Fish Man

The tragic tale of a man who wanted to be a fish

NOBODY knows why Neil Gordon Wilson, 49, liked to pretend to be a fish.

When Mr Wilson was found dead in a meticulously made fish-suit near his family’s Toolondo holiday home, 390 kilometres west of Melbourne, it opened a case that police say remains one of the most baffling. It has also become a case study of the life of an eccentric personality in a small country town, and the ability of its residents to show sympathy and understanding of his plight.

The coroner, Mr Graeme Johnstone, has now officially closed the file without getting close to finding why Mr Wilson chose to hop about in a vinyl fish-suit in a deserted paddock near his home.

Police believe he spent at least four years developing prototypes of fish-suits before he finally died wearing one. He photographed himself in an early version on the banks of the local lake a year before his death.

Mr Wilson was a quiet, gentle man who suffered brain damage after a motorbike accident in the 1970s. He was placed on medication to control epilepsy but, according to his family, he would often fail to take it. The people of Toolondo knew Mr Wilson was different, but they also knew he was harmless. They grew used to his strange ways and were rarely shocked by his behaviour. Mr Wilson lived in a world populated by one. He foraged in the local tip, hanging items he found in a tree in front of his holiday house.

Local resident Mr Graham Bedford told police he remembered seeing Mr Wilson near long grass in Toolondo swamplands in 1991.

He was totally naked except for a number of Coke cans tied to a piece of hayband around his chest like a bandido. He said good day to me and then started to get dressed, he said. Most of the people who lived in Toolondo knew what he was like, but after so many years of strange behaviour, Neil was accepted. There was never any incident where Neil posed a danger to anyone else that I know of.

Around the same time, duck hunters found a green plastic bodysuit on the edge of the Toolondo Lake.

We knew it was Neil’s because it was in one of the spots he used to go regularly and there were items of clothing around it, Mr Bedford said. Neil seemed to avoid people and go about his business. It was not uncommon for Neil to run and hide on the approach of anyone, he said. I know that he didn’t have any close friends.

In 1974, a tourist told local police he had found Mr Wilson in the Toolondo Channel attached by a rope to a bridge railing. After the tourist pulled him naked from the water, Mr Wilson explained he was

playing (pretending to be) a fish at the end of the line.

In November 1995, Mr Wilson was driven from Melbourne to Toolondo, where he expected to stay three weeks. He was reported missing on 27 November. Police found his medication in the house and, from the number of pills, were able to deduce that he had stopped taking his tablets 10 days earlier. Just after 4pm on 27 November, the police helicopter spotted the body of Mr Wilson in a green fish-suit in an open paddock about a kilometre from the lake.

Senior Constable Kerry Allen from Natimuk pieced together what he thought had happened. He believed that Mr Wilson spent hours in the garage of the holiday house fashioning versions of the fish-suit using plastic recovered from a local tip, including a vinyl, queen- sized water-bed mattress and a brown vinyl mattress protector. Police found a sewing machine and plastic off-cuts from the fish-suit in the double garage of the home, as well as an identical spare fish-suit.

Senior Constable Allen said that on about 20 November Wilson placed a bodysuit and other items into a wheelbarrow and walked more than 100 metres north into the paddock opposite the holiday house. He said Mr Wilson covered himself with soap and water from a container so that he could slip into the tight-fitting suit. He then used a padlock and wire to pull up the back zip of suit.

It would seem that Wilson has then hopped 52 metres back south, where for some reason he collapsed, Senior Constable Allen said in a statement to the coroner.

My drawing of Mr. Wilson: from the photo published in the Sunday Age

The suit contained two vinyl layers separated by carpet underlay to act as insulation, four zips, a padlock, mittens, a headpiece with eyeholes and a mermaid-type tail made of a tyre inner tube. It was carefully double-stitched and waterproof. Detective Sergeant Graeme Arthur, who oversaw the investigation for the homicide squad, said:

It was probably the most bizarre case we have ever seen.

Senior Constable Allen put forward a likely cause of death. The combination of lack of food, lack of medication and the exertion of hopping about in the suit brought on a seizure and subsequent loss of consciousness. Caught in an open paddock and unable to move he would have been killed by the heat.

The coroner, Mr Johnstone, found there was no evidence that Mr Wilson took his own life but, while a cause of death could not be found, there were no signs of foul play.

Author: John Silvester. Date: 18 May 1996, ‘Sunday Age’ newspaper

[Note: The newspaper article was originally accompanied by a  photograph captioned: Self Portrait; Mr. Neil Wilson in an early version of the fish suit in which he died]

A tragic fish story that didn’t get away

NEIL GORDON WILSON wanted to be a fish. So much so, he died trying. In 1996, the Sunday Age reported on a man found dead in a fish suit near Toolondo, in Victoria’s Wimmera region. The story – “The tragic tale of a man who wanted to be a fish” – was just that, as it told the bizarre, sad story of Neil Wilson.

A severe epileptic, Wilson also suffered acquired brain injury in a motorbike accident in the 1970s. The accident appeared to pre-empt his fascination with fish, as he began making his own intricate, handmade fish suits. When Wilson was discovered dead in one of his fish suits on a hot November day in 1995, the coroner later determined he died of asphyxiation, perhaps triggered by a fit.

Years on, the story still fascinates many, including Marcia Ferguson. Ferguson is the co-writer and director of fishman, a theatre piece based on the life of Wilson, being produced by Geelong’s ‘Back to Back’ Theatre.

It’s a story so many people seem to remember, says Ferguson. Like everyone else I know, I said: `oh, I remember that!’ I suppose it’s one of my root causes with my fascination with the project; I want to know why this story sticks.

‘Back to Back’ has collaborated with a group of 15 young performers with disabilities from St Laurence Disability Services to produce fishman, with set designer Anna Tregloan and lighting designer Jen Hector. Ferguson co-wrote the show with the performers, many of whom, like Wilson, have acquired brain injury. The effect of such injury on sufferers and their families is one of the issues explored in fishman; an exploration that, by necessity, involves a degree of artistic licence.

With the story, we’ve just taken what was on public record and essentially everyone else in the cast has made up what else could have informed his life,  says Ferguson. We wanted to show how acquired brain injury puts pressure on families – not in a heavy way – so we’ve imagined scenes with his parents and psychiatrists.

The story is also told backwards, from the moment of death to the moment of birth, because, says Ferguson,

all embryos breathe like fish.

Importantly, the production also recognises Wilson as an artist; as a man who subsequently died for his art and who pursued his passion with total disregard for others’ perceptions.

When everyone found out the story, there was a great fascination to find out what caused this artist to perform his work in this way, says Ferguson. Although it’s a tragedy, we all want to know why the guy did it … and it is so ironic because that’s how fish die, by asphyxiation. But we’re far more interested in him, the events that informed his life and what he did out there in the wild.

  • ‘Fishman’ was performed at the Blakiston Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre in Aug-Sept, 2001.
JO ROBERTS,  The Age, Page: 7, 29 Aug 2001,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *