What did happen to Harry Satherley?
Very likely we’ll never know who murdered Harry Satherley. Or even if he was murdered.
One hundred and eighteen years after the ‘mysterious disappearance’, as the Marlborough Express called it, a new book published in America takes a detailed look at the facts of the case and makes some fictional speculations as to what might have happened. Whitebait was written by Garry Satherley, great-grandson of Harry and born in Blenheim, New Zealand, the town where Harry’s vanishing caused such a stir back in 1897.
As an infant, the writer was bounced on the knee of his grandfather, Albert Percy Satherley – who at age 14, was marched by a police constable to the Commercial Hotel in Blenheim to identify a corpse that had been found in the Opawa River by two boys netting for whitebait.
The identification was approximate. The body had been in the water several weeks. Albert thought it might be his father, an estimation based on the clothes and a stopwatch. Two doctors who saw the corpse at the hospital after it had been washed would testify that they knew it was Satherley by his whiskers. But witnesses who knew Harry rather better said he had no whiskers.
That was Saturday, September 18th, 1897. Ten weeks earlier, the night of Friday, July 9th, Harry lurched, rather the worse for drink, out of the Marlborough Hotel to go home for ‘tea’ to his rented cottage across the river. He never arrived there.
In fact he was never seen alive again.
Or maybe he was. A neighbour would swear at the inquest, at a commital proceedings, a de facto murder trial and before a Royal Commission that he saw Harry next morning. And weeks later there would be an alleged sighting in Christchurch.
Saturday morning, July 10th, a friend of Harry’s, Victor Olsson, came to the Manse Road cottage looking for him. Which was something he’d never done before.
“Was he after drinkin’ and fightin’ at all?” Mary, Harry’s Irish second wife, inquired.
“He was drinkin’ but he wasn't fightin’,” Victor replied.
Olsson was, purportedly, the last person to see Harry Satherley alive, having left the Marlborough Hotel with him the night before. Later that morning, he was all about the town with a story that Harry had sold a half-share in Iota, a horse he didn’t own, to a drunken farm-manager, Matthew Beattie. Beattie was also about the town, trying to find out what had happened to a sum of money he was missing. Thus it became established in some minds that Harry, a trainer of racehorses which didn’t always run as fast as they could, had defrauded Beattie and absconded with the funds.
This was the theory subscribed to by the police – who took out a warrant for Harry’s arrest.
The other school of thought had it that Harry had been murdered. The leading advocate for this line was one Edward Purser, a bankrupted brewer, latterly the town’s dog-tax man, collector of rates and ‘Inspector of Nuisances’. Now he became the defender of the town’s good name, of Harry’s reputation (none too flash) and the welfare of Harry’s wife and seven kids.
On Friday, September 17th, Mr Purser was in Wellington and had an audience with the Prime Minister, then another with the Defence Minister and the Police Commissioner, Colonel Hume. They jeered at the murder theory, insisting that Harry had absconded with funds feloniously come by. They knew where he was, they declared, and could lay hands on him just as soon as it suited them.
Next morning in Blenheim, Percy Day and Arnot Leslie went fishing for whitebait upstream from the town near the railway bridge and made a gruesome discovery. The inquest found that the body was indeed that of Harry Satherley and that he had been killed by a blow to the head inflicted by ‘a person or persons unknown’.
From the fact of a corpse in the corpus delicti, ramifications of confusion, fabrication and evasion multiplied like the images reflected back and forth in a maze of distorting mirrors.
• Victor Ollson was charged with stealing Matthew Beattie’s money. The trial was an inept fishing expedition that failed to demonstrate that Victor had murdered Harry.
• On the strength of his new fame, Mr Purser ran for Mayor and won. But before his year in office was out, it would emerge that he had been middle-man in certain shady dealings involving a German mining corporation and some worthless gold claims on the west coast. He was tried for conspiracy to defraud and, surprisingly, acquitted.
• ‘The Satherley Mystery’ was one of the catalysts for a Royal Commission into the ineptitude of the the New Zealand Police Force. The police responded by threatening to dig up the ‘Harry’ corpse up to prove, against the inquest evidence, that he’d committed suicide. The commission would find that the police, with a very few exceptions, were a sterling bunch of chaps. And, oh yes, their failure to investigate the Satherley disappearance had been just a misfortunate accident of circumstance, the absence of a body, the Iota allegation, the post-mortem sightings . . .
• And in the 20th century, Harry’s missus, Mary née Galvin, would have three more children and register each in turn with Harry Satherley as the father.
Thus, 100-and something years after the ‘mysterious disappearance’, the fate of Harry Satherley remained as much a puzzle as it was in 1897. Then in the 21st century, one of Harry’s descendants suggested that the family seek to have the body exhumed for DNA samples to be taken, to at least discover if it really is Harry in the Tuamarina Cemetery. Given the unlikelihood of the authorities agreeing to such an action in a matter long forgotten, another suggested a grave-robbing expedition.
Ah, but then, there’s a brother of Harry’s who also disappeared. Or rather, he’s to be found only in the registration of his birth and a single mention in the Marlborough Express a year after Harry’s vanishing, his non-appearance in court in the matter of his failure to pay for a tailor-made suit.
And there’s a rumour still murmured abroad that Mary was having it off with one of Harry’s several brothers.
It’s a tangled web. And Whitebait challenges readers to play detective and arrive at their own conclusion as to what happened or didn’t happen on the night of July 9, 1897.
Certainly, Albert never had access to the truth. As a young man in the new century, he was driver of the four-horse mail-coach that serviced remote sheep stations in the bleak alpine country far up the Awatere River south and west of Blenheim. In that vast loneliness, maybe his thoughts went back to the morning of Saturday, September 18th, in 1897:
And one time up Castle Creek, snowing it was and maybe he dreamed it for he did have a bit of something in his tea for the warm of it, he looked up from the fire with a start and a lurching of the heart and there was a feller standing there across the fire with snow on his hat, and he took off his hat and knocked the snow off and, oh God, he had that face on him, the bloated ape-face all grey and blue with the empurpled gash along the temple and the thickened empurpled insensate lips moving, trying to speak, trying to tell him something, the milky blinded eyes starting out at him, the lips moving, trying to get the secret out. Then not trying to speak at all but shaping a mocking smile . . .