Whārangi 1: Biography
Bock, Amy Maud
Confidence trickster, criminal
I tuhia tēnei haurongo e Fiona Farrell, ā, i tāngia tuatahitia ki Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Ko te wāhanga, 1993.
New Zealand's most celebrated and energetic confidence trickster was born on 18 May 1859 at Hobart, Tasmania, the eldest child of Mary Ann Parkinson and her husband, Alfred Bock, and christened Amy Maud. Between her arrival in New Zealand in the mid 1880s and her spectacular trial for forgery and false pretences in 1909, she was known by a whole catalogue of other names, including, in her most notorious guise, Percy Redwood, son of a wealthy widow and nephew to an archbishop.
Amy Bock spent her early childhood in Hobart, the family moving to Sale, Victoria, in 1867 and to Melbourne about 1874. Her father was an artist and later a photographer who encouraged his daughter's interest in amateur dramatics. Her mother died in a lunatic asylum in January 1875. According to R. W. Robson, the author of a pamphlet published in 1909 to cash in on the interest aroused by her trial, Amy also showed early evidence of mental instability. She was, nevertheless, well educated and found employment as a teacher in Gippsland. However, in late 1884 or 1885 after a summons 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.
In Auckland Amy took a position as a governess. Within a few weeks, recounts Robson, she had defrauded her employer and appeared in court where she tearfully confessed all and was let off by the judge. This episode set the pattern for Amy Bock's subsequent career. Repeatedly, she would find work as a cook, housekeeper or companion, and delight her employers with her diligence and charm; but within a few weeks she would become, according to witnesses, oddly excited. By a variety of devious means she would manage to obtain money – usually no more than a few pounds – sometimes by pawning her employer's property but more often through the invention of intricate fictions. She would act the part of concerned friend, dutiful sister or distressed gentlewoman so convincingly that she usually got the cash, whereupon she would disappear while making little attempt to conceal her tracks. In court within a week or two, she would weep, ask God to forgive her and the magistrate to be merciful, tell the story of her kleptomaniac mother and receive her sentence.
Amy Bock's first officially recorded appearance before the New Zealand authorities was in April 1886 in the Resident Magistrate's Court in Wellington, where she was charged with buying goods on credit in Christchurch and then disappearing. Remanded to Christchurch, she was sentenced to one month's hard labour at Addington gaol. On her release she lived in Wellington, but by July 1887 she was back in court on fraud charges. She was sentenced to six months' detention at Caversham Industrial School, Dunedin, where she so impressed the superintendent with her intelligence and 'ladylike deportment' that he offered her employment as a teacher. The position came to an abrupt end when she was discovered attempting to engineer her escape by forging letters from an affectionate but alas fictitious aunt. In January 1888 she left the school and advertised as a music teacher, but by April she was in court charged with obtaining goods on false credit and was sentenced to two months' imprisonment. After her release she remained in Dunedin, later moving to Hill Top near Akaroa where she worked as a governess, before receiving concurrent six-month sentences for larceny and false pretences in April 1889. At the end of the year she returned to Dunedin where she found a job as a housekeeper until mid 1890, when she pawned her employer's furniture. This time she received the maximum penalty: three years' imprisonment with hard labour.
In October 1892 Amy Bock emerged from prison with £1 9s. in her pocket, some of which she spent on a ticket to Timaru where she fraudulently obtained £1. Discharged from prison in November, she joined the Salvation Army and lived with Army members in Timaru, but by Easter 1893 she was in trouble for selling her landlady's watch. After serving her six-month sentence she moved to Ōamaru, where she procured various trifling amounts of money, attempted to defraud a furniture vendor of a larger sum and was in prison again by January the following year.
In 1895, after serving another three-month sentence for leaving a house owing board and lodging, Bock disappeared from official notice for several years. Some of this time she spent at the Magdalen Asylum for 'fallen' women, near Christchurch. In 1902 she appeared in Christchurch as Molly (or Mary) Shannon, and through an elaborate deception which took her to Wellington and Auckland borrowed substantial amounts of money to finance the purchase of a poultry farm. This escapade earned her two years' imprisonment in March 1903. Late the following year, after remission for good behaviour, she found work at Rakaia, now using the name Amy Chanel, but in February 1905 she was charged with altering a cheque and given a three-year sentence.
In June 1907 she was released from prison and for a year lived quietly in Christchurch. In 1908 she returned to Dunedin where, as Agnes Vallance, she pawned her employer's furniture and went to ground after delaying pursuit by creating a complex scenario through letters from Miss Vallance's concerned 'friend', Charlotte Skevington. It was at this point that she found the perfect disguise, posing as the wealthy sheepfarmer Percival Leonard Carol Redwood. Percy holidayed at Port Molyneux on the South Otago coast, staying at the Albion House boarding establishment, where he paid court to the landlady's daughter, Agnes Ottaway, and within a few weeks the couple were engaged. Bock managed to maintain the appearance of wealth by a succession of deceptions involving letters to lawyers, postal orders and small personal loans. These were not detected until after the elaborate wedding, which took place at the bride's home on 21 April 1909. Four days later Bock was arrested at the Ottaways' boarding house. She was convicted in the Dunedin Supreme Court on 27 May on two counts of false pretences and one of forgery, and was finally declared a habitual criminal. (The marriage was annulled on 17 June 1909.)
After her release from New Plymouth gaol on probation in 1911, Amy Bock worked for two years at the New Plymouth Old People's Home, before moving to Mōkau where she is said to have 'organised many entertainments and plays and was the life of the district.' On 16 November 1914, at New Plymouth, she married Charles Edward Christofferson, a farmer from Awakino and a native of Sweden, but they parted within the year because of Amy's debts. In February 1917 she appeared before the New Plymouth Magistrate's Court and was fined £20 for theft. She then moved to Hamilton, where in October 1931 she appeared before the police court and was remanded to the Supreme Court in Auckland to face five charges of obtaining money by false pretences.
She made her final court appearance in Auckland on 28 October, and 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 alpacca 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 the Pukekohe cemetery.
Amy Bock was not an especially successful confidence trickster. Moreover, the sums of money she gained with such inventiveness were never large. It was perhaps fortunate for her that she was able to play out her fantasies in New Zealand. Had she lived in Europe she may well have come to the attention of the psychologists Risch and Krafft-Ebing, who were at that time studying a number of similar cases in which young working-class women attempted to escape their 'proper' roles as housemaids, cooks and governesses by disguise and petty fraud. These women, typically highly intelligent, romantic and articulate, were diagnosed as the 'sexually confused' victims of the disorder pseudologica phantastica. In New Zealand Amy Bock, generous and popular – if not with the judicial authorities – was fortunate to be regarded merely as an eccentric.