The excited guests were assembled, a lavish wedding breakfast laid, the bride was arraying herself in finery, the hour fixed for the ceremony was drawing near – there was only one problem – the bridegroom, Percy Redwood, was a female...
Despite the persistent rumours that the bridegroom was a woman in disguise, the wedding went ahead. Amy Bock, New Zealand's most notorious female con artist had pulled off her biggest trick yet – or had she?
Will the real Amy Bock please stand up?
Miss Lang, Mrs Merry, Miss Barrett, Miss Crisp, Miss Bruce, Miss Shannon, Agnes Vallence: Amy Bock assumed all of these identities in her life as a con woman. But perhaps the one she will be remembered for most is Percival Leonard Carol Redwood – Amy's self assured male alter ego who married a woman in 1909.
On the surface Amy Maud Bock appears cut and dried – an accomplished con woman pulling small–time tricks, someone in it for the money – but scratch a little deeper to see what made her tick and the mystery deepens.
A small, slight woman, Amy was described as generous and kind hearted, a woman who easily made friends and enjoyed fun, who would ‘rob a victim one day and weep at his distress the next’, she invariably gave most of her ill–gotten gains away.
But she had another side – the scheming woman who was cool and resourceful when cornered, cunning and clever, a liar and a thief who eventually ‘stole’ a woman's heart. Biographer W. Christophel described Amy as having a ‘triple personality – an occasional lunatic, a deep thinking, far–seeing criminal and fascinating woman’.
Back at the beginning
Amy was born on 18 May 1859 in Hobart, Tasmania, the family moved to Sale, Victoria when she was three years old. Her father was a photographer who encouraged his daughter's interest in amateur dramatics – skills she was to put to good use later in life. Amy's mother was mentally unstable, and died in a lunatic asylum when her daughter was about 15. Amy also showed early signs of instability. In The Adventures of Amy Bock (1909), R.W Robson says Amy displayed ‘many peculiarities’ in her teens, ‘absent minded, strangely old fashioned, reserved and clever, she had no girlfriends’.
She was, nevertheless, well educated and went on to work for a time as a teacher in Gippsland, Victoria.
In late 1884 after a court appearance for acquiring goods on false credit, she was persuaded by her father to move to Auckland, New Zealand, where he was living with his second wife.
A chance to start again
In Auckland Amy took a position as a governess for an Otahuhu family. This was her chance to redeem herself and prove that she was a good citizen – but she blew it.
Within a few weeks she had defrauded her employer and appeared in court, where she put her acting skills to good use and ‘tearfully confessed’ to the judge and was promptly let off. Amy Bock was on her way to a career of fraud and deception, and the title of New Zealand's most notorious confidence trickster.
From Auckland she worked her way around New Zealand as a cook, housekeeper, governess or companion. Her diligence, hard work and sunny nature would charm her new employers each time. But within a few short weeks, she would get ‘oddly excited’, this was usually an indication that some scheme was afoot.
Amy was a terrific story teller, a woman who should have been on stage – she could gain people's confidence easily. It was always money she was after, but never very large amounts. Sometimes she would pawn her employer's furniture, others she would forge a signature on a cheque, or obtain false credit.
On one occasion she went to a draper's shop in Christchurch and bought on credit goods worth £7. Amy told the store owner her name was Miss Lang and she worked as a governess for the family of Mr Caleb Whiteford, magistrate at Kaiapoi. She asked that the goods be sent to his house and he be charged with the cost. It was, of course, a fabrication. Amy stole the parcel from the railway station before it got to its destination, and escaped to Wellington. The magistrate was sent the bill – but denied ever knowing a Miss Lang. Amy was caught and sentenced to one month's hard labour.
On another occassion whilst crossing the Cook Strait on the ferry Amy struck up a friendship with a lady, who invited the amiable swindler to spend a few days with her in Dunedin. Amy agreed and spent an enjoyable holiday with the woman and her relations.
One day the household decided to go for a picnic. At the last moment Amy cried wolf, complaining of a migraine. She suggested she stay home and the servants go in her place. No sooner had everyone set off than a money lender arrived at the house, assessed the furniture and handed Amy a wad of cash borrowed on the household goods. The home owners were horrified, when, several weeks later, a burly man turned up on their doorstep demanding ‘the money or the furniture’. By then Amy had long gone.
Another of Amy's ‘adventures’ found her living with a Salvation Army family in Oamaru, playing the piano at church meetings and singing hymns and psalms every night. They thought her the ‘most pious and God fearing’ person they had met, even standing up for her when the police came calling.
"It's in my blood"
Despite getting caught numerous times, and spending years in jail, Amy continued with her swindling. "It's in my blood" she once confessed to a policeman. "The malady I suffer from has been with me since childhood, and no one but God and myself knows the fearful horror I have had to face the consequences of my crimes." Each time she was caught she would confess, dutifully spend her time in jail, then head out to swindle again.
The biggest con yet
In 1909 Amy invented the persona of Percival Redwood, a pipe smoking, well dressed man of small stature and high voice. Percy was a man of independent means – he owned shares in a North Island sheep farm – and was generous with his money, spending it lavishly on others – despite the fact that Bock was almost penniless. He made many friends in the small community of Port Molyneux in South Otago, including Agnes Ottaway, the landlady's daughter. Agnes and Percy got engaged and it's here that Percy's world began to unravel. His funds ran out and he had to devise other ways to keep up appearances and his generous disposition. Agnes's parents were a little suspicious of the new man in her life – but their worries were eased when letters began arriving from Percy's mother reassuring them of her son's financial position. Percy made up stories and borrowed money from friends and unsuspecting lawyers, bought an engagement ring on false credit and built lie upon lie to convince everyone of his status as a well–off man.
There were rumours in the build–up to the marriage, Percy was a source of interest in the community – his small wizened face, and sharp perky bearing raised curiosity everywhere. Jack Muir the barber later said Percy was a ‘curious lookin' little cuss', but at the same time thought he was ‘merely a very peculiar specimen of his kind.’
Percy had to do some fast talking when the debtors came to call, and again when his ‘mother’ wrote to say the family wouldn't be attending his wedding. Although suspicious, no–one said anything.
The society wedding went ahead on 21 April 1909. At the altar Percy murmured his vows and kissed the bride before a large group of guests, including the local MP and the press. Afterwards they gathered in a large decorated marquee, the tables were laden with food and presents, there was speeches and dancing. The newly married couple were travelling to Melbourne for their honeymoon.
But beneath the surface was a murmuring of discontent. The bride was subdued and kept her distance from her new husband, rumours were floating among the guests: the question on everybody's lips was – where would Percy sleep that night?
Percy didn't get to sleep with his bride. The Ottaway family were suspicious about his claimed riches. He was told to bunk in the same room as the groomsman who was intrigued when the newly married man leapt into bed with his pyjamas on over his wedding clothes.
The next day Percy claimed his mother was on her way down South and all debts would be repaid. The newly married man was given a week's grace – but would not be sleeping with his bride before then.
The wedding had taken place on a Wednesday – by Sunday the police were at the front door confronting Redwood with the words: ‘The game's up, Amy!’ The giveaway had been a basket of women's clothes found in a room at a Dunedin boarding house used by Redwood. Amy admitted all and was arrested for male impersonation and fraud.
The national media went wild. Bock's scam quickly became the object of jokes around the country. Postcards and a booklet The Adventures of Amy Bock were produced to capitalise on the interest in the case.
The Ottaway's were understandably shocked. Poor Agnes, horrified at the part she played in ‘New Zealand's most notorious’ wedding quickly had the marriage annulled. She later married a ‘real’ man.
Amy, who told the court she was 46, was charged with false pretences and forgery. She was declared a habitual criminal and sentenced to two years in the New Plymouth Prison.
It was from here that she shifted to Mokau in 1912, beginning life afresh in the little community. In an unpublished manuscript W. Christophel says Amy became the life and soul of the district: "She took part in all the activities, was a good actress and an excellent pianist, organised many entertainments and plays and was the life of the district."
In 1914 she married Charles Christofferson, a farmer from Awakino. But they parted within a year because Amy had fallen into her old ways. She was secretary of the tennis club, but the funds disappeared. She collected money to buy a piano for the school but none appeared. "She borrowed money from almost everyone in Mokau but paid very little of it back and used it mostly in buying presents, as she was extremely generous, using very little herself," wrote Christophel. In 1917 she appeared in the New Plymouth Court and was fined £20 ($60) for theft, although her defence claimed she was a reformed woman.
A faded old lady
Amy later moved to Hamilton. She made her final court appearance in Auckland in 1931 facing five charges of obtaining money on false pretences. She was sentenced to two years' probation on condition that she live at the Salvation Army Home. A court reporter described her as ‘a faded old lady in a dove grey alpaca cloth costume, with a drooping hat of lace straw, grey gloves and supporting herself on a walking stick’. She died at Bombay, south of Auckland, 12 years later, on 29 August 1943, and was buried in an unmarked grave at Pukekohe cemetery.
No one can explain why Amy dressed up as a man – and continued to do so throughout her life, even when she wasn't pulling ‘a trick’. Some people claim it's because she was a lesbian, her lifestyle does suggest this. But once, during a conversation with a policeman, she remarked that she found men too soft and easy and would find more of a challenge in the deception of women – so she decided to appear as a man. Others say life was easier for men in that era, so women who wanted to get on in life would dress up as males... Perhaps we'll never know.
Amy Bock was not especially successful as a confidence trickster, but was not evil in her intentions. She received very few financial gains from her schemes and was generally very popular, being regarded as an eccentric rather than a villain.
Epitaph II, (2001) Random House, Auckland.
Papers - a short biography and papers on Amy Bock. TRC vertical files, Puke Ariki.
Public Notice from the Otago Witness, advertising postcards and a book written about Amy Bock.
PLACES TO VISIT
Tainui Historical Society Museum, Main Road North, Mokau. Open 10am to 4pm seven days a week. Entry by donation. Ph (06) 752 9072.