Con-artist: the story of Amy Bock

From Black Sheep, 6:30 am on 12 November 2018

Detective Henry Hunt knocks on the door of Percy Redwood, a wealthy sheep farmer on an extended holiday at Nugget Point on the Catlins Coast.

Over the last few months, Percy had made a lot of friends in town, in fact, he just recently married a local woman called Agnes Ottaway.

The door opens. Percy, a very short man, told his friends he used to be a jockey in his younger days. But that was a lie, pretty much everything Percy told his friends was a lie.

“The game is up, Amy,” said Detective Hunt.

Percy’s shoulders slump. “I see you know it all,” he said... or rather, she said.

Percy was not really a wealthy sheep farmer and former jockey. He was a persona invented by Amy Bock, the most prolific con-artist in New Zealand history.

Amy Bock poster by Massey University student Zoe McEwan

Amy Bock poster by Massey University student Zoe McEwan Photo: Zoe McEwan

“A Woman Bridegroom, Exploits Of An Adventuress, An Extraordinary Story”

“In Man’s Attire, A Woman’s Escapade”

"A Marvellous Masquerade, A Woman Dressed As A Man Marries A Port Molyneax Girl."

“The Champion Crook of the Century”

This is just a small sample of the scandalised headlines which filled the national newspapers after Amy’s scam was revealed. The papers delved into her old court records, they interviewed her childhood friends and trawled through older newspaper clippings.

What they uncover is a lifetime of scams, frauds and lies going all the way back to Amy’s childhood in the rural Australian town of Sale, a few hundred kilometres east of Melbourne.

“It’s In My Blood”

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Amy came from a respectable family in Sale, her father ran a successful photography business which helped him make connections with the movers and shakers in town.

But there was a tragedy at the heart of the Bock family. Amy’s mother suffered from a serious mental illness.

“[Amy’s mother] would have very manic episodes and then episodes of melancholia. So probably what we would think of now as manic-depressive [or bipolar disorder],” said Dr Jenny Coleman, author of Mad or Bad: the life and exploits of Amy Bock.

When Amy was ten years old her mother was locked up in a lunatic asylum. Amy never saw her again. She died three years later.

It was around this point people started to have concerns about Amy’s mental health. She began telling stories and acting out in bizarre ways. One time she bought a load of books under her father's name and just gave them away to random people in town.

Amy’s father was worried she was starting to show the same early signs of insanity as her mother, so when she turned 19 he used his connections in town to land her a good job as a sole charge teacher for a rural school.

But if he hoped a steady job would help settle Amy down, he was sadly mistaken.

“She’s basically scamming them,” said Jenny Coleman. “She’s fidgeting the school attendance roles because her salary was dependant on how many children were in attendance.”

Amy also lied about broken windows to get extra money and often bought goods on credit then failed to pay the shop owner back. Some of the things she bought were very bizarre.

“She would go around all the undertakers and order up coffins and get them sent all to the same family,” Jenny said. “Quite bizarre scenarios for some her scams… I mean, what was the benefit to her?”

This was a running theme in Amy Bock’s crimes - often they don’t benefit her. She would go to great lengths to scam people, then use the money to buy things which she gave away for free. Her scams were like a pyramid scheme but with nobody at the top.

When Amy was eventually caught and put on trial for fraud, a local newspaper put it like this:

“She had a perfect mania for what she called ‘shopping’ which consisted of ordering goods she did not require and could not pay for. On all hands astonishment is expressed that the girl had thus far contrived to keep out of the lunatic asylum, of which her mother was a confinee for many years”

Both the newspaper and the court thought it was best to go easy on Amy Bock. Eventually, the judge gave her a discharge without conviction. The newspaper wrote that:

“Much sympathy has been felt for Miss Bock as her mistake is believed to have been caused more by a hereditary misfortune than a criminal intent.”

Amy played up the link between her crimes and her mother’s mental illness throughout her life. After moving to New Zealand in the mid-1880s she was put on trial for a series of scams and frauds around Dunedin. In court she said this:

“The malady I suffer from now has been upon me from childhood, and no one but God and myself know the fearful horror I have had to face year after year in the knowledge that, instead of my being able to fight successfully against it (as I have prayed so often to do), it has rather overpowered me more and more.” - Amy Bock

Specifically, Amy said she suffered from kleptomania, a mental illness which compels people to steal. This defence was not well thought of by the court with the judge remarking that: 

“It would never do to countenance it. If we did, a good many people would soon be bound to think that they were suffering with that disease.”

Criminal Celebrity

A police mugshot of Amy Bock, 1886

A police mugshot of Amy Bock, 1886 Photo: NZ Police Museum

Despite Amy’s serial criminality, she was popular with the New Zealand press. Jenny Coleman said Amy was a “wholesome” criminal in the eyes of the public - never drank, never committed violent crimes, never engaged in prostitution.

Plus her scams were entertaining. They were bold, audacious and often ludicrously complex.

One time, just after being released from prison she managed to convince the Salvation Army to lend her money to buy and furnish a six-room house in Oamaru.

Another time she managed to talk her way into ownership of a chicken farm.

Often she would take on multi-faceted personas, backed up by forged letters and testimonials.

She would play the part of a desperate gentlewoman in need of a few pounds to pay off a loan shark, a concerned sister who needed a few bob to pay for a brother’s train or a friendly cook who could be trusted to look after the house while the owner went on holiday; only for them to come back to find their valuables gone, along with Amy.

Amy’s crimes were great for selling newspapers and the press loved her for it. One reporter wrote:

“The outstanding fact is that in New Zealand, perhaps in Australasia this woman stands supreme in her cleverness over other female criminals”

But the brilliance of Amy’s scams was often her downfall. The Police began to get wise to her particular brand of crime. Anytime they came across a complex scam they knew whose door to knock on.

“They would come to a conclusion that it had to be Amy Bock even if they didn’t have any evidence,” Jenny Coleman laughed. “She was the only one clever enough to do this!”

So in 1907, Amy came up with a new plan. What do you do if you’re the most famous female criminal in the country? You stop being female.

The Percy Redwood Scam

The Percy Redwood scam was just like many others Amy had performed.  She turned up at a boarding house called Albion House at Nugget Point right at the tip of Catlins Coast in South Otago.

Posing as a Canterbury sheep farmer, she doled out gifts to people she befriended and cultivated a reputation as a wealthy, friendly gentleman with a respectable family.

Amy carried out the Percy Redwood scam at Nugget Point, at the Northern tip of the Catlins Coast

Amy carried out the Percy Redwood scam at Nugget Point, at the Northern tip of the Catlins Coast Photo: CC 2.0/ Omer Simkha

Amy sold photos from her wedding as Percy Redwood to fund her legal bills.

Amy sold photos from her wedding as Percy Redwood to fund her legal bills. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

“He was the nephew of the archbishop,” said Jenny Coleman with a wry grin. “Very comfortable financially and just salt of the earth people.”

One man who met Percy Redwood described him like this to a newspaper reporter:

“He was an all right chap. He had plenty of money and if you wanted anything he was the boy to buy if for you. The essence of all that was good and kind. He appeared to have to do good to other people. His affability and obliging nature made us all like him.”

Amy then leaned on this reputation to get loans from the people of Nugget Point. One time Percy claimed he lost his wallet on a fishing trip and a local woman offered to loan him her entire life savings until more money could be sent to him.

Percy became so popular at Albion House that its owners, the Ottaway family, began to wonder if this rich unmarried farmer might make a good match for their daughter, 30-year-old Agnes Ottaway.

Within a matter of weeks of his arrival at the Nuggets, Percy and Agnes (usually known as Nessie) were engaged to be married.


A Woman Bridegroom

It’s not clear why Amy decided to go along with this engagement. Some writers have suggested Amy was lesbian or transgender - although there is no evidence of any romantic relationship between her and Nessie.

Jenny Coleman suspects it was simply a new challenge which Amy could use to test her powers of deception.

“I think it was ‘how far can I make this scam work?’” Jenny said, “This would have been pretty close to the pinnacle of Amy’s career as a con artist.”

Amy’s motto seemed to be ‘go big or go home’. The engagement ring she gave Nessie had five diamonds in it. She bought fancy suits and an extravagant wedding cake. Everyone up to the local Member of Parliament was invited to the nuptials.

But there is method to this madness. Amy’s enthusiasm for the wedding helped cover up some murmurings about Percy Redwood’s finances. Lots of people who lent him money had not been paid back.

Amy insisted all would be solved at the wedding. She claimed Percy’s family would be there with money on hand to settle all the outstanding debts.

But then the day of the wedding arrived ...and some very important seats were empty.

None of Percy’s supposed family were there. Amy explained that the family wanted to come but their plans were derailed at the last minute because another family wedding was scheduled for the same day.

“I think Nessie’s father is working really hard just to keep a lid on things because he doesn’t want the embarrassment on the day of the wedding.” said Jenny Coleman “But there are a number of people talking and muttering in circles.”

110 years later you can almost hear the words those people must have been whispering to each other in the back of the church: “Where’s the groom’s family? Are we still going to get our money back? Who is this Percy Redwood really?”

But in the end, nobody called Amy’s bluff. She and Nessie walked down the aisle together, they said their vows, exchanged rings. The priest pronounced them Man and Wife.

The Game Is Up

The wedding was meant to be the day that everyone would have proof Percy Redwood really was the man he claimed. His debtors would get to meet his rich family and get the money they were owed. Instead, things were murkier than ever.

Nessie’s father was very unhappy. He made it clear that the marriage would remain “in name only” until Percy could prove his financial security.

The tension heightened, people started talking to the police.

Eventually, the story reached the ears of Detective Henry Hunt. A man who had dealt with Amy Bock many times over the years.

Detective Hunt thought Percy’s web of unpaid debts and unfulfilled promises sounded very familiar, so he showed a photo of Amy Bock to people who knew Percy Redwood. That is when the whole scam unravelled.

Detective Hunt drove out to Albion House and knocked on Percy Redwood’s door. According to the newspaper, the conversation went like this:

AMY: Yes?

HUNT: The game is up Amy

AMY: Alright, if you have anything to do, do it as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the house

HUNT: You are Amy Bock I arrest you on a charge of fraud

AMY: I see you know all… Yes I will tell you all about it and will plead guilty at the proper time

Amy walked out of the door and into the police carriage. A day later the newspapers got hold of the story and a frenzy of publicity ensued. Multiple newspapers ran out of copies to sell.

“[It was] the story of the century!” said Jenny Coleman.

True to her promise Amy pleaded guilty at trial. She attempted to mitigate her sentence with the usual explanations that she “couldn’t help” but commit crime thanks to her mental illness. But the court did not go along with her this time. She was sentenced to four years hard labour and declared a “habitual criminal”. A classification similar to life-long probation.

Amy spent her later years in Mokau and Awakino and she never quite gave up scamming. Even in her 70s and 80s, there are accounts of her committing minor frauds and deceptions. Luckily for her, these crimes were not deemed serious enough that she needed to be recalled to prison.

Amy Bock died in 1947.  She is buried at a cemetery in Pukekohe.

Listen to the full Black Sheep podcast to hear the speculation of what drove Amy’s lifetime of crime. Was she truly mentally ill or just a good actor? And why did her victims forgive her for deceiving and stealing from them?