Murray Beresford Roberts was born at Wellington on 10 August 1919, the only child of Andrew Murray Roberts, a surveyor, and his wife, Annie Isabelle Huckstep. He was brought up in a well-to-do Auckland home. His father was Presbyterian and his mother Baptist and he went to church with both parents. They were acquainted with well-known figures such as the surgeon Sir Carrick Robertson and Classics professor E. M. Blaiklock. Andrew Roberts, 52 at the time of his son’s birth, had retired from the Department of Lands and Survey and devoted his time to his son, who was said to be spoilt.
Murray was educated at King’s Preparatory School and Auckland Grammar School. In the A stream at Grammar, he was described as modest, unruffled and charming with a soft and persuasive voice. As he hoped to be a doctor, medical people he knew allowed him to observe operations. He enrolled in 1937 at the University of Otago Medical School, where he led an active social life at the expense of study, acquiring a taste for alcohol. In his second year he was asked to leave after cheating in an examination.
Roberts described a period of wartime teaching posts as ‘maybe my happiest years, apart from odd frolics in the fields of con work’. His ‘frolics’ ranged from roles where there was a financial reward to those he adopted ‘just for kicks’. His favourite role was that of a doctor, which in 1944 led him to accept positions as a locum tenens in Oxford and Greymouth; these resulted in a 2½-year prison term for forging a death certificate and indecent assault. At his trial, evidence was presented that he had been discharged from the army on account of psychological abnormality; his enlistment had lasted 49 days.
On release Roberts went to New South Wales to establish a new life, but a series of teaching appointments ended when his New Zealand crimes became known. Advised to change his name, he went to Western Australia where, as John Malcolm Cook BA he became editor of the Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper. He met Dorothy Elizabeth Bright, a typist, whom he married on 21 February 1949 at Cottesloe. Dismissed when his identity became known to his employer, he moved to Sydney. He was then appointed education officer for a paper manufacturing firm in Melbourne, where a son was born. When his wife discovered his real name the marriage fell through, and he attempted suicide. The couple divorced in December 1955.
Imprisoned several times in the late 1950s, Roberts learned how to obtain false passports and to avoid detection. On 29 December 1960, as John Martin Jackson, he married Beryl Florence Sinclair at Bowral, New South Wales, but was gaoled soon after for making a false marriage statement. Distraught at the collapse of another marriage, he attempted suicide again.
For many years Roberts had been headline news, reinforcing a perception that New Zealand sent its criminals to Australia. He had adopted a bewildering variety of roles: the assistant medical director of the 3rd New Zealand Division, a naval surgeon commander, numerous medical practitioners, a governor general designate, a professor of neuropsychiatry, the manager of Barclays Bank Limited, a major general, an atomic scientist, a High Court judge, a famous German industrialist, a well-known author, and a professor of Classics. His criminal record included fraud, impersonation, theft, obtaining money by false pretences (from many dupes, including wealthy women), and ‘acts of hypocrisy, deceit and greed’. Many of his impersonations seem to have been undertaken for his own gratification, rather than for financial gain.
Eventually Roberts returned to New Zealand, in poor health and increasingly dependent on alcohol. He continued to appear in court and became a familiar patient at psychiatric hospitals, until his death at Papakura on 5 August 1974, a broken man. His autobiography, A king of con men , was published posthumously. Fraser McDonald, medical superintendent of Carrington Hospital, said of him: ‘He was … a clever man whose life was wasted, … he found normal life just too boring and dull to face. He preferred to live in a fantasy world’. Intelligent, self-confident, plausible and charming, Murray Beresford Roberts had been one of New Zealand’s most notorious and colourful criminals.