Content Warning: This episode discusses Pseudocide – the act of faking one’s own death.
I also cut and slashed at this script considerably in the podcast editing process. I think some parts which still work here didn’t in that format this week.
This week we start with a brief detour to Waitakere, New Zealand – the city where I grew up. If telling a tale closer to my own time I might be speaking of a fiercely proud, growing, largely working class city that really boomed in the wake of World War Two. Postwar the country moved from a largely agrarian economy – one big old farm – to an increasingly industrial one. Suburban, quarter acre dreams flourished among the returning soldiers, as the back blocks of West Auckland grew into suburbia. Many of these burbs seemed a little soulless when compared to earlier villages, and suburban neurosis grew among the mothers particularly, who at least in the 1950s were still the homemakers, as a general rule – cue Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’
But no, this tale is somewhat earlier – even if it too concentrates on dissatisfaction and inertia. In the 1840s European settlers arrived in Waitakere, some buying large blocks of land from the Maori, Ngati Whatua tribe. Our digression is seven decades after this, when a handful of small, rural settlements were in existence in West Auckland – largely surrounded by towering kauri forests. Intrepid souls came to log the Kauri trees, dig the kauri gum, and turn flax into rope. Over time orchards and wineries grew on land already denuded of Kauri. A brick works supplying a familiar red block first appeared in the 1860s – a few years after Crown Lynn pottery (first set up in Hobsonville in the 1850s- an area later known for it’s airforce base – but moving nearer the brick works in New Lynn in the 1920s)
Waitakere was quiet, largely rustic and enveloped in bush – the local word for local forest.
On those red bricks… It is 1910 and a couple of young kids are out exploring the mangrove swamps in a small, leaky rowboat. Mangroves like these are still there, though the creeks, streams and inlets – Huruhuru, Henderson’s, Oratia – and the rest were all much deeper then as a general rule. With little expectation of finding anything man-made, these two kids pushed on through twisting, convoluted waterways – till they stumbled upon an archway made of those red clay bricks. Someone had tunnelled into the shoreline – cutting a small harbour just beyond the arch. Beyond that, an orchard full of apple, plum and pear trees. Further tunnels were cut into the shore, containing store rooms for apples, a fairly rudimentary shack, and a library.
Docked, a sea-worthy vessel named the Awatea. On board a man presumed dead for close to a decade. That man is a diversion from our main Tale – but he’s worthy of a little explanation.
Henry Swan was born in Gateshead, England around 1856. Born to wealthy railroad investors, Henry wanted for nothing growing up. He studied law, and on graduation, went straight into partnership with the firm Arnott and Swan. From what little we know of him, he worked at Arnott & Swan till the mid 1890s – afterwards, with his wife Edith, packing up and moving to New Zealand.
I can’t say what he wanted out of New Zealand, but Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore – even now a village with more than it’s share of Victorian English charm – wasn’t it. Henry became increasingly restless, and in 1901 bought the Awatea. In 1895, an American adventurer named Joshua Slocum set off on a record-breaking voyage in his own sloop – the Spray. A little over three years later he returned, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. His book, ‘Sailing alone Around the World’ – retold Slocum’s voyage. In 1901 this book was a popular new release.
Henry Swan announced to Edith he was following in Slocum’s footsteps. Little did his friends or family know he’d quietly bought 69 acres of land near Henderson Creek. He sold all but 13 acres – which he kept for himself.
While Henry’s friends and family all thought he was lost at sea, he was living the simple life. He toiled in his orchard, cross-breeding fruit trees. He read his books. He swam in the creek. When word got out there was a hermit in the creek, numbers of curious visitors started to show up. Henry, it turns out, enjoyed their company. He made friends in the area and started to dig further into the embankments to make a wading pool where local kids could learn to swim. A fire and, later, flooding wrecked much of his orchard, library and shack in the 1920s.
Henry Swan continued to live on his boat – beyond the brick archway – till his death in 1931, aged 75. Edith lived on till 1940, in Devonport, apparently none the wiser as to her husband’s fate.
I mention Henry’s tale as, though the water is long gone, a portion of his arch remains along Central Park Drive. When I taught at a West Auckland high school I’d pass it most mornings. When I’ve explained the origin of Swan’s Arch to friends before, most were surprised and had never heard the Tale, though they knew the landmark… so to any curious Westies, there you go…
But Henry Swan is also an example of pseudocide – the practice of faking one’s own death to begin anew. New Zealand has a few notable tales to tell on that subject.
Take, for example, Grace Oakeshott.
Grace Oakeshott was born in Hackney, England in 1872 to Elizabeth and James Cash. The Cash family were upwardly mobile, James making a good living selling stationery. They were also progressives who believed women deserved many of the same opportunities as men – education included. Because of this, Grace and her sisters did receive a good education -Grace going on to study at Cambridge University for a year in 1893. At this point Cambridge had begun admitting women, but not yet allowing them to gain any qualifications for their hard work (they could only sit an exam referred to as ‘a little go’ – and presumably tell people they gave university ‘a little go’). In the years following Cambridge, Grace became involved in activism. Briefly a teacher, she took a job as a factory inspector for the Women’s Industrial Council – a group concerned with women’s wages and workplace safety. Some time in the early 1890s she met and fell in love with Harold Oakeshott – a tea taster by day, socialist activist by night. The couple married in 1896.
Though a tea taster, Harold was far from a teetotaller – unbeknownst to most who knew him, Harold was a raging alcoholic. This was very likely a big push factor in Grace’s disappearance.
In 1899 Grace and Harold joined Grace’s brother on a sailing holiday. Also on the jaunt, a young medical student friend of Grace’s brother, named Walter Reeve. A good time was had by all, and afterwards all went back to their day to day drudgery. They repeated the holiday the following year, and the first signs appeared that Grace and Walter were fond of one another – one night as the two went for a moonlight boat ride. Harold missed the boat, having drunk himself into a stupor. Following this holiday, not only did Grace, Harold and Walter keep in touch, the three became inseparable….
… and nothing much of note happened till 1907. Walter graduated from medical school, and was looking for working opportunities in New Zealand. One view of New Zealand in 1907 was it was a burgeoning working class utopia. Some time in 1840 a carpenter named Samuel Parnell started the eight hour workday by refusing to work longer. This took off with other workers, becoming commonplace.
In September 1893, owing to a lot of lobbying, women gained the right to vote in elections. Universal male suffrage didn’t even come to the UK till 1918 – New Zealand was there in 1879.
While I don’t want to gloss over all manner of issues New Zealand had at the time, largely around treatment of Maori, and of Asian immigrants – it was seen as a workers paradise, where the proletariat had no need to doff one’s cap to their supposed betters.
Back to Walter’s job opportunities, Grace’s unhappy marriage – and, well… poor old Harold. Grace had by then fallen in love with Walter. She wanted nothing more than to move to New Zealand too – but being now of a respected class – she counted H.G Wells and William Morris among her friends – she felt divorce was not an option.
On August 27th 1907 Grace travelled to Brittany, France for a holiday. One day (for some reason I imagine it a stormy, inky dark night; the water frigid and crashing hard on the beach – but this was in summer, and I’ve never seen a report that states at what time of day she disappeared) Grace folded her clothes on the beach, went out for a swim – and was never seen again.
Joan Reeve, on the other hand – newly wedded to Dr Walter Reeve, appears to have swum over to the next beach, got dressed, met up with her husband – and on 26th September boarded a ship, first to Australia, then New Zealand. Joan and Walter settled in Gisborne, New Zealand. They had three children together. Joan became involved in local activism, earning an MBE for her hard work.
Joan Reeve, formerly Grace Oakeshott, died of multiple sclerosis, 11th December 1928.
My final case study, that of Ron Jorgensen, is altogether far murkier. To tell this Tale I needs must cover an infamous murder. But first, briefly back to the era of the Reeves.
New Zealand were the first nation where women had the right to vote in democratic elections. One major reason for this was, since the 1880s there had been a big push to ban alcohol by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement – headed by one Kate Sheppard. While some politicians pushed for the enfranchisement of women from the late 1870s primarily due to the influence of utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill, there was also a faction swayed by an opposition to “the demon drink”. Others were likely populists who recognised women were a large potential voting base for them.
When women won the right to vote in 1893, under prime minister (technically premier) Richard Seddon – a former pub landlord – prohibition did not naturally follow.
In December 1917 the prohibitionists got a partial ban. A law passed which forced bars to close at 6pm. This had a range of unexpected side-effects. First, the publicans were relieved by this law – as this meant an end to the meddling of the prohibitionists. Second, it caused the ‘Six O’Clock Swill’. Most drinkers finished work at five, rushed to their local, then tried to force an evening’s worth of booze down their necks in the space of an hour. One could guess how that often worked out. Third, it created opportunities for petty criminals to make easy money by setting up ‘sly grogs’ and ‘beer houses’ – after hours bars in suburban homes.
For the following five decades the sly grogs operated, catering to ship and dock workers, beatniks, rugby league players, boxers, rich folk with a penchant for ‘slumming it’ and career criminals. These secretive clubs were, it turned out, also instrumental in embedding organised crime networks in New Zealand. Many connections were forged in the sly grogs. Many plots hatched.
The six o’clock swill was still very much a thing on December 7th 1963 when Eric Lewis, a landlord, banged at the door of 115 Bassett Road, Remuera. He was there to collect the rent from the tenants. When no-one answered, Lewis dodged the growing pile of milk bottles, and unlocked the door. On cracking the front door the landlord was struck by the stench of two bodies on the turn. In the front bedroom the bodies of Kevin Speight, a 26 year old sailor and George ‘Knucklehead’ Walker, a 34 year old with a reputation as a gangland enforcer. Both men had been shot to death with a Reising sub machine gun – as unreliable a gun as you could hope for in the early 60s. This was evidenced by the fact only six bullets were found in the victims – it’s thought the gun jammed at this point. This didn’t stop the NZ Truth Newspaper framing the killing as our version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – their headline “Chicago Comes to Auckland”.
Police soon ascertained the property was being used as a sly grog.
A few days after the killings, police were visited by future Prime Minister of New Zealand Rob Muldoon. With the politician, a chef who had a story to tell. The chef was visited at work, just after the killings, by an old friend named John Gillies. Gillies was a petty thief and occasional seaman who had recently been expelled from Australia. He was drunk and had a tale to insinuate.
As Gillies told it “one general sent another general a telegram – Grenades on the way…” The other general, naturally got machine guns. Some big trouble was on it’s way. The public would be shocked. The crook indicated his involvement in whatever happened. When the bodies were found, the chef put two and two together.
Now, New Zealand was not a place full of machine gun murders. Some soldiers were believed to have come back from World War Two and held onto their guns in civilian life. It was said smuggling all manner of illicit goods into the country was not terribly difficult at the time. In 1934 a group of thieves stole a Vickers machine gun from a New Lynn church (where it was stored for a group of Territorials). The culprits were never caught – but in a country where murder was then a rarity, death by machine gun was unheard of. The gun, of course was public knowledge. That police found two disarmed grenades and a telegram threatening another Sly Grog owner, was not known outside of the investigation.
After some effort by police the tale unravelled. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Gillies was badly beaten up trying to break up a domestic incident between a bouncer from a rival club in Anglesea Street, Ponsonby and the bouncer’s girlfriend. His ego as bruised as his body, Gillies swore revenge on the bouncer, Barry ‘Machine Gun’ Shaw (so named for mowing down other players on the rugby field as a younger man). Gillies found a friend of a friend who collected rare guns. This friend of a friend, the son of a wealthy clothing manufacturer, had a machine gun.
As a quick sidebar, a teenaged John Banks – another unpleasant guy, who later became mayor of Auckland – saw the machine gun a week before the shooting. His family were underworld figures, and the tale has it Banks got to fire the gun in his back yard.
When Gillies showed up at the Anglesea Street Sly Grog to machine gun machine gun, he found Shaw had taken the night off. With nothing else to do, he entered, bought a drink, and got talking to a couple of blokes there. They turned out to be the owners of the pub. The pub was run by an ageing sailor with a teenaged girlfriend named Gerry Wilby – and a hard-boiled crim named Ron Jorgensen. A few drinks in Gillies got his gun out, and someone there offered him a little work. Gillies and a second person would go to 115 Bassett Road and deal to Speight. The issue it seems, that led to Gillies being hired for a murder – Wilby – a man in his 60s only needed his seventeen year old girlfriend when on land. He was happy for her to see other men while he was away. When home however, he expected her to be all his. Mary, his girlfriend had fallen for Speight while Wilby was away. Likewise Speight had fallen in love with Mary and planned to take her from Wilby. This had led to the conflict, angry telegrams and threats of grenades – and eventually murder. After Jorgensen called the operator for driving instructions to Bassett road, two people left for the property.
The police arrested Gillies and Jorgensen, and with some evidence pointing towards Gillies (not the gun itself – that apparently got thrown off the Auckland Harbour bridge), and not a lot of evidence towards Jorgensen – both men were convicted of the murder and given life sentences.
But to our pseudocide?
Ron Jorgensen became something of a celebrity while in prison. He learned to speak Maori and translated Maori language books into braille. He also learned to paint – proving extremely adept at it. His lawyer, Peter Williams …
(sidebar, not the news reader who hosted the episode of Mastermind I was in, this was another Peter Williams – kiwis of a certain age will remember the lawyer well)
…launched a campaign to release Jorgensen. Though the campaign got a lot of support, Jorgensen never got a retrial. He was released in the mid 1970s, but was soon returned after getting caught up in a drug ring.
He served his jail term until 1983, then was paroled to his father’s home in Kaikoura – a former whaling town on the other side of the country where you can now shoot whales – with a camera. I’ve never been there myself, so could not testify to the merits, or lack of for the town – Jorgensen hated being stuck with his father out in the sticks. He continued to paint, though never saw much back for his works. Paintings given away for a couple of beers have since gone on to make thousands of dollars at auction.
Though generally tied to Kaikoura, he got approval to help his friend, property tycoon Bob Jones and his ‘New Zealand Party’, run for parliament. For a while he stayed in the city of Christchurch. Jones’ party failed to get into parliament, but stole enough right wing votes to knock Rob Muldoon’s National Party out of contention. Of course Muldoon wasn’t helping himself – his slurred, drunken announcement of a snap election summed up his final tilt for power – Muldoon’s run as prime minister was over.
Soon after, Ron Jorgensen’s car was found down the bottom of a cliff, near the ocean. It was an odd scene in that no body was inside the vehicle. Had he been inside there was no chance he could have crawled away from the wreck – the car was so compacted in on itself. Up on the cliff there were no brake marks.
It is believed Ron Jorgensen faked his own death by pushing the vehicle over the edge. He was never conclusively seen again.
From here it gets murky. One theory has it, after ditching the car he boarded a boat, which took him out to another vessel headed for Australia. In the years since former friends and a prison guard have claimed to have seen Jorgensen in Perth, Western Australia. Another theory has it he went to Australia, but only after sharing information with police about a drug ring running out of Christchurch. This theory presumes he was using his time in Christchurch to do business with the drug ring. Soon after his disappearance, a large drug bust went down. Had Jorgensen turned informer, perhaps even set up this ring. Afterwards, did the police resettle him across the ditch?
A third theory meets somewhere in the middle. Jorgensen faked his own death, and was on a boat out at sea when he was murdered and thrown overboard? Perhaps he was suspected of talking to police about the drug ring, and perhaps he had spoken to the police, necessitating his hurried attempt to escape? This is the theory many of his friends from the underworld believed.
While I’d say the case of Ron Jorgensen is likely to never be solved I should sign off by pointing out sometimes the truth does out many years later. The disappearance of Grace Oakeshott was not uncovered till a century after she faked her own death. Joan Reeve’s great grand-daughter wrote a play about her great grandmother. This came to the attention of Jocelyn Robson, an academic based in England who specialises in the female activists of Grace’s time. Robson found society photos of Joan and put two and two together. Something similar could still happen in the case of Ron Jorgensen – stranger things have happened.