Sunday, March 1, 2009

“Someone has blundered” – the suicide of Thomas Meredith

On the 5th of November, 1897, 35 year old Thomas Meredith, a patient at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum at Pt Chevalier, slipped away from being at work in the asylum’s garden between just after 11 in the morning (when A. W. Leys, an attendant, later reported being the last to see him alive) and half past eleven when he was reported as missing. (A count of heads had been made, as per procedure, once every twenty minutes – only 12 were counted, when there should have been 13). A search was immediately organised and continued throughout that afternoon, but to no avail. A report was made that day to the police in Auckland, and nothing further was said of the matter. Meredith had been reported to have been cheerful the night before, even engaging an attendant, Mr. Meerkau, in a game of cards. There had been no indication that he would do anything untoward.

A week later, Meredith’s relatives learned that he was missing only from indirect reports that the police were making enquiries in the country districts. A cousin, Mr. Asmuss, went to Auckland Police Station to find out what was happening, then travelled to Avondale Police Station, the nearest one to the asylum. The constable there was unaware that anyone was missing from the asylum, although he’d heard a rumour of “a strange man being seen in the district.”

A search was then undertaken through the western districts, from Avondale to Henderson, following these rumours of a man acting oddly, seen at various times by the local residents in this still (at that time) thinly populated area. This turned out to be a red herring in a way – the trail led to the Oratia Bridge on 16th November, and the drowned body of John Halstead, an inmate from the Costley Home in Greenlane. Halstead had, coincidentally, escaped from Costley around the same time as Meredith had disappeared from the asylum. He was even identified, initially, as Meredith, until properly examined.

Finally, on 20 November, Meredith’s body was found, hanging by his own belt, from the limb of a willow tree near the Asylum grounds. He hadn’t wandered far away at all to put an end to his life. Two of the Walker boys, members of a Pt Chevalier family, came upon the body in an advanced state of decomposition – identifiable only by the clothing.

“Someone,” the Auckland Star said direly in their headlines, “has blundered.”

Up until 1897, the usual course of action once a patient had escaped from the asylum was for the institution to alert the city police, who would then alert the district’s police (in this case, those stationed at Avondale) so that the local constables could keep an eye open for strangers. At the same time, the city police issued a statement to the press, so those in the community could also be on the watch for sightings of the fugitives, and thus report these to the local constable as well. It seemed to be a good system, even if it did lend to the asylum the reputation of having quite a number of such escapes happening.

Then, in 1897, the procedure changed. Dr. R. M. Beattie, the medical superintendent of the asylum at that time, instituted the procedure whereby while the city police were still notified, they were expressly asked not to further divulge any information as to the escape. Concern as to privacy was the reason given by Dr. Beattie for this change – something we can indeed relate to in our own time with privacy legislation versus official information. The Costley Home, itself the keeper of a number of elderly inmates who had their own share of mental health problems and suicidal tendencies, had the same policy. The Star, however, was scathing of the policy.
“Had the facts been promptly communicated to the press and published, the settlers in the adjacent districts would have been on the lookout and given information to the police, which would have led to their speedily being traced up.”
It is doubtful, given the facts as they turned out, that Meredith’s life would have been saved. Clearly, he killed himself soon after slipping away from the gardening detail, and upon finding the willow tree. Halstead, on the other hand, may have been recaptured before he had drowned. Over and above this, the relatives of the missing men should have been informed as soon as the escapes had occurred, privacy considerations or not.

“It is understood,” said the NZ Herald at the time, “that the police authorities are in communication with Wellington with a view of getting the instructions relaxed as to withholding information on such matters from the press. There is little doubt that Halstead’s life might have been save … The police admit that due publicity to such matters in the press would save a great deal of trouble and expense; and that most of the recaptures of lunatics in former years were effected through the country settlers seeing the escapes from the Asylum recorded in the papers and furnishing information to the police.” Keeping the truth private, the Herald continued, also endangered such districts, should the escapee turn out to be a violent one.

At the departmental investigation in December 1897, the police were blamed for not passing on the information about the escapes to their outlying stations. This the police indignantly repudiated – but it seemed that, in this way, the health authorities backed away from their “don’t tell anyone” policy, and still managed to save face.

Someone had blundered, indeed – and yet, still kept their job.

Image above: one of my photos from Christchurch -- a willow by the River Avon.


  1. Bloody heck, that is almost identical to a similar incident at a country town in Vic from early 1900's.
    A chap disappeared from the Benevolent Asylum which is right beside the Botanical Gardens with a whopping big lake and small waterfall(well, it used to when it used to rain).
    It was only just above waist deep but with thick mud in the bottom and it was edged in weeping Willow trees - which hid the dead man.
    His feet became stuck in the mud of the lake, twas Winter...etc.
    But no one was out looking for him properly and someone kept their job.

  2. Aye, Jayne, thanks for that. Such a sad end for these people -- and in the aftermath, the buck gets passed.