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

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