By Megan Hawkes
For Alexander Carson a swim in the river on a hot January afternoon in 1874 was just the ticket. The 32 year old, originally from Scotland, was a clerk at Schappe and Ansenne’s sawmill, also known as the Upper Mill, at Mercury Bay.
The respite from the sweltering day was brief. Alexander was observed by a boy named Inman to suddenly be struggling in the water. The boy gave the alarm but Alexander sank before help could arrive. His body wasn’t found until the next day, but owing to the absence of the coroner, Dr Alfred Agassiz, it was impossible to hold an inquest at once. Eventually twelve Mercury Bay residents took matters into their own hands, formed a self-appointed jury and held the inquest themselves. They took evidence in a business-like way, and elicited the facts that Alexander was accidentally drowned while bathing. It was thought he had been seized with cramp.
Newspaper reports were scathing of Dr Agassiz who was stated to have said he didn’t think it necessary that an inquest should take place and he refused to act as coroner. “It is strange how some people will pervert fact,” Dr Agassiz shot back. What he had actually said was, that the coroner of the district, who lived at Coromandel, should be told. This had always been done. Dr Agassiz had acted as coroner occasionally, but always in the first instance, the official coroner had to be communicated with. A coroner needed to be appointed for Mercury Bay and Tairua as there were frequent cases of accidental deaths and the distance to Coromandel was rather far. “This is not the first time my name has appeared allied with misstatements,” said the doctor, “but as the matters were generally of so frivolous a nature, I did not think it worthwhile to contradict them.“
Two years previously, after a spate of accidents and deaths in the area, including a little girl who ate a box of matches and another who was bitten on the eyelid and foot by a rat, there was a call for a coroner to be appointed and Dr Agassiz was considered eminently suitable for the position. But the busy doctor already combined the duties of school master and doctor, running a makeshift surgery which adjoined the school room.
This room was plain with gaps in the walls owing to the timber warping. Pupils often peeked through these at the doctor attending patients.
The distraction from Alexander’s death faded away, to leave his family to mourn his loss. Alexander had come to New Zealand as an infant with his family on the immigrant ship Jane Gifford in 1842. His parents, James and Jane Carson, had left Scotland for a new life in the colonies with James and his older brother Gilbert. Weeks into the voyage, tragedy struck when young Gilbert died. Two weeks out from Auckland, Jane Carson gave birth to another boy who was named after his late brother. A daughter, Margaret, was born in 1845.
Alexander’s brother Gilbert became one of the most prominent public men of Whanganui. He bought the Whanganui Chronicle of which he was editor; he became an MP for the district, as well as Mayor, Chairman of various Boards, a leading prohibitionist and a well-known Freemason.
Alexander’s sister Margaret became a spirited supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. She joined her brother Gilbert at the Wanganui Chronicle where she became one of the first women parliamentary correspondents. She was also known as ‘Madge’, a writer of short tales with local settings for English and New Zealand magazines and newspapers. It was said she deserved to stand alongside better known figures such as Kate Sheppard, New Zealand’s most prominent member of Women’s suffrage.
What Alexander’s future may have held, coming from such an ambitious, successful and civic minded family, would never be known.
Alexander was buried at Mercury Bay cemetery, close to where a child of Mr Schappe, his employer, lay.
The arrival of the emigrant ships the Jane Gifford and the Duchess of Argyle, Auckland 1842.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18921022-1047-1