Poisoned chocs, jailbreaks and the spying nun

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Celebrating two decades in his job this week, Arrowtown’s Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke lists his Top 5 blasts from the past.

Chocolate murder

In 1992, I interviewed Harvey Summers, the last boy to live in Macetown. Before talking to me I had to produce a half-dozen of beer, never mind the time of day. Among his many yarns was a West Coast murder where the suspect hid in an Arrowtown house until police found him.

It took me until 2000 to fill in the gaps from The Press. Apparently in 1934 a poisoned box of chocolates was posted to some Greymouth shop girls. The chocs were laced with strychnine, one girl died and others became seriously ill. A miner called John Page was eventually committed to Seacliff Mental Hospital near Dunedin.

Nazis claim nun spied

It was a great honour to interview local Second World War, Korea and Vietnam veterans. One amazing lady was Sister Marie (Annie Fitzpatrick), born in Arrowtown in 1914 and now in Dunedin. She told of harrowing experiences in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion before the war.

After escaping, she went to France – only to be captured by the Nazis and accused of spying. Eventually released, she served in numerous countries before becoming Mother Superior at Dunedin’s Little Sisters of the Poor.

 

Jailbreak

Arrowtown’s first jail was a large log – offenders were chained to it and publicly humiliated. A substantial stone jail was eventually built in 1875 and still remains today. It was fortified by half-metre stone walls, steel-lined doors and metal bars. I always thought escape would have been impossible until hearing that in the 1920s the police guard, delivering dinner to the sole prisoner, was jumped and the jailbird escaped.

The guard, now locked in the cell, wailed to his wife in the police house next door. Thinking it was the prisoner calling for his dinner, she wailed back that her husband would deliver the food shortly.

 

Real character

In 1992, the museum interviewed 40 locals, most of whom have since passed away. We always asked them: can you remember any notable characters? Almost everyone said Jock Edgar. He’d served in the Boer War, worked as a track guide, was on the council and ran a little excursion boat. Jock loved to gamble and parted many a scheelite miner from his money while taking them to Glenorchy.

He survived the Queenstown gasworks explosion in 1922 despite being right next to the building, working under a car. Jock was also partial to a drink. Once, wending his way home up Ballarat Street after leaving Eichardt’s, someone said: “You’ve got a load on, Jock”. Came the reply: “I sure have and when I drop this load off, I’ll be back for more.”

Wife-beater cops it
Old newspapers are a brilliant source of information – the court cases seem humorous today. Stories such as a fish poacher convicted of assault using a fish as a weapon, or miners prosecuted for speeding around Queenstown streets on horseback.

In 1893 a notorious wife-beater living near Arrowtown got community justice when several women, masked and disguised, went to his house one moonlit night, enticed the man outside and gave him a sound thrashing before dunking him in the river. Only when he screamed for mercy did they let him go.