Saturday, May 15, 1920, was an unlucky day for Charles Mackay, Mayor of Wanganui. Only five days before, he had been introduced to a handsome young poet, D'Arcy Cresswell. Little did he know, he had been set up. That morning he shot the poet, and his life fell about him in ruins.
Mackay was 45, Nelson born, married with two children, brilliant, having gained a BA at the age of 19 and an LLB six years later. At 30 he had been elected to the Wanganui Borough Council, to the Mayoralty a year later. He held that position with one short break until this near-fatal morning.
Cresswell was 24, one of a prominent Canterbury family, an architecture dropout, wounded in the Great War.
A cousin of Cresswell's had introduced the two men the previous Monday, apparently intending most of what followed. (The cousin has never been named.) Mackay invited the cousins to dinner at an hotel the next night, and Cresswell was host at another on the Thursday. It was then that Mackay invited Cresswell to visit the Sarjeant Art Gallery privately with him on the Friday. As a founder of the gallery, Mackay had his own key, and inevitably they must have spent time at the gallery's pride and joy, its marble reproduction of the ancient Greek nude "Wrestlers".
Mackay took Cresswell back to his office, and showed him his collection of (female) nude photographs. What exactly happened then is shrouded in Cresswell's self-serving account (signed by Mackay), but Cresswell demanded that Mackay resign as Mayor, or else be exposed as a "pervert". In Cresswell's defence, perhaps he too was being blackmailed. Mackay begged and pleaded for a delay at least, but Cresswell demanded they meet again in the morning, when he would tell him when he must resign.
At half past nine on the Saturday morning, in Mackay's office, Cresswell gave Mackay a week. Mackay pleaded for hours, threatened suicide, begged Cresswell to spare his family. Cresswell forced him to write a confession, then, after further bargaining, a letter of resignation to be held in safe keeping for a month. They turned to leave.
"This is for you!" shouted Mackay, and shot Cresswell in the chest. Then he put the revolver in Cresswell's hand to give the appearance of suicide. As he was leaving, the "dying" man rose and pointed the revolver at him. Mackay slammed a door between them. Cresswell could not open it, so he flung a chair through the window and called for help.
Mackay rushed back and begged Cresswell to shoot him, but Cresswell discharged the revolver harmlessly. Passers-by rushed in. Cresswell said he had "discovered a scandal" before he lost consciousness, and Mackay surrendered to the police.
He at first claimed the revolver had gone off accidentally when he was showing it to Cresswell, but the chair through the window quickly put paid to that story.
Cresswell soon recovered (the bullet stayed lodged in his lung for 12 years) and gave the police a statement in which he claimed to have discovered "a certain disgusting feature" of Mackay's character, and led him on.
Mackay pleaded guilty to attempted murder on May 27 and was sentenced the next day. His lawyers said he had sought treatment from doctors and "metaphysicians" (presumably clergymen) for "homosexual monomania". As well as Cresswell's harassment, Mackay had seen his lawyer the day before the shooting about an item in a local newspaper that "threatened him with exposure".
He was sentenced to 15 years at hard labour and served seven, during which he was declared bankrupt and divorced by his wife, Wanganui's Mackay Street was renamed Jellicoe Street, and his name was removed from the Sarjeant Gallery's foundation stone. (It was replaced in 1985.)
On his release, Mackay went to England, became a successful journalist and was killed by mistake by a Berlin policeman while he was covering a riot in 1929.