Anatomy of a killing - part one

The brutal murder of Christchurch publican Donald Fraser in 1933 has remained unsolved for the last 74 years. RIC STEVENS has spent the last year investigating the case.

Don Fraser, the licensee of Riccarton's Racecourse Hotel, was murdered in his bed in the early hours of November 17, 1933. This was a brutal killing, akin to an execution. Both charges from a double-barrelled shotgun were fired into Fraser's chest at close range.

Neither the killer nor the shotgun was ever found, and the motive for the crime was never known to the general public at the time.

The case caused a brief sensation in Christchurch in 1933 and 1934 before being added to the litany of New Zealand's unsolved crimes, and largely forgotten. However, just because the case was not solved does not mean that it cannot be explained.

In the last 12 months, I have gained access to the previously restricted police files on the murder, and the story to be found there is an extraordinary one.

One of the things that made it extraordinary was the character of the victim. Donald Fraser was a thoroughly unpleasant bully who would pick fights with his customers and throw them out of the hotel if they did anything which displeased him. After his death, however, secrets about him were uncovered which showed a different side to his nature.

Another extraordinary character in the tale was Fraser's wife, Elizabeth – a woman who might scarcely seem believable if she was presented to us in a work of fiction.

The files, and the separate, voluminous accounts of Fraser's inquest in mid-1934, provide us with a unique and remarkable view of hotel life and a group within New Zealand society in the 1930s.

It is a view into a world which otherwise might have been lost to history, with its secrets and infidelities, its extravagances and "fast" living, its double-dealing and criminality.

The files also show that, at the height of the Great Depression, there was plenty of money to be spent and made at the Racecourse Hotel. Gold sovereigns and large sums of cash were even hidden in cupboards and wardrobes.

And a poignant sub-plot to the story of Fraser's life and violent death concerns the fate of his racehorse, Silver Ring. The gelding was the best two- year-old in New Zealand in 1932 before, inexplicably, falling out of form for the last year of Fraser's life.

Then, almost as soon as Fraser was in his grave, Silver Ring made a spectacular comeback, racing for Fraser's estate and giving the dead publican a posthumous success which eluded him in real life.

Over the next four days, the full story of the murder at the Racecourse Hotel will be revealed.

* * * Donald Fraser was born in Charters Towers, Queensland, on April 10, 1892, the son of an English miner and an Irishwoman. The family, including Donald's younger brother Richard (Dick), moved to New Zealand about 1909.

Fraser had been apprenticed to a draper's firm in Queensland, but as a young man on the West Coast, he worked as a locomotive fireman. He left the Railways Department after a dispute over "ragging" some other young employees – possibly an early manifestation of his tendency to become quarrelsome and violent. About this time he was also accused of an indecent assault on a young woman, although the charge was dismissed.

Fraser avoided his generation's exodus for foreign battlefields during World War 1, but was called up in August 1918 to spend the later weeks of the war in the safety of Featherston Camp.

Until entering the hotel trade in 1927, Fraser lived an itinerant lifestyle in drapery, working for nine employers in six towns or cities over 14 years from 1913. One job, in New Plymouth, lasted only four months. The longest spell in one place was when he was employed as a manager in Hokitika between 1920 and 1925.

His work pattern suggests that Fraser did not like working for other people, and was happiest when employed as the boss. This hypothesis would suit his generally abrasive personality. It would also help explain why Fraser decided to enter the hotel trade on his own account. He took over the licence of the Doncaster Hotel at Washdyke, near Timaru, in August 1927, and moved to Riccarton in June 1929.

In the meantime, however, Fraser had become a family man. He married Elizabeth Walton at the Dublin Street Methodist Church in Wanganui on April 6, 1915. Joyce was born in Wellington on March 29, 1917, and a son, Clutha Fraser, was born in Hawera on February 19, 1926.

Along with Joyce, Clutha was present in the Racecourse Hotel on the night his father was killed, as was his girl cousin, Alwyn Walton. Joyce would have a prominent part to play in the investigation into her father's murder, and the inquest.

As the murder investigation progressed, it became clear that Fraser had made enemies, usually through his hasty temper and violence. Several of them were interviewed in the course of the investigation.

They included a horse trainer who had been caught by Fraser urinating against the wall of the hotel while drunk about 1931. Fraser assaulted him, and he never went back.

A Methven farmer said he bore no malice towards Fraser even though the publican had struck him at an after-hours drinking session at the Racecourse Hotel the weekend before the murder.

A labourer fell foul of Fraser when he tied his horse to the hotel fence; police noted that Fraser gave him a hiding for it.

In October 1931, Fraser refused to give a reference to a departing employee, causing her husband to intervene – the subsequent brawl was reported to police but no action was taken.

A William George Thomas, alias George William Thomas, alias Matthews, was arrested at the Racecourse Hotel by police with Fraser's assistance in 1930 and charged with multiple false pretences all over New Zealand; he threatened to kill the publican.

None of these people was believed to have murdered Fraser, but the list no doubt could have been longer.

In the opinion of Detective Sergeant J. B. (Bruce) Young, the out-of-town detective who took over the case from his Christchurch colleagues in late 1933, Fraser was "not a man well-liked by frequenters of the hotel as he was considered to be mean and was very aggressive towards men under the influence of drink". Young went on to say: "He was a big man and could use his fists, frequently picked quarrels with his customers over trifles and, as soon as an argument started, he would strike them and throw them out of the hotel."

* * * The Racecourse Hotel still stands, hard by the Riccarton racetrack from which it takes its name, although it is much changed and a vastly different establishment now than it was then.

In 1933, it was on the very fringe of the Christchurch urban area, still largely surrounded by paddocks, hedges and ponds. An infrequent tram service terminated outside its front door.

The hotel was a 19th-century two-storeyed concrete and brick structure on an acre of ground, with outbuildings and stables. As one entered the front door, the bar opened to the left off a central hallway, while the dining room, an office and the kitchen were on the right. A staircase led from the hallway to accommodation and sitting rooms on the first floor (a second stairway was at the back).

In one of the upstairs bedrooms, opening onto a front balcony, Donald Fraser would be shot dead.

The main players in what the tabloid newspaper New Zealand Truth called "one of the most mysterious murders in the history of New Zealand crime" were the hotel's occupants and guests at a drinking party which went on late into the evening of November 16, 1933, finishing a couple of hours before Fraser's death. There was Donald Fraser, drunk and ill at ease on the last night of his life, and his wife, Elizabeth, whose life as a racing publican's wife provided her with the things she most wanted – good clothes, drink and cigarettes, "fast" living and money.

Their daughter Joyce Fraser, at the age of 16, considered herself a modern young woman pursuing her own idea of freedom through her friendships with young jockeys and stable lads.

Among a raft of lesser characters, Sidney Higgs, a studmaster, was the hotel's only long-term resident guest. Ted Russell, a freezing worker and a friend of Donald Fraser's, drank heavily and although described as a simple man, had an illegal sideline as a bookmaker.

Marion Wood was Elizabeth Fraser's closest confidante, and indeed was described by Elizabeth as the only friend she had made since arriving in Christchurch four years before.

The drinks party was, of course, in breach of the law. New Zealand pubs were supposed to close at six o'clock in 1933. Fraser had been serving drinks after hours for years, getting away with it, and always currying favour with the constabulary by being obliging and helpful when dealing with them.

Through history's window onto that fatal night of November 16, 1933, we can see guests arriving and leaving by tram and bicycle, can see the partygoers drinking spirits and portergaff (a mixture of stout and lemonade), can note the hotel clock running 20 minutes fast. The studmaster Higgs, more sober than most, has not joined the party but has been writing letters in the kitchen before heading to his bed and settling down after hearing the 3YA radio announcer say goodnight.

Joyce Fraser, coming in from talking to two young lads outside, tartly tells an older woman who admonishes her to realise that times have moved on, and young people do not behave as their elders did.

Towards 11pm, the carousers finish with a bottle of champagne. Jack Wilson, the hotel porter, cuts sandwiches for a late supper.

Ted Russell leaves twice, returning for his share of the sandwiches before finally weaving his way down Yaldhurst Road on a borrowed lady's bicycle.

Through these tableaux walks Donald Fraser – or staggers perhaps, for he is very drunk. Fraser serves customers, conducts small items of business, places an arm around his daughter while sitting on a couch, then sinks onto the third step of the main staircase before he is helped upstairs to his bed.

Once the party-goers had left and Higgs and Wilson were long-gone to bed, it was left to Elizabeth Fraser to bear testimony to what happened next.

She said she and her husband were in bed together by 11.45pm and talked for a while before a car pulled up and the front doorbell rang. Donald Fraser called down from the balcony and, getting no response, went down to answer the door.

Elizabeth said she was asleep by the time he returned and the next thing she heard was a loud explosion in the bedroom. She said she did not see the person who shot her husband, and presently she was in the hallway outside the bedroom, screaming.

When Higgs was called from his room he found the force of the two shotgun blasts at close range had been sufficient to lift Fraser out of his bed, and deposit his body onto the floor.

The killer was nowhere to be seen.

* Main sources: Police file P1933/1462 at Archives NZ, Wellington. Inquest reports published in The Press June 29-July 3, 1934. Contemporary newspaper reports from The Press, NZ Truth, The Christchurch Times, The Christchurch Star.

The Press