Thursday, October 2, 2008

Death of a publican: the suicide of John Rebbick Stych (1845-1898)

An old tale that floated around Avondale for years, from whispers in the playground to legends recounted to wide-eyed visitors, was that the last publican of the Avondale Hotel committed suicide by hanging himself in the basement when the hotel lost its license in 1909. Thanks to Mrs. Vera Crawford, in an interview while I researched Heart of the Whau, the legend was disproved: to a point.

The last publican didn’t kill himself in 1909 or in 1910 when the hotel closed its doors that year. It was another man, just before Christmas in 1898, who in a dazed and desperate state headed down to the cellars to end his life with a shotgun blast.

Serious trouble came to the Avondale Hotel and its licensee on the afternoon of 20 December. John Abbott, a financier from Parnell, had asked his son that day to present a cheque for £125 at the National Bank in Onehunga, one signed by a Mr. Clark of Onehunga, and endorsed by John R Stych of Avondale, but the cheque was found to be a forgery. Abbott hastened to Avondale with his son, arriving at 4.30 pm to find that Stych was already talking with another man, an agent William J Boylan, regarding financial matters. Boylan stated later that “he had not threatened to deal harshly” with Stych. Abbott interrupted this discussion, and met with Stych in a private room. During the next two minutes, Abbott later declared at the coroner’s hearing, he told Stych that steps had to be taken to clear up the matter of the forgery. Stych, according to Abbott, gave no answer. “He appeared”, according to Abbott, “to be in a dazed and dejected state, with a wildness in his eye.”

Abbott thus came to the conclusion that it was going to take longer than he had thought to discuss the matter of the cheque with Stych. He asked for help detaching his horse from his trap waiting outside, so that his son could come in, and everything could be further discussed calmly. The last words Stych said to Abbott was that he’d send a boy out to help sort out the horse, a few minutes before 5 pm.

Coming back from taking his horse to the stable, Abbott said he saw Stych come out the back door of the hotel (possibly Wingate Street side) and then go back in again. Shortly after that, Abbott claimed he heard a “faint explosion, like the shooting of a cork.” He didn’t hear the full blast, as he was hard of hearing. Going back into the hotel, he asked Emma Stych where her husband was. She thought he was still with Abbott, and sent one of the sons, Arthur, to look for his father.

Checking the cellar, Arthur discovered his father lying dead, a wound just below the right ear from a double-barrelled shotgun that had been held close to Stych’s skull. John Stych had made his way to the cellar, fully determined to end his life. In case the shotgun hadn’t worked, he had a loaded revolver in one pocket, and an extra shotgun cartridge in another. A Dr. Girdler was summoned by telephone to the scene (the nearest telephone in those days was miles away), and pronounced that death was instantaneous, while Constable Crean took charge of the weapons found with the body, and reported the tragedy to the district coroner, John Bollard (then MP for Eden). The inquest was held on the afternoon of the next day.

John Bollard was a good friend of Stych, and objected to Abbott’s use of the term “forgery” to describe the cheque which couldn’t be honoured at the Onehunga bank. Bollard declared that there was no evidence presented at the hearing that the cheque was a forgery, and that Abbott must have meant that the cheque had been returned unpaid, and marked in the corner “signature unlike”. Bollard said he raised this “in justice to the deceased.” Abbott, later in a letter to the NZ Herald. protested this strongly declaring that the coroner’s tribunal was not the place to determine whether the cheque had been forged or not. “However much I was disposed to soften its effect, so that his representatives might not be pained, I had no alternative but to speak of things as they were.”

The verdict of the inquiry was “suicide while suffering from temporary insanity, caused by financial difficulties.”

John Stych had been very popular in the Avondale district, not only as the village’s hotel publican, but also as an enthusiastic gardener and member of the local horticultural society. He used to carry off prize after prize at the local shows. For many years prior to moving to Avondale, he worked at the Bycroft mills in Auckland. He left his wife, Emma, and three sons. Emma continued on as the licensee of the hotel until June 1903, when she transferred the license to William Baker (who may, indeed, have been the last of the Avondale Hotel publicans). At the time, the police stated that the hotel was in good order and well conducted. Her husband was buried in Rosebank (now the George Maxwell) Cemetery, his headstone giving no indication of his sad, untimely demise.

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