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The female killer who won the nation's sympathy

An illustration accompanying the NZ Truth coverage of the murder of Bert West by Alice Parkinson. Image/Papers Past

More than 100 years before #MeToo, supporters came to the aid of a young Napier woman jailed for fatally shooting the man who had made her pregnant, then spurned her. 

One of the standout cultural shifts of 2017 was the emergence of the #MeToo movement, launched by “Silence Breakers” who became Time magazine’s “person” of the year. This anti-harassment campaign, which attracted millions of supporters under the #MeToo hashtag, unmasked a long line of cads, sexual predators and sticky-handed creeps.
RelatedArticlesModule - Alice Parkinson murder

Yet more than a century ago, New Zealanders mounted a campaign of their own, mobilising behind a wronged woman from Hawke’s Bay who’d taken revenge on an especially spectacular rotter.

In 1915, Alice Parkinson, aged 25, shot and killed Bert West when he callously refused to marry her after a failed pregnancy. She then turned the gun on herself but survived. The jury in her murder trial found her guilty of manslaughter, but the judge sentenced her to life in prison with hard labour, at a time when a life sentence meant just that.

Bert West. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

His decision sparked the biggest, noisiest domestic drama of the war years, as tens of thousands of Kiwis, especially women, rallied to free the young pantrymaid and waitress.

Our story begins in a leafy Napier park on a Tuesday evening in March, when Parkinson confronted West about their promised marriage. When he pushed her aside, she turned and shot him four times – then herself.

Despite the bullet in her head, she lived. A witness saw her slumped against a willow tree in a raincoat, her arms folded. A friend rushed from a nearby boarding house, famously crying out, “Alice, what have you done?”

The shooting occurred just as the first New Zealand troops massed in Egypt, ready to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula. The first Kiwi soldier had already died in action, defending the Suez Canal.

People's paper

At a time when violent crimes of this kind were virtually unknown, the populist weekly New Zealand Truth speculated that the world war was responsible for the Napier sensation, using the alliterative headline “Fever of Fight Fills Females”. But the “People’s Paper” adopted a less flippant tone when Chief Justice Sir Robert Stout sentenced Parkinson to life in June 1915, ignoring the jury’s call that she be shown mercy on the grounds of having been provoked. Truth initiated a vigorous national campaign and petition to free her.

A photo of Parkinson published in the Maoriland Worker. Photo/ATL

Certainly, Parkinson seemed an unlikely candidate for a murder charge. One of 12 children born to a pair of Salvation Army officers in the small rural Hawke’s Bay town of Tikokino, she’d grown up a bright and cheerful Christian.

But her mother, Isabella, and her father, George, a farm labourer, struggled with continuing poverty and Parkinson left school at 14 to work as a maid in private homes in Hastings, posting her meagre wages home. She quit domestic service after six years, taking up waitressing jobs in the bustling port town of Napier and saving hard for a better life.

It was there, in the Masonic Hotel, that she met and fell in love with Walter Albert West, a leading hand at the local railway workshop. He was 20, single and seemingly an ideal husband, and in 1914, she fell pregnant to him.

A reluctant fiancé

According to Parkinson’s biographer, Carol Markwell*, Westboth verbally and in writing promised to marry her and pay the medical expenses for the birth of the coming child”. But the young man, happier drinking with his mates at local hotels, would prove a reluctant, slippery fiancé.

As the pregnancy advanced, Parkinson spent her life savings on furnishing a rental house in central Napier for the new family. But the birth in a local nursing home proved disastrous because her child lay in a transverse (sideways) position and it died in utero. Worse, doctors had to dismember the tiny body to extract it and save the mother’s life.

Sir Robert Stout presided at Parkinson’s trial. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Physically and mentally wrung out yet terrified of the stigma with which a woman bearing an illegitimate child was then routinely marked, Parkinson soon left the home. She arranged a marriage licence and organised a wedding ceremony.

Initially, West seemed agreeable. A friend recalled, however, that at the hour they were due to marry at the minister’s house, West instead went to work, laughingly telling colleagues where Parkinson was expecting him and how she’d “have to wait a long time”.

He continued to duck her entreaties, avoiding her when she turned up at his workplace. West’s mother, too, began encouraging her son to pull away from this pushy, erratic woman. In the end, two of West’s friends brutally assaulted Parkinson to warn her off.

It was the last straw. In a letter that would later be made much of in court, she wrote in frantic tones: “By the holy living smoke I will make you suffer for this. You be up here tomorrow night or God help you I will hunt you till I find you … you don’t deserve to live, you rotter.”

Parkinson’s childhood home in Tikokino. Photo/ATL

She, meanwhile, wrote to her mother, asking her forgiveness for what was to come (“It is hard to say goodbye, Mother, but I can’t stand it. My heart is breaking”) and expressed vehement feelings in a letter to Mrs West.

On March 1, 1915, Parkinson took a train to Hastings to buy a small, cheap, seven-chambered revolver and a box of 50 cartridges. A day later, she tracked West down to a house near the intersection of Nelson Cres and Latham St in Napier.

The jury would later hear how she confronted West and his friend John Forde, one of the pair who’d attacked her. Parkinson punched Forde in the ear after he told her to leave West alone. He struck her back, knocking her to the ground.

She got up and followed West towards a nearby park surrounded by willow trees. Forde then heard a shot and saw West fall to the ground. She stood over him, firing three shots into his head and chest, before shooting herself in the right temple.

Both West and Parkinson were unconscious when admitted to hospital. West died a few days later, but Parkinson stayed there for weeks, unable to speak, a bullet still lodged in her brain, where it would remain for the rest of her life.

Image/Papers Past

Packed court

The public gallery of the Supreme Court at Napier was packed, mainly with women, when Parkinson’s murder trial got under way in June. Presiding over the case was 70-year-old Stout, a distinguished jurist who had been Premier twice in the 1880s. A jury of 12 (all men; women were barred from juries until 1942) heard the prosecution make much of the threatening letters and the fact that, at 25, Parkinson was an “older woman”.

On the stand, Parkinson told the jury that she’d called West a coward for getting his friends to attack her, and had openly said, “By God, Bert West, if you don’t marry me I will go mad … if you do not marry me tomorrow I will shoot you …”

Defence lawyer Barney Dolan urged jurors to see her asa country girl pouring out her love and her hate in the agonies of her pregnancy and the tortures of her labour. Provocation! Was there ever as much?” The jury was clearly moved, bringing in the manslaughter verdict, with a recommendation for mercy because of the degree of provocation. Stout, insisting there had been no provocation, instead sentenced her to prison with hard labour for life.

Dolan protested vigorously and sought a retrial, but Stout, who was also Chief Justice and therefore the head of the Court of Appeal, turned him down. As Markwell notes, Stout “was sitting in judgment of his own judgment, which sounds unbelievable today”.

Dazed and distraught, Parkinson began her life sentence in Addington women’s prison in Christchurch in June 1915. Increasingly subject to crippling headaches caused by her head injury, she was quick to anger and was regularly punished by being put on bread-and-water regimes.

During her first week behind bars, Truth came out strongly on her behalf, boldly savaging Stout’s sentence as “almost brutal” and wondering if his old age or general misanthropy might have been to blame.

Image/Papers Past

“Only on one or another of these grounds can Truth understand the callous sentence [Stout] inflicted upon poor Alice Parkinson despite the jury’s strong recommendation to mercy. It is safe to say that in no other part of the British Empire could such a vicious sentence follow upon such a sympathetic verdict.”

The article concluded with a call to arms, urging every New Zealander with “humanitarian feelings or sense of justice” to petition the Government and encouraging them to set up public meetings “in every town in the Dominion”.

It was the opening salvo in a six-year campaign that would be embraced by a rising Labour movement and especially by Harry Holland. The Australian-born radical and newspaper editor, who led the party from 1919 until 1933, framed Parkinson’s recent experience in a larger feminist context.

“It is always,” he wrote in the Maoriland Worker, the leading labour journal, which he edited, “the woman who pays – who bears the full weight of the burden of shame and suffering that a mock-moral – or, rather, immoral – Society imposes for the ‘sin’ of parenthood under unorthodox circumstances.

“This is so because woman is economically unfree. The man in the case may be a moral leper; his reputation may reek of the sewer; but Society (more especially if he be wealthy) will fling its doors wide open to him.”

A series of “Release Alice Parkinson” committees emerged during the remaining war years and gained widespread mainstream backing, especially from women. Newspapers took up the cause. The lawyer, Dolan, kept working on her behalf. Hundreds packed out high-profile public meetings in Wellington and Auckland.

Image/Papers Past

Three petitions

Editions of Truth, meanwhile, included prominent, carefully argued petition forms, from the “undersigned electors of the Dominion of New Zealand” and addressed to the Governor-General (then called the Governor). This initiative resulted in three separate petitions (the first signed by more than 60,000 people) requesting her release.

Stout prepared a report to Parliament, justifying his decision and responding to the growing criticism. His 1915 Report of the Chief Justice continued to argue that there was no provocation and no need for mercy:

“To allow a person, male or female, who thinks he or she has been wronged to inflict punishment without trial, by private assassination, would be such a violation of law and order that no civilised community could submit to it. It is far worse than lynch law,” he wrote. His views won over the parliamentarians on the petitions committee, and the release campaign lost momentum until the end of the war years.

Inside Addington, Parkinson knew little of the public furore. She received few visitors and, almost unbelievably, was allowed to write one brief letter every three months. Her migraines continued to worsen and rumours emerged of what Markwell calls “an episode” involving knives. She was isolated from her fellow prisoners.

After her release, Parkinson married carpenter Charles O’Loughlin and had six children. Photo/ATL

Fresh momentum

By 1920, with the armistice signed and surviving Kiwi troops back home, the campaign gained fresh momentum. As Markwell notes, “there were so many efforts to have Alice Parkinson freed that it is hard to keep track of them”.

A major focus was the visit of the Prince of Wales in April and May of that year. A hundred thousand signatures were gathered, in the hope of a royal pardon, but Parkinson remained behind bars. In the end, campaigners saw an answer in draft legislation giving prisoners leave to appeal in cases where a judge overrode a jury’s recommendation.

The Parkinson case was again reviewed. The matron of Addington Prison supported her release, saying, I don’t expect this woman to again break the law … during the past five and a half years, her experiences of physical and mental suffering have not been lost as lessons of self control.”

Could she be released on probation? A new law allowing prisoners to be freed under close supervision offered fresh hope. As her lawyer prepared a case on her behalf, Parkinson looked back on her years in prison:

“I have deeply regretted my many mistakes,” she wrote to him. “The one thing that has caused me bitter sorrow is the cruel letter I wrote to Mrs West and I know I made her very unhappy. I have worried many times and feel the great wrong I did her. When I think of my life and the sadness I have brought into it, I can hardly bear it at times.”

In August 1921, Parkinson finally emerged from jail under a strict probation order and was placed in the care of her widowed mother, who was still living in rural Hawke’s Bay on the Takapau Plains.

But there’s a happy ending. Alice Parkinson, still with a bullet lodged in her head, soon found true love with a local carpenter named Charles O’Loughlin. The couple married in 1923 and had six children. She died in Auckland in 1949.

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.