The Execution of the Maungatapu Murderers
Nelson's First Hanging
At 8.30am, on Friday 5 October, 1866, the twang of three hangmen's ropes brought an end to the grisliest episode in Nelson's early European history.
The notorious Burgess gang, a foursome of ne'er do wells, consisting of Richard Burgess, Philip Levy, Thomas Kelly and Joseph Sullivan, had embarked on a crime spree along the West Coast of the South Island, before arriving in Nelson.
On June 12, hidden behind a rock (now known as Murderers' Rock), the gang lay in wait for a group of four men, who they knew were traveling with money, from the Wakamarina Goldfields to the West Coast via the Maungatapu Track. They strangled, suffocated and robbed one James Battle, one of many people who passed by on the busy track. The next day, they ambushed and killed the group of four and stole 300 pounds of gold dust and money.
Burgess, Kelly, Levy and Sullivan were arrested five days later in Nelson and the bodies of their victims were found a few weeks later. Richard Burgess's confession, in which he described the crimes and fully implicated the other three, filled three pages in the Nelson Evening Mail of 10 August 1866. Sullivan later turned Queen's Evidence for a free pardon and a £200 reward.
Burgess, Kelly and Levy were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Sullivan was reviled for the rest of his time in New Zealand and disappeared in Australia many years later.
On Saturday 6 October, The Nelson Examiner reported the scene the previous day at the Nelson gaol (jail) in Shelbourne Street : "The summit of the Church Hill, as well as other available spots overlooking the gaol, was crowded, although we are informed that little save the upper beam of the scaffold, or at most the heads of the criminals, could be discerned from these points."1
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The scaffold, which had been constructed in the prisoners' exercise yard, was described as being solid and well built for its purpose. On the scaffold, Burgess kissed the rope saying he greeted it as a prelude to heaven. Levy proclaimed his innocence, but calmly knelt beside Burgess, reportedly saying: "I will hang on the right side of you." However Kelly was described as being in a less composed state, needing help onto the scaffold, refusing to obey officials and shouting and screaming.2
The ropes were placed around their necks and white caps drawn over their faces. The Nelson Examiner described the painful scene which ensued: "Our readers may picture to themselves the distressing nature of this scene...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: "I pray you to give me liberty to speak for a moment. I am in a Christian country. Will you allow me or not? I am innocent so help me God! I liked Nelson, indeed I did, and would have been glad to live in such a Christian community. I would have lived there and married."
The hanging was delayed for half an hour by the statements of the criminals. With Kelly still speaking, the bolt was drawn and the men fell to their deaths at exactly 8.30 am.
"Both Burgess and Levy seemed to die at once, they never showed the slightest motion even of the muscles; but Kelly seemed to die hard, as the saying is, and it was thought necessary that the executioner should complete his odious duty by hanging onto his legs, and this was repeated more than once.
"The feelings of all present had been so excited by the previous scene that the dead silence which followed on the consummation of the tragedy seemed almost a welcome relief."3
The Victorian age was one of scientific exploration and discovery. To settle a medical dispute about whether victims of hanging died of strangulation or spinal dislocation, the necks of the three murderers were dissected and the spinal columns found to be intact; "thus setting this much vexed question at rest."4
The heads of the men were also removed from their bodies so plaster casts could be made to support the theories of phrenology. Some findings of this pseudo-science, which claimed the personality traits of a person could be determined by "reading" bumps and fissures in the skull, were reported in the Nelson Examiner. Kelly's character was described as: " excitable, covetous, full of plots, schemes, inventions and intrigues...totally unreliable and thoroughly absorbed in self when once his mind has given way to the solicitations of his excessive destructiveness and acquisitiveness."5
The plaster casts are held by The Nelson Provincial Museum, along with a series of paintings about the murders by local artist, Janice Gill. Other artifacts at the Museum include the Wanted Poster (£400 reward) and parts of a revolver reputed to be associated with the murders.
Written by Joy Stephens and published in Wild Tomato, 2009, supported by The Nelson Provincial Museum.
Updated May 7, 2020
Sources used in this story
The information in this article is from the website Papers Past and resources available at the Nelson Provincial Museum's Isel Park Research Archives.
The execution of the Maungatapu Murderers (1866, October 6) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 3.
- The execution of the Maungatapu Murderers
- Examination of the cast of the head of Burgess (1866, October 16) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 3
- Examination of the cast of the head of Burgess
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