbers of gay and festive rodents that commit depredations on our pantries  and that occasionally introduce a novelty in their ordinary daily life, by attacking a  sleeping and defenseless babe."

"The rat is quite as great a nuisance to us as the rabbit is to the Southland squatter, but who would ever dream of applying to the government to expend vast sums of money to clear our houses and business premises of rats while there was 'Rough on Rats' to be had at a shilling a box . . . ?" it asked in exasperation.

Although there were many suicides from Rough on Rats across New Zealand they were not common in the Thames district.  By 1901, when restrictions on the sale of the poison had come into effect, William White was found dead alongside his bed in his dwelling in Thames.  Dr Bond testified that there was no sign of poison in the stomach.  An examination showed that death was due to syncope, caused by vomiting, the result of the diseased condition of the deceased's stomach and liver.  There had been persistent rumours to the effect that the man had taken Rough on Rats.  These were entirely dispelled.

Mental health and suicide were poorly understood in this era and it was a time when attempted suicide was an offense punishable by imprisonment.  But the mid-1890s there was a turn against the cruel practice of penalising the mentally unwell.

The Thames Star in 1894 reprinted this editorial  from the Christchurch Truth  on the "arrant stupidity of punishing a would-be suicide."

"Several cases have recently occurred in the Australasian colonies of Magistrates punishing persons who had attempted, but failed, to commit suicide."  One Melbourne lawmaker even announced his determination to put a stop to suicide, and sent to prison "one or two trembling creatures who 'weary with the march of life' attempted to destroy themselves with Rough on Rats . . .  those who punish a person for attempting suicide is in many degrees a more contemptible object to the eye of reason than the would-be suicide."

The attempt to eliminate of the scourge of rats inadvertently became a scourge of suffering for those who could buy death for a shilling.

Advert for Rough on Rats which ran continuously in Thames newspapers, 1880s, although skunks and gophers weren't much of a problem!

"Now, Rodie, my love, be quick and get the kids ashore and I'll look after the luggage. "  Rats travelling by the Sydney steamers will not be permitted to land at the (Auckland) wharf.

Observer 18 February, 1889

Observer, 6 September 1890

The poison brand Rough on Rats was invented in 1872 by Jersey City manufacturer Ephraim S. Wells.  Jokingly, his wife called it Rough on Rats and the name stuck.  The product was hugely successful.   It was intended to kill a wide range of household pests but unfortunately it became a common suicide method particularly by those of the lower classes of colonial society. It was easy to get from chemists.   Rough on Rats was included in the Sale of Poisons Act sometime prior to 1901 making it harder to obtain and the world-wide epidemic of suicides slowed.

(Source: Papers Past,, http://beachpackaging; Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 2-V1269' &  NZG 1900324p0529)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015

Monday, 19 October 2015

Out Now! Thames Coromandel's 'Summer' Magazine with a 'Dead Cert' feature. Plus photos by Mike Hawkes illustrating 'Dead Cert' and the tekoteko in 'Carving Kaitiakitanga'. Available free of charge from Thames Coromandel District Council's and libraries. Or if you are an absentee ratepayer - coming to your mailbox soon.

Monday, 5 October 2015

'Simply to Thy cross I cling'. Fred Whyte and John 'Jack' O'Malley. Waihi, 1910.

Miners on the morning shift at Waihi mine descending the shaft in a cage.

It was a rushing noise in the No 4 shaft of the Waihi mine which caught the attention of a miner named Manuel.  On that Thursday in March 1910 he was working on  a winch in the chamber  while above him, on some staging over No 9 level, were mates  John 'Jack' O'Malley, 39,  and Frederick Whyte, 40.

They were fixing gear in the shaft in connection with the haulage of sections of the electric pumping plant. They had completed lining the shaft and had a barrier secured several feet above the back of the chamber on which to attach the large tackle block to be used for hauling up the pipes. One of the two men came down for the block.  He then climbed back up up the ladderway with the block which weighed about 40lbs.  It was then Manuel heard the whooshing sound and the forms of his mates horrifically flashed past the chamber to the bottom of the shaft 170 feet below.

The alarm was immediately given and when rescuers reached the bottom of the shaft the lifeless body of Jack O'Malley was discovered.   Fred Whyte was found unconscious and considerably knocked about.  Medical assistance was promptly called in and Fred was taken to Waihi hospital.  Jack was single, and, as far as was known, had no relations in the district.  Fred had a wife and two children residing in the east end of Waihi.  He died between 5 and 6 that night without gaining consciousness.

It was surmised that the men lost their footing in the shaft while attaching the tackle block to the bearer across the shaft.  Probably one man lost his balance and in falling, knocked his mate off the ladder.

Work was suspended for the men employed underground by the Waihi Company  and it was  doubtful whether it would be resumed before the following Monday.  The accident was regarded as the worst since the Parry and Cornthwaite fatality* occurred in the No 5 shaft some five years previously.

The union had passed a resolution that "as a mark of respect to their deceased comrades, all men in a mine where a fatality takes place shall immediately knock off work and not resume until after the funeral."  This resolution was endorsed at a well attended meeting in Waihi following Fred and Jack's death's by a large majority of those present.  The officials of the union stated that the custom was observed in  certain mining centres  in the Dominion and Australian states.

It was eventually decided that work was not to be resumed in the Waihi mine until Sunday night, as the victims were to be buried on Saturday.   Management closed the Waihi batteries for a shift to enable the battery workers to join with the underground men in attending the funeral.  Waihi mine workers together with many others from the mines in the Upper Thames districts were in the long, somber procession.  It was thought to be the largest ever seen in Waihi taking  fully 15 minutes with  those on foot walking three or four abreast.  The vehicles numbered between 40 and 50, and many followers were on horseback.    As the cortege moved off the 'Dead March' was played by the Waihi Federal and Salvation Army Bands.  At the gravesides the last rites were performed by the Very Rev Father Brodie (parish priest) and the Rev Buckland (vicar of St John's Anglican church).

When the inquest opened a broken plank, 9in wide and 1 1/2 inch thick, formed an exhibit.  The jury had been taken to inspect the scene of the fatality.

No evidence was forthcoming as to the actual cause of the accident, but witnesses generally described Jack and Fred as capable, careful and experienced shaft workers.  They agreed that the plank shown was not sufficiently strong to be used as a staging on which men could work with reasonable safety when carrying out repairs in a shaft.  The fact that there was a knot in the plank rendered its use still more dangerous, but nothing was proved to show that it had even been used - it's production in Court having been due to  its discovery in the well hole of the shaft.

 The Government Mining Inspector, Mr W Paul, gave his opinion that the men would not use such a piece of timber as part of a staging.  It was their duty when working in the shaft to protect themselves against accident by using and putting into position suitable timber, and ample material of the required class was available at the level over which the men were working. To prevent danger he considered they should have erected a staging below the bearers they were putting into position, and also to have covered the No 9 shaft.

J Gilmour, the mine manager, stated that Fred and Jack had been chosen for the work because they were regarded as competent and  knowledgeable shaft workers.  They had been supplied with all the materials requisite to guard against accident.  The timber used for staging consisted of planks 9in wide and 3in thick.  The plank produced in court was a 9in by 1& a half inch kauri plank  used as a lining board.  Some three or four days before the accident Mr Gilmour had instructed the mine to make proper provision for their safety, and use the right timbers for this purpose.

In summing up, the Coroner drew the attention of the jury to the provisions of the Mining Act calling upon workers to make suitable arrangements for their own safety when working under conditions similar to those under which the deceased had been working.

After a short retirement, the jury brought in a verdict of accidental death, and stated that there was nothing to show what caused the deceased to fall down the shaft, and that no blame was attachable to anyone.  A rider was added recommending that men working in shafts should be compelled to erect adequate and cleated stage boards underneath them.

Too late of course for Fred and Jack in that single moment of lost balance.

The headstone of Fred Whyte "who was killed with his mate in the Waihi mine . . ."
"Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to Thy cross I cling"
(From the hymn 'Rock of Ages.')

NZ Herald 22 March, 1910

Looking from Martha Hill to the Waihi Gold Mine.

*Melbourne Parry and William Cornthwaite  were in an eerily similar accident in Waihi mine's No 5 shaft in 1903   when  Melbourne fell off a ladder knocking William off as well.  They fell 80 feet.  Reverend Oliphant, speaking at the funerals, despaired at the spate of recent mining accidents and the slowness of mining companies to  adopt basic  safety measures.   ('The toll of human blood' from the book 'Dead Cert' available now from author)

(Source: Papers Past, Heritage Images Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001214-4-2 & 35-R1469, Whyte grave image- M Hawkes)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015