The Murder of James Flood
The port town of Picton was once a quiet, working town with little to generate too much excitement beside New Year's day and the comings and goings of notable ships from far off lands bringing with them their colourful crews and stories. The soothing scenery and atmosphere saw many spend their entire lives there as well as their retirement in its warm and hospitable bay.
Mr. James Flood was one of these men who found it fit to see the last of his days in the township, taking up a small cottage in Canterbury Street where he was well known and much liked by his neighbours. His demeanor reflected the characteristics of the town making it all the harsher when news spread through town that the old kindly man was found murdered at the foot of his fireplace on the 3rd of November, 1931. A keen eyed local, noticing the man's absence over the period of a few days, alerted the authorities who, having broken in via a window, discovered the remains of James. Initially it was thought it was suicide but the deep puncture wounds to the neck that were present as well as discolouration and bruising of the skin told otherwise. Murder was an unknown word in the region and had been for the past fifty years. After this police became people you didn’t just have a yarn with and doors were now routinely locked at night.
James had spent the entirety of his life in Marlborough, having been born in Port Underwood during the time when it was the hub of all life in the region and where whalers, traders, dressers and farmers all worked out of and lived, many with Māori wives. James’s mother was a large lady named Mary and his father an Irish man named Jerome. His mother had been gifted a fair parcel of land (about 200 acres) when she shielded a naked Māori girl with her dress after a boatload of “drunken, leering, uncouth whalers” arrived in the bay. The local Iwi were thankful for Mary’s actions that night. She married four times. Her last husband was Jerome, a drunk, arrogant man who was work shy and harsh. Due to the laws of the time, once the pair were married, Jerome took sole ownership of the entirety of her property. Mary Ann was so distraught after years of neglect by her husband she waded out into the port to drown herself. Jerome, wishing to save her, went after her but just as he reached her she grabbed him and held him under briefly. In a thick Irish accent he cried out to his boys "Bejesus lads, save me". Mary left the bay with some of her children although Jerome’s sons stayed on. James, and his two brothers Joe and Jerome, all went North to work. They later heard that their father was neglecting his farm so they returned and dragged him out of the Telegraph Hotel in Blenheim and back to the neglected land of their youth, now consisting of more than 10,000 acres.
The Flood boys became well known in the area and were at the forefront of local committees and organisations. In 1882, James led a petition to the government asking them to cease funding for the building of a road between Port Underwood and Picton. “It is rather unusual to find persons petitioning Parliament "not" to comply with the request of other petitioners for money to be expended in making a road to and from, the place where both sets of petitioners reside” the newspaper reported at the time. James kept to himself mostly, though had many a good friend around him. He was dedicated to his farm and meticulous with his earnings, keeping a custom made wallet in a custom made pocket in his coat. Though both his brothers married and went on to have families, James remained a bachelor.
At some point, James retired to Picton where he decided to settle down quietly with the comforts of town life. James was an affectionate old man who was much liked by those who got to know him. Some only knew him as the kindly man on the porch who might wave as you passed by. His gentle demeanour sadly would be his downfall. The first week of November, 1931 passed the same as any other in Picton. Nothing exciting or of particular interest was happening, however the smiling old timer on his porch was not on his porch when the stock went slowly swinging by his home and the lights were not on in his home. He was last seen at 8:30, the night of Tuesday the 3rd November. That night Tennyson Connolly noticed the cottage’s window being open but not the door which was the first time he had seen it that way without the door open. On the 4th the butcher Henry Ruffell, knocked on the door at half past four in the afternoon and received no reply. Within forty-eight hours, suspicions were raised and the cottage was broken into where they found James’s lifeless body at the foot of his fireplace. The shock was felt throughout the district as the realisation a murderer was amongst the Picton community. The shock would stick for seven long months as police searched for the culprit, coming up empty handed and with no leads in most instances. The community assisted in any way they could. Ten year old Betty Davies gave the police a leather purse that was gifted to her by James so that they could match the leather to a wallet in the possession of a culprit, later confirmed to be the accused.
In 1932 police received reports from a store in Blenheim where a customer paid in large denomination banknotes. Police had advised stores to keep an eye out for uncommonly large denominations. On the 18th of June, a few days later, the customer was identified and apprehended by Det. E. C. Jarrold as he hopped off a bus in Blenheim. Noticing he was fumbling and fiddling with his coat pocket it was discovered he had a false pocket containing these old and large banknotes and was immediately brought into custody. The man was identified as Mr. (Walter) Edward Tarrant, a local wood merchant who became friends with James, spending time with him at a property in Boons Valley and helping James with little bits of work here and there. Edward was originally from Australia, spending his youth and also marrying there before coming to New Zealand with his wife Eugenie. It appears he was first in Wellington where his daughter Eugenie Mary is recorded to have died and been buried. Other children of his were Ted, Len and Sheila. The family soon found residence in Picton where his skills were put to use with trees surrounding the district and wood a constant necessity. He had been a suspect prior but with nothing substantial pinned to him he was quietly watched. On the 20th, Tarrant appeared in the Picton Police Court where it was decided it was best that Tarrant be remanded to appear at Wellington but would return to Blenheim for the magisterial hearing. He was held in custody in Wellington until his court case in August. When the court case commenced in Blenheim it was met with many interested citizens who squeezed into the courthouse. Ken Fairweather, my great grandfather was one of these people who fortunately wrote his recollection of the events in his book “Sounds Picnic - Old Marlborough Tales”.
"Some weeks later the Supreme Court trial commenced [on the 22nd of November presided over by the Honourable Justice Blair] in the Courthouse which formed part of the old Government Building in Blenheim, and I recall snaking away from work for a quick look at the proceedings. I had never been in a courthouse before and as I tip-toed nervously in past a stern-looking constable in the doorway, another constable silently indicated a vacant seat which I took. Just inside a low partition sat a well dressed, grey haired, elderly man who looked like somebody’s uncle, and it came as a distinct shock when I finally realised he was the accused. I could have touched him!. Fascinated, I stayed as long as I dared and sped back to work.” In the succeeding sittings an estimated fifty-four witnesses were called to the stand. Tarrant had with him a notable lawyer from Wellington and was going to fight his best to be found not guilty. At the first sitting it was announced that two days after James’s death, Tarrant had made contact with police claiming he had borrowed £30 from James and was unsure who to return the money to. At the resumption of the hearing the wallet in Tarrant’s possession came under fire. The wallet was confirmed to be that of James Flood. Tarrant’s claim was that while looking for eggs between the Picton Croquet Lawn and one Miss Williams property he spied the brown wallet under a hedge within it containing the large sums of money. James Flood, nephew of this James Flood, also appeared in court and was questioned and put forward the notion that his uncle was not known to lend or give away money, being of a somewhat miserly nature. He was also questioned as to having received money from his uncle recently and his whereabouts however, he denied this and witnesses attest that he was at the foreshore until late that day.
Another damning piece of evidence was that James Flood’s cottage door was locked, delaying the discovery of his body. The key was nowhere to be found at the cottage however, a short time later, when the groundskeeper at the previously mentioned Picton Croquet Lawn trimmed the grounds he discovered the key and handed it in to police who discovered it to be a match. Tarrant's home was in close proximity to the lawn, having claimed he found the wallet in the vicinity previously. When one detective was at the Tarrant home he threw the key from the property in the direction of the lawn and it landed within a few metres of where it had been found. In what is perhaps the most curious aspect of the entire case was the use of the victim's skull in court as evidence, the point of which to show the cuts from the axe on the skull and damage they caused as well as what hand held position was necessary for the axe to enact such devastating blows. A good description also comes from Ken Fairweather who states “The skull was quite white and my second reaction was that it was a plastic replica, but another glance at those stained snaggy old teeth convinced one that this was the real thing. I remember that the lower jaw was held in place by a small brass coil spring either side, looped over brass dowels inserted in the upper and lower jaws. The skull dome had been sawn right around and could be lifted off like a cap and was located by brass dowels”.
The trial lasted seven days with the seventh day’s proceedings as follows. Hon. Justice Blair stated that it was the first capital case in fifty-six years at the court in Blenheim. He acknowledged that there was a lack of direct evidence yet stated that there were cases where circumstantial evidence was better than direct evidence. His Honour agreed that for the first matter of whether James Flood was murdered was incredibly damning. Though it was not known exactly when James was last seen it was believed it occurred sometime around 9PM as he was last seen at 7:40 and his bed had not been slept in. Tarrant was also unaccountable for approximately one hour during the evening of November the 3rd. His story did not add up with witness testimony. To add to this it was known Tarrant was of little money and yet, by the 4th, he was in possession of considerable amounts. Tarrant had also demonstrated to police unconsciously his axe skills however this was also under question as surely if you’ve a guilty conscience you would undermine your own demonstration to hide your guilt. Tarrant had also chosen to bank the money he had in Blenheim even though there was a bank locally, which added to the likelihood of his guilt. As well as this, the wallet that Tarrant claimed to find on the 11th of November in the hedges had been searched previously by police who claim they should have found it between that time and the murder, pointing to Tarrant being the murderer. The jury retired for three hours and thirty-five minutes, returning at 3:10 in the afternoon. The registrar asked the jury “Have you agreed upon your verdict? Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty”. The foreman cleared his throat, and nervously replied “our verdict is one of guilty.” The registrar then turned to Tarrant and asked if he had anything to say but received no reply. His Honour then stated “He has not heard, read it to him again”. Newspapers describe a painful silence as the registrar walked to Tarrant and asked again clearly and calmly to which, the shocked Tarrant, who had been staring blankly ahead replied “I never did it”. Tarrant went on to appeal the verdict however the death sentence was still passed. He was kept at Picton Jail before being taken to Wellington’s Mount Crawford Prison where on the 6th of March, 1933 he was executed by hanging at the age of fifty-eight years. When asked if he had any last words he stated “Nothing”.
At Picton Cemetery, James’s white grave and red granite headstone can be found tucked unassumingly between the various other headstones that climb Gravesend hill. It bears a humble inscription with no embellishments or words of affection other then “In loving memory” however, one line reads “Murdered at Picton”. This is a stark contrast to that of Tarrant’s burial site which is an unmarked grave at the massive Karori Cemetery, lost amongst the endless rows of headstones. As for James’s skull, it was not laid with the rest of his remains at the cemetery, instead it was located within the last year at W.D. Trotter Anatomy Museum, no doubt having been kept in storage at various institutions and government buildings over the nearly one hundred years since his death. It was assumed by James’s descendants that the skull was interred after the trial had finished. Perhaps this story still has at least another chapter to go before it is finished.
Further sources - The Murder of James Flood
- Fairweather, K.M. (1990). "Exhibit A". Sounds Picnic: Old Marlborough Tales. Whatamongo [i.e. Whatamango] Bay, N.Z:Cape Catley. p. 30.
- Death sentence on Edward Tarrant (1932, November 30) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4
- Francis. O. (2022, June 4) Battered skull still not laid to rest. Otago Daily Times:
- HFiles: Murder victim's skull presented in court as evidence of violent death (2019, January 30). New Zealand Herald:
- Murder charge (1932, August 26) Nelson Evening Mail, p.5
- Nicoll, Jared (2012, December 4) Betty helped to catch a murderer. Stuff:
- Picton murder (November 7, 1931) Grey River Argus
- Edward Tarrant (Murderer). Retrieved from Wikipedia August 2022:
- Walter Edward Tarrant. Find a Grave (images and information). Retrieved August 2022: