Leila Adair & the American Consul

Wanganui Herald 9 June 1894

I drew on this article for a scene at the end of Chapter 20 in The Only Living Lady Parachutist, but I thought it was probably just bluster on Leila Adair’s part – that she never really intended making a complaint to the United States Consul because, despite her claims, she wasn’t an American citizen. But a series of letters have now come to light at Archives NZ that show it wasn’t just an empty threat. One can only admire her chutzpah!

R24332543 From: The United State Consul, Wellington Date: 11 October 1894 Subject: Forwarding complaint preferred by Miss L Adair against Captain Dunk and other officers of the Manawatu Mounted Rifle Volunteers for conduct at the Balloon ascent on 24th May

A timeline and extract from each letter:

Leila Adair wrote a five page letter of complaint to the American Consul 20 June 1894:

Leila Adair photo from NZ Graphic, 10 Mar 1894.

…I appeal to you as the American Consul to demand for me (as an American) compensation from the New Zealand Government for the injury caused me by their military. First, for being held a prisoner by them. Second, by being slandered & maligned, before a big crowd by Captain Dunk, this doing great damage to my reputation throughout the Colonies. Third, by being detained in Palmerston North when I had advertised to exhibit in Napier & thus having my tour broken, & having to keep my company doing nothing & running me to great expense. An lastly, by being unable to get on with my tour as the weather was rapidly getting too bad for me to exhibit, thus causing me to lose all profits that I should make…

She enclosed a supporting letter from her solicitor Herbert Hankins dated 21 June 1894:

At the request of Miss Leila Adair and having acted as consul for her in a recent case heard and determined in the Resident Magistrate’s court here in which she obtained judgement against one Charles Dunk for a sum of money wrongfully taken from her, I send you a short summary of the facts….

John Herbert Hankins, circa 1885. Palmerston North City Library

Thomas Cahill, the US Consul, forwarded the letters to the Ministry of Defence 4 Oct 1894:

I enclose herewith a complaint made by Miss Leila Adair (an American/US citizen) against the Manawatu Mounted Rifles and I have the honour to request that you will be good enough to cause enquiry to be made into the matter and communicate the result to me.

Dr Thomas Cahill Photo: Wrigglesworth and Binns, The Cyclopedia of NZ, 1897.

Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Newall sent the letters to Captain Dunk 15 Oct 1894:

You will be good enough to return these documents to me under registered cover together with your explanation of the circumstances, for the information of the Hon. the Defence Minister at your early convenience.

Lt. Col. Stuart Newall photo: NZ Graphic, 13 April 1900, p647 Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19000407-647-6

Captain Dunk replied to Newall 23 Oct 1894:

Charles Dunk photo: Bunting, The Cyclopedia of NZ, 1897

…I enclose an explanatory letter from my solicitor in connection therewith, also a newspaper cutting giving the judgement of the R. M. Court as reported in the Manawatu Daily Times Paper and mentioned in postscript in Mr Hankins’ letter – to fully explain all matters in detail as the occurred on 24th May last would entail an immense lot of writing but of course if the letter I now forward does not make sufficiently clear to the Hon Defence Minister I shall be very pleased to enter into a more detailed reply. I may say that the contents of my solicitors’ letter can be fully substantiated by a number of highly respectable independent witnesses.

Dunk enclosed a letter from his solicitor, J. P. Innes, dated 22 Oct 1894:

J. P. Innes circa 1916, Palmerston North City Library

…I may say that I acted for Captain Dunk in the case of Adair v Dunk, and was also present at the Racecourse during the whole of the 24th May last. Miss Adair in her letter of complaint, I have no hesitation in saying, has greatly overstated the matter and Mr Hankins in his letter has done the same. The latter gentleman was not present on the 24th and anything he may know he has heard from others and second hand. Speaking from actual knowledge the facts are very briefly these…

Dunk also enclosed an undated newspaper cutting from the Manawatu Daily Times reporting on the Magistrate’s judgment from the court case:

…The contract entered in the minute book, and there is no other reliable evidence of the contract, is this: “That five-eighths of the takings were to be given to Miss Adair if she made the ascent, the corps retaining three-eighths, and each side to pay their own expenses. In the event of the weather being too bad only 25 percent to be paid to Miss Adair

Magistrate Brabant Photo: The Cyclopedia of NZ, 1897

I think that it must be held to be fully proved that the plaintiff did not give up this money willingly. Capt Dunk says that he did not demand it, but the rest of the evidence appears to be clearly against him there. I think he must have forgotten that he did so. Not only does Miss Adair say so, but other witnesses, who are not likely to be especially favourable to her case state that he did demand it…

Captain Dunk no doubt thought he had to satisfy the public, and to do what was right towards them, and he had also to protect the interests of his corps. I do not think it has been shown that he had done anything wrong wilfully. I think he only did what he thought best under the circumstances, but it appears to me under the agreement that he had no right to force money from the plaintiff, having once given it up…

The Defence Ministry forwarded all the correspondence to the Minister – none other than the Premier, Richard Seddon – who replied to the Consul on 27 Oct 1894:

I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated the 4th inst., giving cover to a complaint made by Miss Leila Adair against the Manawatu Mounted Rifle Volunteers and in reply to forward for your information a copy of a statement from Mr Innes, Captain Dunk’s solicitor, which appears to me to exonerate the Captain and members of the Corps in this matter.

Seddon photo by Herman John Schmidt circa 24 December 1905. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seddon, known for his lukewarm support of women’s suffrage, wasn’t having a bar of it. But I wish I had known this when I wrote my novel:

“They even refused to let my nurse girl and little 12 month old Baby leave the grounds tho’ the child was nearly famished with cold and hunger and terrified nearly into fits at the unusual noise.”

So Leila did bring her children on her tour of New Zealand! A truly amazing woman!

See previous blogpost about Leila Adair in Palmerston North

3 thoughts on “Leila Adair & the American Consul

Add yours

  1. What a find Catherine! Our friend Leila Adair really is a weaver of so many tales that it’s enough to make you dizzy. And now a 12-month old child part of the entourage? I think this is a new inclusion, no? Her daughter was born the following year, 1895. I see her as a woman who has told so many different stories about herself and her life that she really could be judged as mentally unsound – or was this just commonplace in the theatrical world and at a time when it was easy to create new identities?


    1. Hi Carolynne
      I see this as further evidence that Leila’s daughter, Lulu, was born in 1893. This would fit with Lulu’s age at marriage in 1910 as 17 and her age given in the 1900 census (8) and 1910 census (17). Lulu’s birth date of 7 March 1895, as given on her death certificate, is clearly incorrect.
      The people Leila associated with had all re-invented themselves and part of the challenge for me was uncovering their hidden stories.



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