This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Hi. I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington here in New Zealand for many years. I'm a writer, an oral historian, and a lesbian and gay activist.
Today I'm going to be looking at crime cases as they've involved lesbian and gay people in this country. There's always been an association of homosexuality and crime. Male homosexual acts were considered criminal; lesbians were often considered criminal by association. There's been that idea of criminality involved in it.
What I'm more interested in here is local cases where lesbians and gays have themselves been victims of crimes, and where that often hasn't been considered to be the case, particularly by the media, and sometimes by the courts.
A very significant local case was that of Wanganui's Mayor, Charles Evan MacKay. He was an important mayor. He strongly supported the arts. He was a popular man. However, in May, 1920, he was arrested for the attempted murder of the poet Walter D'Arcy Cresswell, who was homosexual. It was alleged that MacKay shot Cresswell for threatening to expose MacKay's homosexuality. The defense argued that he suffered from homosexual monomania, having made efforts to cure himself and consulted doctors and metaphysicians. MacKay was found guilty and he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
This case resulted in widespread anti-homosexual feeling in Wanganui, and prejudice against the Sarjeant Art Gallery which MacKay had helped found, and it also influenced how Edith Collier's work was received.
Cresswell was later taken up by the Bloomsbury set when he went to England in 1930, following the publication of his autobiography The Poet's Progress, which didn't actually mention anything about the Wanganui affair.
So, that's an interesting aspect of him. It's a question of why he attempted to blackmail MacKay; how come that situation emerged; what it was that he thought he was doing. Some think that there was evidence of political connections who had suggested that he do this. Whatever was the case, it really destroyed MacKay. He served his time in prison then left the country and died overseas.
So, that's a significant case.
Another interesting case is the 1935 Mareo case, and that began the connection of lesbianism with murder in New Zealand. Eric Mareo was convicted of killing his wife Thelma because of her lesbian relationship with Freda Stark. And lesbianism was depicted as part of a loose-living theatrical world likely to result in jealousy and murder.
Later in her life, Freda Stark said that her sexual relationship with Thelma was the most important relationship of her life, and that it had begun, in fact, before Thelma had married Eric Mareo, that she'd married him because the theatre company had collapsed, and that they continued their relationship often when he was at work.
During the court case the relationship was given as the motive for Eric murdering Thelma. He did so by administering doses of sedative to her and she died. The newspapers of the time reported the case sensationally, and they headlined the phrase, "Abnormal Girl."
Freda Stark later said that when the newspapers were at their worst she could not go into Queen Street as "people would recognize me because of the pictures in the paper," calling out, "There she is!" and following her. And when she went into a shop "there'd be people waiting outside for me to come out."
The jury found Eric Mareo guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death, but after several appeals his sentence was eventually reduced to life imprisonment. Subsequently, people have tried to exonerate Mareo, though I think it's fairly clear that he was aware of their relationship and that that was a motivation for him to attempt to murder her.
But it was a very sensational case and it certainly drew the attention of people to this connection with lesbianism and murder. This theme reemerges 20 years later in 1954 when Juliet Hulme, aged 15, and Pauline Parker, aged 16, killed Honora Parker, Pauline's mother, in Victoria Park, Christchurch. This was sensationalized because of the ages of the girls.
They were described by some of the media as the world's worst murderers, which was extraordinary in a time when we've seen mass murder and things of that kind. And they were depicted as lesbians by both the prosecution and the defense, with the prosecution calling them "dirty-minded girls," and the defense saying that they suffered from folie a deux because lesbianism was a pathological condition symptomatic of communicated insanity.
So, that was another case with a connection of lesbianism and murder. Those two girls were sentenced to five years imprisonment. They were imprisoned actually at Her Majesty's pleasure but were released after five years, in 1959, and have subsequently led quite blameless lives.
There were other mentions in the newspaper; there's an interesting report in 1955 in the year after this case, where the New Zealand Pictorial reports "gangs of homosexuals in Auckland living together for the sake of perversion. You can see these warped-brained men – and women too – wandering about the streets or sitting idly in night cafes. Auckland has too many of them. Homosexuals have a strict code of ethics all of their own. They fight among themselves like Kilkenny cats. For this reason, a group of homosexuals is always controlled by the queen bee whose word is absolutely final. Others in the sect are "Marthas" who dress as women, "Arthurs" who adopt the normal male role, and "Butches" who stand in either way. Homosexuals, ambisexuals, lesbians and the like are largely only a degrading menace, however undesirable to themselves." So, clearly this kind of depiction is one of criminality; people of whom you could expect anything of them.
Now, other cases: an earlier case, in 1944 a 19-year-old New Zealand soldier was acquitted of the murder of a 25-year-old American soldier because he claimed that the American had made homosexual advances to him.
Then in 1960, Roy Jackson, a waiter at the Codoro Coffee Bar in Auckland, which was a meeting place for both camp men and women – lesbians and gay men – was killed when he fell from the deck of the Whangaroa, which was docked at Napier, after being assaulted by two seamen who were acquitted of manslaughter. Roy Jackson had triked down to Napier to see his lover who was working on the ship, and as he was trying to get onto the ship he was thrown by the two seamen onto the dock and killed.
The judge commented it was "stretching things a bit to say that it was unlawful for the accused to remove Jackson from the ship, as after all, it was their home."
The Auckland camp community took up a collection for his burial. That was an important case in 1960. But, the acquittal sent a signal that killing homosexuals might not result in a conviction.
These cases foreshadowed the 1964 Hagley Park case where six youths aged between 15 and 17 years were acquitted on a charge of manslaughter. The prosecution alleging they had gone to Hagley Park in Christchurch with the purpose of finding a queer and bashing him. Their homosexual victim, Charles Aberhart from Blenheim, died from his injuries. The youths, claiming he'd made a homosexual approach to them, and horrified by this they'd accidentally beaten him to death.
These cases demonstrated the possible consequences of any form of homosexuality, and the verdicts were consistent with the 1967 acquittal of Doreen Davis for the murder of Raewyn Petley, and this is a very famous case. In November, 1966, nursing Sister Raewyn Joy Petley, aged 40, of the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps, was found dead in her bed with a deep wound in her neck at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Base at Whenuapai. Another critically ill nurse was in Auckland Hospital being treated for an overdose of drugs. This nurse, Sister Doreen Ellen Davis, aged 30, was tried for Petley's murder, at Auckland, in March, 1967.
The prosecution alleged that Davis had cut Petley's throat with a scalpel and left the room via the window, and drove back to her quarters where she took an overdose of barbiturates, her motive for the murder being conflict in their lesbian relationship.
Davis was defended by Kevin Ryan, the defense lawyer, and denied all charges, insisting that Petley had cut her own throat.
There are some suggestions that the military may have tidied the women's rooms before calling the police in arranging Davis' defense, as she was going to be charged in a civilian court, and that they may have hoped for a verdict of suicide as it would be less damaging than murder.
Petley served with the Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps from 1954, moving to the Whenuapai Air Force Base in February, '64. Davis joined the Nursing Corps in '62 and met Petley in '66 at the Hobsonville Base where their relationship developed. Another nurse testified that because Davis visited Petley at night she felt disgusted and reported them. Consequently, Davis was to be transferred to Wigram.
The prosecution produced two unsigned letters alleging that Davis wrote to Petley, "I do love that smile, darling, more and more each time we meet. And please don't ever deceive, darling. You mean too much to me and I to you."
The defense argued that Davis was befriended by a woman outwardly kind and sympathetic, but inwardly a hunting lesbian. Davis testified that Petley was generous and kind at first, however, she said that, "Before I knew it, Raewyn was in bed with me. I got a fright at first. She looked different. She said she wanted me. She tried to kiss me, and did. She looked like a man, not a woman. I finally gave in to Raewyn." And on the night of Petley's death Davis claimed Petley tried to prevent her from leaving the room. "The look I'd seen on Raewyn's face was more domineering than I'd ever seen before. I told her just to leave me alone, and I went to the door. Sister Petley was looking at me directly. She was sitting up in bed. The next thing I saw was this knife. I saw a lot of blood and that cut on her neck."
So the defense lawyer, Ryan, argued that even if Davis had killed Petley she did so in a state of automatism brought on by the shock of Petley's lesbian advances. And Petley was described as a congenital, or essential, lesbian – a smiling depressive and a hunting lesbian. And Davis was portrayed as an innocent seduced by Petley, and she was found not guilty of that crime.