Controversial ex-mayor killed in Berlin riots

3 May 1929

Charles Mackay, c. 1906-1920
Charles Mackay, c. 1906-1920 (Whanganui Regional Museum)

Charles Ewing Mackay, a former mayor of Whanganui, was shot dead by Berlin police during May Day riots in the German capital. Covering the riots between communist irregulars and the police for a British newspaper, Mackay was apparently mistaken for a rioter.

Mackay had achieved notoriety in May 1920 when as mayor of Whanganui he shot the returned soldier and poet Walter D’Arcy Cresswell. Cresswell alleged that Mackay had made homosexual advances towards him in the mayoral office (homosexual acts by males were criminal offences in New Zealand until 1986). There was speculation that Cresswell had tried to blackmail the (secretly) homosexual mayor. Mackay pleaded guilty to attempted murder and called no defence. He was duly convicted and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour.

The case destroyed Mackay’s marriage, and following his release from prison in 1926 he sought a new life in England. By 1928 he was working in Berlin as an English language teacher and a reporter for the Sunday Express.

Whanganui did all it could to eradicate Mackay from the public record. His name was sanded from the foundation stone of the Sarjeant Gallery, for which he had been a tireless advocate. The street named after him had its name changed. His portrait was taken from the council chambers and destroyed, and he was not mentioned in local histories for 50 years. Following homosexual law reform in the mid-1980s, Mackay’s considerable contribution to Whanganui’s civic history was acknowledged.

Further information

Transcript of a talk by author Paul Diamond about his book, Downfall: the destruction of Charles Mackay at the National Library of New Zealand in December 2022. (PDF, 354KB)

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