1842: Maketu Wharetotara, New Zealand’s first execution

Add comment March 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1842, New Zealand carried out its first official execution: the hanging of Maori teen Maketu Wharetotara for murdering five people.

The son of a Nga Puhi chief named Ruhe, Maketu took employment as a farmhand for a white household.

An ill-tempered white servant evidently offended him sufficiently to split the bugger’s skull with an axe … and since Maketu wasn’t the type to leave a job half-done, he went ahead and murdered the rest of the household, too.

European settlers, still a minority, initially worried that this outburst might herald the onset of a general native rising. The police magistrate even refused to apprehend the criminal, who had fled back to his people, for fear of triggering conflict.

But internal Maori politics would not let the boy off so lightly.

One of the household members he had murdered was a mixed-race granddaughter of another important Nga Puhi chief, which raised the specter of intertribal strife.

To pre-empt a possible bloodbath, Ruhe turned his own son over to the Europeans.

By British law, it was a pretty cut-and-dried case with a pretty predictable outcome which became, for the crown, a precedent establishing its authority over incidents of interracial violence.

(Maketu Wharetotara — baptized “Wiremu Kingi” by an Anglican minister on the morning of his execution — obtained his milestone status because another Maori minor who had previously been condemned to death died of dysentery before they could noose him.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1920: Dennis Gunn, hanged by a fingerprint

6 comments June 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Dennis Gunn’s fingerprints made history by hanging their owner for murder.

“You’ll have a job to prove it,” said Dennis Gunn when police charged him with murder.

Use of the fingerprint in forensic science had been developing over the decades preceding, and already begun to earn its bones with criminal convictions.

Dennis Gunn’s conviction marked a watershed in the mainstreaming of the youthful science, especially in New Zealand and the British Empire/Commonwealth: the first execution that hung — so to speak — on a print.

The 25-year-old was tied to the murder of Ponsonby postmaster Augustus Braithwaite because a smudge left on a stolen cashbox matched the prints Gunn had contributed to the nascent New Zealand fingerprint library when he had been convicted of evading military service two years before.

Armed with this connection, a police search of Gunn’s environs turned up the apparent tools of the crime — a revolver (with yet another matching print), a thieves’ kit, and more pilfered proceeds of the postal strongroom.

Gunn attempted to indict the reliability of the fingerprint evidence at trial, and according to the London Times (Apr. 20, 1920) he had the support in this endeavor of “public demonstrations of sympathy, men and women rushing to shake hands with Gunn.”

But it didn’t fly with the jury.*

Gunn’s condemnation, read the official report,

disposes of all attempts to question the conclusiveness of this class of evidence, and proves the truth of the remark of the Chief Justice of Australia, that a man who leaves a clear fingerprint on an object leaves there an unforgettable signature.

Law enforcement organs around the world rapidly accepted the principle.

Too rapidly? Some think so; and, in the train of a new century’s bulletproof identification technology, DNA, wrongful convictions founded on purported fingerprint matches have drawn some renewed scrutiny (pdf) to the technique that put Dennis Gunn on the Mount Eden Prison gallows this date in 1920.

* Playing for time after conviction, Gunn copped to the robbery and tried to pin the murder on a supposed confederate. No dice.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf

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