Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fooled by "the gypsy woman"

In Avondale's St Ninian's Cemtery lies the gravestone for Walter and Rachel Chishollm, a hard-working Methodist couple who were integral parts of every community they settled in. Sadly, though, in declining years they fell victim to a con.

Walter Chisholm was born in Southdean near Hawick c. 1833 in the Scottish Borders country the edlest son of James Chisholm and Janet Brown. James Chisholm was an agricultural labourer. By 1851, Walter was working on the estate of Henry Elliot of Westerhouses, Chester, as a molecatcher. Paying his own fare, he sailed from Liverpool for Melbourne in 1854, on the American clipper, The Red Jacket.

He worked in Victoria for the next 13 years, marrying Rachel Graham in 1863 at Carisbrooke, Wedderbourn, north-west of Ballarat, a gold-mining town. Rachel was originally from Ireland, and had arrived in Victoria in 1860 on assisted passage as a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Walter was employed as a mail contractor.

From Victoria, the Chisholms headed to Hokitika, staying there for over twenty years. living in Sale Street, working as an ironmonger's asstant by 1880. There Walter devoted time to the local Methodist Church, teaching Sunday school, as well as serving as Poor Steward and Chapel Society Steward. He may also have been secretary of the Independent Order of Rechabites 1877-81. He was actively against the licensing of hotels in the area, successfully opposing the granting of Henry Sharpe's license for the British Hotel in Tancred Street, September 1880. By 1883, he was a storeman, and by 1889 associated with the Hokitika Hardware Company. In that year he was a member of the Hokitika Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

In 1890, Walter and Rachel, with their son James left Hokitika for Mauriceville, near Masterton.

The many friends of Mr Walter Chisholm will be interested to learn that he has bought the business of a general storekeeper at Mauriceville, near Masterton, in the Wairarapa, Wellington Province. Writing to a friend in Hokitika Mr Chisholm says : — " I like this country very well, the weather is splendid. This district is very heavily timbered where not cleared and very hilly, but the land is splendid and the crops are grand; 10 bushels of wheat to the acre and very little trouble to preserve it. This is a very scattered place. Almost every settler has from 50 to 100 acres on the roadside and those behind these sections have generally from 160 to 400 acres. Those in the front were not allowed to take up large holdings. It is a special settlement on deferred payment. Sheep and cows are the chief products. We have a butter factory close by and there is only one very small store within two miles. I have only one man. We have to take out goods such a distance. On Monday the four wheeled express with two horses has about 16 miles round; on Wednesday, 32 miles; and Friday, 16 miles, and we have to go or somebody else would take our customers. As far as I can see yet, I will do very well. I pay 9s a week rent of store and dwelling and a four acre grass paddock, so that my expense is small. The railway station is two miles away, but we have a Post and Telegraph Office just across the road. We are about 80 miles from Wellington."

West Coast Times, 27 February 1890

In their new home, Walter and Rachel Chisholm made their mark. Walter was a local Methodist church Trustee, lay preacher and Sunday school superintendent, while Rachel appears to have used her nursing skills during an emergency in 1897 when, during a bush fire, a Mrs McGregor and her children were badly burned. The Hastwell Fire Relief Committee presented Rachel Chisholm with an album as a token of their appreciation for her work in March that year. By 1900, Walter was chairman of the Mauriceville West School Committee, and by 1902 he was a Justice of the Peace. But, he and Rachel were both becoming older, and in 1902 their age was used against them by a Serbian con artist posing as a fortune-teller.

At Masterton on Friday Mary Nicoli, commonly called "the gypsy woman," was charged with stealing £1 from Walter Chisholm, Mauriceville West, on November 20, and further with fortune telling at the same time and place. 

Mr Chisholm, an elderly, grey-haired man, who is a Justice of the Peace, stated that he was a storekeeper at Mauriceville West. On November 19 accused went to his shop, purchased some goods, and asked to see his hand. Witness showed his palm and the woman told him some very agreeable things. She said he was a very good man, would live long, and would be very rich, plenty of money coming over the sea (laughter). He charged her a shilling less for goods than he would have done, for telling him (laughter). 

The next day she visited his shop again, and this time went into the private room where he and his wife were. She asked for two sovereigns for two pound notes, and he changed one of the notes. Then she asked him to sit down on a chair near the fire. He did so, and she took a seat beside him on the floor, and asked for a tumbler of water which was supplied. She placed the glass on the hearth between them, and requested a pocket handkerchief, which was given. Taking some chemical stuff out of her pocket she tied it in the handkerchief, dipped it in the water, and then spread it over the top of the glass. Then she asked him to place a pound on the handkerchief. Witness demurred; and she then placed a pound note of her own underneath the glass. Eventually, on the advice of his wife, he also placed a note across the top of the glass. Accused then folded the two notes together and “wanted to touch my back to cure some imaginary disease. I said my back was all right (laughter), and then she wanted to touch my breast with the notes," said witness. 

Continuing, witness stated she put her hands under his wife's skirt. When she withdrew her bands she had some paper in them, but not the two notes. She quickly rolled the papers up and put them in the fire. Then she said she had burned her own note as well as his, and all disease was taken away, so he must give her another pound for the one she had lost. His wife went out of the shop, but was only away about a quarter of a minute, and when she returned accused left. Cross-examined, Chisholm said he had no intention of giving the woman the pound; he "kept his eye on it like a cat watching a mouse"; he did not ask for the note back; she did not tell witness "there was no fool like an old fool "; witness did not offer accused a pound if she would give him a kiss; witness (indignantly),- "my wife is a better looking woman than her." 

Mrs Chisholm corroborated her husband's evidence. Accused, she said, crumpled up what seemed to be the notes, mixed with some coffee, burnt them on a shovel, and held the fumes under the nose of witness's husband. Afterwards the woman bought some goods in the shop, and Mr Chisholm charged 3s or 4s less than the usual price. She was only out of the room a few seconds serving a child. Recalled, Mr. Chisholm said he sold the goods cheaply because accused said she wanted to sell some of them again, as she had a lot of young children to keep. 

The Magistrate (Mr James, S.M.) said the case came within the definition of larceny by trick. No one would believe that the notes were burned, and he should find accused guilty of larceny by trick. He could not understand how people, especially like Mr Chisholm, a Justice of the Peace, and apparently of some common sense, could be so foolish as to lend themselves to be cheated in this manner. It passed his comprehension altogether. "They bring these about by their own stupidity, and then come here and complain that they have been had," added Mr James. Accused was fined £5 and costs £1 13s.
Bush Advocate, 8 December 1902

The following year, Mary Nicoli was sentenced to £5 or three months imprisonment in New Plymouth, for obtaining money from Maoris under false pretences (Hawera & Normanby Star, 23 December 1903), and was accused of pretending to exercise witchcraft in Hastings by two Maori women, when Nioli promised to help them bear children. (Poverty Bay Herald, 7 May 1906)

James Chisholm took over the store at Mauriceville from 1905, while Walter and Rachel retired and came to live in Avondale, setting up their home in Elm Street. Once again, Walter took an active part in the Methodist Church, but sadly had a bad turn while on his way to the church on Rosebank Road and falling, passing away in 1910.

James, separated from his own family, came up to live with his aged mother, then remarried. He shifted to Ellerslie, taking Rachel along them, where he worked as a horse trainer. When Rachel died in 1921. she too was buried here at St Ninians Cemetery.

Sources: Audrey Barney, "Robert Chisholm of the Whau" Clan Chisholm Newsletter June 2007 (.pdf); Papers Past.

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