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Monday, 22 April 2013

King O'Malley: Canberra's Father, American Bounder or just a plain old World Champion Bulls**t Artist?

As Canberra celebrates its centenary, there has been the odd hint of the cursed cultural cringe, the tugging of the forelock as we appear to continue to cling on to old Mother England's apron strings. What does 2013 mark anyway? One hundred years since the wife of some Pommy toff opened a cigarette case and made a plum-in-the-mouth attempt to pronounce the name "Canberra". Aborigines weren't allowed to be there, otherwise they might have been able to help out.
O'Malley, left, stands beside Lady Denman as she reads out the name "Canberra".
At least we had our own "King" at the March 12, 1913, federal capital man-made city naming ceremony. Our own? Australia might as well claim King O'Malley for its own. No other country will - or ever has. And Canberra is, after all, sufficiently proud of King O'Malley to name an allegedly posh suburb in his honour, not to mention its most fashionable pub.
I have, as yet, no evidence that King O'Malley ever owned or used a typewriter, but I don't have a single, solitary doubt that he did. So I'm going to put his bust on a typewriter anyway - and a Remington at that. O'Malley would have chosen a Remington, no question about it. That was his type of typewriter: big and boisterous, just like the King himself. 
Typed on this Remington 16
I do have doubts that his real name was King O'Malley, and no doubts whatsoever that he was born in the United States of America, not Canada, as he claimed in order to become a member of Australia's House of Representatives (as a supposed British subject). I also have no doubt he was a compulsive liar, a rank racist, a sexist pig and a flagrant fraudster.
But, hey, what a guy! Even I pulled back from the online description of O'Malley, as "a spiv, a charlatan and a snake oil salesman, and therefore an excellent migrant to this nation of convicts". Gee, that's a bit rough! A "spiv"?  Haven't heard that one in a while.
So who needs evidence O'Malley used a typewriter anyway? Other than what he achieved as an Australian politician, there's absolutely no evidence to prove anything about King O'Malley.
Australian Who's Who, 1935
Perhaps the best shot at answering the question, "Who was King O'Malley?" was taken by Rowan Henderson, the bright young lady who curated last year's typewriter exhibition in Canberra. This event succeeded an exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery about O'Malley, for which Rowan wrote a very fine book simply titled King O'Malley.
In this Rowan says O'Malley was "most likely" born in the US in 1858. She adds "no evidence" to his claims to have lived in New York, and says his place of birth might have been Canada, Iowa, New York, Washington or Kansas, specifically Wichita. The "most telling evidence", adds Rowan, is in this long typewritten letter written to O'Malley in Australia in 1888 by an old friend, D.C.Kennedy, in which Kennedy "relays news of friends and acquaintances from Kansas ..."
O'Malley was a highly skilled bulls**tter. Described by his biographer Arthur Hoyle as an "American Bounder", O'Malley throughout his life was proud to admit that, in order to secure land when US Government grants were being issued to religious institutions, he started a new sect and declared himself the Bishop of the Waterlily Rockbound Church: The Redskin Temple of the Cayuse Nation in Oregon. With the aid of an accomplice, he worked "miracles" by obtaining so-called signs from heaven in the shape of coloured lights, set off by his accomplice on a nearby mountain. Not to be outdone, he emulated Moses, ascending the mountain and returning, as he had foretold his congregation, with tablets of stone upon when were engraved the tenets of his religion. He was found out by the Indians and had to leave the district in haste. But he took with him and married the organist of his former flock [a beautiful young acolyte called Rosy Wilmot], though she soon died of galloping consumption, a disease that he also claimed to contract.
Other historians have held similar views of O'Malley. Gavin Souter wrote, "O'Malley's monstrously overgrown persona seemed to be inhabited simultaneously by a spruiker from Barnum's three-ring circus, a hell-and-tarnation revivalist and a four-flushing Yankee Congressman. He was a moderately big man, auburn-haired with watchful grey eyes and a red-brown beard, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, blue-grey suit with huge lapels and a low-cut vest, loose cravat with a diamond collar stud, and in the centre of his cream silk shirt-front a fiery opal." O'Malley's biographer Arthur Hoyle added, "Tall and bearded, with flowing tawny hair, O'Malley had an arresting and, to many, an irritating presence. His mocking, mischievous personality contributed to the controversy he deliberately invited, but his verbal clowning never entirely obscured the complex and hard-headed man who was
perhaps 'his own worst enemy'."
One of O'Malley's department staff members, Charles Studdy Daley, said O'Malley's "wild shock of hair and full beard, and his extravagant style of dress drew attention to him at once. He wore a flowing American frock-coat, a large Texan hat, heavy horn-rimmed glasses, a prominent pearl and diamond tie-fastener, and a massive gold watch-chain. He usually carried a large gamp umbrella. His speech was a heavy drawl, with reliance on forceful and unusual adjectives, and reckless exaggeration."
As for O'Malley being one of the fathers of Canberra, yes in 1901 he moved the first formal motion on the establishment of a national capital, and in 1912 planted the first survey peg (above). But Daley later recalled that O'Malley had initially "treated [Canberra] with contumely and disrespect, and to the advancement of it he contributed nothing". Daley recalled O'Malley saying, "This [moving Federal Parliament from Melbourne to Canberra] is a crime unparallelled in history. Neither the records of plundered provinces, nor of the most cruel of ancient rulers, disclose such dictation as that to which the Federal Parliament has had to submit upon this question at the hands of the Parliament of New South Wales." "This is a proposition to establish the capital in a district which, at times is so dry that a crow desiring to put in a weekend vacation there would have to carry its water-bag." "I do not wish to see [Australia's] capital established in an undesirable place." O'Malley described Canberra as a "a howling wilderness".
Once O'Malley had been made Minister for Home Affairs in 1910, however, "he turned a somersault, saying, 'Canberra will be a city to rival London, Athens and Paris - the Gotham of Australia'." He wanted to call it Shakespeare or Myola (or possibly O'Malleyville), but given his stand against alcohol  (which he called "stagger-juice"), critics said it should be called Thirstytown.
Daley wrote that he had "heard [O'Malley] make two statements on [the subject of where he was born], the first that his home was a building astride the United States-Canadian border, and that he was born in a room that was on Canadian soil; the second, that, when his birth was imminent, his father sent his mother into Canada, wanting him to be a British subject. Late in life, O'Malley admitted to his biographer that he was an American by birth. So he was a confessed impostor in our Parliament and Executive." 
Some home! Any North American knows it's a very long way from Wichita (or Valley Falls, Kansas, also said to be O'Malley's birthplace) to the Canadian border, let alone to Stanford Farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where O'Malley said he was born.
O'Malley in 1888
Rowan Henderson also discredits O'Malley's ridiculous story about how he came to be in Australia. O'Malley said that as the result of bad health, he came in a freighter, landing at Port Alma near Rockhampton. Instead of going into the town, he wandered along the seashore, finding a cave at Emu Park in which he lay down to rest. He was awakened by an Aboriginal, Coowoonga, who picked him up and carried him to his gunyah, thus saving him from drowning at high tide. His consumption was arrested by open-air life in the camp, and by eating certain purple berries known to the Aborigines. When his strength returned, he walked the 2100 kilometres from Rockhampton to Adelaide, "meeting notabilities en route in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart".
The truth is O'Malley arrived in Sydney from San Francisco has a cabin passenger on a steam ship. Like the Rockhampton nonsense, what he said about his birth and his family were complete lies. He said his father was William O'Malley, who died in the American Civil War. No record of this exists. O'Malley said he worked for an uncle called Edward O'Malley, who owned a small bank near Wall Street in New York. There is no record of this man. So what are we to make of O'Malley's supposed insurance and real estate careers in the US? He is said to have worked in Wichita, Topeka and Lawrence in Kansas before moving on to California, Washington State and Oregon (he owned property in Seattle). He was also purported to have been a journalist on the Arizona Kicker.
O'Malley on his "99th "birthday, July 4, 1953
The last survivor of the first Commonwealth parliament, O'Malley died on December 20, 1953, at his home in Albert Park, Melbourne. Nobody (probably including, by that stage, himself) knew his true age, but he said he was 99. 
The Sydney Morning Herald, July 4, 1953
The Canberra Times, December 21, 1953
*O'Malley gave the Australian Labor Party its spelling of Labor, the American style. He was a spelling reform enthusiast and persuaded the party that "Labor" was a more "modern" spelling than "Labour". Although the American spelling has not become established in Australia, the Labor Party has preserved the spelling.


Richard P said...

Well, all this Australian history was news to me. My countryman sounds like a fascinating blowhard and all-around bigger-than-life Yank.

"Stagger juice" -- I must remember that one!

D.C. Kennedy's penmanship is exemplary. The typing is also so neat and regular that I suspect a Hammond did it.

Miguel Ángel Chávez Silva said...

"Big and boisterous..." That's a Remington 12, alright!

Scott Kernaghan said...

Excellent write up. I see the seeds of Canberra's history in bullshitiing were sewn very early!

I concur with the Remington. Exept that at that stage Remington had a bad habit of hanging onto the past.

Jasper Lindell said...

Great post.
I knew O'Malley was quite the liar, but I didn't know it was to this extent!