The Trials of Eric Mareo
Charles Ferrall & Rebecca Ellis
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
Some crimes touch a collective nerve, trigger a collective outrage. The high-pitched intensity of the debate – the foam-flecked arguments, the inflammatory media stories, the sulphurous whiff of folklore in the gossip – these things tell us that, from somewhere deep in the human psyche, elemental forces have been unleashed. In cases of this sort, the accused becomes much more than the alleged perpetrator of an alleged crime. He or she becomes evil personified. Long after the victims and perpetrators (real or imagined) are dead and buried, these cases live on in the public imagination.
Books about high-profile criminal cases feed into, and feed off, the archetypal power of the phenomena they describe. Some crime books focus on the case itself: the event, the investigation, the prosecution, the conviction – and in doing so reinforce the comforting notion that the world is divided into good people and bad people, and that it’s possible to tell the difference (and so, these books tell us, as long as we have honest cops, wise judges and sensible juries, we can all sleep easy in our beds).
Other crime books, of which The Trials of Eric Mareo by Charles Ferrall and Rebecca Ellis is a fine example, widen the focus to take in the social and historical context of crime – a context that in this case encompasses (among other things) the norms and conventions of Depression-ravaged New Zealand, the unconventional lifestyles of the musicians, singers, dancers and assorted thespians of the day (the people known, engagingly, as “theatricals”), perceptions of lesbianism then and now, and the problems created for the justice system when its decisions prove controversial. Books of this sort are like magnifying glasses through which we may better examine questions that in the normal course of human events remain blurry; questions of right and wrong, of good and evil, of human nature. Books of this sort invite us to reflect on Solzhenitzen’s discomforting observation that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
“When the jury’s verdict of ‘Guilty’ was flashed on the cinema screen on 17 June 1936, the Auckland audience rose from their seats and cheered,” write Ferrall and Ellis. At a time when there was an average of two murders a year, the Mareo case was as sensational as it was controversial. Mareo’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. During the following decade, debate raged over his guilt or innocence. Before long, R v Mareo was elevated to the pantheon of Famous New Zealand Criminal Cases.
In the mélange of events, personalities, evidence and beliefs that comprise the Mareo story, three characters stand out: the alleged murderer (high-profile musician Eric Mareo, aged 45); the alleged victim (his wife Thelma Trott, an actress and singer, aged 29); and the Crown’s key witness (dancer Freda Stark, aged 26). Thelma Trott died in 1936. Eric Mareo served a 12-year prison term and thereafter kept a low profile until his death in 1960. Freda Stark became a star. During World War 2 she danced before American GIs clad only in a G string and gold paint, and thereby earned the sobriquet the “Fever of the Fleet”. In the three decades prior to her death in 1999, she became a gay and lesbian icon.
“I have been sentenced on the lying word of Freda Stark,” Mareo complained at the conclusion of the first of his two trials (in February 1936). In the current climate of gender politics, any book that takes a sympathetic view of Mareo’s complaint is bound to ruffle a few feathers.
That Thelma Trott died of an overdose of the sedative veronal has never been in doubt. But how, when and why it was administered, and by whom, was (and still is) far from clear. According to the Crown, the fatal dose was mixed into a mug of milk by Mareo, and administered to his semi-comatose wife by his son Graham and Freda Stark. By then Thelma had been either asleep or comatose for most of the previous 24 hours. Immediately afterwards she relapsed into a deep coma. Two days later she died.
On questions of motive and means, the Crown case was weak. The allegation that Mareo wanted to replace his wife with his young female assistant was based solely on the time they spent together (but both parties insisted that the relationship was platonic, and the Crown produced no evidence to the contrary). The allegation that the murder weapon was veronal-laced milk was based on weak and disputed expert evidence (and, as Ferrall and Ellis have shown, deeply flawed expert evidence) about the characteristics of veronal poisoning. All things considered, the most likely alternative explanation – that Thelma died of an overdose of self-administered veronal, possibly in combination with other drugs – seems equally, if not more, plausible.
So, ask Ferrall and Ellis, when the evidence was so equivocal, why were two juries willing to find Eric Mareo guilty of murder “beyond reasonable doubt”? Their conclusion is that, while the jurors may have been unclear about what to believe, they were prepared to decide – on the basis of some colourful evidence about the main players – who to believe. In essence, Freda Stark’s evidence supported the prosecution case that Thelma was murdered by her husband, while the evidence of Mareo’s children – Graham (17) and Betty (21) – supported the defence case that Thelma had committed suicide (curiously, the possibility that Thelma may have died of an accidental drug overdose does not seem to have been pursued). Mareo did not give evidence at either trial, but his statements to the police were put before the court.
Much of the undisputed evidence painted an unflattering picture of both Mareo and his wife. The juries at both trials learnt that the flamboyant musician was a veronal addict. He had changed his name and romanticised his past. He sometimes drank heavily. He had left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. The juries also heard that Thelma was fond of alcohol and sometimes drank to excess, that she had been prescribed a sedative for her “nervous condition” in the weeks leading up to her death, that she was terrified of becoming pregnant and had taken what she believed was an abortifacient in the evening prior to the onset of her coma. At Mareo’s second trial, the jury also heard evidence that Thelma had taken veronal on other occasions. At both trials, Freda Stark and Mareo’s children testified that, over the previous eight months, Mareo had found Thelma and Freda in bed together on three occasions, and had accused his wife of being a lesbian. To support this allegation, Mareo provided the police with three letters to Thelma from a Frenchwoman who “practise[d] the gentle art of Lesbos”, and who signed herself: “Your lover, B”.
Lesbianism was widely regarded as a sexual perversion in the 1930s. But instead of reflecting badly on Thelma and Freda, and winning sympathy for Mareo, the lesbian allegation backfired. At both trials, the Crown portrayed the allegation as a wicked attempt by the accused to blacken the good names of his virtuous wife and her dearest friend. The jury verdicts, the public ovation at the news of Mareo’s conviction, and the depraved-monster-murders-pure-woman tone of the media coverage, indicate that the Crown’s tactic worked. During the trials, the prosecution scenario – that Thelma was a good woman done wrong, that Freda was her loyal and truthful friend, and that Graham and Betty were covering up for their father – seems to have been accepted more or less without question.
Ferrall and Ellis hypothesise that, if it was as obvious then as it is now that Thelma and Freda really were lesbian lovers, the Crown’s tactic of using the lesbian allegation to discredit Mareo would not have worked. Instead – since lesbianism was equated with depravity – Freda would have been regarded as an unreliable witness, and therefore, the authors argue, on crucial aspects of the events surrounding Thelma’s death, Graham’s evidence would have been preferred to that of Freda’s by the jury.
So why wasn’t it obvious in 1936 that Thelma and Freda were lesbian lovers? Recent commentaries on the life of Freda Stark (for instance, in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and in Peter Wells’s obituary in Express) suggest that she was open about her lesbianism at that time. Ferrall and Ellis, however, found no evidence to support that claim. Furthermore, as the authors point out, both Thelma and Freda were petite, feminine women who did not fit the prevailing stereotype of the mannish lesbian.
On this point, Stark’s supporters and Ferrall and Ellis agree: because Freda was regarded as a credible witness, her evidence was believed by the jury. But, on the question of whether Freda told the truth, they take differing views. In Freda Stark: Her Extraordinary Life (2000), Dianne Haworth and Diane Miller claim that Freda successfully resisted pressure from Mareo’s family to lie to save him (but they provide no sources for this claim). In The Trials of Eric Mareo, Ferrall and Ellis claim that Freda’s statements to the police (which became more incriminating of Mareo as the investigation progressed) indicate that she succumbed to pressure to lie to convict him. What there can be no doubt about is that Freda was under considerable pressure from Thelma’s mother. “You can rest assured that we will ever remember you for defending our beloved daughter,” she wrote in a series of emotional letters to Freda prior to Mareo’s first trial. “… Oh, it makes me ill to think of it; a girl brought up, educated as Thelma was to live under the same roof with such a criminal.”
In any event, for whatever reason, two juries found Eric Mareo guilty of murdering his wife. Over the following decade, many influential Mareo supporters – Minister of Justice and Attorney General H G R Mason among them – argued his innocence in an extended and vigorous campaign. But, despite two Court of Appeal hearings, three Select Committee inquiries and Mason’s recommendation for a Commission of Inquiry, Mareo’s conviction was never overturned.
The Trials of Eric Mareo is a fascinating book and a great read. However, I’ve studied too many suspected miscarriages of justice to be satisfied that his conviction can be explained by the lesbian allegation, or by any other unique aspect of the case. Here is my explanation: Mareo was convicted because he was the man in the dock.
Unlike the theory that juries base their verdicts on the evidence presented in court, my theory takes into account the reality that, when strong emotions are involved, people (police, juries, judges and politicians included) don’t always behave rationally. Instead, what seems to happen when a high-profile criminal case seizes the public imagination is that what was originally a practical issue (about the guilt or innocence of the accused) is transformed into a symbolic one (about the battle between good and evil). At that point, before anyone realises what’s going on, mythic imperatives as old as folklore come into play: good must triumph over evil; juries must convict and appellate authorities must uphold the conviction, regardless of the strengths and weaknesses and the case.
According to this theory, rather than worrying too much about the reliability of the witnesses or the credibility of their evidence, juries in high-profile trials tend to reach their verdicts simply by adopting the Crown prosecutor’s version of events. The beauty of this theory is that it provides an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable verdicts in some of our more recent high-profile criminal cases. It also raises the possibility that two juries, two Court of Appeal hearings, and three Select Committee inquiries could have found Eric Mareo guilty without necessarily having believed the evidence of Freda Stark.
Lynley Hood’s A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case was reviewed in our March 2002 issue.