A RESPECTED pioneer of Bendigo fled central Victoria as auditors uncovered his audacious financial crimes, 140 years ago this week.
George Pearce Marrack loved his Kangaroo Flat community, helped out at church and helped shape children's lives for the better through education.
He also embezzled a fortune from the Shire of Marong.
Councillors were left with a host of nagging questions as they grappled with the fallout from his misdeeds.
One of them seemed to loom larger than any other.
Had they ever truly known their trusted shire secretary?
There's a picture of Marrack that the Bendigo Historical Society found, long after he vanished.
It's a portrait piece capturing much the same sort of likeness any respectable and well-to-do member of society would want in the second half of the 19th century.
Marrack stares paternalistically off into the distance, his majestically long, grey-speckled beard cascading down in rich locks over his shirt.
The Cornish expat had made a name for himself in Victoria over the last three decades. He was one of the pioneers helping turn Bendigo's fledgling gold mining settlement into a prosperous commercial hub.
The stout, 50 year old man had been shire secretary for about 11 years as the spring of 1881 drew to a close.
Trouble was brewing, though.
Auditors had been delving into the shire's finances and they had been unable to find a number of documents.
Rumours were circulating that Marrack had something to do with it.
The councillors and auditors demanded the missing books. Marrack refused to hand them over.
Things came to a head at a specially arranged council meeting on Monday, November 28, 1881.
Marrack was suspended in absentia.
"Another strange part of the affair is that he [Marrack] has not been seen for three days past, and his whereabouts is not known to any of those who for so many years have been regarded as his most intimate friends," the Bendigo Advertiser reported the day after the meeting.
The paper reported that until the auditors had rolled in, Marrack was "held in the greatest esteem by the shire councillors".
The relationships had clearly been souring for a little while, though.
Four days before councillors suspended Marrack, the shire secretary had gone into a Bendigo gun shop to buy a pistol.
But the shop's owner had been "forewarned" and refused to let Marrack have one, the Advertiser said.
On Tuesday, someone said they had seen Marrack's horse and carriage heading towards Melbourne. Someone else said they had seen him in the city itself.
No solid information came to light, though. Some people said his dead body had washed up in the Yarra River (it had not, the Advertiser confirmed).
Others said he had sailed to Sydney from Melbourne.
By Thursday evening, auditors watched as a locksmith broke into a safe in Marrack's office.
"The [missing] books and documents were discovered," the Advertiser reported.
The paper also revealed details about Marrack's crimes.
He had been getting shire contractors to sign documents for certain amounts and then paying them in cash.
He would then get the council to sign off on checks he would take to the bank. Before he arrived there, he would write in extra figures.
He might add £2 (AU$477) here, or £10 ($2400) there. He appears to have been pulling a similar scam with council workers' pay, too, the Advertiser reported.
It also published an account of a conversation an emotional Marrack had with two councillors a week or two before his suspension.
Marrack had confessed, asked for their protection and promised to pay the money back.
The councillors asked him how much money he had misappropriated.
"Between £200 and £300, assuming you do not go behind this financial year," a councillor would later recount Marrack saying.
That was between $25,000 and $38,000 in today's money.
The councillors refused to turn a blind eye, according to the Advertiser's account.
Marrack's reputation was not the only one taking a battering as the scandal intensified.
Ratepayers were writing in to newspapers demanding to know how no-one at the council had bothered to look closely at documents they felt should have been right in front of their faces.
The system was flawed, auditors told councillors a week-and-a-half later when they submitted in a round of findings. Councillors needed to make sure more documents were audited way more often.
They gave councillors a bit of political wiggle room, though.
"We would strongly recommend not only your council but every other council to adopt that course," they said.
As the new year dawned, press coverage gave little insight into why Marrack might have stolen the money.
Perhaps the only person who could have provided it was Marrack himself.
One member of the public thought they saw him in Queensland in late autumn, 1882.
Others assumed he had died. Who could know?
If only they could have emailed the good folks behind the United States' Census.
Like this story? Here are a few more from our regular history series:
They would have found out that someone bearing an awful lot of similarities to Marrack arrived in San Francisco 1882, along with his wife and kids.
That is what documents cited by the Bendigo Historical Society suggest.
Marrack finally dropped dead in 1901, if those documents are correct.
It was probably a very respectable death, in a community he loved. Perhaps he was eulogised in a church he regularly attended.
And who knows, perhaps the people he chose to spend the rest of his life with got to know him intimately.
This is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series entitled WHAT HAPPENED?
Our thanks to Desiree Pettit Keating at the Bendigo Regional Archives Centre for her help with research for this article.
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