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It’s a big week in North America, because Canada Day was on July 1, and today is Independence Day in the United States. I thought we’d look at the name of someone from our history who hailed from the North American continent, and is one of the most colourful and mysterious characters in Australian politics – King O’Malley.

According to his own account, King O’Malley was brought up by an uncle and aunt in New York, and began working in their bank. He then became an insurance salesman, and according to him, was an extremely successful one who worked his way across the United States. In Texas, he founded his own church, with the extravagant title of the Waterlily Rockbound Church – the Redskin Church of the Cayuse Nation. The story he told was that he performed many miracles, and married a beautiful young devotee, who unfortunately soon died of tuberculosis.

O’Malley was told he had contracted the disease himself, and had six months to live. Apparently, going to Australia was #1 on his bucket list, and he arrived here around 1888, being perhaps thirty years old (there is no birth certificate to verify his age). Far from dying, he established himself (once again?) as a successful and well-known insurance agent. His interest in politics grew, and in 1896 he announced he would be running for the South Australian state parliament.

This was a bit awkward, because he had told everyone he was an American, which made him ineligible as a candidate. He changed his story, and said that, now he thought of it, he had actually been born in Quebec, Canada, making him a British citizen. He had merely been raised in the United States. It seems nobody asked to see any paperwork, and he was duly elected as an Independent.

Soon after the election, a man who had known him in the US claimed that O’Malley was an American citizen who had fled the country on embezzlement charges. O’Malley sued, but refused to allow himself to be cross-examined. He won his case, but people surely had to be a little suspicious that financial scandal was the cause of his migration to Australia. This might be why he had trouble getting re-elected.

Nothing daunted, he moved to Tasmania and joined the Australian Labor Party, where he began to make his mark, being elected to Australia’s first national parliament in 1901. In fact, one of his lasting legacies is that the ALP spells Labour the American way. He convinced them it looked more modern, and differentiated the party from the labour movement. He was also a leading proponent of the need for a national bank, and the government founded the Commonwealth Bank in 1911.

Made responsible for the planning of the national capital, he at first said that Canberra was so dry a crow on vacation would need to bring its own water bottle, but then became an enthusiastic supporter. He approved the designs for the city by fellow American, Walter Burley Griffin.

Today a suburb of Canberra, O’Malley, is named after him, and there is also an Irish pub in the capital named King O’Malley’s which sports a picture of him on its signboard. This is something of an inside joke, as O’Malley was a member of the temperance movement, and introduced prohibition to the city of Canberra – something which made him extremely unpopular.

His political career ended after World War I, at least partly because of his pacifist views. Although only 59, he retired, and spent the rest of his life building up and embellishing his own legend, telling tall stories of his feats that were eagerly believed by his trusting supporters. He died in 1953, which would make him ninety-five by his own reckoning – it’s hard not to wonder if he put his age up a bit in order to fit in more years in which his exploits could have occurred. He was honoured with a state funeral.

O’Malley was an arresting character with a mischievous, mocking personality that many people found almost instantly annoying. His politics were considered radical to the point of charlatanism, and his oratorical style was a cross between P.T. Barnum and a revivalist preacher, with a rich range of original expressions, such as calling alcohol stagger-juice, and pubs drunkeries.

The secret to his success was that he was a massive hit with the ladies, and had no trouble at all getting the female vote. Tall, fashionably-dressed, flamboyant and loquacious, women went slightly ga-ga around him. He also had a number of policies which appealed to women, such as trying to pass a law that barmaids couldn’t be too attractive.

His commitment to women’s interests was probably genuine. When he married, he bought his wife several cottages so that she could be financially independent and have her own career, and after his death, he left in his will a trust fund for scholarships for female students of Home Economics.

O’Malley told so many stories about himself that I’m not sure the truth about him can be found now; I don’t think we even know who he really was. He had the hubris to give himself American Independence Day, July 4, as his birthday, although at other times it seemed to be July 2. It is now believed that he was from Kansas, that place about which another American story-teller would create a dream of a magical land with a fraudulent ruler in its Emerald City. King O’Malley was our Wizard of Oz – a mountebank, but a harmless one. He was a bounder, a fraud, a rapscallion, and a politician. But I repeat myself.

The name King is usually taken from the surname, which comes directly from the English word king, originally meaning a tribal chieftain. It’s very unlikely the ancestors of people named King were actually royal – the name may have denoted people who worked in the king’s household as his servants, or given as a nickname to someone who acted in a regal and perhaps arrogant manner.

In America, the surname King was often given to Irish immigrants to Anglicise an Irish name, such as Conroy (although the –roy in Conroy sounds like the French roi, meaning “king”, the name means “son of the keeper of hounds” or “servant of the keeper of hounds” in Gaelic). This seems significant in light of King O’Malley’s Irish surname.

King O’Malley claimed to be the son of Irish immigrant William O’Malley and Ellen King, with the implication that he had received his mother’s maiden name as his first name. This cannot be verified, as no such people can be found in the US census of the time. King may have been his middle name, or he may have made it up. Soon after his arrival in Australia, he styled himself as the Arizona Kicker King – the Arizona Kicker was a newspaper that O’Malley purported to have worked for.

It may sound fantastically over-the-top to us, but the name King was on the US Top 1000 from 1880 until the mid-1960s, and recently made a comeback in 2006. Since then use has steadily increased, and it is currently #389 (just one position behind Phoenix).

Although King Vidor was a famous Hollywood director, I wonder whether use of the name might be inspired by iconic civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. Jesus Christ is also known as The King of Kings in Christianity, which might give it a religious connotation.

King is one of those names that are not permitted to be registered in Australia, as King is an official title as well as a word. It might be possible to use it as a middle name though, and if King is a name in your family, that could give you a personal connection to it.

(Picture of King O’Malley from the ACT Museum and Art Gallery)