A Domestic Tragedy (1905)

Papers Past—Evening Post—15 August 1905—A DOMESTIC TRAGEDY.

The Evening Post reports a case of revenge gone awry by an estranged husband, jealous at his wife’s apparently taking up with another man (“Domestic Tragedy,” Evening Post 70.39 [15 Aug. 1905]: 5, repr. Poverty Bay Herald 32.10436 [15 Aug. 1905]: 2, as “Shocking Domestic Tragedy,” Feilding Star 27.18 [15 Aug. 1905]: 2, and as “A Tragedy,” Colonist 47.11410 [16 Aug. 1905]: 4; the case was later summarised in “An Auckland Tragedy,” Otago Witness 23.2684 [23 Aug. 1905]: 18).

A Domestic Tragedy. Attempted Murder and Suicide.

[By Telegram.—Press Association.] Auckland, this day.

A domestic tragedy occurred at Arch Hill last night. John Davies [sic; for “Davis”], a man aged thirty-five years, followed his wife [Mrs Annie Davis] to the residence of Mrs. Alice Porter [in Russell St—now Cooper St, parallel to Commercial St], where a single young man named Richard Chapman was [also—or now, Mrs Davis having moved on] staying. The husband entered the house, found his wife and Chapman together, drew a revolver and fired at his wife. The shot missed her [because she threw herself on the ground—Davis apparently thought she was wounded], and the man then fired at Chapman, the bullet grazing his stomach. He next turned the weapon on himself shooting himself in the forehead. The man died instantaneously. Constable McGilp[, out in plain clothes on an operation] had observed a man prowling around suspiciously, and, following him, heard shots in the house. The constable rushed in. Davies turned a revolver at him, but did not fire, immediately afterwards blowing out his own brains.

Later: Mrs. Davies and Chapman came here from Sydney recently. Davies followed them [not so, says the Otago Witness, which reports evidence that Mrs Davis and Chapman did not even know each other; she had returned to the house where she had lodged to pick up her “machine”]. Last night, Davies was observed by the police evidently in a dangerous mood. He was watched by a policeman [McGilp] and another man [Murphy]. Davies, seeing he was followed, started running, jumped over a fence into the backyard of Mrs. Porter’s premises, pressed his lace against the window, and then entered the scullery. He fired a shot at his wife, who threw herself to the ground and escaped. Davies rushed past her and fired at Chapman. Mrs. Porter, on entering, ordered Davies off her premises. He then in her presence and in the presence of the constable blew his own brains out.

A report of the inquest the next day filled in more detail (“The Auckland Tragedy: Evidence at the Inquest,” Evening Post 70.40 [16 Aug. 1905]: 5):

[By Telegram.—Press Association.] Auckland, 15th August. An inquest concerning the death of John Davis, who committed suicide after attempting to shoot his wife, was held at 2 o’clock before Mr. T. Gresham, Coroner.

Dr. Sharman stated that when he arrived at the house at about a quarter past eight on Monday night, he found deceased lying on the floor of the back room, dead, and bleeding from a wound in the forehead about one and a half inches square. Death had taken place a few minutes before his arrival.

Richard Chapman, painter, of Arch Hill, declared that he could not identify Davis, as he had never known him.

Sergeant Williams: “Why, he lived with him for some time!”

The Coroner ordered witness to stand aside, observing, “I shall know how to deal with him by-and-bye.”

Constable McGilp said that last night at about eight o’clock, several persons complained to him that a man, who turned out to be [the] deceased, was prowling about at the back of some houses, as if searching for somebody boarding with Mrs. Alice Porter. [. . .]

The Otago Witness reports an ominous prophecy earlier that evening about “a strange man, who haunted backyards”: “As the constable passed up Russell street, a lady residing there stopped him, and said that the residents were very much terrified by the goings on of a strange man, who haunted backyards, going in and out. The constable walked away, and the woman called out to him, ‘It seems to me that something serious will happen at Mrs Porter’s house to-night.'” The Evening Post continues:

He [McGilp] called on Mrs. Porter, and she told him the man was John Davis, and that he was looking for his wife, who was in her [Porter’s] house. Witness and Mr. Murphy, a cabinetmaker, went to search for Davis, to ask him why he was prowling about. They had not gone far before they heard a shot. Meeting Chapman, he [McGilp] asked what he had been firing at. Witness then saw Davis on the verandah with Mrs. Porter. Davis pointed a revolver at witness, and then turned the revolver to his forehead and fired. He dropped dead at once. Chapman was very reticent right through. He made a remark, “It’s a good thing he’s gone, anyway” (meaning Davis). Mrs. Porter told witness Mrs. Davis was going to leave that night. She also stated that on a former occasion deceased had taken Mrs. Davis from a room where she and Chapman were together. Four or five weeks ago witness [McGilp] asked Chapman about Davis going to the house and taking his wife away, but Chapman refused to say anything.

Annie Davis deposed that her husband was a steel expert. He came from Sheffield about four years ago. He failed in business in Auckland about five months ago, and they agreed to separate. He then went to Dunedin, and she took rooms at Mrs. Porter’s. About three weeks ago her husband returned, and early one morning came with a revolver to where she was living, and told her to come with him. He took her to the Central Hotel, and a few days afterwards they went to live with Mrs. Scott in Queen-street. While there her husband tried to cut her throat with a razor, but Mrs. Scott prevented him. She then left him, and took rooms in Cook-street. On Monday evening she went to Mrs. Porter’s. Chapman and her husband were strangers, and there was no cause for jealousy. Her husband had been carrying a revolver for some time, and had threatened her life on many occasions.

Richard Chapman said he did not know deceased. Davis had no reason to be jealous of him.

The jury returned a verdict that deceased committed suicide whilst temporarily insane.

So, on one reading, there was a love triangle—the man of steel and the woman of little substance at the base, the woodworker at the vertex—that had begun in Sydney (assuming they came together, not just together) and migrated to Auckland several months earlier. Though Annie Davis had come to New Zealand and cohabited with her lover Chapman, she had taken up again, under duress or otherwise, with her husband, who had followed them here. Under this somewhat unlikely transformation, the curious triangle was reduced to its original dimensions when Mr drew a bead on Mrs Davis and fell well short. Temporary insanity—or sanity, given it was, perhaps, an admission that he was wrong about the affair—or, at least, in the wrong in what ensued. On the other reading, the third dimension of the love triangle was a figment of Davis’s fervid imagination: Annie Davis and Chapman came together, but not together; insane with jealousy, Davis wrongheadedly read prehabitation as cohabitation.

(P.S. In 1898 Constable McGilp was the sole charge police officer in the Hokianga; on April 28 he went to Waima to confront a gang of armed men led by Hone Toia refusing to pay the dog tax. They announced their intention to march on Rawene, the Hokianga administrative centre, to continue their dispute with the county council. McGilp called in reinforcements and the confrontation escalated. It became known by the somewhat hyperbolic title of the Dog Tax War.)

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