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Intolerance: The Wanganui Incident

Thu 13 Aug 2009 In: True Stories View at NDHA

It is New Zealand’s most tragic gay scandal. It might have begun in Wanganui but it finished, for one man, when he was shot dead on the streets of Berlin. It destroyed the life of another. It is the story of small minds and intolerance. David Herkt revisits the details.   Considering everything, if there is only one gay New Zealand story we need to know, it might be the life of Charles Mackay. The Wrestlers - purchased for the Wanganui Art Gallery by Charles Mackay [Photo: Peter Peryer] His story has everything – success, pride, desire, duplicity, treachery, defeat, and a triumphant survival in the face of ignominy – that is, until fate plays its final hand. It is a story that begins in Wanganui and finishes, for one of its protagonists, in Berlin on the eve of World War Two. It tells us much about the times but it also tells us about ourselves as New Zealanders - and not all its lessons are pleasant ones. Charles Mackay was elected to the mayoralty of Wanganui in 1906. He was a qualified lawyer and probably the most energetic and far-sighted Mayor that the city has ever seen. His legacy is still everywhere in Wanganui, from the layout of streets to the Dublin Street Bridge and the Sarjeant Art Gallery. But Charles MacKay had a secret. He might have been a 45 year old married man with two children but he also had homosexual impulses. He’d even tried to get treatment for them. And Mackay had just made a large enemy. He’d made himself unpopular with the Returned Servicemen’s Association (RSA). He hadn’t fought in World War One, like them, and his vision for the city wasn’t theirs. Everything came to a head during the preparations for the visit of the Prince of Wales who was touring New Zealand in 1920. Mackay opposed the RSA's plan to hold their own welcoming ceremony so the royal visit to Wanganui took place in an atmosphere of considerable acrimony. Gay rumours had been current about MacKay. In the city’s climate of political rancour, a shadowy plot was hatched. Even now those behind it are unexposed - we know what they did but we don’t know who planned it. We do know that the instrument of their revenge was a handsome 24-year old returned serviceman and want-to-be writer named D’Arcy Cresswell. It seems that Cresswell was actually paid to sexually entrap the Mayor – or at least his ‘expenses were covered.’ Once MacKay made his move, the idea was that Cresswell would then blackmail him into resigning from office. It didn’t quite go as planned. We know that during a ‘private’ tour of the Sarjeant Art Gallery which doubtless included the reproduction of the homoerotic Roman ‘Wrestlers’ sculpture that takes pride of place in its foyer, Mackay made advances to Cresswell. Cresswell stated that he had led Mackay on, "to make sure of his dirty intentions". They met again in Mackay's office. There Cresswell snapped shut the trap. Mackay bargained for hours, threatened suicide, and asked Cresswell to spare his family. Cresswell demanded that Mackay write a confession and a letter of resignation. Then, in Cresswell’s version, Mackay shouted “This is for you!’ and then shot Cresswell in the chest. In order to give the impression of suicide, Mackay put the revolver in Cresswell's hand. But, as he was leaving, the ‘dying’ man sat up and pointed the revolver at Mackay. Mackay slammed a door between them. Cresswell could not open it, so he threw a chair through the window and called for help. Mackay was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He pleaded guilty, acknowledging the factual truth of the statement that Cresswell had made from his hospital bed. No defence was called. Mackay was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, which he began serving in Mount Eden prison. On his recovery, Cresswell married and fathered a child, but the marriage did not last. Cresswell then embarked on a series of gay encounters – including one with a sailor he’d met in Christchurch. Then there were numerous ‘rough trade’ pick-ups in the time he spent in England. Cresswell tried to succeed as a writer but his works are banal. He grew to have an eventual belief that same-sex love was somehow superior to heterosexuality, which when compared to his behaviour during the Mackay incident can only be considered ironic. Cresswell’s ongoing life was that of a second-rater. His verse is nearly unreadable. He probably committed suicide in 1960. Mackay left New Zealand on his release from prison in 1926 and went to the UK where he began work as a reporter for the Sunday Express and from 1928 he was that newspaper’s Berlin correspondent. At that stage of things Berlin was widely regarded as the gay capital of the world but we know nothing of Mackay’s life there apart from the stories he filed until 3 May 1929. That night Mackay was out covering the street battles between Communist ‘irregulars’ and the Berlin police, when he was shot dead by a police officer – apparently the result of a misunderstanding. The whole story was a complete tragedy when the lives of the protagonists are examined. The only winners were the shadowy cabal of RSA veterans and businessmen who wanted to get rid of Mackay. The story seems to teach us that tolerance of others, if it does not conflict with self-interest, seems very much to be the New Zealand way. And in the face of self-interest New Zealanders can be ruthless and small-minded indeed. In the wake of the incident Mackay’s portrait was removed from the Wanganui Council Chambers and destroyed. Mackay Street had its name changed to Jellicoe Street. Mackay wasn’t mentioned in Civic histories for 50 years and his name was chiselled off the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Art Gallery. It was only replaced in 1985. However, historian Paul Diamond is currently researching a biography of Mackay. Writer Steven Eldred-Grigg has also worked on a novel about the Wanganui incident, particularly focusing on Mackay's life subsequent to the incident. The story, it seems, is something that just won't go away.     David Herkt - 13th August 2009

Credit: David Herkt

First published: Thursday, 13th August 2009 - 1:44pm

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