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Tramond skull


Australian War Memorial
Australian soldiers in Egypt

Missing Skulls
and a Flying Coffin:
a Pink and Wong mystery

Missing Skulls
and a Flying Coffin:
a Pink and Wong mystery
is a historical detective novel set in 1921, primarily in Melbourne but also in Tasmania, the country Victoria and Bangkok. It stars Ambrose Pink, a shell-shocked young doctor; Charlotte Wong, a young Chinese woman barrister;  a deadly new disease; a group of right-wing terrorists and a cast of colorful, and occasionally historically true, characters. Ancient skulls and anatomy dissecting theatres also figure prominently.

Introduction: The Riddle of the Sphinx

The Australian Medical Corps

When war broke out in August 1914 the Australian Medical Corps was a tiny organization run by just a few people, mostly volunteers. Each state had a designated medical officer and a number of regimental officers, reporting to the Director-General of Medical Services, Surgeon-General Williams, C.B. At the outbreak of the war, different states provided different personnel to the cause. Victoria’s contribution included many of the senior medical officers and nursing staff. Medical students were encouraged to join them. 

The real Kyarra left Melbourne on December 5 and travelled to Alexandria via Fremantle, Colombo, Aden, Suez, and Port Said. Many on board believed that they were en route to France and were disappointed to arrive in Egypt that January. In Cairo, the First Australian General Hospital was created in the Heliopolis Palace Hotel at Heliopolis. The infectious diseases section was originally in the courtyard, which proved problematic due to the increasingly hot weather. The hospital expanded to take over a number of neighbouring buildings (including a converted ice rink in the Hotel). Extraordinarily, what was a 520-bed hospital that landed in Egypt had been expanded into a 10,600-bed hospital in a few months – with the same personnel. As described in the novel, venereal diseases and measles were the first infectious diseases to occur in large numbers. While it did not eventuate, the risk of a cholera epidemic was considered high, and in later years of the war, extensive inoculation programs, although only providing limited protection, were undertaken to prevent outbreaks.

You can read more on the work of the Australian medical corps in Egypt in a contemporary account by James Barrett, which is the basis for the summary above. The Australian Army Medical Corps in Egypt: An Illustrated and Detailed Account of the Early Organisation and Work of the Australian Medical Units in Egypt in 1914-1915, James W. Barrett and Percival E. Deane, is available online at Project Gutenberg. Barrett was an ophthalmologist and eventually became Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. It was said of Barrett that he never joined an organisation without aspiring to, and subsequently gaining its leadership.

The history behind the story

This story, and the characters that inhabit this book, are as much a product of my historical studies as of my imagination. While some individuals are completely fictional, many who appear are based on my research and interpretation of people who lived and breathed (with all due care to provide a balanced view, based on contemporary accounts). Likewise, most of the places in the book exist or existed. And the political arguments over the nature of Australian society in which Ambrose and his friends became enmeshed were very real and still resonate today. In this postscript, readers who are interested in the history on which the novel is based can discover more about the real people, ideas and incidents in the book.

Callenfels and the Queen of Thailand.jpg

The Queen of Thailand,
P. V. van Stein Callenfels and skull

Missing Skulls
and a Flying Coffin:
a Pink and Wong mystery

+++  Chapter 23 Extract  +++

Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Friday, 4th November 1921
10 am

Ambrose paced up and down the footpath outside the large red brick building under the cantilevered sign swinging and creaking in the wind which read “Berry’s Collectables and Second-hand Goods: Est. 1860”.

“When will they open,” he remarked to Reggie, who had come with Ambrose, as it was a place he frequently visited.

“I have no reason to hope but I just have a feeling about this,” said Ambrose.

Reggie either ignored his remark or more likely didn’t hear him, as he was gazing intently in the large front window which was stuffed higgledy-piggledy with treasures.

“Why are you looking at all that junk?” asked Ambrose rather pointedly.

“Eye of the beholder my friend, eye of the beholder … never know what might turn up” replied Reggie.

They were disturbed by the sound of a bolt being drawn and slowly the door was opened by a tall cadaverous man. Ambrose entered behind Reggie.

“Good day Dr Robinson, delighted to see you” remarked the man, who no doubt could see a good sale coming early.

“I brought my friend Mr Berry, he’s interested in your memento mori” said Reggie.

“What sort young man” said a white-haired elderly lady who appeared from behind one of the many piles of furniture. We have paintings, statues, trinkets ...”

“Good morning Mrs Berry” said Reggie.

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s skulls I’m looking for” interrupted Ambrose.

“What sort? We have plain skulls, native skulls; we have decorated specimens from the Pacific and French medical teaching skulls with wax additions. Follow me to our special room please.”

They walked through the treasure trove to a room at the back of the building ... often Ambrose had to grab hold of Reggie who was easily distracted. The old lady unlocked the door.

The memento mori room was quite someplace.

“I don’t think this is going to cure anyone’s depression dear boy” remarked Reggie staring wide-eyed at the grotesque collection of items grouped together; and all because of one theme — death. There were shrunken heads, death masks, bones of all sorts and small shrines dedicated to all manner of deities and departed relatives, and even mummified cats and ibises but by far the most grotesque were the shelves and shelves filled with skulls of an infinite variety of species (mainly human) of all sorts and sizes, many of them decorated.

“We have more in the cupboards out back if you wish to look young gentlemen” remarked Mrs Berry. “I’ll leave you alone as Dr Robinson is one of our best customers” she said as she exited the room at the sound of the front doorbell.

“I draw the line at buying this stuff Brosie. Remind me, why are we here?”

“We’re looking for my father’s Cohuna skulls. Unadorned, old and with some catalogue number inside is what we need to find. They will have large brows and a proportionally smaller skull size than a modern skull.”

“Physical anthropology 101, I get it” replied Reggie.

Sometime later they could be seen walking down Flinders Lane looking in the windows of cafes, obviously craving refreshments, a brown paper parcel under Ambrose’s arm.

Australian Soldiers in Egypt

For many of the soldiers who travelled to Egypt, this was their first trip from home. Predictably, there were many different responses to the people and country. As one soldier, Private Egan described it:

‘All the restaurants and saloons have been renamed in Cairo, such as the Triple Entente Dining Room, the Allies Cafe. But the Australians seem to take precedence also, for everywhere you will see the names such as The Australian Bar, the Kangaroo Cafe, and the New Zealand Bar, and they have special prices for the Australians and the New Zealanders. If you happen to stop to look at anything displayed for sale, the shopkeeper will come out and say ‘Come Inside Australia, for Australia very Good’...If you go out to the Pyramids, the guides crowd around you calling out ‘Australia very good. I show Australia. Australia plenty money.’ But it amused me to see the Wattle Blossom Bar in Cairo the other night. I have not seen the Waratah yet, but expect that it is stuck up somewhere in Cairo.'

Private Egan’s reminiscences can be found in Francesca Biancani, Sex Work in Colonial Egypt (London: I.B. Taurus, p. 113). The Australian War Memorial website also offers many images and digital collections relating to the Australian presence in Egypt during WW1.

The ‘Heliopolis’ style

The ‘Heliopolis style’ emerged in the early 20th-century, originally in the new suburb of Heliopolis in eastern Cairo, Egypt. Its goal was to incorporate the functional and aesthetic strengths of earlier architectural styles and included traditional Arabic and North African elements as well as Moorish, Persian, and European Neoclassical influences.

Chapter 1: The Blue Baby


Cholera was the only major infectious disease that did not make it to Australia’s shores. As described in the novel, the disease is spread by food or water contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium.  The disease became widespread in the 19th century, with pandemics occurring across the globe. Its spread was facilitated by trade, and by the crowded conditions, often with poor sanitation, in which many increasing lived, especially in cities.  Cholera’s main symptoms are profuse diarrhea and vomiting, with the diarrhea is characteristically described as “rice water.”

The bacterium that causes cholera was isolated in 1854 by Filippo Pacini, an Italian anatomist. However, it was only when Robert Koch, a German doctor who is now seen as one of the founders of modern bacteriology, conducted experiments in Egypt and India some three decades later that the mechanism by which the disease was caused became more widely understood. Jaume Ferran I Clua, a Spanish physician, developed an inoculation for cholera in 1885, the first time people had been successfully immunized against a disease caused by a bacterium. It had very limited success. However, until the arrival of antibiotics after the Second World War, the only effective way of treating cholera was by quickly attaching the patient to a saline drip so as to address the catastrophic loss of fluids caused by the infection.

Cholera remains a threat to health today, liable to reoccur when public health and sanitation infrastructures are threatened, with the most recent major outbreak occurring in Haiti in 2010 after the country suffered a disastrous earthquake.

To learn more about the disease, Cholera: A Worldwide History, by S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler, provides, as the name suggests, a global overview of cholera’s impact over time. For a gripping account of the realities of experiencing a cholera epidemic in a large city, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, by Charles E. Rosenberg is a classic.



In the 1920s, bacteriology was still a relatively new science, but one that was making an enormous global impact. The French scientist Louis Pasteur was one of the first to discover the part bacteria played in disease. Pasteur’s work on treating wine and milk to prevent contamination from bacteria lead to the process now known as ‘pasteurization’.

Pasteur’s work on contamination established the germ theory of disease. His successes led to him becoming a celebrity, and he set up the Pasteur Institute in Paris (still in existence) which trained bacteriologists who spread around to offshoot Pasteur Institutes around the world.  There was a Pasteur Institute on Rodd Island in Sydney Harbour in the 1890s, where scientists, including Pasteur’s nephew Adrien Loir, attempted to find a biological solution to Australia’s rabbit problem (ironically, using chicken cholera, an approach that was eventually rejected by the Australian government).

Bacteriology was a relatively new discipline in Melbourne University in the 1920s with a small lab and few staff members. The first appointed bacteriologist, August de Bavay, was the brewer at Fosters Brewery in Melbourne from 1894 to 1904 and was credited with inventing the Australian style lager or amber nectar.

Friendly Societies

The friendly Societies, of which Oddfellows was one, were a nineteenth-century collective movement of workers to provide affordable medical treatment outside private medical practice and a degree of social security for low-paid workers. Members paid a small subscription which provided health cover and funeral expenses. They were attacked by the medical societies, the most prominent being the Victorian branch of the British Medical Association – later rebadged as the Australian Medical Association. This was because they employed salaried doctors and undermined the fees set by the British Medical Association.

Child mortality

Although Ambrose was a perfectly competent and caring GP the death rate amongst babies in inner-city Melbourne, although declining from the very high rates of the nineteenth century, was still very high by modern standards. There was a certain attitude of déjà vue about infant mortality and morbidity that was still evident in the society at this time, although what we would recognize as modern sensibilities were becoming more common. Mothers were actively discouraged from mourning the loss of a baby and there were graduations of acceptable grief up until the age of ten years as mortality in this group was about 50%.


Until well into the twentieth-century hospitals were essentially places to treat the poor and were hotbeds of disease. Those who financially supported the hospitals were given tickets to distribute to the “worthy” poor as a sort of client system. Poor people would apply to the sponsors of the hospital, often through doctors to gain a ticket. If you had some money you stayed out of the hospitals if you could. By the twentieth century the sheer bulk of patients and funds meant that research was being carried out in hospitals and expensive machinery was purchased for clinical uses, changing the reputation of the institution. When Ambrose decided that he needed to get baby Iris to the hospital, he was planning to get her on a saline drip to address her dehydration as soon as he could.

Anatomical collections

Anatomy was a central discipline for nineteenth and early twentieth-century medicine and every Medical School sought to have a comprehensive anatomical collection. Anatomy was also popular with the general public. In Melbourne, this interest in anatomy took the form of popular, privately-owned anatomy museums at least four or five run by Maximillian Ludwig Kreitmayer, the last remaining a popular public entertainment until 1919. Other than famous murderers, the exhibitions specialized in phrenology, the popular practice of reading a person’s personality from the bumps on the skull. Phrenology had been invented in 1795 by the Austrian anatomist, Johann Franz Gall. Phrenologists believed that the brain was the organ of thought and that it was made up of a variety of sections that were related to different mental activities. By reading the shape of the outside of the skull (specifically the bumps) it was possible to understand the innate, biological mental abilities of the individual. It was not a big step to equate the differences in skull shapes to innate differences in the mental ability of various races. For example, in the Phrenological Journal of Great Britain, one could read that Hindus have small reflective powers and little combativeness; Papuan’s skulls indicate thievery and a propensity to murder; and savages, apart from the love of their children, have no faculties higher than sensuality, cunning, covetousness, venery, cruelty and pride. Phrenology was popular in Australia and an antecedent of the craniometry studies of the third Professor of Anatomy, Richard Berry, at the University of Melbourne in the early twentieth century. The first Professor of Medicine in Melbourne, George Britton Halford had a keen interest in craniometry and phrenology. He dissected the heads of the bushranger Morgan, as well as that of a Chinese individual and a number of Aboriginal heads, including that of King Jimmy of the Mordialloc tribe, all for the purposes of craniological comparison. Such sensationalist material raised the profile of Anatomy in the public imagination. Of course, the study and dissection of Ned Kelly’s head immediately after his execution was one of the great scandals of the 1880s in Melbourne but only because the police had to be called in as two anatomists had a public spat over who could cut it up in front of a large gathering of onlookers.

The small eighteenth-century recorder playing skeleton with mermaid’s syndrome – the layman’s term for Sirenomelia, continues to be displayed in the Harry Brookes Allen Anatomy and Pathology Museum in the University of Melbourne. If you wish to know more you should start with the excellent article by Anneliese Milk:

Dave McNamara

As Michael Riley has written: ‘One of the most rubbery statistics in Australian Rules football is the “Longest Kick”.’ A good place to see why is This was because of the accuracy of measurement, the possibility of tail and headwinds, the boots used, and the fact that the official football changed configuration at least twice. Dave McNamara was certainly one of the longest kicks in Ambrose’s playing days.

Chapter 2: The White Race


Fascism in 1920s Australia

There were a number of right-wing, fascist organizations in Melbourne and Australia in the 1920s. A good book on them is Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia's secret army intrigue of 1931 by Michael Cathcart.

‘The best know fascist groups were the Old Guard, formed in 1930, and the New Guard, which split off a year later. There were, however, antecedents to these groups. One of them, probably the Australian Protective League, is thought to have formed on the basis of the secret organization described by D.H. Lawrence in Kangaroo which he wrote in Australia in 1922. Andrew Moore, 1995, The Right Road: A History of Right-Wing Politics in Australia. Robert Darroch, Nothing to Sniff At, From Rananim December 1999, Vol 7, No 1 + March 2000, Vol 8, No 1.

“Consequently, on May 29, 1918, a meeting was convened in the Melbourne office of the acting Prime Minister to "consider a proposal to form an 'Australian Protective League' on the lines of a war body operating in the United States of America''.

Bolshevism and Communism in Australia

The Communist Party of Australia was founded in Sydney in 1920 by a group of activists inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. Amongst the groups were trade unionists and the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Adela. Although they held influence in some unions their numbers were never great and they were riven with disputes about whether to follow Stalin or Trotsky. The main influence they had in the 1920s was to galvanize the right to set up organizations such as the Australian Protective League to combat them.

Craniometry in Australia

Many educated people in the early twentieth century were is interested in shapes of heads and the skull inside. It was in the late eighteenth century that the science of reading and examining the skull really took off. In this novel Sir Richard Butterby expressed views on these subjects and they were widely supported in Melbourne society and beyond. I wrote about race science in Melbourne in my 2007 book Humanity’s Mirror: 150 Years of Anatomy in Victoria.

Craniometry was traceable to Charles Darwin and his circle, and both intimately connected to the study of anatomy. The period covering the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century has been called the age of racial measurement. By 1899, the American sociologist, William Z Ripley, claimed that over one and a half million adults and ten million children had been measured in Europe and the United States for their racial identity, mainly through measuring their heads. And some even went as far as to posit separate biological origins for the middle class and the “degenerate” slum dwellers of the cities.

The notion that inferior races and inferior individuals within races had a smaller brain size started with the American anthropologist, Samuel Morton, who filled skulls with seed or shot to measure their capacity—one of the methods used in Melbourne University by Professor Richard Berry and his research assistant, Stanley Porteus, when measuring unearthed Aboriginal skulls. In Australia, Berry argued, it was necessary not only to acquire the best races but also the best examples of the best races to populate the empty continent, and this was his rationale for measuring skulls.

Eugenics in Australia

Francis Galton, founder of the study and science of eugenics, Charles Darwin’s cousin, was the founder of eugenics, or breeding a “better” race and a polymath of considerable intelligence. He found great comfort in reading Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, which inspired him with the idea of improving the human race: ‘What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, men may do providently (with foresight), quickly and kindly’. In other words, natural selection would be speeded up. Galton was a friend of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley and other evolutionists, and he became fascinated with the concept of genius and constructed genealogies of famous men. From this he concluded that because so many of them were related, intelligence must be inherited. And he wrote this up in a series of articles that were published in 1865 and later in Hereditary Genius (1869). It was his attempt to discover how to improve the quality of the British race that led him to carry out statistical studies that were meant to show how mathematical calculations could encourage the best breeders.

There was a great deal of research carried out at the University of Melbourne in the Medical School to discover who were the best in society and therefore who should get the best educational opportunities and go to university. This involved a lot of head measuring and the conclusion was that the poorer, working classes should be excluded. This was put into government policy.

The White Australia Policy

The fear that the Australian race would become tainted by “colored” immigration was a consequence of the new scientific racism that developed in the nineteenth century. One major consequence of this racism was that the Federation signalled the deportation of many of the colored population already in the country, most notably the Kanakas who worked in the cane fields in Queensland. In 1901 James Wilkinson, independent and later Labor member for Moreton, supporting the Alien Immigration Restriction Bill in Federal Parliament, described the non-white residents of Australia as a ‘canker spot’ that could be seen throughout the land. Whilst the non-Aryan population was concentrated in the north, he told the parliament, even in Melbourne, ‘in the public schools … we may see almond eyes and brown or half brown complexions’. The intellectual justification for the policy could be found in the proposed hierarchy of races, with whites at the top—a hierarchy drawn up by physical anthropologists of the time. The Act screened immigrants by requiring selected individuals to pass a language test in any European language specified by the migration officer, often not English. This “dictation” or “education” test was not abandoned until 1958 and the Act was not completely rescinded until 1973, making it one of the most durable pieces of eugenic legislation in the world. It was strongly opposed by the British who were concerned about ‘Japanese susceptibilities’ and the adverse reactions of the two to three hundred million colored subjects of the crown, principally Indian. The Alien Immigration Restriction Act was therefore the first, and most significant, piece of eugenic legislation ever enacted in Australia.

Interpreting the various definitions of race and nationality became something of a labyrinthine exercise in the many decades following the passing of the Act, providing many headaches for the Attorney-General’s Department as well as the Department of External Affairs. For example, in 1903, R. A. Saleeby, a Syrian, wished to enter Australia, claiming to be able to prove descent from the crusader knights of Western Europe. He further argued that ‘no colored stigma has ever been attributed to my people in any era.’ He was, like many others, unsuccessful, as this was the decade in which the White Australia Policy was confirmed in a number of important High Court decisions. An indication of the degree to which the intelligent middle-classes supported the White Australia Policy was shown in the significant discretionary power given to the courts by the Act—the opposite of the position today. The Courts did not let the Parliament down as they whole-heartedly enforced the policy.

Chapter 3: Debutant Blues



There were two competing schools of psychiatry in Melbourne after the First World War. Professor Richard Berry at the University of Melbourne believed in materialism and that small brains and a lack of neurons were responsible for insanity, low intelligence, criminality, prostitution, homosexuality and shell-shock. All this was due to inheritance and nothing could cure the condition. John Springthorpe, however, while also a highly respected member of the University staff, became interested in the new discipline of psychoanalysis and Freud and believed therapy could play an important part in curing those with mental maladies.


Today we call shellshock PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. After the Great War, many returned with shellshock and were often seen as cowards or mentally “weak”. Little was done to help the sufferers and many of them suicided or led extremely damaged lives, often damaging their families as well. As mentioned above some believed that those who suffered from shell shock had small brains and were incurable.

King and Godfreys

King and Godfreys were established on Lygon Street in Carlton long before the second wave of Italian migration after the Second World War. It remains a Lygon Street institution.

Chapter 4: The Wrong Child


Coroner’s Court

The practice of conducting a post-mortem on the bodies of people who were deemed to have died in suspicious circumstances became common practice from time immemorial.

It was a popular entertainment amongst certain groups in society in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to go along to look at the unclaimed dead bodies on display at the morgue in Melbourne and this practice was much complained about by “respectable” citizens.

For the history of the Coroner’s Court and the grand building built to house it on the Yarra River in the nineteenth century see Marc Trabsky, ‘The custodian of memories: coronial architecture in nineteenth-century Melbourne’, in Griffith Law Review, 2015.

Mental Deficiency

Also, the definition of mental deficiency which was the reason given for Flora O’Donohue’s incarceration has been discredited. Many doctors and educationists believed that at least 10% of the population was mentally defective, which was an incurable inherited condition resulting in the individual being intellectually and morally below the norm. This could be seen in small head size and its accompanying deviant behaviour. As such it was widely believed in Melbourne at the time that most criminals, homosexuals, slum dwellers, Aboriginal Australians, alcoholics and prostitutes were mental defectives. A number of attempts were made to legislate to incarcerate such people in Victoria and other parts of the world at this time. See my piece on the eugenics movement in Melbourne

Chapter 5: Bacchus Biffs Brosie


Café Denat

The roots of Melbourne’s famous dining culture extend back to the nineteenth and early twentieth-century migration, which saw an influx of Swiss and French chefs and restaurateurs.  Café Denat opened in Flinders Lane in 1893 and then developed into a grand formal restaurant on Exhibition Street, with a French menu. Its motto, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Mange (Shame be to him that evil eats) was a play on Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (Shame be to him that evil thinks).

The menu for Café Denat in this story is a contemporary menu devised by August Escoffier, the greatest chef of his time and inventor of Pêche Melba. The French wine served in this establishment has been broadly described in newspaper articles concerning the seizures from Café Denat for serving after hours … that is after 6 o’clock closing. As these occurred periodically and fines were paid one can only conclude that they continued to do it and were only occasionally prosecuted by the police as a face-saving token. Other evidence of the night-time activity of the restaurant is provided by complaints in the newspapers and reports describing drunken young men exiting Café Denat late and accosting girls. Fasoli's, the other principal establishment, was Italian, earthily sophisticated, almost bohemian. It appears in the next installment. Italians dominated the early ice-cream trade in Melbourne as well as the restaurant trade.

For more on Melbourne’s restaurant history, see 

Chinese martial arts developed and spread considerably during the Republican Period (1912–1949). In the transition period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty as well as the turmoil of the Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War, Chinese martial arts became more accessible to the general public. Charlotte studied martial arts in Melbourne. Many in the Chinese diaspora believed at that time that the practice of martial arts was a means to promote national pride.

Little Lon

Little Lonsdale Street at the top of the town’s central business district was a notorious centre for prostitution until around the time during which this story occurs. At this point, the authorities began to clear it out and the businesses moved into Fitzroy and parts of Carlton. Opium dens were also a feature of the area and the respectable Chinese community did their best to try to close them down.

Chapter 6: Nineteenth Man … and a Woman


Melbourne’s Chinese Community

There were a group of Chinese families that became very wealthy in early twentieth century Australia. Eventually some of them bought banana plantations on Fiji and ships and exported a significant proportion of the total imports of the fruit into Australia. After the institution of the White Australia policy in 1901 gradually regulations and legislation were introduced that made it progressively more difficult to flourish financially. Chinese merchants in Melbourne were particularly active in opposing the White Australia policy and arguing for the rights of their community.

Chinese Australians in the Law

Charlotte Wong is a fictional character, however her father, William Wong, is loosely based on William Ah Ket (1876-1936). Ah Ket was the son of a well-off storekeeper and tobacco farmer in Wangaratta, Victoria. He studied law at the University of Melbourne, remarkably winning the Supreme Court prize (for coming first in law) in 1902, before being admitted the Bar in 1904.

Ah Ket developed a thriving practice in civil law and was also active in opposing restrictive immigration legislation. He was a member of the Chinese Empire Reform Association of 1904 and of the Anti-Opium League of Victoria. Both organisations aimed to support social reform in the Chinese community. He and his Anglo Australian wife, Gertrude Bullock, had four children. The eldest son William became Deputy Superintendent of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. The younger son, Stanley served in Army intelligence during World War II and was killed during the Allied landing at Tarakan. The eldest daughter, Melaan, married Len Williams, the founder of the Spanish Guitar Centre in London, and their son is John Williams, the classical guitarist. Margaret Toylaan became a historian and a founding member of the Chinese Australian Historical Society.

Women Lawyers

Joan Mavis Rosanove (1896-1974) was the first female barrister in Victoria, admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor in 1919 and admitted to the Victorian Bar roll in 1923. She was the daughter of barrister and solicitor, Mark Aaron Lazarus, and his wife Ruby, née Braham, both non-practising Jews. In 1920 she married Emmanuel ('Mannie') Rosanove, a medical practitioner.

Sadly, Charlotte was correct to be sceptical about women being accepted as barristers. Despite being admitted to the Bar, Rosanove struggled to obtain a place in any Chambers and received few briefs. As such, in 1925 she began to work as a solicitor again and built up a large business, specialising in matrimonial disputes and divorce cases. Her reputation was as a highly effective lawyer not afraid to challenge the status quo.  She was an advocate for legal and social reform, especially relating to women’s rights.  It was not until 1965 that Rosanove was made a QC. One notable episode was her short but flamboyant appearance on 12 November 1934 in the State's Practice Court when she represented the communist Egon Kisch who was denied entry to Australia. He is the topic of one of Sulari Gentil’s detective novels.

For more on Rosanove’s story, see Barbara Falk’s entry for her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Chapter 7: The Warning

Anatomical Specimens

The transverse section of a pregnant woman, prepared for the Melbourne Medical School, can still be found in the Harry Brooks Allen Anatomy and Pathology Museum. The provenance of such material is opaque.

Java Man

Java Man (Homo erectus erectus; Javanese: Manungsa Jawa; Indonesian: Manusia Jawa) is an early human fossil discovered on the island of Java (Indonesia) in 1891 and 1892. The excavation team, led by Eugène Dubois, uncovered a skullcap, a tooth and a thighbone at Trinil on the banks of the Solo River in East Java. Arguing that the fossils represented the "missing link" between apes and humans, Dubois gave the species the scientific name Anthropopithecus erectus, then later renamed it Pithecanthropus erectus.

The fossil aroused much controversy. Some dismissed the fossils as apes and others as modern humans, whereas some scientists considered Java Man as a primitive side branch of evolution and unrelated to modern humans. Ernst Mayr renamed both Pithecanthropus erectus (Java Man) and Sinanthropus pekinensis (Peking Man) Homo erectus in 1950, placing them directly in the human evolutionary tree. Estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years old, at the time of their discovery the fossils of Java Man were the oldest hominin fossils ever found. The fossils of Java Man have been housed at the Naturalis in the Netherlands since 1900.

The Cohuna skull was found in 1926 by the anatomist Colin McKenzie in the area around Cohuna in western Victoria. It, like Java Man, was a robust form that is usually ascribed to homo erectus, an earlier species than homo sapiens. Ambrose’s father found his skull decades before Mackenzie but didn’t get to publicize it. Gracile skulls were found at the same site.

Chapter 8: The Trial

Wally Koochew and Chinese Australian Football

There were many Chinese football players in the early twentieth century although very few played at the highest level.  In fact, the real Wally Koochew (1887-1932) was possibly the first footballer of Chinese descent to play in the Victorian Football League. A Carlton member returned his membership when Koochew was chosen in 1908, claiming that it was a blow to White Australia.

A number of Chinese footballers were known for their long kicks, the best known being Lee Kew Ming who played for Echuca and North Melbourne in the VFA. He won kicking competitions against all comers, footraces, served in two World Wars and won the Military Medal.

Bernard Cussen

Sir Leo Finn Bernard Cussen (1859-1933), originally trained as a civil engineer before studying law at the University of Melbourne. He was appointed to the Victorian Supreme Court in 1906. Contemporary accounts describe him as a popular figure with a reputation for good humour and fairness. He was a master at summing up to a jury and discussed and developed with precision and scholarly thoroughness legal principles involved in cases before him, thereby often setting the law on a solid basis for years ahead. Sir Robert Menzies, at Cussen's death, described him as 'one of the great judges of the English-speaking world'. More on Cussen’s life can be found in Jenny Cook and Brian Keon-Cohen’s entry for him in The Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

Chapter 9: An Unfortunate Banquet


Bangkok in the 1920s was quite some place to be - a rich mixture of the orient and occident. This was due to a number of factors. First it was, like nearby Singapore, ideally place along sea route between the west and east, north and south. Second it had accommodated for a long time a significant mercantile Chinese population that had intermarried into the upper echelons of Thai society. Few, if any, of the great families could claim to have no Chinese ancestors, as is also the case today. Thirdly from King Rama V onwards western ideas and fashion had been strongly encouraged by the extensive Royal Family, including sending many sons to school in England and often then off to Oxford or Cambridge. King Rama VI Vajiravudh (1880-1925) studied at Oxford and he later translated Shakespeare into Thai and produced and acted in performances of the plays. He also translated Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. He had many wives and concubines and certainly had homosexual liaisons. His court dressed in both Thai and western dress.

Thai dress colours from Wikipedia

According to ancient customs in Thailand, there is an astrological rule (which has influence from Hindu mythology) that assigns a colour to each day of the week based on the colour of the God who protects the day or Navagraha. For example, the God of Sunday is Surya who has the colour red. These colours of the day are traditional Thai birthday colours. As King Bhumibol and his son were born on Monday, Thailand is decorated with yellow on their birthdays. Thai people often wear clothes corresponding to the colour of the day.


The Hmong people are ethnically different from the Thais and mainly live in the mountainous region in the north crossing over the borders into China, Vietnam and Laos, hence their existence has been precarious for a long time.

There were a group of Chinese families that became very wealthy in early twentieth century Australia. Eventually some of them bought banana plantations on Fiji and ships and exported a significant proportion of the total imports of the fruit into Australia. After the institution of the White Australia policy in 1901 gradually regulations and legislation was introduced that made it progressively more difficult to flourish financially.

Chapter 10: The Dutchman’s Warning

The Dutchman

The character of Pieter van Haandel may seem larger than life, but is based on a real person, Pieter Vincent van Stein Callenfels (1883-1938). Born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, van Stein Callenfels first encountered the Netherlands East Indies in 1904, which now forms part of Indonesia, at the age of twenty-one when he was sent out to manage a coffee plantation. He is generally credited with establishing the academic study of the archaeology of Java and Bali and his anthropological work across the Netherlands East Indies. However, he was as equally well known for his eccentric personality as for his science. van Stein Callenfels was 6 feet 4 inches and massively built, with a large beard that saw him compared to a demon. He was passionately attached to the culture of Java, and to drinking, gambling and furthering his knowledge across many areas.

Contemporary authors also found him irresistible. In the writings of Conan Doyle he appears as Professor Challenger, while in the travel stories of German writer Richard Katz, a certain Dr Bart is no one else but Van Stein Callenfels.

While the information in the novel relating to van Stein Callenfels’ beliefs, interests and eccentricities (and drinking) is based on historical accounts, he was not a spy. Likewise, it does not seem that he came to Melbourne, although he was friendly with a number of Australian anatomists and anthropologists and met them often in London. The only recorded statement of his position on racial difference is: “there are two races … the inferior English race drink whisky and soda … and the superior Dutch race who drink gin and beer”.

Old Court whisky was an excellent Australian pure malt brewed in Port Melbourne in the 1920s. No bottles have seemed to have survived.

Gay Melbourne

A number of gay clubs operated in Melbourne in the early twentieth century as well as a few gay pubs. The police occasionally raided them, but they mostly operated under the radar of the authorities. Gay culture became more public in the 1920s, notably in the Weimar Republic in Germany, and the era saw the beginnings of experimentation with hormone treatments. Corrective gender surgery came a little later. For more on Melbourne’s gay scene at the time, see Wayne Murdoch “‘Phone me up some time': Melbourne's homosexual subcultures in the interwar years” La Trobe Journal, No 87 May 2011.

Chinese Societies

Chinese immigrant communities often created associations formed of other individuals from their home region. These associations offered practical help to members as well as social and professional networks and often places to worship.  Australia was no exception and in early twentieth century Melbourne, the See Yup native-place association and the Hung League both operated, sometimes in conflict. While societies might reflect political and social divisions in China, it was more often the case that they were concerned with the place of Chinese Australians in the community. Demonstrating that Chinese Australians were respectable citizens, working against discrimination and the opium trade were all concerns for these groups. John Fitzgerald’s Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia explores these issues in much more detail. 

Chapter 11: The Wrong Note

The 1919 Influenza Pandemic

The 1919 influenza across the world killed more people than all the casualties of the First World War and it mainly affected young people in their 20s. It was the first modern flu pandemic that modern research has been able to study as researchers studied autopsy tissues of American army soldiers, who had died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. With these samples, they were able to determine the coding sequences of all eight RNA segments of the 1918 pandemic virus. This has provided an insight into the possibilities of a modern pandemic.

Dame Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), was born Helen Porter Mitchell in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. Her stage name was a tribute to her home town.  After initial studies in Melbourne, she trained in Paris and made her debut at Brussels in 1887 as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1887.  Within a decade she was regarded as the foremost soprano of her era, with a glittering international career. However, she regularly returned to tour Australia, and included appearances in many small towns across the country as well as singing in the capital cities. During World War 1 she raised significant sums for war relief charities and was created a Dame of the British Empire in recognition. Throughout the 1920s she undertook numerous “Farewell” tours through Australia, all of which met with overwhelming success. When she died in Sydney in 1931 her funeral was one of the largest ever seen in the country.

Melba always had a sign “SILENCE, SILENCE’ on her stage door. She also wore knee high boots to rehearsals. She had something of a reputation for enjoying good food, wine and men. The Melbourne Truth regularly published scandalous accusations about her private life.

The conductor at the concert, Bernard Heinz, was one of the most important musicians in Australia in the early twentieth century.

Beverley Nichols

Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) was a prolific author best known now for his gardening books. He was Melba’s personal secretary in her later years and ghostwrote her autobiography. It is believed that he had a brief affair with the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Chapter 12: The Plot Thickens

The Italian Fascists in Australia

The first group of Italian Fascists come to Australia in the early 1920s and made contact with native right-wing groups. They attempted with some degree of success to infiltrate Italian societies and influence policy. Australia had a small but significant Italian population at this time, but migration was curtailed until the 1950s when the significant immigration after the war swelled the ranks. They always ran restaurants and were involved in the ice cream and the fruit and vegetable trade. For a very readable discussion see Gianfranco Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia 1922-1945 (Canberra: Australian National University Press, ACT 1980). It can be sourced online. The Mafia arrived in Australia at about the same time.

Chapter 13: Action

Insane Asylums

The practice of institutionalizing individuals with metal health problems became increasingly common throughout the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth.

It is now widely recognised by historians that very many women were institutionalised in Insane Asylums for reasons which today would be considered horrific and illegal. The had very little chance of getting themselves out and were often only there for expressing views different from their husbands or fathers or for behaviour today that would be classified under various headings relating to depression. A good American discussion can be found at

The wealthy of Kew finally won, and the Kew Asylum was redeveloped in the late twentieth century as bespoke high-end apartment living.

Biological Warfare

Biological warfare has an ancient and evil history, from catapulting dead plague victims into cities in the middle ages up to anthrax powder today. In the 1920s, the new understanding of disease developing from the study of bacteriology gave it new impetus. 
See Guillemin, J (2006) "Scientists and the history of biological weapons: A brief historical overview of the development of biological weapons in the twentieth century" online.

Chapter 14: A Plan Emerges

Asymptomatic Carriers

Asymptomatic carriers, who can carry, and spread, a disease without displaying symptoms themselves, are often the unwitting vectors of infectious illnesses. The most famous historical carrier, Mary Mallon (1869 –1938), was an Irish-American cook and the first person in the United States to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid pathogen. She was believed to have infected over 50 people, three of whom died, during the course of her career as a cook. Mallon became known in the popular press as “Typhoid Mary” and was forcibly isolated by public health authorities, eventually dying after nearly three decades spent in quarantine. Her case remains a touchstone in discussions of the balance between public health needs and individual liberties. Mallon herself sued against her imposed quarantine and was adamant that she was not the source of any disease. One of her specialties was peach ice-cream.


Tainted milk, usually coloured with chalk or more deadly poisons, was a problem in all big cities, including Melbourne, in the early twentieth century until better regulation cleared it up as the century progressed.

In Victoria there was an outbreak of typhoid in Pakenham, linked to infected milk from a dairy farm owned by the Clarke Brothers. Milk infected by one of the dairy workers was distributed to families and hospitals throughout Melbourne, with 116 cases of the disease that could be linked back to the dairy recorded.  The name of the dairy worker was not made public, but her family were understood to be among those affected by the disease.

Chapter 15: The Facts Are In

Intelligence Testing

From the late nineteenth century Western governments were keen to measure and categorise people. In the early twentieth century many new ways of measuring were developed, including head measuring. In France Alfred Binet was asked to develop written tests to help identify students who needed help and so he developed a test where a score of 100 indicated a normal intelligence. He always believed they should only be used in a very limited capacity but the idea and his test took off. In the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy at the Bell St school for the feeble-minded Stanley Porteus developed a maze test on the idea that more intelligent students could deliver goods through the maze of back streets of the suburb. It also became an international way of measuring intelligence.

John Smyth, Ken Cunningham and Stanley Porteus

All three men were influential in the development of intelligence testing, and related theories of education, in early twentieth century Victoria. John Smyth (1864-1927) was born in Scotland and became an important early educationalist in Melbourne. He encouraged Kenneth Stewart Cunningham (1890-1976), to work with headmaster Stanley David Porteus (1883-1972). Porteus was a psychologist and writer, as well as headmaster of the Bell Street Special School for mentally handicapped children, opened in 1913. Porteus developed a new method of assessing intelligence and completed a Doctorate in the Anatomy Department at the University of Melbourne on correlations between brain size and intelligence.

Cunningham went on to study at Columbia University, New York, writing his Doctorate on measuring intelligence. Back in Australia, he headed the Australian Council for Educational Research, and was central to the development of standardized tests for Australian school students. He was also president of the Eugenics Society of Victoria.

John Cumpston

John Cumpston (1880-1954) worked in public health and quarantine throughout his career. A diligent researcher, he saw strict quarantine rules as vital for preserving the health of the population on a national scale.  He is credited with creating policies that minimized the introduction of new diseases with returning servicemen after World War 1, and with coordinating a strong response to the 1919 influenza pandemic. In 1921 he was the founding Director-General of Health and Director of Quarantine in the first Federal Department of Health.

Michael Roe’s entry on Cumpston in the Australian Dictionary of Biography online has more details about his career, and the tensions between federal and state government around questions of public health.

Chapter 16: Man’s Best Friend

The Australian Protective League

The Australian Protective League was created in with the approval of a number of senior federal ministers, including the Prime Minister, William “Billy” Hughes after the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917.  The League was modelled on the American Protective League and shared its anti-communist fervour and its willingness to call upon industrialists, police and military figures to create paramilitary forces.

Melbourne businessman, Herbert Brookes, was instrumental in establishing branches of the League across the country. In contrast to its American model, the Australian Protective League was envisaged as having two divisions, one official, the other a ‘voluntary’ arm.  The latter was to be built up in secrecy and to include military preparedness from a vigilant army.

The focus of the League was increasingly on the perceived threat of socialism, labour action and the possibility of revolution. The role of government figures in the League became less central, and the organisation more secretive. The most extreme action taken by the League was in Brisbane in 1919, when a force of 2,000 WW1 veterans were mobilised to target supposed Bolsheviks. There were multiples injuries and fatalities before the police stepped in. The Australian Protective League fizzled out eventually because many in government were concerned with Brooke’s fanaticism and desire to control it. As such he received no government support by the mid-1920s.

The Australian Protective League is thought to be the basis for the secret organisation described by D.H. Lawrence in Kangaroo which was written in Australia in 1922.

For more on the history and impact of the Australian Protective League, see Andrew Moore, 1995, The Right Road: A History of Right Wing Politics in Australia; N Fischer, “The American Protective League and the Australian Protective League— two responses to the threat of communism, c. 1917-1920, American Communist History. 2011;10(2):133 - 149.

Racial Science

Sir Richard Butterby is not based on any one scientist of the era. However, the views he espouses in the novels were all considered as within the mainstream of science at the time. In particular, the study of human difference was one that brought together scientists whose interests included anatomy, anthropology, archaeology, education and medicine broadly. I have written more about this in the sections on craniometry and eugenics above, but it is worth emphasising that one of the fundamental debates shaping contemporary views of human difference was the role of evolution and some extremists believed that the white race had evolved separately from the coloured races and so were almost a different species. Butterby, McBride and Hugo were in this group.


Butterby’s discourse espoused beliefs around human inheritance with wide medical and political acceptance in the 1920s as mentioned above.

Dr Joseph DeJaienette was an expert witness in the notorious Buck v. Bell case in the United States. This was the famous test case that allowed innocent women to be incarcerated and sterilized in asylums. The full, ghastly poem he wrote about eugenics, Mendel’s Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Men, goes thus:

Oh, why are you so foolish — You breeders who breed our men,
Let the fools, the weaklings and crazy — Keep breeding and breeding again?
The criminal, deformed, and the misfit — Dependent, diseased, and the rest;
As we breed the human family — The worst is as good as the best.

Go to the house of some farmer — Look through his barns and sheds,
Look at his horses and cattle, — Even his hogs are thorough bred;
Then look at his stamp on his children — Low browed with the monkey jaw,
Ape handed, and silly, and foolish — Bred true to Mendel’s Law.

Go to some homes in the village — Look at the garden beds,
The cabbage, the lettuce and turnips — Even the beets are thoroughbreds;
Then look at the many children — With hands like the monkey’s paw,
Bowlegged, flat headed, and foolish — Bred true to Mendel’s law.

This is the law of Mendel — And often he makes it plain,
Defectives will breed defectives — And the insane breed insane.
Oh, why do we allow these people — To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burden — When we should only breed the best?

Oh, you wise men take up the burden — And make this your loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly — All not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered — And our men and our women blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish — For the best will breed the best.”

Squizzy Taylor

Joseph Leslie Theodore (Squizzy) Taylor (1888-1927) grew up in inner city Melbourne and originally trained as a jockey. His criminal record dates from when he was convicted of assault at 18. He was linked to numerous violent crimes but was rarely convicted of any, perhaps because of his role in fixing juries. Taylor became a central figure in Melbourne’s underworld with income deriving from the sale of illegal drugs and alcohol, robbery, organised prostitution and protection rackets.

Taylor modelled his dress and swaggering manner on American bootleggers and his career in crime ended with his death after he was wounded during a gunfight over the control of the cocaine trade.

For more see Chris McConville’s entry on Squizzy Taylor in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Chapter 17: Ambrose Takes a Risk

Police Headquarters, Russell Street

Right wing organisations in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s included soldiers, police and members of the professions.

Chapter 18: A Flying Coffin

Waterhouse Island

Waterhouse Island is among the over 300 surrounding Tasmania including over 60 islands in the Bass Strait between Victoria and the Tasmanian isle.

Waterhouse Island

Waterhouse Island

Waterhouse Island : the landing site

The landing site

Chapter 19: Standoff


Melbourne Cup

By the 1920s, the Melbourne Cup was already a famous race that stopped all Australia. Lucky for our heroes Eddie O’Sullivan won the 1921 Melbourne Cup on the outsider Sister Olive. Ambrose put his money on the horse because the jockey was his patient. It must have been a pleasant surprise for them.

Chapter 20: Another Poisoned Chalice

Exhibition Building

The Carlton Exhibition Building was very nearly demolished in the 1960s. It is the last surviving building of the great exhibition movement of the late nineteenth century. The menu for the dinner was a copy of a dinner for a celebration of the Federation in 1901. Fetes and banquets were often held in the Exhibition Building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These often involved dressing up, parading and performing.

Chapter 21: Carrying a Dragon

Dragon Processions

Dragons carried by many black-clad Chinese became an important part of any public procession in Victoria from the days of the goldfields of the mid nineteenth century, which saw large scale Chinese immigration to the state for the first time. A 100 metre long dragon, Sun Loong, made in 1969 and modelled on the nineteenth century Bendigo dragon Loon by one of the last traditional dragon makers in Hong Kong can be seen in the Chinese museum in Bendigo, central Victoria.

Percy Grainger

By the 1920s, George Percy Grainger (1882-1961), was, next to Nellie Melba, one of Australia’s most influential musical exports. While he spent most of his adult life living outside the country, Grainger remained deeply nationalist and committed to his idea of the Australian character. He returned to Australia for recitals and tours, but insisted that his performances were guided by his personal preferences, rather than the tastes of his audiences.  He was particularly embittered by the perception that his folk song arrangements were his only music being regularly performed. Hence the rude response to the invitation in the novel.

Grainger was a fascinating and complex figure.  The Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne is well worth a visit, as is a read of The Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for him by Kay Dreyfus online.

Banana Kicks


The check-side kick, also known as the boomerang or banana punt is a common event in an Australian Rules matches today and is used to kick goals from seemingly impossible angles from the boundary line. When kicked, the ball bends away from the body.

Its exact origin is subject to much online speculation from football historians and enthusiasts. Allen Burns, who played with South Melbourne in the 1890s, was famous for what appears to be an early version of the banana kick.

Chapter 22: Laid to Rest


Magnolias are native to North America and parts of Asia. They were introduced into the gardens of Europe from the late eighteenth century. The port wine magnolia, which has widespread in Australia for many decades, is of Asian origin. Some species of magnolias will flower as late as late October.

William “Billy” Hughes

Hughes was one of the longest serving parliamentarians in our history, being in parliament from Federation in 1901 until his death in 1952, the only parliamentarian to serve more than fifty years. He hopped parties starting originally with the Labor party and was Prime Minister from 1915 to 1923. He represented six political parties during his career, leading five, outlasting four, and being expelled from three. He championed conscription during the Great War but failed to get it up in three referenda. His entry by L.F. Fitzhardinge in the Australian Dictionary of Biography online is a fascinating account of a great Australian.

Chapter 23: Exit Pursued by a Bear

Mo Rene

Mo Rene was one of the most important early comedians in Australia. In July 1916 Rene ('Mo') teamed up with comedian Nat Phillips ('Stiffy'), and the duo became the famous—or infamous—'Stiffy' and 'Mo', renowned for their bawdy, 'blue' comedy. They opened at the Sydney Princess, were an instant success, and in December moved to the Grand Opera House, playing in the spectacular pantomime, The Bunyip, followed by a season in Melbourne.

It has been written that 'Mo's' greatest asset was his superb timing, which enabled him to 'get away with' the suggestive double entendre—he never did say anything technically obscene. Able to make his audience laugh or cry, he was a master of the physical nuance; his facial expression, gesture, stance and movement were welded within the black and white caricature of a Jewish comedian, with Australian mannerisms, delivering local vernacular with a Semitic lisp. His departure from the Tivoli in 1945 marked the end of an era in Australian theatre.”


Berry’s was a large brick warehouse in Flinders’ Lane for many decades. It was possible to find the most extraordinary objects in the cavernous interior. I know as I still have some.

Chapter 24: Sweet Sorrow

White Elephants

The legendary role of white elephants in Thai culture is as described by Mrs. Nomchong. White (albino) elephants play important symbolic roles in many Asian cultures, including Burmese, Laotian and Cambodian. If a Thai King became dissatisfied with a subordinate, he would give him a white elephant. The expense in providing the elephant with specific food and upkeep and providing access for people who wanted to visit it would most likely ruin the recipient.


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