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The Trials of Eric Mareo


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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. The person whose fate had just been decided was the flamboyant 45-year-old musician Eric Mareo and the crime for which he had been convicted was the murder of his second wife of only eighteen months, Thelma, a 29-year-old Australian actress and singer. According to the Crown, Mareo had laced a glass of milk with a sleeping draught, a barbiturate called veronal, and given it to his wife. His alleged motive: to replace Thelma with his young musical assistant, Eleanor Brownlee.

But this was not the only love triangle to emerge from the trial. Soon after her arrival in New Zealand, Thelma had met a young Auckland woman called Freda Stark, a chorus girl employed in the musical in which she was starring in Hamilton. They soon became close friends, Stark later spending weekends at the Mareos' house in the respectable Auckland suburb of Mt Eden. Although Stark had not stayed the night at the Mareos' on the fatal long weekend of 12–15 April 1935, she had been present when Mareo allegedly poisoned his wife, even helping Thelma to drink the glass of milk in which Mareo had supposedly dissolved the lethal draught of veronal. On their own these facts would have ensured that Stark's testimony at the trial would be crucial. However, it had also been revealed earlier that soon after Thelma's death Mareo had told the police that his wife was 'fonder of women than of men, if you know what I mean' and that she and Stark had been 'lesbian' lovers.1 Not surprisingly, then, Stark was the key witness at the trial, Mareo even dramatically claiming, when asked by the first trial judge if he had any final words after the jury's verdict had been delivered, that he had 'been sentenced on the lying word of Freda Stark'.2

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Mareo was then sentenced to death. As he was being led from the courtroom he looked towards his convent-educated daughter, 21-year-old Betty, and said her name twice. Betty had also given testimony at the trial, although she had not been staying at the house over the fateful weekend. However, she had a younger, 17-year-old brother, Graham, who was present when Thelma drank the glass of milk and who not only contradicted Stark's evidence in court on crucial issues but testified that his stepmother had been a heavy drinker and frequently bedridden for days on end.

Obviously, this was no ordinary trial. Between the wars there were on average only two murders a year in New Zealand and the Mareos' 'Bohemian type of existence', according to one eyewitness, although 'no more facinorous [sic], or even unusual, than what might have been derived from the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of theatrical people in the older cities of the world' was largely unfamiliar to an 'insular, colonial people, living for the most part in God's fresh air'.3 Moreover, this had not been Mareo's only trial. Public interest had already been fuelled by the preliminary hearing in the Police Court between 29 September and 3 October 1935, and then in the first trial in the Auckland Supreme Court from 17 to 26 February 1936. While Mareo was in the Condemned Cell for the first time evidence had come to hand of sufficient weight and relevance to justify a successful application for retrial. Thus public interest in the lives of the Mareos had been gaining momentum for some time when, during the closing stages of the second trial, according to the same eyewitness,

a crowd of several hundred people surged round the Court outside, eager to find a way in. The conduct of some of the women who formed themselves into a four-deep queue at a side door was remarkable. They fought, they scrambled, they pushed, they elbowed each other in their efforts to retain their place in the queue. One who showed a little more temper and determination than any of the others was forcibly removed by a policeman.4
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But Mareo did not hang, in part because the second trial judge, Mr Justice Callan, had written confidentially to the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, H.G.R. Mason, expressing his concern that by the end of the trial he 'could not finally convince [himself] of Mareo's guilt'.5 Mareo, then, remained in gaol while a small, diverse and at times eccentric band of supporters proclaimed his innocence and campaigned for his release in the newspapers, Select Committee hearings, Cabinet, Parliament, and eventually an appellate courtroom. Mareo's case was even taken up later by Mason, much to the annoyance of most of his officials and colleagues, including the Prime Minister Peter Fraser, whom Mason was later to describe as a sadist in his treatment of those who opposed him within the party.6 Notwithstanding the varied and strenuous efforts on his behalf, he served the usual 'life' sentence, eventually being released on probation — only to meet with more controversy involving yet another woman. And, while perhaps in the normal course of events his name would have gradually faded from memory following his death, he is still remembered by many because of his role in the life of his nemesis, Freda Stark. As is well known, after the trials Stark became even better known as the 'Fever of the Fleet', a role which required her to dance before American GIs during the Second World War clad only in a G-string and gold paint, eventually becoming, before her death in 1999, not just a gay and lesbian 'icon' but, according to one of her friends, 'almost postage stamp stuff'7 to the rest of New Zealand. Given changing attitudes towards homosexuality since the 1970s, it is not surprising, then, that most people today accept Stark's account of the trials.

But why did people believe her at the time of the trials? After all, there can be no doubt that New Zealand during the middle decades of the twentieth century was, like most other societies, homophobic. How could the public have believed in Mareo's guilt when such a belief rested largely upon the evidence of someone who qualified by the standards of the day as a 'sexual pervert', and whose testimony was far from uncontradicted? Moreover, the Crown's medical evidence was weak. For example, page 12the case against Mareo rested on a medical principle supposedly propounded by the world's foremost toxicologist, Sir William Willcox, and yet when Sir William himself concluded in 1941 that Mareo could not have poisoned his wife both his expertise and competence were called into question.

Although we do want to clear the name of Mareo, that is not the main purpose of this book. In part this book is a 'who done it', but it is also an attempt to solve a far greater mystery: why the vast majority of New Zealanders believed in Mareo's guilt. The trials were a kind of drama, particularly because its two main actors were such consummate performers. However, the play that unfolded before the public eye in the courtrooms was just a part of a much larger social drama.8 Just as Claudius's reaction to Hamlet's play 'The Mousetrap' demonstrates his bad conscience, so the reaction of most New Zealanders to the drama that unfolded in the courtrooms was also revealing. In attempting to explain why the jury reached its verdict to the applause of most of the New Zealand public, we are also hoping to describe important aspects of New Zealand society during the Depression, and perhaps beyond. As well as being a 'who done it', this book is also social history. As Hamlet might have said, the trials of Eric Mareo did indeed 'hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature'.