Wednesday, May 22, 2024

100 years gone but not forgotten

Today New Zealand Police remembered one of its police officers who was killed on duty in Timaru 100 years ago.

Constable James Dorgan (pictured), Police number 1764, was only 37 when he was killed on duty in the early hours of 27 August 1921, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

Timaru Police had planned to unveil a memorial plaque in his honour today, but due to the COVID lockdown the unveiling has been postponed.

Area Commander for Aoraki, Inspector Dave Gaskin has been involved in organising the plaque.

“Although 100 years has passed since the death of Constable Dorgan, the sacrifice he made to our community will always be remembered,” said Insp Gaskin.

“It is ironic that the commemoration service has been delayed by the COVID pandemic as his death followed that last worldwide pandemic, the Spanish flu.”

Constable Dorgan’s Canterbury-based grandson, John Dorgan, would have been at the memorial service today and unveiling of the plaque to his slain grandfather.

“It’s hard to imagine the impact of the murder of James on such a young family,” he said.

“However, with the support of the Police, the people of South Canterbury and New Zealand, his wife Minnie and the children Jack, Dave and Molly survived the tragedy.

“Their families are his legacy and we remember him with pride.”

James Dorgan joined the New Zealand Police in 1912, aged 28. He briefly served in Christchurch before transferring to Timaru, where he was stationed from 1913 until his untimely death.

What happened on the night he was shot

On the night of 26 August 1921, Constable Dorgan was on beat patrol along with two other officers, Constables Christopher and McCullough. Just after midnight on 27 August, Constable Christopher discovered that the glass in the doors of T & J Thomson’s drapery and clothing shop on Stafford Street had been covered with paper. Light could be seen through the gaps.

He signalled to Constable Dorgan that a burglary may have been in progress. The two officers tried the doors but found them locked. Constable Christopher went to the shop owner’s house nearby to get the keys, leaving Constable Dorgan to guard the shop.

Suddenly, shots rang out.

When Constable Christopher ran back, he found Constable Dorgan staggering out from behind the shop.

A doctor was called to the scene, but it was already too late – Constable Dorgan had been shot in the chest at point blank range and he died shortly after the doctor arrived.

He was the fifth New Zealand Police officer to be killed in the line of duty.

A popular and respected police officer, Constable Dorgan’s funeral was held on 30 August 1921 with a huge outpouring of grief, and was one of the largest seen in Timaru at that time.

Fingerprints taken from the scene

The wooden box containing the carefully preserved pane of glass from the crime scene and one of the fingerprint exhibits.
The wooden box containing a carefully preserved pane of glass from the crime scene and one of the fingerprint exhibits.

When disturbed by the police officers, the offender had abandoned two bags of clothing taken from Thomson’s shop and fingerprints were found on a glass pane. Although Police took 70 sets of fingerprints and closely questioned several suspects in the search for the officer’s killer, the offender was never found.

For 100 years, the New Zealand Police Museum has stored the fingerprints of the person responsible for the slaying of Constable Dorgan. Just this year the Museum staff had the fingerprint exhibits reanalysed, hoping to find a match and therefore find the offender and solve this century-old mystery.

Carefully preserved, the pane of glass from T & J Thomson’s Department Store was escorted by Museum staff to the Wellington Central Police Station fingerprint section, in a sealed wooden box, to see if modern-day technology could make the difference.

The resulting fingerprint images were checked against the digital fingerprint database and the manual biometric archive to see if the person had been fingerprinted at all during their lifetime.

Sadly, no match was found and despite extensive investigations, the murder of Constable Dorgan remains unsolved.

Public reaction at the time

People across New Zealand were shocked at the callous killing of a police officer and when the citizens of Timaru established the Dorgan memorial fund, donations came in from all over New Zealand. The funeral was paid for by the government of the day.

Constable Dorgan’s widow Minnie and their three young children, all under the age of five in 1921, were supported financially by police for some years.

At the inquest into the murder, the Coroner said that Constable Dorgan was an officer whom they had all respected, and one who had discharged his duties faithfully and well.

“The deceased had died a gallant death, discharging his duty fearlessly in the face of peril, and his widow and children would always be able to remember with pride the bravery displayed by him.”

At an appropriate future date, Police together with the Dorgan family will unveil the plaque honouring him, which will be placed on the building in the main street of Timaru at the location he was killed.

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