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Death at the Chocolate Factory


On February 6, 1946, company manager Miles Herbert Radcliffe, a "known homosexual" who entertained men on a couch in his office, was found battered and strangled in the side doorway. His murder remains unsolved, but with hindsight we can guess better why he died.

Radcliffe, Wellington branch manager at Adams Bruce, was unprepossessing to look at: 50 years old, he wore his hair in the unflattering short back and sides of the day, and John Lennon would not make his little round spectacles fashionable for another 20 years.

His staff at the College St factory found him distant and solitary, though he gave generously to collections or presentations. He had lived in a luxury flat in Kelburn where he gave parties for servicepeople during the war, being too old to go himself, and made them all sign his visitors' book. The messages were all warm and flattering. More recently, though, he had moved into a smaller flat in Oriental Bay. He ate alone in cafes in Cambridge Terrace or Courtenay Place, often returning to work in the evenings.

When police questioned the staff at the factory it turned out they all knew he was homosexual. The caretaker knew that he took men back for long sessions in his office in the evenings, where he had a settee, and one clerk had accused Radcliffe of trying to seduce him, but nothing had come of the accusation.

He was shockingly battered: almost every possible injury had been inflicted on his head, but he had died of throttling. The pathologist determined that he had been sexually aroused at the time of his death, some time before midnight on February 5, 1946. He had not been robbed. He did not smoke, so a number of dead matches of a foreign type ("redheads") near the body established that the killer was probably a pipe-smoker.

A 13 year old schoolgirl on her way home from basketball practice had seen two men near the factory that evening, one very tall, well built and smoking a pipe, and wearing a heavy leather coat.

Because of the foreign matches, enquiries focussed on ships that had been in port at the time, and one in particular, the "Themistocles". Ten of its crew said they were homosexual, and another eight probably were. Virtually the whole crew had leather jackets. Police enquiries, international and thorough, ran aground, and the murderer was never found. One historian writes, "In the long history of New Zealand murders, none has proved so baffling.... The motive...was non-existent."

Perhaps the police should not have looked so hard for a self-identified homosexual. Identity is one thing, orientation is another, behaviour something else again. Who knows now what the man Radcliffe picked up considered himself? As the old joke goes, what's the difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual? Two beers.

Today there is a name for what probably happened, though it is a bad one. It is called "homosexual panic" but it would be better called "homophobic panic": a man finds himself sexually involved with another man, or even just the object of a man's sexual attraction, and when he can not cope with the conflict between his own lust and the violence it does to his self-image as heterosexual, he translates what would otherwise be self-loathing into blind rage. Miles Radcliffe is only one of many gay men to be killed by men they would have made love to. Astonishingly, courts have often sympathised with the killers, and "homosexual panic" has been a successful defence to a charge of murder.

Based on a chapter in "By a Person or Persons Unknown" by George Joseph, 1992, Law Book Co. Sydney. Written by Hugh Young. .

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