Australia's first political assassination

Updated: Mar 21

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

The shooter

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.

The biographers

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.

The victim

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".

"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"


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.