New Zealand Law Society - Who tried to blow up Richard Singer?

Who tried to blow up Richard Singer?

Who tried to blow up Richard Singer?

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It was 6:15 on a darkening Auckland evening on 9 July 1937. Prominent Auckland lawyer Richard Singer – “Dickie” to his friends – arrived in a taxi outside his house at 122 Grafton Road, a little later than usual. The driver got out to go around and open his door, but Singer waved him back, paid the fare and let himself out.

He walked through his gate alongside a rockery, his right arm swinging upwards. There was a loud explosion accompanied by a brilliant sheet of flame from the rockery and jagged pieces of stone and metal sprayed Singer and the area around him. About a metre from the blast, Singer was thrown sideways with multiple injuries. His upraised right hand probably saved his life. A bundle of documents he was carrying in his left hand was covered in fragments of blue metal. His trousers were nearly blown to pieces and his overcoat was riddled with fragments. One of the signs on the side of the taxi was blown off and a large hole was ripped open in the spouting of the house next door. Singer’s son and housekeeper ran outside to find him staggering towards the front door, covered in blood.

A doctor was summoned to treat injuries to Singer’s face, the calf of his left leg and the back of his right hand. Singer was put to bed and a large contingent of police arrived. It was dark and the real investigations began the next day when debris was found on several neighbouring houses up to 40 yards away, including what appeared to be part of a metal canister coated with tar and black sand. The “City Bomb Outrage” as the Auckland Star tagged it was big news and the detailed reports in the nation’s newspapers were helped by Richard Singer’s willingness to talk and speculate on why he had nearly been killed, along with his high profile as a criminal defence lawyer, poet and radio commentator.

“It was a deliberate attempt at murder. It could not have been anything else,” he told journalists. “I can conceive of no person who bears me a grudge and who would wish to do me an injury. I have not the slightest idea who was responsible for the attempt on my life. I am unable to supply the police with even the shadow of a clue.”

The bomb contained pieces of blue rock. There was no trace of a trip wire and police discounted the idea of a time bomb. The preferred explanation was that the bomb had been thrown at Singer, although the taxi driver and Singer saw no-one. Explosives experts decided that gelignite was probably used and it was thought it had been constructed along the principles of a Mills bomb – a fragmentation hand grenade used in World War I.

A couple of weeks later, Singer received an anonymous letter which suggested there might be another attempt on his life.

“That letter I have treated as a joke,” he told the Auckland Star. “I think it is just the letter of a madman. That letter is a practical joke dispatched by some stupid person who has nothing to do with this business. I have not treated this letter with any seriousness, nor has my courage gone down at any time. I am not afraid.”

After the bombing he spent several weeks in a private hospital while his wounds healed. An operation was needed to remove a piece of blue metal from his left thigh. On 26 August “still using a stick and limping noticeably” he made his reappearance in wig and gown in the Supreme Court in an undefended divorce case. Dickie Singer was back.

The poetic practitioner

Richard Arnold Singer was a larger than life Auckland lawyer in the first half of the 20th century. Specialising in criminal defence and divorces he was a fearless advocate. He was adept at making the most of a poor case, according to Justice David Smith (in Portrait of a Profession). Alongside his prominent legal career he was a poet – self-publishing a book of poems called The Years Go Round in 1928 and being just one of two recipients of a collection of poems from the young R.A.K. Mason in 1923 (Singer advised him to get a job). Singer also became a well-known broadcaster, giving many talks on subjects such as “The Jew in Literature” and “Twenty Four Notable Trials”.

Eighty years later the crime remains unsolved. Three months after the blast, in late October, the Government offered a reward of £500 for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for the bombing. There the matter rested until April 1938 when a launch belonging to Andrew Donovan was extensively damaged by fire on Kawau Island after an explosion. Donovan revealed that a few days before he had received an anonymous letter. “In a rambling, cryptic way, it was a hostile accumulation of words,” the Auckland Star told its readers. “It said in part: ‘Remember that when you are out in your boat there are no wharves down the gulf. You may have to swim, little man, swim hard. Ask Mr Singer – he knows!’.”

When asked, Singer said that Donovan was a complete stranger to him and he could not comment on the matter.

There was a further echo in 1939 when Singer was being sued by a self-represented plaintiff in a dispute in the magistrate’s court over fees. “Are you the Mr Singer who was bombed?” was the plaintiff’s opening question. Quickly Singer responded: “Were you the man who bombed me?” After an assurance from the plaintiff that he was not, the magistrate directed a new line of cross-examination.

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