During his long association with the revolutionary movement in Melbourne, Laidler naturally came in contact with agents of the Police working within the movement.
He regarded John O'Cassidy as the classical case of an agent provocateur. O'Cassidy also known as "Cassidy" was first suspected in the VSP days of Tom Mann but managed to have connections right up until the early part of the economic crisis—an active pimping life of more than twenty years during which he survived suspicion and exposure in the VSP, IWW, WIIU and Communist Party.
He was an extraordinarily valuable man to the authorities because he played a threefold role.
(1) His official job was as an interpreter in the Courts. (He was an outstanding linguist, reputed to know some 28 languages.)
(2) The Commonwealth authorities, placed him in charge of aliens groups, where his language knowledge was a great asset to spying.
(3) He acted as the copybook provocateur within the Australian working-class movement.
To sum up, he was an interpreter, spy and provocateur.
No-one knew his actual nationality. Despite his Irish name it was commonly suggested that he was an Hungarian, Rumanian or Austrian army officer. His appearance suggested military training. He had a pleasant personality and exercised a European charm, particularly over women, that enabled him to organise support whenever attacked.
He was a great connoisseur of foods, coffee, cooking and a lover of music with a knowledge of books, literature, art, in short a cultured man of a type very rare in the movement in earlier days in Australia.
He spoke for the VSP but his talk of violence aroused suspicion to the extent that several members of the Party wrote a combined letter to the Management Committee asking that the committee beware of O'Cassidy. O'Cassidy's wife actually warned the Socialist Party to beware of him without giving any specific reasons for her warning. He behaved towards her as an old-time "Prussian." Nothing public was done in the VSP because there was no proof.
When the IWW flourished he joined that organisation. He suggested blowing up buildings, but the idea fell on very deaf ears. Later he collected money for the defence of the IWW twelve, by taking around collecting sheets to foreign cafes—this way he could sort them out and report them. Laidler already thought him a villain from the VSP days.
Bertha Laidler, right, on the roof of 201 Bourke Street, where she played with the daughter of the suave O'Cassidy. (The view is westward, towards Swanston Street. The Palace Hotel has since been demolished.)
O'Cassidy tried to cultivate Laidler, his wife (to whom O'Cassidy spoke German) and the Laidler children. He developed a habit of bringing his little girl to play with Laidler's daughter over the shop in Bourke Street. In 1915 his official job was that of managing Parer's hotel, opposite the bookshop, so it was a simple matter to bring his daughter across the road. He even bought her soft shoes to play on the roof-yard. Laidler was embarrassed and Mrs. Blackburn had in her possession up until a few years' ago, a letter addressed to Maurice from Laidler in which he wrote to Maurice before his marriage, explaining his dilemma, and asking him to ask his young lady how to get rid of unwanted visitors.
With the march of time O'Cassidy began to haunt the WIIU and the Russian Association, both organisations having headquarters in the Eastern Arcade. The WIIU had a big foreign exchange of radical papers and O'Cassidy kept himself up-to-date with international affairs by reading these. The Russians, of course, could supply information about the Soviet Union. He attended the Sunday night lectures of the WIIU and claiming the Constitution was too conservative, suggested that the "use of force" should be written into it.
The WIIU sent a couple of members to trail him and the trail led them to Security headquarters.
Still he had his cover of Court interpreter.
When the CP was established in 1924 he began attending CP lectures and even here when he was denounced there were members to get up and defend him.
How could he last so long? It seemed mainly, he won women over by his sympathy and charm and men over by a direct flattering of their ego. Again, honest people are predisposed into thinking all people are honest.
Laidler recalled that a visiting English Professor, Prof. Goode, who was a liberal, working on the Manchester Guardian came to see him en route to the Melbourne University, where he was to lecture. Laidler warned him, "Whatever you do, take care of a man named O'Cassidy, who looks like an Austrian officer and is a police agent."
Laidler, seeing him after the lecture, asked him how he got on and amongst other things, the Professor told him, "I met a very interesting man, named O'Cassidy." Somewhat annoyed, Laidler said, "I warned you against him." "Heavens," said the Professor, "so you did, and now I come to think of it, he took me to a Greek Cafe and he did not ask for coffee, he ordered them to bring it." Such was his manner. He could charm an intelligent man who had just previously been warned against him. His officer-behaviour helped give him way. In the twenties and thirties many refugees came from other lands and from O'Cassidy's manner in the cafes and clubs they frequented, his real self came through. He spoke to them contemptuously and did not bother to pay for his food.
After his departure, when radical Australians were eating in the same cafe or club, one of the waiters or the manager himself, would come up and warn them about O'Cassidy.
What a goldmine he was to the Commonwealth Security Service, yet it was so mean that it allowed O'Cassidy more and more to risk exposure, during the economic crisis.
During the confusion of a huge demonstration of unemployed, a couple of the demonstrators took time off to follow him to a phone box, where they could hear him phoning over a report and asking for reinforcements of police. Frequently during this time an obvious bodyguard of plain-clothes men were around him. Presumably he was there to point out leaders. He still had the nerve to attend a public meeting of the Friends of the Soviet Union held at the Temperance Hall. D. Lovegrove, then known as Jackson was speaking and Laidler was in the chair. On seeing O'Cassidy, Jackson could not restrain his ire. He drew the attention of the audience of 2,000 to O'Cassidy's presence and profession and ordered him from the theatre. As chairman of the meeting Laidler rose and repeated the order. O'Cassidy took to his heels midst much abuse. He never again darkened the doors of public political gatherings of the working class. He died of angina.
Laidler used to relate an incident of provocation in simple form. During the anti-conscription period a member of the Secret Service, Plain Clothes Constable Kiernan came into the shop on a Monday morning and had a friendly chat about matters of little consequence. Again on the following Friday, he came in and handed Laidler a £l note, "as a reward from the Police Department." Laidler asked him what he had done to warrant a reward from the Government. Kiernan said, "nothing, but just keep it." Then he said "Look Percy, there is just one thing I want very much, and you can tell me." Laidler replied, "As long as it doesn't injure the workers I don't mind telling you." He asked for the names of the committee members of the anti-conscription Committee at the Trades Hall. Laidler said, "I can't do that." As he was going, Laidler said, "I won't keep this £1 but I'll tell you what I'll do with it—I'll give it to the Sydney collection for the wives and families of the IWW men in gaol." He tore off twenty 1/- raffle tickets for that cause and handed them to him for the Police Department.
Laidler informed E. J. Holloway, so that a general warning could be sent around.
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