Sunday, 8 April 2012

The McKenzie Case: A tragedy that rocked 1923 Brisbane.

View of the city from One Tree Hill (Mt Coot-tha) in 1925 (State Library of Qld)
In researching material for the weekly articles, I regularly come across all range of events in Brisbane's history - stories of tribulation, accounts of hardship, amazing developments & tales of tragedy...whilst the bulk of these stories lack any link to the supernatural, occasionally a tale leaps from the pages of history & begs to be told, if for no other reason than to remind us of how fickle life can be.  These events, as they unravelled, permanently affected the psyche of Brisbane's society - the following tale of woe is one of those occurrences...

On Saturday the 6th of October 1923, as the sun rose over Brisbane & lit the slopes of One Tree Hill overlooking the city, the broken body of a woman was discovered by Kangaroo Point resident Frank Beckey.  Returning from a stroll up the mountain, Frank had chosen a side track during his descent, & had inadvertently stumbled across the morbid sight.  The Police at Toowong were immediately called for, & Constable Richard Arnold from Taringa & fellow Officers from the area raced to the scene.  Frank led the Officers to the body - to the woman's right sat an automatic .22 calibre pistol, three rounds spent & four still viable...beside her left hand, the crumpled photo of a man stared stoically towards the sky.  A handbag was also visible alongside the body, containing a handkerchief, gloves, a silver pencil case & 2/9½ in coins.  It was evident that the woman had chosen to end her own life, gunshot wounds being visible over her heart & also to her right temple - three expended projectiles removed during the post-mortem examination would verify the fact.  The Coroner would conclude that death had occurred approximately 24 hours beforehand.  On closer examination of the body, seven visiting cards bearing the name "Mrs Donald McKenzie" were located...it was now likely that the body was that of Miriam McKenzie, although her motive for suicide was unclear...if only just for a moment...

No sooner had the body been located & conveyed to the morgue for autopsy, than a letter was received at the Criminal Investigation Branch in Brisbane via the post.  Upon opening the envelope & revealing the letter contained inside, the Police stood in shock...Miriam McKenzie, who's body had been recovered only hours beforehand in bushland on One Tree Hill, had posted her suicide note to them directly: 

October 4, 1923.
To the Police,

I shall die by my own hand tomorrow morning.  I can be of no further assistance to my husband, and so feel I have nothing to live for.  I appeal to you and to those who are bringing charges against him to consider the succession of severe shocks to which his nerves had been subjected, and to remember that the man with 100 degrees of resisting power, who failed because he was assailed by 101 degrees of temptation, should not be condemned in the minds of the people who were infinitely weaker, but were never assailed by the one overwhelming degree of temptation.

Out in the sunshine, amongst the big, clean things of creation, I shall go contentedly and calmly; I love him and he loves me, and we understand each other.

If any doctor would be kind enough to do so, please allow him to sever my jugular vein.

Miriam McKenzie


8 a.m.,  October 5. - I am still of the same opinion.  M. McK. 

A simple postscript was written at the bottom of the page, but had been crossed out - "Please let Donald keep my message and photograph."  The suicide & above letter would have likely struck the Brisbane Police like a bolt from God...although, Miriam & her husband Donald were well known to them, due to a Court hearing that was in progress at the time...

A week earlier, on the 25th of September, Donald McKenzie had been arrested in Brisbane after having fled south with his wife Miriam, from Wowan just south-west of Rockhampton.  As Manager of the Wowan Cotton Ginnery, alongside his Clerk Alfred Hyde, Donald was accused of conspiring to steal £243 from the British Australian Cotton Growing Association.  Three days later on September the 28th, Donald finally obtained bail & was met by his wife Miriam outside the prison, who, against the charges being levelled at her husband, was convinced of his innocence.  However, upon his release Donald confessed to his partner that he was indeed guilty of the charge...a confession, whilst shocking, his wife was willing to forgive with the promise she would wait out any prison sentence he might be issued.  The following days, however, took their toll, as Miriam's faith began to falter... it had been put to her that Donald could likely be facing three to five years in prison for his crime.  Approaching her husband with an agonising concept, Miriam floated the idea that they should both commit suicide to escape the inevitable...a notion Donald quashed immediately...he would face the charges head-on.

Donald was due for his day in the Brisbane Police Court on Wednesday the 3rd of October, which he attended with his head held high.  After an initial hearing, his case was remanded for a week...unfortunately though, further bail was not granted & Donald was conveyed to the City Watch House.  Distraught over her husband's plight, Miriam followed her husband to the Watch House & spent time with him...it would be the last time he would see her alive.  Still detained on Sunday the 7th of October, the news was broken to Donald that his wife had been found dead on the slopes of One Tree Hill, having committed suicide in an attempt to gain leniency in his case...four days later on the 11th of October, the Police Magistrate Hewan Archdall acknowledged the death of Miriam McKenzie in Donald's case, & under Section 656 of the Criminal Code (First Offenders Act), he was allowed to walk out of the Court with a six month suspended sentence.  However, Donald's suffering was yet to end, as the Inquest into his wife's death was due to begin...

On Wednesday the 17th of October, not even a full week after being released from the Watch House pending his own criminal case, Donald found himself back in the witness box at the Police Court.  In an attempt to explain his wife's suicide, Donald stated, "She was so much attached to me that I think she did it to endeavour to create sympathy for me when I was being tried, in order that I might be dealt with leniently."  Further evidence was given two days later on the 19th, during which Miriam's recent state of mind was called into question & her suicide letter was tendered as evidence. After a great deal of evidence was proffered, the Inquest was adjourned until Monday the 12th of November...a date that would see the entire sorry saga brought to a close.  At the same moment that Miriam's Inquest was being continued in the Police Court, local resident George Wells was walking through Toowong Cemetery & came upon a gruesome scene - a man sprawled across the new grave of Miriam McKenzie, just beyond the main gates of the cemetery.  George could see a revolver, a woman's picture & a leather attaché case lying alongside the body, & it was evident the man had been shot in the temple.  Much to George's shock, however, he discovered the man had miraculously survived the horrific head wound - ambulance bearers were called for immediately, however their efforts were for naught...the still unconscious victim, Donald McKenzie, passed away at the Brisbane General Hospital 4 hours later.

Donald's suicide shouldn't have come as a surprise to the authorities - in the days leading up to his death, he had written numerous letters to the Police & Prison Officials alluding to his plans.  The most poignant of these letters had been sent to Police Magistrate Hewan Archdall, who had presided over Donald's criminal hearing:

Some time during the next few days I will have stepped over into the great divide.  My wife, who was always the soul of honour, would not wish me to break my word to you, although she will be happy and contented to know that I am joining her to complete the wonderful companionship which has been ours for the past seven years.

I pass out because I cannot face the punishment which I have mentally inflicted upon me for the remainder of my existence, and because I have nothing to live for.  My wife was my one inspiration in all things.

Few men have had the experiences that have been mine.  As a soldier I have seen service in six campaigns in various parts of the world - in the South African Campaign, in Burma, the Andaman Isles, India, and during the late war in West Africa, East Africa, and Jubaland; and I have always earned a good reputation.  As a civilian I have accomplished much, and met with many reverses.

My wife knew my feelings when I was put into the cage - captivity to one who could find the greatest joy in existence, out of his wife's companionship, and before he knew her, in climbing the Himalayas, or walking across Central Africa, enjoying the open spaces of South Africa, chasing cattle in the back-blocks of West Australia, cutting timber in the South-west of West Australia, or in the mountains of Oregon...when the hardest work was never too hard.  Had my wife lived, any promise I made you would have been kept.

Reports of the sorry conclusion to the McKenzie case went national, running in every major newspaper across the country.  However, the case was about to unleash one last major twist, which in itself would shock Brisbane equally in comparison to what had already occurred.  On Friday the 11th of January 1924, the Inquest into the death of Donald McKenzie was heard - documents recovered from the leather attaché case found beside Donald in Toowong Cemetery featured predominantly in the Inquiry.  Further letters contained in the case, to the Police & Prison Officials, confirmed that his death was a suicide...however, one document would leave Police gob-smacked, especially after the recent embezzlement case.  It was discovered that Donald McKenzie wasn't really Donald McKenzie at all - he was, in fact, Otto Leopold Bergstrom!  Having been born near Birkenhead in England, Otto had seen military service with the Liverpool Regiment before finally arriving in Western Australia with his wife in 1911.

However, married life was cruel to Otto, who described his wife as "a fiend in human form" - on one occasion she had shot him in the arm...on another, she attempted to strike him in the head with an axe as he slept.  Having had enough, Otto deserted his wife in 1914 & fled to Johannesburg under the name of McDonald, with his sweetheart Miriam Greenwood in tow.  After further military service in Africa during WWI, Otto & Miriam finally returned to Australia in 1918 under the guise of a married couple...although it wasn't long before Otto's legitimate wife finally caught up with the pair.  She proceeded against him in Court for maintenance, to the tune of £345, & Otto & Miriam immediately fled under the aliases of Donald & Miriam McKenzie.  For the next few years, they lived for short stints in Sydney, Oregon in the United States, Araluen in southern New South Wales, Highgate Hill in Brisbane & finally Wowan, where Donald attempted to defraud the Wowan Ginnery of £243 - it's highly likely that the maintenance debt hanging over Donald's head finally drove him to the attempted embezzlement of the British Australian Cotton Growing Association...& the rest of the story, as you've read, became a tragic tale in the historic record of Brisbane.

Amongst the bundle of papers removed from Donald's attaché case immediately proceeding his death, Police discovered a letter addressed to funeral directors Messrs John Hislop & Sons - Donald had prepared a written request to be buried with "my dear wife, Miriam."  On Tuesday the 13th of November 1923, a day after he had ended his own life on the same spot, Donald was laid to rest with his sweetheart Miriam, at the foot of One Tree Hill where she'd taken her own life barely a month earlier...hence, thus ended the tale of Brisbane's real-life Romeo & Juliet...

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