I first read about the Riccarton Racecourse Hotel murder of Donald Fraser in one of my favorite books about true crime in New Zealand, Shot in the Dark: Unsolved New Zealand Murders from the 1920s and ’30s by Scott Bainbridge. My interest in true crime stories from the 1930s and a liking for old buildings made the brief trip to Christchurch from Auckland seem well worth it.
On a very tight schedule, I arrived in Christchurch around 9pm and after spending the night on a friends couch, I caught the bus the next morning to Racecourse Road. Racecourse Road these days is more developed and suburban compared to back in the 1930s, when it was at the city’s fringes, surrounded by paddocks and bushes.
The quiet street that morning had an almost ‘old school’ feel to it with a weather beaten mechanic shop near the corner, and the hotel, while renovated and surrounded by modern style units (it’s now also a motor lodge) still clearly maintained much of it’s old fashioned charm.
I bought a glass of coke with ice from the bar (one of the first commercial soft drinks, coca cola felt like a fitting drink) and sat down in the hotel dining room, which is where the old bar was located. The room was warm and peaceful with sun streaming in from outside through the long windows.
The Riccarton Racehorse Hotel murder of hotel publican Donald Fraser in 1933 is one of New Zealand’s most well known unsolved murders from the era. Donald Fraser was shot twice in the chest at close range with a double barreled shot gun, while asleep in bed next to his wife Elizabeth. The killer was never caught. The hotel, well known in 1930’s Christchurch as a place that served alcohol late into the night during the prohibition, back then had attracted a lot of derelict types such as ‘loose women’ and men of ‘unsavory’ character.
A few months before he was murdered, Donald had started an affair with a lady named Eileen Hardcastle. Going by his written correspondence to her, he seemed very much in love. Elizabeth was aware of the affair and was reported to be extremely upset over it. A few weeks before his death, Donald had written to Eileen to say that his wife had gotten very angry about the affair and had ‘cut up much of his clothing.’
On the night of his murder, after a nights drinking, Donald had staggered up to bed. Elizabeth stated to police that they had talked, then Donald had gone downstairs to answer a knock at the door. Elizabeth said she had fallen asleep and that the next time she woke up, Donald had been shot. Elizabeth herself was found to have no bruising from gunshot recoil and no gunshot residue on the nightgown she had been wearing, however the side of the bed she said she had been sleeping on appeared not to have been slept in.
Upon examination the bullets that had shot Donald Fraser were found to have come from the West Coast, an area Elizabeth had visited a few weeks prior to the shooting, not out ruling the possibility she may have hired someone to kill her husband. As well as Donald’s affair, Elizabeth also had another possible motive, it was said that in the the few weeks prior to the murder she and Donald had talked about separating, and during an argument Donald had threatened to throw her out of the hotel which could have meant an end to the type of lifestyle she was accustomed to.
Overall there was not enough evidence for the police to bring a case against Elizabeth and she was never charged with any crime. With no official suspects discovered, the murder remains unsolved.
Sources of information:
Bainbridge, Scott. Shot in the Dark: Unsolved New Zealand Murders from the 1920’s and ’30s. Australia: Allen & Unwin. (2010)
Anatomy of a killing – part one. The Press. updated 01/01/2009. URL: http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/192520/Anatomy-of-a-killing-part-one
The Investigation – part two. The Press. updated 01/01/2009. URL: http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/193337/The-investigation-part-two
The Mistress – part three. The Press. updated 01/01/2009. URL: http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/christchurch-life/194334/The-mistress-part-three
Police file P1933/1462 at Archives NZ, Wellington. Inquest reports published in The Press June 29-July 3, 1934. The Colonial Medea (thesis), by Anna L. Bradshaw.
‘The Riccarton Hotel Murder’, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966.
Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 23-Apr-09