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Murder or misadventure on the Moana?

This is a sneak peek into edition 27 of Traces!

By Mel Tasker

‘My God, I’ve poisoned two people with oxalic acid in mistake for lime juice!’ With that single alleged – and later disavowed and recanted – statement, so began the fateful afternoon of Friday 3 January 1919 on board the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Moana.

Built in 1897, RMS Moana belonged to the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand’s fleet of passenger and cargo ships running variously between Sydney, New Zealand, San Francisco, and Vancouver. The Union Steam Ship Company was, at one time, the largest shipping line in the Southern Hemisphere, and New Zealand’s largest private‑sector employer. My great-grandfather was a crew member. With the capacity to hold a net weight of 2414 tonnes, the Moana could comfortably accommodate 100 second‑class and 198 first-class passengers in comparative timber‑panelled luxury.

The Moana was two days into her regular mail delivery service between San Francisco, United States, and Wellington, New Zealand, via Rarotonga and Tahiti. With a top speed of 15 knots when fully laden, the journey was expected to take approximately three weeks. As with any trip, the odds of making it to the other side of the world alive were favourable. Most passengers and crew would survive to be happily reunited with loved ones, but some, sadly, would not. It was the way of the sea.

On the morning of Friday 3 January, as the ship inched closer to the equator, steward Vincent Belshaw opened the saloon, as he normally would, at 11.30 am. At 11.40 am, two glasses of lemon squash were ordered by the ship’s surgeon, 58‑year‑old Dr Jack Grimm. By midday, both the doctor and 20‑year‑old Ingsay Marguerite ‘Pipi’ Isbister were dead.

To read the rest of the story, check out the latest edition of Traces.

Pictured: RMS Moana, by David James Aldersley. Image courtesy of Te Papa (PS.002981)

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