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Downfall is a work of historic true crime: the story of a murder and the Mayor of Whanganui. Image: Archi Banal
Downfall is a work of historic true crime: the story of a murder and the Mayor of Whanganui. Image: Archi Banal

BooksFebruary 5, 2023

A spectacular fall from grace: the story of Charles Mackay

Downfall is a work of historic true crime: the story of a murder and the Mayor of Whanganui. Image: Archi Banal
Downfall is a work of historic true crime: the story of a murder and the Mayor of Whanganui. Image: Archi Banal

Paul Diamond’s book about the 1920s scandal that shocked Whanganui is on the longlist for the Ockhams (in the hotly contested General Non-Fiction category). Victor Rodger reviews.

A closeted mayor with huge ambitions. 

A handsome, young, returned soldier with ambiguous motivations.

A scandalous shooting that leads to a spectacular fall from grace.

This could easily be the intro voiceover for an episode of Bravo’s lurid true life drama series, Snapped, or perhaps the blurb for a TV series that might star the likes of Karl Urban and KJ Apa.

Instead, these are bullet points from a real-life Kiwi scandal from the 1920s that has, just over a century later, inspired Paul Diamond’s thoughtful and meticulously researched book Downfall: the destruction of Charles Mackay.

And what a downfall. Almost overnight Mackay went from being the mayor of the-then h-less Wanganui, to a man who lost everything: his freedom, his family, and his entire fortune.

Ostensibly it was all because handsome 24-year-old aspiring poet D’Arcy Cresswell threatened to expose Mackay if he didn’t resign from the mayoralty. What exactly Cresswell was threatening to expose – and, crucially, why – was never made explicit, but Mackay definitely had something to hide: he was a married father of three, but he was also a gay man in 1920s New Zealand. It’s clear he wanted to keep his secret at all costs – even if it meant trying to silence D’Arcy Cresswell by shooting him.  

Unfortunately for Mackay, Cresswell survived the murder attempt and Mackay was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

The Taranaki Daily News, 17 May 1920

Downfall arrives almost twenty years after Diamond first started researching Mackay and the “Wanganui Sensation” as the scandal was labelled at the time. The depth and breadth of Diamond’s research is clear and through his respectful retelling, which contextualises Mackay as a man of a particular time and place, Diamond invites us to reassess Mackay through a contemporary lens and to consider him with sympathy instead of judgement.

Here is a man who once boldly declared that, if required, the mayor of a town like Wanganui must be prepared to “be in the limelight… But … not everyone can stand that pitiless and searching beam. It quickly exposes the weakling, the feeble and the incapable.”

In the end the pitiless and searching beam of which he spoke exposed him in the media as “a pursuer of perverted and putrid pleasures.” The homosexuality, which he had gone to great lengths to hide and privately sought hypnosis to cure, became common public knowledge; nectar to the many enemies he made while he was mayor. Diamond suggests that it is perhaps these enemies who somehow coaxed D’Arcy into blackmailing him.

Mackay was no angel and his less attractive qualities are perhaps most clearly and amusingly illustrated in among all the drama that unfolded as Wanganui prepared for a visit from the Prince of Wales (aka the future short-lived King of England, Edward VIII). Mackay’s decision to import out-of-town soloists for a concert instead of employing locals went down like a cup of cold sick. And Mackay so incensed the local RSA that they banned him from their rival concert for the Prince (shades of “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver”).

The visit turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. HRH dismissed his Wanganui lodgings, the Imperial Hotel, as a “miserable hole,” loathed both concerts, and the badly behaved locals who apparently hogged into the food at one of the concerts and stole the good silver. Mackay’s dream of a flawless royal visit went unrealised.

The Prince of Wales in New Zealand, 1920 (Photo: Getty Images)

With Downfall, Diamond continues his already established gift for shining a spotlight on compelling but often little-known characters from our past: his book Makereti centred around the Māori guide Maggie “Makereti” Papapkura, who studied at Oxford University in the 1920s; his essay in Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People featured the colourful story of a Māori cross dresser who went by the faaabulous name of June O’Hara.

I’d never heard of the Charles Mackay scandal before I started reading the book but on a plane towards the end of last year, the Whanganui based photographer Anne Geddes – who I had never met – was sitting next to me when she noticed I was reading Downfall. “Do you know the story?” she enquired. I shook my head. “Do you?” I asked her in return. She nodded, sympathy etched all over her face.

Diamond methodically but compellingly makes his way through Mackay’s rise and fall in New Zealand, the hardships he endured in jail, and then touches briefly on his reinvention as a reporter in London upon his release.  However, it is the section set in Berlin which proves to be one of the book’s highlights.

While Wanganui was the fifth largest New Zealand city at the time, Berlin was the third largest city in the entire world.  Not only that, but it also had a freedom when it came to homosexuality which would have been unlike anything Mackay would have experienced in New Zealand. For example, The Berlin Police had a Department of Homosexuals which had been set up to protect gay men from blackmail; it was home to the world’s first homosexual emancipation movement; and in 1919 Berlin held the premiere of a film which sympathetically explored the subject of homosexuality: Anders als die Andern – Different from the Others.

By presenting Berlin as a flip side of the repressed life Mackay led in New Zealand one wonders – and by this time hopes – that Mackay found the courage and freedom to be his true, authentic self in Berlin in a way he never could at home.

However, it is also here in Berlin, that the reinvention of Charles Mackay came to an untimely end. He became the 33rd and final victim of Blutmai – Blood May – a violent protest between local police and Communists which foreshadowed the rise of the Nazis.

Once again, Mackay made headlines: “Tragic Life of Charles Mackay” read one Sydney newspaper. And yet Diamond resists this label for Mackay. To him, Mackay’s story is one of resilience and of resistance.

Since Mackay’s death New Zealand has had a transsexual mayor in Georgina Beyer MNZM (and subsequent member of parliament). Our just-former deputy prime minister Grant Robertson is gay. Just last week the first gay All Black came out publicly. And it seems as though the entire world is talking about the debut of the most critically acclaimed hour on television in recent memory when the zombie drama The Last of Us focused on an unlikely but hugely affecting gay love story.

Yes, times have changed since Charles Mackay felt compelled to try and kill someone to protect his secret. Downfall movingly reminds us exactly how much.

Downfall: The Destruction of Charles Mackay by Paul Diamond (Massey University Press, $45) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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