Safe as Houses: 395 St Kilda Street, Brighton

Adam Smith 20 January 2017

Safe as houses st kilda street brighton

An apparently motiveless crime leaves no-one to blame but the weather.

  • WARNING: The following articles contain descriptions of violent crimes some may find disturbing

It’s official: 2016 shattered previous records to be the hottest year in recorded history. While it’s still early days, 2017 shows no signs of letting up, as much of Australia swelters through punishing heatwaves.

Apart from merely causing discomfort, extreme heat can have violent consequences. A 2005 study by Iowa State University found a strong correlation between extreme temperatures and a rise in incidents of violent crime. For the former residents of 395 St Kilda Street in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Brighton, the summer heat may have proven too much.

In 1932, the expansive 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom house at 395 St Kilda Street was occupied by David and Margaret McKenzie, a well-liked and sociable couple. David was a former grocer who had taken up a job as a collector for a chocolate company to keep himself busy in retirement. He and Margaret were, by all accounts, deeply devoted to one another and very much in love, even after many years of marriage.

David had done well in his previous business, and he and Margaret were reputed to be quite wealthy. Certainly, their home reinforced this perception. The sprawling residence the couple occupied was impressive even by the standards of their very exclusive suburb, known in those days as Elwood.

On the evening of January 19, 1932, David and Margaret went to the cinema, and returned in high spirits, smiling and laughing. Later that evening, their neighbours on St Kilda Road were awakened by a shot and the scream of a woman. Several ran to their balconies to investigate, but assumed the loud noise had been the backfire of a nearby car.

Safe as houses st kilda st Brighton

395 St Kilda Street, Brighton in October 2015. Source: Google Maps.

David and Margaret had made a habit of taking their breakfast in bed, enjoying the leisurely mornings afforded them by their financial security and David’s recent retirement. The morning of January 20, the couple’s maid, 21-year-old Maud Ellson, brought the couple their customary morning cup of tea. She found David sprawled across the bed with blood caked around his mouth. In a panic, Maud shook Margaret to rouse her, only to find her lying in a pool of blood as well.

Maud, who would later testify she had never heard the McKenzies so much as exchange a cross word, ran from the house to get help. When the police attended the scene, the situation began to become clear. It was apparent that sometime after the happy, carefree couple returned from the cinema and retired to their bedroom, David had pulled a sawed-off shotgun from beneath the pillow where he had earlier stashed it, shot Margaret in the back of the head and then turned the gun on himself.

The nature of the crime never seemed to be in doubt. It was the motive that eluded police, and a later coronial inquest. The couple never bickered. Margaret’s brother would testify that they seemed happy and contented, and other acquaintances described them as “devotedly attached”.

Headline1 SAH St Kilda

Headline2 SAH St Kilda

Some of the headlines which appeared in the newspapers at the time. Source: Trove 1 and Trove 2.

There were some suggestions that David may have found himself in financial trouble; that, rather than retiring, he had been forced out of business by the Depression; that his job with the chocolate company was taken out of necessity rather than as a way to keep his mind engaged. But Margaret’s brother testified that, though the couple’s income had diminished upon David’s retirement, they had more than enough to continue to live comfortably.

The best theory anyone could seem to put forward was that the sweltering weather Melbourne had been suffering through in the summer of 1932 had somehow driven David’s violent act. Police postulated that David, who suffered from high blood pressure, had simply gone mad from the heat.

There are, of course, problems with this theory. If David’s act was one spurred by a sort of temporary madness brought on by high temperatures, why had he calmly purchased the shotgun some days before, telling the salesman he wanted it for “shooting rabbits from a motor car”? And why had he meticulously sawed off the barrel and stock the day of the murder in order to better hide the gun beneath his pillow?

It may never be clear what circumstances led to such a sad end for a seemingly happy couple. The house that David and Margaret shared still stands, though. It remains an impressive sight in a still-exclusive area of Brighton today known as the Golden Mile.

395 St Kilda Street last sold in February of 2015 for $2,210,000, and is today valued at more than $3.2 million. The listing advertising its last sale points out its period charm, along with its extensive renovations which have added 21st Century comforts to the house. Noticeably absent from the photos? Air conditioning.

Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders, and the effect those killings had on real estate values.

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