Australia's first political assassination
Updated: Mar 21, 2021
Story by Daniel Keane, ABC 20 March 2021 (With John Wilson)
Australia's first political assassination is just as mysterious today as it was a century ago
Below: Police photos of Koorman Tomayeff, who shot MP Percy Brookfield at Riverton in 1921 (Supplied by John Wilson)
The Shooter -- The Biographers -- The Victim -- The Mystery Woman - Read more at the ABC - The Epic Poem by John Wilson
The basic details sound like the ingredients of a wild west movie: a country town, a lone gunman, armed police and a shootout at the local railway station.
Several people were wounded and two were killed, including Percy Brookfield — a charismatic, maverick MP who had held the balance of power in the New South Wales Parliament.
But his popularity among his followers had been hard won — his opposition to wartime conscription and his support for the Russian Revolution made him a controversial figure.
Left: Percy Brookfield in 1915, wearing an anti-conscription badge.
Photo by CH Conlon / State Library Of Victoria
His killer, Koorman Tomayeff, was unemployed and itinerant, originally from Russia but more recently from the silver city.
Both men were aboard the train to Adelaide when it stopped at Riverton to allow passengers to disembark for breakfast.
It was then that Tomayeff launched his terrifying attack, firing more than 40 shots into the crowd.
As mass panic ensued, police and Brookfield bravely confronted the shooter, but Brookfield sustained two bullet wounds before Tomayeff was detained.
"I'm done, he has shot me," said the stricken MP, who died in hospital.
Famed author Dame Mary Gilmore (Right) later eulogised Brookfield as a martyr and commemorated the incident in verse, describing the moment "the madman's bullets came flying" like a "gallop of fiery rain".
But beneath the myth is an enduring mystery — Brookfield's death is often described as Australia's first political assassination, but Tomayeff's motive remains unclear.
Was he acting alone, or on behalf of others? Was Brookfield the target, or an incidental victim of an act of random terror?
And what of an enigmatic woman whose death may have sent Tomayeff over the edge?
Railway historian John Wilson probably knows more about what happened that day than any other researcher.
Left: John Wilson has written about the shooting in his book The Riesling Railway.(ABC News: Daniel Keane)
He has speculated that the Battle of Broken Hill of 1915 —
which, in an eerie foreshadowing of the Riverton shooting,
involved two men of suspected Afghan background opening fire at a train and
killing four passengers — may have nudged Tomayeff towards penury, then crime.
"Tomayeff was seen to be a foreigner, and there was an intense xenophobia in Broken Hill," he said.
Tomayeff is, as Sir Winston Churchill said of Russia, a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".
His name is spelled at least half a dozen different ways in historical newspaper articles, which also contradict one another in relation to many other aspects of his life.
Percy Brookfield was a man with powerful enemies.
During the war, he had publicly clashed with Australia's pro-conscription Prime Minister Billy Hughes, condemning him as a "traitor, viper and skunk".
But Brookfield himself was widely regarded as a traitor by the political right, especially after he told a gathering, at Broken Hill in early 1917, that he "would not spill one drop of my blood for any flag, the Union Jack included".
(Above Right) At the time of Brookfield's death, Broken Hill was a hotbed of radical politics.(Picture from the State Library Of SA)
His remarks earned a swift rebuke from Hughes, who said Brookfield was "a liar or a perjurer, or else he is a traitor to his country".
In 1919, Brookfield loudly declared his Communist sympathies at a time when Australian troops were fighting against the Red Army in northern Russia.
But Brookfield also alienated those on his own side of politics — his views led to him quitting the Labor Party, and he joined a radical splinter group.
"If he was assassinated, it was the first political assassination in Australia, but I'm not sure he was the target," John Wilson said.
Were any of Brookfield's foes capable of murderous conspiracy?
Complicating that question is the contradictory evidence about Tomayeff. "He did not take any active part in union matters or industrial disputes," a police sergeant later wrote of the Russian.
"[I] searched the room which had been occupied by him, but found nothing that would show any motive for the shooting of Mr Brookfield or any other passenger on the train."
The mystery woman
John Wilson believes political motives are a red herring and has developed a theory — based on archival foraging and some inspired guesswork — that hinges on a woman called Madge Kewey.
Following the shooting, newspapers reported that Tomayeff had been upset because of the death of a female associate and,
after trawling through death records, Mr Wilson has identified Kewey as the most likely candidate.
The death certificate of Madge Kewey, whose name is also spelled differently in various documents.(Photo Supplied)
He further believes that she was a sex worker for Tomayeff.
"It seems, and I'm fairly confident about this, that he made his income being a pimp," Mr Wilson said.
Read much more at the ABC Website:
Story by Daniel Keane
"Australia's first political assassination is just as mysterious today as it was a century ago"
THE EPIC OF PERCY BROOKFIELD
by John Wilson
On the eve of March the twenty first,
Back in nineteen twenty one,
The express departed Sulphide Street ,
On its usual southward run.
To Adelaide most were destined,
Two hundred packed in tight,
With card games to amuse them
As they travelled through the night.
The Silver City, that most called home,
Had suffered more than most.
In torrid times of recent years,
With little it could boast.
The Turks, they had invaded,
And had shot up in the town,
And of fires, drought and dust-storms,
The place was well renown.
Brookfield was from Lancashire,
A figure tall and strong,
And eloquent and spoke his mind
Popularity did not take long.
As local parlance put it,
He had come there “from away”,
With digs at the Duke of Cornwall.
He was in the Hill to stay.
As a pugilist he was fearless,
Asset to any side that mattered.
Assailed by five, he fought the scrum,
Victorious, but battered.
When once a chap did threaten him,
‘Twould fill a lesser man with fear,
But Brookie calmly talked him round,
Then shouted him a beer.
(Photo Right) The Sulphide Street Railway Station in 1969. The ornate building in the distance is the Trades Hall. JLW.
Prime Minister, old Billy Hughes,
Was loyal to the Crown,
Saw conscription as the way ahead
To bring the Hun-folk down.
Our hero responded fervently,
“Traitor, viper and a skunk!”
They put him in the local goal
For a month it was his bunk.
In seventeen the miners agreed,
Percy Brookfield should be their bloke,
To join the Sydney Legislature, and
Free miners from the comp’ny yoke.
Brookfield eyed those with elected seats,
Libs, Labor and all the rest
A den of pure iniquity
And of the party he’d detest.
Phthisis was the miners’ scourge
From years and years of dust.
The mining firms all disagreed,
Miners deemed fresh air a must.
On top of it, the Spanish flu
Took a toll within the town.
Experts called from Sydney,
Report ignored, miners all put down.
So, the miners withdrew their labour
And the strike went on and lasted.
And further on and on it went.
Brookfield’s name was surely blasted.
Eighty weeks less three, the strike ran;
Starvation, scrounging whatever was
But the companies ceded in the end
And a miner had food on his table.
Brookfield travelled on that slow ex-
Across the Mundi Mundi Plains,
To take his Sydney Assembly seat
Via Melbourne - five different trains!
Rumour was that on the way,
He was about to stake a claim
On behalf of all the workers
For the leases – ‘twas his game.
The Broken Hill Express that night,
Rattling on its narrow track,
Through Mannahill and Paratoo
In SA’s way outback
Gumbowie was the clarion call,
“All change!” cried out the guard
From here the gauge was wider
Drifting into Terowie’s yard.
Aboard that train, a sullen soul,
With a one-way ticket south,
And clutching a small portmanteau
Not a word came from his mouth.
Koorman Tomayeff, Russian it was said,
Seeking vineyard work in Clare.
He would change again at Riverton,
And asked when he’d be there.
(Photo Right) Tomayeff. Photograph from the SA Police file held by State Records of South Australia.
At Riverton, a scheduled halt
At the railway refreshment joint.
Brookfield chatting over eggs and toast
All nodding yea to every point.
A loud report, and two more shots
Hit near the refresh door
The Russian firing indiscriminately,
But his aiming mostly poor.
Then Crowhurst from Oodlawirra
Copped a bullet in the thigh.
At first it seemed a minor wound
But from it he would die.
Kinsela was a constable
From Broken Hill had been aboard,
His hand-gun in his luggage
He had fortuitously stored.
Kinsela went back to the train, and then
To Brookfield passed the gun.
The Russian still kept firing on,
Reloading with each volley done.
Brookie calmly walked towards him
Intent, we think, to peacefully disarm
And apparently of a firm belief
He’d be spared of any harm.
The Russian was sprouting jibberish,
And of mentality most demented
Brookfield came on, unflinching
With intention fully cemented
Two quick shots into the abdomen
Stopped poor Percy sound,
Kinsela first, then others in pursuit
Brought the Russian to the ground.
(Photo Right) Riverton Railway Station c1914. The photograph was taken from the southern end of the station and the train is an Adelaide-bound express headed by an S class engine. The shooting was at the other end of the station. Photo coutesy of the State Library of South-Australia B68909
They asked the wounded Brookfield
Why he’d taken such a risk.
To which he gave an answer,
Made remarkably frank and brisk.
For the ladies he had done it,
Spoken though in mortal pain.
“I am nothing” quietly uttered
For he knew that he’d been slain.
In the van they made him comfy
And the express was sent non-stop
In the hope that Adelaide’s Hospital
Could save him with their op.
But despite the best intentions
Of the surgeons, later on that day
Our hero’s fate was certain
And he sadly passed away.
One last journey on that same express
A final homeward passage, made
To a mourning Silver City
In Trades Hall his body was laid.
On Good Friday he went to his grave,
Two thirds of the city, his brothers.
His memorial still towers by far,
Proud and high above all the others
Political assassination was widely said;
There had been a hope up in the Hill,
A court case hearing to evoke the facts,
Closure had been the town’s will.
Mick Considine was duly consulted
If he could offer advice or a deed
As the Federal member or rep.
But naught could fill the need.
South Australia, over keen, it seemed,
To be rid of the whole nasty lot