Jackie Breen, from DOC’s Heritage Team, tells us about the dark history of Albion Square Historic Reserve’s quaint Fire Engine House and its association with New Zealand’s most notorious nineteenth century crime, the Maungatapu Murders…
In June 1866, in the best tradition of Agatha Christie, the Nelson community reeled in shock when five people were murdered on the Maungatapu Track, a route linking Nelson with the Wakamarina goldfields.
The murders were perpetrated by the Burgess Gang, a group of career criminals who had spent the previous few months robbing and murdering their way north from the gold fields of the West Coast.
Bent on securing a fortune from unsuspecting miners, the gang encountered James Battle on the Maungatapu Track. They robbed, strangled and buried him in a shallow grave. The gang then ambushed a group the following day at what is now known as Murderers Rock. James Dudley, John Kempthorne, James de Pontius and Felix Mathieu (and their packhorse) were variously strangled, shot and stabbed.
Having succeeding in securing ill gotten gains, the gang went on a spree in Nelson where they soon aroused suspicion. Concerns were also raised by a friend of the four victims, Heinrich Moller, who had planned to meet them and return one of their pack horses to Canvastown. When they were a no show he reported their disappearance to the police. Within a week the gang was arrested.
Although searchers found the horse and the missing men’s swags, without bodies there was only circumstantial evidence of a crime. A breakthrough came when the government offered £200 and a pardon for any accomplice who would turn Queen’s evidence. Joseph Thomas Sullivan turned on his cronies and made a full statement revealing the location of the four bodies known to be missing and confessing to Battle’s murder.
The bodies were found and transported to Albion Square, the centre of provincial government in Nelson. They were laid out in the Fire Engine House ready for post mortems, and evidently the bodies became a gruesome attraction in town as the local newspaper recorded:
“After the jury had viewed the bodies, which were laid out in the engine house, the public were admitted to see them, and during the day several thousands took advantage of the opportunity thus afforded them of beholding the unhappy victims of an atrocious crime.”
(Colonist, Volume IX, Issue 915, 3 July 1866, p 3)
The three gang members were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. This was Nelson’s first murder case and a set of triple gallows was specially constructed – so they could hang them all at the same time. I’m not sure this was a good use of public money since there (hopefully!) wasn’t much call for multiple hangings.
Much like sensational news stories today, the public and press eagerly followed the case. The recently launched Nelson Evening Mail reported that death for the condemned was “almost instantaneous”. However, the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle wrote that while “Burgess and Levy seemed to die at once… it was thought necessary that the executioner should complete his odious duty by hanging onto [Kelly’s] legs”.
Sullivan was given immunity with regard to the group of four. However, he hadn’t negotiated an extension of the pardon for his part in Battle’s murder – which the authorities were unaware of until he gave evidence. He was found guilty and was also sentenced to hang; two weeks later this was reduced to life imprisonment.
Over the years the gang have been touted as New Zealand’s equivalent of Ned Kelly’s bushranger gang in Australia.
Today traces of these macabre events linger on – DOC manages the small, picturesque Fire Engine House as part of the Albion Square Historic Reserve, which is still known by some locals as ‘the morgue’.
The event had a profound effect on the Nelson community, with locals erecting a commemorative monument in honour of the victims at the Wakapuaka Cemetery in Nelson, and the scenic Maungatapu Track passes Murderers Rock where another monument recalls the tragic events of June 1866.
Things to do
You can take a look at the Fire Engine House in Albion Square Historic Reserve, directly behind the Munro Building where the DOC office is located, or tramp or mountain bike the Maungatapu Track. This climbs over Maungatapu Saddle between the Pelorus and Maitai Valleys — more information is available in the Pelorus Track brochure.
If you are interested to find more out about the murders, the New Zealand History website has some great content, including an interactive comic book.
very interesting to read. my mother was from that family as she was a Kempthorne.
My family is from Nelson and I often heard Dad and his father talk of the Mokitap murders. (Mokitap was the local colloquial pronunciation of Maungatapu).