1866: The Richard Burgess gang, for the Maungatapu Murders

Add comment October 5th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1866, Nelson, New Zealand was marred for the first time by a gallows — which revenged in triplicate one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand’s European settlement era.

The gang of toughs led by London-born transport convict Richard Burgess formed itself at the fringes of the early 1860s *gold rush in the South Island’s Central Orago wilderness. The gold strike was nicely timed to attract veterans of the California (USA) gold rush and the Victoria (Australia) gold rush, both of which were ten-plus years old and into their petering-out stages; in those places and many others where gold stirred men’s feet sticking up lucky prospectors was just a lucrative tertiary sector supported by all those the pickaxes, like boom town saloons and cathouses.

And Burgess was an old pro at rendering his peculiar “service”. He’d made his own way for some time robbing miners in Victoria, before he followed his market to Otago and attracted to his train fellow-desperadoes Thomas Kelly (aka Thomas Noon), Joseph Sullivan, and (an old associate from Aussie days) Philip Levy.

Along a stretch known as the Maungatapu track — at a spot now remembered as Murderers’ Rock — the quartet set up an ambush for a group of businessmen whom they learned were moving their money to a bank in Nelson. On June 12, a luckless passing laborer named James Battle passed their way and wound up strangled to death for his mischance. The next day, four businessmen appeared as expected and were all shot and strangled to death, yielding a total haul north of £300.

To their grief, the previously impecunious men were quite indiscreet about throwing their earnings around back in Nelson, and when a friend reported the victims’ party missing the Burgess group became suspect almost immediately. All were in custody within a week of the crime, even before the bodies were located — which only occurred on the 29th when Joseph Sullivan, seeing where the wind was blowing, made a full confession in exchange for clemency.* His statement was the death warrant for his former confederates.

In the account of the next day’s Nelson Examiner, Burgess died boldly and Levy, after favoring the audience in Nelson Gaol with an extended vindication of his innocence, did likewise. But Kelly was entirely unmanned by mounting the scaffold where

ensued a scene of the most painful nature, one which almost baffles description, but which, nevertheless, it is hardly possible to regard otherwise than as a consistent and appropriate finale to this most extraordinary tragedy … [Kelly] for some time resolutely refused to obey the directions of the officials, literally screaming and ejaculating in the most piteous tones, “Don’t do it yet, let me speak. I am forced, I am not hanged, but murdered.” And then, with an almost idiotic expression on his features, “God bless me, where am I? I ought to be allowed to speak.” … During this time the various ministers were engaged in whispering consolation to their respective charges, and the scene of confusion which Kelly’s violent conduct produced may be more easily imagined than described. The ropes were then placed round their necks and the white caps drawn over their faces, but during the whole time Kelly never ceased talking, or rather whining out, in a half broken voice, saying, “I did not write that name on the gun, Burgess did it. I hope I may go to God, and every one here.” …

Our readers may picture to themselves the distressing nature of this scene, which visibly affected every spectator present, and which seemed to increase in intensity every moment it was prolonged. Kelly’s shrill and discordant voice was still heard continually shrieking forth, in the most heartrending accents … Once Kelly attempted to move himself aside from the drop, but was immediately replaced by the officials in attendance.

Kelly kept on babbling as a minister began reading the Anglican Burial Service, and he was still at it when the trap was dropped. Perhaps due to his agitation on the scaffold, Kelly died hard the hard, requiring the help of the executioner’s rough grab on his legs to enhance the pressure of the noose. “The dead silence which followed on the consummation of the tragedy seemed almost a welcome relief,” the Examiner remarked.

After hanging, science and pseudoscience had their way with the bodies: doctors dissected the necks, it being “a matter of dispute amongst medical authorities whether death in such cases is caused by strangulation or by dislocation of the spinal column … it was satisfactorily proved that death has resulted in each case from strangulation, the spinal column being found to be perfect in each instance; thus setting this much vexed question at rest.” Meanwhile, the heads were removed altogether so that phrenologists could cast them.

Those casts are still in the possession of the Nelson Provincial Museum. An obelisk in memory of the five men they slew stands at Nelson’s Wakapuaka Cemetery.


(cc) image.

* Sullivan served seven years in prison, then was pardoned on condition that he remove himself permanently from both New Zealand and Australia, although he later violated that condition. His ultimate fate is uncertain but he’s known to have outlived the rest of his party by many decades.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Zealand,Outlaws,Pelf,Theft

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