WHANGANUI, MANAWATU. On the 15th of May 1920, Wanganui citizens were shocked by a crime that involved their elected Mayor. The crime was reported on later in the New Zealand Truth newspaper, “The evidence which was adduced makes the case one of the most sensational in the annals of the New Zealand courts. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more extraordinary sequence of happenings. Charles Mackay, in his public business life, was a popular and successful man, but there was another and hideous side to his nature — a Jekyll as well as a Hyde to his character, and [Walter D’Arcy] Cresswell, a returned soldier, unmasked the debonair Mayor and discovered him to be another Oscar Wilde, morally unclean; a pursuer of perverted and putrid ‘pleasures’”.
Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.
Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust
Music sourced from:
“Sorry, I Meant to Say That You Are Eating A Cheeseburger”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Colorless Aura”, “Day of Chaos”, “Despair and Triumph”, “Leaving Home”, “Movement Proposition”, “Plaint”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0
The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but I make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.
On the 15th of May 1920, Wanganui citizens were shocked by a crime that involved their elected Mayor. The crime was reported on later in the New Zealand Truth newspaper, “The evidence which was adduced makes the case one of the most sensational in the annals of the New Zealand courts. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a more extraordinary sequence of happenings. Charles Mackay, in his public business life, was a popular and successful man, but there was another and hideous side to his nature — a Jekyll as well as a Hyde to his character, and [Walter D’Arcy] Cresswell, a returned soldier, unmasked the debonair Mayor and discovered him to be another Oscar Wilde, morally unclean; a pursuer of perverted and putrid ‘pleasures’”.
WALTER D’ARCY CRESSWELL
Walter D’Arcy Cresswell was born on the 22nd of January 1896. The third child to married couple Walter and Hannah Cresswell in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Cresswell’s were well established in NZ, having arrived in Canterbury 46 years earlier. Growing up he became known by his middle name, D’Arcy.
D’Arcy attended Elmwood Primary School before attending Christ’s College in his later teen years. After leaving school, Walter began working in the architectural sector. He worked for the firm Collins and Harman for a couple of years before travelling to London, England to continue his architectural studies.
However, due to the outbreak of ‘The Great War’ in 1914, D’Arcy enlisted as a private in the Middlesex Military Regiment in 1915. D’Arcy was sent to the front and was eventually wounded in combat in 1916 in France. After D’Arcy recuperated from his injuries he joined the Corps of New Zealand Engineers in 1917. He served in the NZ military until the end of the war, before eventually returning to NZ in 1919. D’Arcy rejoined his family now residing in Timaru in the Canterbury region.
By this time, D’Arcy’s sexuality was a topic of discussion with those who knew him. He attitude was described as being ‘ambivalent’ towards people of the opposite sex. In fact, he was known to have had homosexual relationships.
Homosexuality in the early 1900s was considered to be ‘unnatural offence’ and was regulated by the 1893 criminal code ‘Crimes Against Morality’, “Everyone is liable to imprisonment with hard labour for life, and according to his age, to be flogged or whipped once, twice, or thrice, [those] who commits buggery either with a human being or with any other living creature”.
D’Arcy also had a creative and artistic side that only bloomed after the war. Upon returning to NZ, D’Arcy was inspired to write and took up writing poetry:
Plant thou in a poet’s heart
One dear word or look or deed,
As the oak excels its seed
So it will increase with Art.
On that dark and holy ground
Didst thou drop one silent tear,
In the season of the year
Something mighty will be found
- The Poet’s Heart by Walter D’Arcy Cresswell
D’Arcy later wrote in his autobiography about his time post World War I and returning to NZ:
“When I reached home I made no secret of what my ambitions were, but surprised all who knew me; and my health being poor, and no decision as to what profession I should adopt being required of me for over a year, I visited such parts of NZ as I had never seen, to improve my health, and to advance my design of founding my poetry on the traditions, customs and scenery of my native land. I was already resolved on returning to England soon after, without being committed to any profession, except perhaps authorship and to this only in the vaguest terms…”
“But those who had known me longest thought my pretensions absurd. That I might succeed as a writer of prose they did not deny: indeed they urged me to develop this gift however I might, and write poetry in my spare time; and no doubt God created the Universe in His spare time, at least in six days, and they must have been thinking of that. Poets, at any rate, have no spare time; and idleness, that is the curse of other men, is the nurse of poets…”
On the 10th of May 1920, D’Arcy travelled to the small town of Wanganui to visit relatives. The next day, D’Arcy travelled with his cousin to the horse races in Hawera, 90km north-west of Wanganui. They returned to Wanganui the next day. The following evening, the 13th of May 1920, D’Arcy was introduced to the mayor of Wanganui, Charles Mackay.
Charles Evan Mackay was born in the South Island town of Nelson on the 29th of June 1875, son to Joseph and Jessie Mackay. Charles was from a middle class background, his father was a high school mathematics teacher and he eventually became the headmaster of Wellington College in 1891.
Charles was considered an intelligent and gifted individual, graduating from Canterbury College in 1900 with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws. After graduating, Charles became a lawyer and established a law firm in the north island city of Wanganui.
Charles met a woman by the name of Isobel Duncan in the ‘River City’ and eventually married her on the 20th of January 1904. Isobel was from a wealthy and well known family in Wanganui. This raised Charles’ stature in the community even further. Charles and Isobel produced three children in the succeeding years.
Charles would leverage his new found ‘celebrity’ to run for local office, he was elected to the Wanganui Borough Council in November 1905 before being elected mayor of Wanganui the following year in 1906.
Charles was a popular mayor, responsible for much of the town’s growth over the next decade, he was instrumental in improving the town’s infrastructure, including it’s roads, water supply and fire services. Charles was also responsible for the erection of the Dublin Street Bridge and the Whanganui Sarjeant Art Gallery.
Charles’ popularity suffered somewhat due to him not serving in World War I and he was briefly out of office from 1913 to 1915. Charles’ ‘non-veteran’ status led to an open feud with the Wanganui Returned Soldiers’ Association (RSA). The conflict came to a head during a visit from the Prince of Wales on the 3rd of May 1928. The RSA wanted to hold their own welcoming ceremony separate from the mayors. Due to this hostility, Charles feared for his safety and began carrying a revolver.
Things became even more complicated for Charles when he was introduced to a young poet who was visiting Wanganui from Timaru. On the 13th of May 1920, Charles Mackay met the young man dubbed Walter D’arcy Cresswell. They apparently got along so well, Charles invited him out that night for dinner at a hotel. This event apparently went so salubriously that Charles invited D’Arcy out once more the next night, this time to the art gallery.
14 MAY 1920
Friday. The evening of the 14th of May 1920. Charles and D’Arcy met at the Whanganui art gallery. Charles used his private key to get in. What happened inside can only be speculated on, but presumably the twosome wandered the exhibits before probably spending some time observing the gallery’s pride and joy, a marble reproduction of the famous statue — ‘The Wrestlers’, depicting two nude greek males in the act of grappling.
Once the twosome had seen the sights, Charles invited D’Arcy back to his office on Ridgway Street and according to D’Arcy, Charles then showed him his private collection of nude female photographs. D’Arcy also ‘led the mayor on’ and there were rumours that Charles had ‘come on’ to the poet.
At this point, D’Arcy began blackmailing the Whanganui mayor demanding that he resign from his position or he would be outed as being a ‘pervert’. It was at this point, the mayor began pleading with D’Arcy for mercy before Charles asked D’Arcy to think his decision over and suggested they reconvene the next morning.
The next morning, the 15th of May 1920, D’Arcy arrived at the mayor’s office around 9.30am. Much of the morning was spent with Charles pleading D’Arcy for clemency before eventually Charles agreed to sign a letter saying he would resign his mayoralty in one month.
As the meeting was wrapping up, Charles led D’Arcy to the door, before suddenly pulling out a revolver and pointing it at him, “This is for you” he uttered before pulling the trigger. BANG! The gun discharged and the bullet entered D’Arcy’s chest.
Charles at this point, believing D’Arcy to be dead, placed the revolver in the hand of D’Arcy apparently trying to stage the scene to look like a suicide. As Charles turned to leave, D’Arcy rose ponting the revolver at him. Charles quickly slammed the door. D’Arcy tried the door but it was locked, he looked around the room pondering his next move. D’Arcy grabbed a nearby chair and flung it at the office window — smashing it. D’Arcy put his head out the window and yelled, “Help, I’ve discovered a scandal”.
At this point, the Mayor rushed back into the room and asked for D’Arcy to shoot him. D’Arcy aimed the revolver at him. A short moment passed before Charles rushed at D’Arcy, D’Arcy fired off the remaining bullets in the chamber but missed the charging mayor.
Soon after, the passer byers off the street rushed in, D’Arcy lost consciousness moments later uttering the words, “The mayor shot me” — he was rushed to hospital.
When the police showed up, Charles Mackay tried to tell them that he was only showing D’Arcy the gun when it discharged by accident. Confused, the police asked, “What about the chair?”, “What chair?” Charles replied — the police directed his attention to the chair that shattered the window, now lying in the middle of Ridgway Street. Charles had no answer. Charles was arrested and charged with attempted murder.
D’Arcy recovered relatively quickly from his injuries, considering the bullet was never recovered from his lung. D’Arcy gave a statement to the police saying he was shot by Charles Mackay when D’Arcy had discovered “a certain disgusting feature” about the Whanganui mayor:
“I am a returned soldier, twenty-four years of age, and reside with my parents at Timaru, in the South Island. I have done no work since I returned from the war. I came to Wanganui on Monday last, May 10, and met Mr. Mackay on that date. I met him at dinner at Chavannes’ Hotel that night. I had gone there with my cousin at Mackay’s invitation. Nothing abnormal occurred while at dinner…”.
“My cousin and myself went to the Hawera races on May 11, and returned to Wanganui the following evening. I met Mr. Mackay on the Thursday and asked him to come to dinner at the Rutland Hotel that night with my cousin and myself. Mr. Mackay kept the appointment, but nothing took place while we were at the hotel, and I had not said anything to Mr. Mackay that would offend him”.
“On the Thursday evening Mr. Mackay invited me to go to the art gallery with him on the following afternoon. I accepted his invitation as I wanted to know more about Mr. Mackay. On the Friday afternoon, about 4pm, I met Mr. Mackay at his office in Ridgway-street. We went to the Wanganui Club in St. Hill-street and had a cup of tea. From there we went to the art gallery. Mr. Mackay unlocked the door as he had the keys, and then we had a look through the building. When we left the art gallery we went back to Mackay’s office, and while there I discovered a certain disgusting feature in Mr. Mackay’s character. I purposely encouraged him to display the qualities in his nature which I expected. He also showed me several photographs of nude women. On making that discovery I told him I had lead him on on purpose to make sure of his dirty intentions, and I told him also, amongst a lot of other candid things, that he must resign the Mayoralty at once. He then pleaded for mercy; asked me to think it over for the night and come and see him next morning and let him know my decision. I stayed at the Rutland Hotel on Friday night, and that night I decided he must resign the Mayoralty in a week’s time”.
“I called on him at 9.30am at his office and the whole morning was spent by him in pleading with me, on account of his wife and family, not to force him to resign. I, however, was quite determined that he should resign, even though he threatened to commit suicide. I did not believe that he had the courage to carry out his threat. At my suggestion and partly at my dictation, Mackay wrote a letter to my cousin, and I saw it posted on that Saturday morning. I did not believe Mackay when he said his wife was dependent on the £200 he got from his being Mayor. I was very anxious to be just and to do nothing cruel for his family’s sake”.
“After useless talking and long silence, he asked me to come round to the club and try and reconsider my decision over a cup of tea. As I could not stand being in his office much longer and was very knocked up, I consented and we went round. Here he became very earnest about his decision to commit suicide and the absolute impossibility of his resigning the Mayoralty. He told me he was suffering from a complaint which made it impossible for him to control his passions, and said that his doctor could satisfy me in that respect. He rang up his doctor two or three times, but he was out”.
“Nothing more happened, and Mackay then pleaded with me to come to his office. I think I was very foolish not to have left him, but I was anxious to be quite just to him. I had promised to say nothing about what I had discovered if he would resign at the end of the week… I took a more determined stand, being very tired, and threatened that if he did not immediately give me a letter promising to resign at the end of the week I would at once wire to my dad in Timaru to come up, as I felt it was too much of a strain on me alone. He seemed so terribly upset that I then extended the time for a fortnight. He implored me for a month’s time and spoke a lot about his wife and family, and I was quite firm about the fortnight. He then asked for a few minutes alone to clear his head or something of the sort… He was away a few minutes and then came back and said: ‘Cresswell, give me a month and I will sign a letter straight away’, and he came over to his table and wrote a letter promising to resign the Mayoralty a month from that date and put it in a long envelope”.
“We then arranged that it should be addressed to me at the G.P.O. and registered and I promised to let it be there till the month was up, so he put it in his pocket and we walked towards the door, Mackay leading the way. Before reaching the door Mackay suddenly turned round, and I found that he had a revolver pointed at my chest. We were only a foot or two apart, and I think he said: ‘This is for you’, but I am not positive. Then he fired almost immediately, and before I could recover from my amazement I felt the bullet enter my right breast, and I fell down”.
“He stood where he was and looked at me and then came over and thrust the revolver into my right hand. Immediately I got the revolver I rose to my feet and kept him covered. He looked very surprised and wild and then ran through another door and either locked it or held the handle against me. I did not wait but ran back into Mackay’s office fronting Ridgway-street and threw a chair through the window to bring assistance, and then I called out through the smashed window to some chaps in the street to come up. Then Mackay evidently hearing my calls for help and thinking he could not escape, came back and asked me to shoot him. Then he rushed me and I kept the revolver pointed clear and pulled all the shots off, and the next thing I can remember I was running down the stairs and telling someone that Mackay had shot me. I heard Mackay say over the stairs that he had shot me by accident. I don’t remember much more”.
The statement was taken to Charles Mackay in the presence of his lawyer Mr Treadwell. Charles read over the statement with his lawyer, after twenty minutes the police were called back in. The police were informed that Charles had read over the statement and has endorsed its contents, “I have read the above statement, and so far as it relates to my own act and deed I admit the statement to be substantially true”.
On the 28th of May 1920, Charles Mackay, the Mayor of Wanganui appeared in the Wanganui Courthouse — when asked how he plead to the crime of attempted murder of Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, Charles quietly declared, “I plead guilty”.
Charles Mackay’s lawyers presented evidence from his doctor that Charles was treated for ‘homosexual monomania’ in 1914. This treatment was most likely hypnosis. This marked the first time ‘homosexual’ was used publicly in New Zealand. This defence was used to try and explain Charles’ actions as he had a ‘nervous disorder’ which homosexuality was seen as. However, the defence did not work and Charles Mackay was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Mount Eden Prison.
WALTER D’ARCY CRESSWELL AFTERMATH
Post ‘The Wanganui Affair’, in April 1921, Walter D’Arcy Cresswell left NZ once more for England. D’Arcy lived a nomadic lifestyle for the next four years, wandering through Europe — taking on journalism work to feed himself while he continued to work on his poems.
In August of 1925, D’Arcy surprised those who knew him by marrying a young lady named Emily Dreda Dacie in London, England. The marriage produced one son before it ended in early 1926.
D’Arcy continued to work on his poetry. In 1930, he released a collection of poems dubbed ‘The Poet’s Progress’. The book had modest success and he followed it up the following year with another book of poetry.
D’Arcy returned to NZ in 1931 and stayed for seven years. During this time he continued to work on his poetry and began writing his autobiography. D’Arcy returned to England in 1938 and worked as a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
D’Arcy Cresswell’s autobiography was released the following year, dubbed ‘Present Without Leave’. D’Arcy continued working on his poetry for the next couple of decades, finding some success and releasing many collections of his work.
From 1950 to 1960 D’Arcy worked as a night-watchman at the historic Somerset House, this occupation allowed him the time he needed to work on his real passion, writing poems.
However, his life came to an abrupt halt on the 20th of February 1960 when Walter D’Arcy Cresswell was found dead at his home. The cause of death was found to be carbon monoxide poisoning. The death was determined to be accidental but the circumstances surrounding his death still remain mysterious.
CHARLES MACKAY AFTERMATH
In the years subsequent to ‘The Wanganui Affair’, the town tried to erase Charles Mackay from their history, destroying his mayoral portrait, changing the name of the street named after him and sanding his name off the foundation stone at the art gallery. Charles’ wife divorced him before changing her name to distance herself from his sordid crimes. Charles Mackay was erased from Wanganui’s history.
Charles served six years of his fifteen year sentence and was released in August 1926. Charles was released on the condition he left the country for England. Charles’ sister escorted him to England and helped him get work in the new land.
By 1928, Charles was working for the United Kingdom Sunday Express newspaper as a reporter. In mid-1928 Charles was sent to Berlin, Germany to cover the upcoming May Day protests. Earlier in the year, the German Social Democratic Party had emerged with the largest number of seats in the federal election. This upset supporters of the Communist Party of Germany, the Communist affiliated newspapers urged their supporters to take to the streets in protest of the election result.
The protest went ahead on the 1st of May 1928, May Day. Charles Mackay was there to observe and report for the Sunday Express. Charles wandered around and ended up with a group of Communist protesters. While Charles was following the group around, they ended up being confronted by police outside of a clothing store. The communist supporters began yelling at the German police — things apparently got out of hand and the police opened fire on the group. Charles Mackay was hit by a passing bullet and died shortly after.
Charles Mackay was buried in a cemetery in Berlin. The grave has since been reused and another coffin lays on top of Charles’ final resting spot. A somewhat appropriate ending for Wanganui’s forgotten mayor.
Charles Mackay’s death was reported on sporatactly in Wanganui newspapers but most of the town’s citizens, since he was expunged from the town’s history, had forgotten about the once popular Mayor.
Charles’ name wouldn’t be reintroduced to Wanganui until 1985 when his name was finally reinstated on the foundation stone at the Wanganui Sargeant art gallery — due to the efforts of homosexual rights advocates in Wanganui.
Ultimately, the story of Walter D’Arcy Cresswell and Charles Mackay is one of the wildest and most sordid scandals Wanganui ever saw. Neither man spoke of the crime again so we only have D’Arcy’s statement of what happened that day. It is widely considered today that D’Arcy schmemed with his cousin to get Charles ousted from his position as Mayor. The motivation of D’Arcy’s cousin is unknown, but it is speculated that he may have been involved with the Wanganui RSA and their longstanding grudge with Charles.
‘The Wanganui Affair’ serves as a testament to a time more reserved and conservative than today, a time when systematic homophobia was written into the laws of our society — when being a homosexual wasn’t just frowned upon but illegal. It wouldn’t be until 1986 when the ‘Homosexual Law Reform Act’ was passed that the state would reconise homosexuality as a ligitimate sexual choice — when the act finially decriminalised male homosexuality. Then in 1993 the ‘NZ Human Rights Act’ was passed, creating anti-discimination laws against homosexual men and women. Finally giving equal rights to those who are attracted to the same sex.
However it is interesting to look at this crime through the lens of 2020 and observe a man, a Mayor so ashamed of he was — he was willing to murder to keep it hidden. The ‘Crimes Against Morality Act’ led newspapers at the time to describe Charles’ character and the role he played in ‘The Wanganui Affair’ as, “morally unclean; [and] a pursuer of perverted and putrid ‘pleasures’”.
It is interesting to ponder how different the lives of D’Arcy Cresswell and Charles Mackay would have been if they had lived post the 1993 NZ Human Rights Act. Would Charles have acted the same, so desperately? I guess we can only wonder, and hope, that today — in a country with less systematic homophobia, ‘The Wanganui Affair’ would’ve ended less hopelessly, less destructively — less wickedly.
This was part two of the three part look into crime in Wanganui. Join us next time as we jump forward in time to the 1990s to cover one of Whanganui’s darkest days. Until then stay safe my friends, peace.
Paper Past, Cresswell’s Statement, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/MEX192005188.8.131.52
NZ Herald, Sarjeant Happenings: Remembering Whanganui’s ‘sensation’, infamous mayor Charles Mackay, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/north-island/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503932&objectid=12333002
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NZ History, Controversial ex-mayor killed in Berlin riots, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/controversial-ex-mayor-killed-berlin-riots
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Wikipedia, Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_Law_Reform_Act_1986
NZ History, Homosexual law reform, https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/homosexual-law-reform/setting-the-scene
Papers Past, Mayor Mackay: Malefactor, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTR19200605.2.23
NZ Herald, Scandal-hit gay Whanganui mayor Mackay ‘deserves recognition’, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11963997
NZ Herald, ‘Unsavoury’ story of ex Whanganui mayor to be told, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/wanganui-chronicle/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503426&objectid=11886718
Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, Present Without Leave, https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE26018988
John Newton, D’Arcy Cresswell, 1896 – 1960, https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/kotare/article/view/710/521
William Stevenson Broughton, W. D’Arcy Cresswell, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason: An Examination of Certain Aspects of Their Lives and Works, https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/2052