Mad or Bad? The Life and Exploits of Amy Bock 1859-1943
Otago University Press, $49.95,
Amy Bock is best-known as the cross-dressing confidence trickster who scandalised the nation by marrying a woman in an extravagant wedding ceremony in Kaka Point in 1909. One Percy Redwood had charmed his way into the hearts of the community with his vivacious personality, piano playing, singing and frequent displays of generosity. He quickly became the bachelor catch of the small settlement, and the “fortunate” subject of Percy’s attentions was the daughter of his landlady, Miss Agnes (Nessie) Ottaway.
In a short time they became engaged and, despite growing rumours, Percy and Nessie married on 21 April 1909. Only a few days later, however, Detective Henry Hunt arrived at the Ottaways’ house in Kaka Point and announced to the new groom, “The game’s up, Amy.”
Thus ended the most infamous chapter of Amy Bock’s life. She was convicted in Dunedin High Court and sentenced to two years with hard labour, but the public appetite for the scandal hardly abated. Postcards of her in male attire sold widely, the wedding presents were auctioned for exorbitant sums, the wedding cake was repurchased by the original baker to display in his shop window and a pamphlet detailing her life of crime was published and syndicated by the Otago Daily Times.
The audacity of Amy’s crime, combined with the cross-dressing, both titillated and fascinated the public, and no doubt explains why to this day she is one of the country’s most notorious con-artists. What she did is well-known but there has always been great conjecture and debate over why.
Was she a brilliant woman who, constrained by the times, found an outlet for her talents in crime? Was she a lesbian whose crimes were part of her attempts to express her sexual identity? Or was she just another grifter, an improvident, cynical individual who preyed upon the gullible? Or, indeed, was Amy Bock plagued by bouts of mental instability, which might these days be diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder?
Jenny Coleman has researched far and wide, uncovering a plethora of personal and official documents related to Amy Bock’s life. She has presented these, along with a knowledgeable depiction of the times to provide the reader with an appropriate context in which to view Bock’s actions.
In fact, Amy’s early years are a pretty clear indication of what was to come. Born in Tasmania, but moving to Victoria when she was eight, Amy grew up in a household that provided her with neither emotional nor economic stability. Her father was regularly in financial strife, and her mother suffered from chronic mania and was committed to the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum in 1872. Already Amy herself had shown signs of disturbing behaviour, maintaining that she suffered almost constant compulsions to take things without paying for them. Understandably, such incidents were a concern to her family, who quickly found the otherwise accomplished and charming Amy a position running a sole-charge school in remote Victoria.
From Amy’s copious correspondence with the Education Department, it is clear she was continually in financial difficulty. The reason for this was that she was indulging in shopping sprees in Melbourne, scamming shopkeepers and staving off creditors for some years with promises of her forward wages from the Education Department. It all finally caught up with her in 1884 when she was convicted and discharged by the Melbourne City Police Court of obtaining goods on false pretences. It wasn’t her first conviction but this time it made the newspapers and, at 25, Amy’s teaching career was over.
She headed to New Zealand where she embarked on a pattern of behaviour that would serve her for many years. She would gain employment under a false name – usually as a housekeeper or governess – and, after a period of faultless service, during which her employers would praise her industry and kindness, some letter would arrive, usually from a dear friend or relative in trouble, and Amy would borrow money to “help them out”.
Either that, or some other petty scam: a watch delivered for repairs and mysteriously ‘lost’; goods purchased under her employer’s name without their knowledge; a cash advance given on household goods that she had misrepresented as for sale; concert tickets sold or collected against, and so on.
Under various aliases, Amy Bock spent the next 15 years committing crimes around the country, mostly for only a few pounds here and there. She probably got away with far more than ever came to light, but on several occasions she was caught, convicted and given jail sentences of increasing terms. Always she went quietly with the police when arrested, always (with one exception) she pleaded guilty, and always she served her jail term without problem.
Over the years Amy’s crimes became more ambitious and complex, so much so that her name became synonymous with ingenious swindles, and the police started to spot the trademarks of an Amy Bock scam at first sight. Even papers showed signs of admiration. The Evening Post said, “The outstanding fact is that in New Zealand, perhaps in Australasia, this woman stands supreme in cleverness over other female criminals, and in her own particular line her position is probably unique.” The reporter concluded that “as is not uncommon with great artists, she sometimes suffered through her task being too well done.”
In her late 40s, Amy Bock was overheard by a Sergeant Dwyer to observe that she was tired of defrauding men, they were “too soft and easy to work upon”, and that women were much more difficult to deceive. That seems a strange comment, given that so many of Amy’s victims had already been women. But only months later Amy appeared in Dunedin wearing men’s clothing and calling herself Percy Carol Redwood. Flush with funds, Percy found his way to the Ottaways’ boarding house in Kaka Point.
The extended fraud he perpetrated on the Ottaways was a cruel one. Not only did he encourage Nessie Ottaway to believe she was about to marry a loving suitor, but he financed his extravagant escapade in Kaka Point with the life-savings lent to him by a girl he’d met at a boarding house in Dunedin.
When caught, Amy apparently chatted freely to the police about her life of crime, and boasted that “when people are so gullible you can’t blame me”, adding, “I believe I could go from end to end of New Zealand and take down every nine persons out of ten.”
This time the court declared Amy an “habitual criminal”, which meant the prison board could keep her incarcerated until it considered her sufficiently reformed. In reality, Amy was released only two-and-a-half years later and set about trying to steer clear of both the courts and the curious public.
She found a sympathetic community in Mokau, north Taranaki, where she found friends, a social life and eventually a husband – although it appears that theirs was a marriage in name only as they lived separately. Amy’s ways didn’t really change – there were reports of borrowed money and an incident involving a piano that landed Amy back in court, but Coleman suggests that, in Mokau, Amy finally found a community who accepted her for what she was – a lively character, the heart and soul of a district, who habitually hit everybody up for a few pounds now and then. After fading into obscurity, she died in St Stephen’s Hospital in Pukekohe in 1943, aged 84.
Coleman recounts Amy’s life and exploits in a clean, readable style that belies her writing expertise. She cleverly introduces Amy in each of her major personas, switching pronouns when she becomes Percy Redwood, and with the same sleight of hand switching back to “she” after Detective Hunt’s famous “The game’s up, Amy.”
Coleman’s research is meticulous, and the exhaustive detail at times clogs the narrative. Do we need to know so much of the background of people Amy defrauded, or towns she briefly lived in, or of the ’flu epidemic of 1918, which, as it turned out, had little impact on Amy?
More importantly though, the biographer’s viewpoint is a major absence in the book. Much of the biography, especially the first half, borders on mere reportage. Only very occasionally does Coleman make an authorial statement about Amy’s possible motives or character, and it’s usually done as a series of questions that she doesn’t answer conclusively. More often, Amy’s actions are presented without comment or interpretation. Although this hands-off approach leaves the reader free to make their own judgments about Amy Bock, the very title, Mad or Bad?, posits a question which Coleman hardly finds time to address until, remarkably, the epilogue.
Here, in a series of almost side-notes, Coleman asks all the really fascinating questions – was Amy Bock a kleptomaniac, did she suffer from an inherited psychological disorder, was she a lesbian, a pathological liar, a cross-dresser? She has some interesting points to make here, but it’s too little, too tentative and way too late. One can’t help but feel that if only Coleman had had the confidence to incorporate her opinions throughout the text, the result might have been not only the comprehensive biography this undoubtedly is, but the definitive biography of Amy Bock.
Compared to biographies of other complex women who were misunderstood in their times, such as Lynley Hood’s Minnie Dean, Her Life and Crimes and Ian Mackersey’s Jean Batten, Garbo of the Skies, Mad or Bad? falls short of the mark. Coleman has done a fine job in researching and presenting a massive body of material about Amy Bock, but she could have learned from her subject and imbued it with a bit more personality and force of character – even if she hadn’t got it all right, that approach might have got her closer to the heart of her subject than she has managed.
Paula Boock is a novelist and screenwriter. She is no relation to Amy Bock.