In search of the poison pen letter writer threatening to reveal Middlemarch's darkest secrets
The shadow of the 'Taieri Pet' hangs over the Otago town of Middlemarch.
The name is given to the lenticular cloud formation often spotted above the Strath Taieri area, 80km to the west of Dunedin.
It featured most recently above the township at the annual Strath Taieri A&P show last Saturday, but it was a different Taieri Pet that cast a shadow that day. The 408th edition of the Taieri Pet newsletter, page two to be precise.
"Offences have been relatively quiet in the past month, and I have mainly been around the home patch," Senior Constable Helen Fincham-Putter wrote in the monthly police column. Crimes under investigation included a historic stone cottage broken into between mid-January and early February ("appears nil taken"), two cases of unlawful hunting, and three "reports of anonymous/poison pen letters".
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Two of those letters were sent to local women and concerned the state of their marriages, while the other provided information of a person driving while disqualified. "As they are anonymous," Fincham-Putter wrote, "the writer is usually over-confident and highly critical in their writing."
That column was later picked up by national media, upsetting local residents who argued it overshadowed positive events in the town, such as the A&P Show, and the biennial Middlemarch Singles Ball to be held on April 15.
Fincham-Putter said she had been "hounded" by media since the story came out. "It is just ridiculous . . . it has been blown out of proportion."
And there was no update on the case, she said, and no story.
So . . . Middlemarch here I come.
DRIVING ROUTE 87 THROUGH THE TAIERI PLAIN
"The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapour-walled landscape," George Eliot wrote in her most famous novel, Middlemarch.
From the lush green of the Taieri Plain, State Highway 87 takes you to a rocky landscape more akin to the wild west and even the occasional backdrop for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.
The brilliant sun overhead has failed to penetrate the low-lying fog covering the town of Middlemarch: pop 300.
A quick photo stop reveals some graffiti, albeit in neat, block capitals, written on one of the area's distinctive rocks 'AFTER DEATH JUDGMENT".
Perhaps not the penmanship of our poison pen letters, but a message nevertheless.
As the fog starts to burn-off the surrounding Rock and Pillar Range, which resemble a Grahame Sydney painting, are revealed.
It's morning. Curiously the township's main street, which lies beneath a long autumnal shadow of the ranges, is almost deserted of motor vehicles and pedestrians.
Soon, though, lycra-clad cyclists completing their last leg of the famed Otago Central Rail Trail stream through the town to stretch their legs and enjoy a coffee at one of the cafes in town.
As they cycle past the local postal agency, the possible drop-off for the poison pen letters, I go inside to pick up a copy of the Taieri Pet.
"Strange business," the older woman behind the counter says when I ask about the page 2 goings-on.
And like so many conversations on that topic, this exchange ends as quickly as it began.
The chattiest person on the topic turns out to be the one in the most hurry – to leave Middlemarch for good.
A middle-aged woman and "husband number two" are filling up their car at a self service pump across the road from the mailbox.
The woman, who does not want to be named, lived in the town for 17 years before moving to Dunedin almost a year ago.
"I always kept to myself," she says.
When she first moved to the town she did a few things in her first year in Middlemarch that influenced opinions of her; she wasn't spoken to for a whole year.
"If you are not welcome in this community you are out of this community," she says, as looks left to right down the town's main road, Swansea St.
While she doesn't know the writer of the poison pen letters, she is not surprised. Freezing people out was a way of ensuring "who they want to keep in the community and who they don't want in the community".
That wasn't different to other small towns, she does note.
The town has many positive things going for it, but its transformation into a tourism town has come at a cost to some in the community, she says, while others have profited.
You can see the transformation with three bicycle hire places, B&Bs dotted around the town and farm-stays further out.
Middlemarch is a "beautiful wee place", but not for her. Not any more.
SMALL, NEAT, FEMININE SCRIPT
A resident familiar with the case tells me one of the letters was posted from outside the township, with the writing "deliberately small . . like they were disguising it".
Another resident, now based overseas, says: "it's a pretty town but everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets".
He, like others, believes he knows the identity of the poison pen writer. "Being the town gossip was always her thing though."
While people are reluctant to name the woman they suspect to be behind the letters, several residents provide the name – even the address – of one of the victims.
The state of her marriage was targeted by the letter-writer. The accusations, says a man familiar with the couple, ares "lies".
The woman received anonymous texts and a few letters a couple of years ago, and it was possibly the work of two people, he adds.
No one is home when I visit the picturesque property of one of the victims, so I write a brief letter – the first I have written in years – and place it in their mailbox. Not the first letter she has received lately.
But nothing, not a nibble.
Local Dunedin City Council councillor Kate Wilson has lived in the area for almost 20 years, and in "another 15 I'll be a local".
Wilson says the poison pen matter was not intended for wider consumption, "Every community has someone that has a chip on their shoulder, and they may be a very sad and lonely person. but it is certainly not representative of people around here.
"And it doesn't mean it is true . . maybe it is just a really sad person."
The community is focused on next month's singles dance, she says, and no-one is talking about the poison pen.
Yet everyone knows of the case, and soon everyone knows a reporter is in town asking questions.
"I'm not talking to you," says one female Middlemarch resident when asked about the possible identity of the writer. "It's an unfortunate business," adds another.
"Don't put my name in the paper," both exclaim.
Meet Sergeant Kevin Davidson, who opened one of the letters sent to the Mosgiel Police Station.
That letter, in neat, small handwriting, related to a "kid that was driving without a licence".
"She indicated it was one of a number."
She? Well, the handwriting appeared to be written by a female based on "the extent of my forensic examination", says Davidson, who declined to release a copy of the letter.
And the anonymous information appeared to have some credibility, with police speaking to a person named in the letter as driving unlawfully. "It has been brought to their attention as to what their responsibilities are under the Land Transport Act, we can't take it an further as we don't have specified incident recorded."
It isn't uncommon for police to receive anonymous information but it is difficult to determine the credibility of the information, he says.
"It is really weird . . . but it is not unusual."
Writing anonymous letters about the state of a person's marriage isn't illegal, and Davidson believes the person was either "acting in good faith, or just stirring".
I head to the museum just as it opens up, and after a few minutes I'm asked if I am that reporter that rung the day before.
Guilty as charged, I say.
"We have so many interesting things happening here," the lady, who declines to be named, tells me. "And to have a person, maybe unwell, to have something like this being talked about around New Zealand is undermining our whole district."
"I find it trivial. I understand why the policewoman reports on the original crimes. I can understand why it was in our Taieri Pet."
She then reminds me about another Taieri Pet story that made national headlines. That concerned a serial pool pooper who defecated three times in the local pool, forcing its closure. And while that offender appears to have made a clean getaway, flushing out the poison pen writer will be an even harder challenge.
Maybe I should just do as the lady recommends: focus my attention on the museum's platypus submarine, designed and built in 1873 to prospect for gold.
Maybe she's right. The submarine is internationally important and well-preserved with the dry Middlemarch climate helping to keep its large iron shell relatively free of rust.
A submarine out of water. A poison pen writing anonymous letters to residents of a small Otago town.
As I leave Middlemarch I hope the anonymous writer reads the thought of the month within Issue 408 of the Taieri Pet.
"It doesn't matter who hurt you or broke you down. What matters is who made you smile again." – Unknown.
- Sunday Star Times