Death & doubt

Dunedin Gaol.
Dunedin Gaol.
One hundred and forty years ago this week, Ah Lee was hanged for the murder of Mary Young. Rumours of his innocence have persisted over the years, so much so that Naseby woman Hazel Harrison researched the case and has  written a book about it. Here she sums up the case.

At 8am on November 5, 1880, Ah Lee met his death by hanging in the courtyard of Dunedin Gaol for the murder of Mrs Mary Young, of Kyeburn Diggings.

He is one of just four men subjected to the death penalty in Otago. The last of whom was hung in 1898. The other three seem likely, if not certain to have committed the crimes for which they were charged — at least beyond reasonable doubt.

There is considerably more doubt in the case of Ah Lee.

There were no witnesses to Mary Young’s murder on August 4 of that year, she did not identify Ah Lee and the circumstantial evidence linking him to the scene was thin, if not fanciful.

The wanted poster following Mary Young's death.
The wanted poster following Mary Young's death.
Ah Lee himself maintained his innocence to the end.

Indeed, though he understood little English, he is said to have shown great courage and dignity throughout a hearing in Naseby, at the Supreme Court trial, then, finally, his execution, where he once again denied killing Mrs Young.

Ah Lee was 24, single, of slim build and usually resided at Coal Pit Gully, near Naseby. He was a miner who also did various odd jobs, and was known to smoke a little opium.

Five years earlier he had arrived in Lawrence from Canton to work the Tuapeka goldfields, but soon moved on to Naseby.

Mrs Young, a widow of two years, had cashed up her assets and was planning to return to Scotland, a fact well known in the district. When she was found dying in her ransacked living room, it was assumed a robbery had turned violent.

She was found first by her nearest neighbour, Lee Guy, at about 7.30am — after which the crime scene became the focus of many comings and goings.

Guy first woke Alexander McHardy, another near neighbour, who instructed him to notify William Parker and Margaret Forgie, who were about 2km up the Kyeburn River.

McHardy was soon on a horse riding the 16km to Naseby to fetch the doctor and police. They arrived at 11.30am.

Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Forgie, Mr Parker and a Mrs McCarthy attended on the fading Mrs Young.

Mrs Forgie swore at the inquest, Naseby hearing and Supreme Court trial that when she asked Mrs Young "Who did this? Was it an Englishman?", the dying woman replied that it was not.

She then asked "Was it a Chinese?", to which she received a "yes".

Mrs McCarthy supported her statement.

William Parker
William Parker
But there is reason to doubt whether Mrs Young was in any fit state to answer such questions.

By the time the doctor and police arrived there were at least a dozen people milling around the dwelling looking for clues.

It fell to Dr Thomas Bain Whitton to report on Mrs Young’s injuries as he found them four hours after she was discovered.

By that time she was unconscious, a large stone was beside her head and another two by her feet. One of these appeared to have been dropped or thrown on her.

Her right eye was swollen and black with a large wound above; both ears and the bridge of her nose were also black, Dr Whitton reported. Her left collarbone and several ribs were broken. Her right elbow and forearm were bruised and there was a distinct wound showing the marks of three teeth on the inside of her arm.

A postmortem examination showed one of the broken ribs had pierced the subclavian vein, causing internal haemorrhage from which death resulted.

Dr Whitton judged the injuries to have been inflicted seven to eight hours before he first saw her, between 3am and 4am. In his estimation, Mrs Young was probably conscious for about two hours or a little more after receiving the injuries. She died at 1.30pm that day.

The inquest, with a jury, began on August 6, lasting for several days. At the end of which it was declared that "the jury has been led by the evidence to suspect that the person or persons were Chinese".

They recommended a reward be offered.

Prior to this announcement, a "witch-hunt" had started and two Chinese "suspects" arrested while the inquest was still proceeding.

Among those who turned amateur sleuth was William Parker, who was convinced Lee Guy knew who had committed the murder and made it his mission to befriend him.

On August 10, after asking about Ah Lee, he received the reply that "he was a suspicious person". Mr Parker immediately saddled his horse and got Alexander McHardy Jun to accompany him to the police at Naseby, as the 14-year-old had worked with Ah Lee during the harvest and could identify him.

Accompanied by Sgt Edward Horton, the pair headed to Coal Pit Gully to arrest Ah Lee and returned to Naseby with him in custody.

However, this was not the only possible line of inquiry.

In mid-August, a respected Naseby businessman began ranting that he had killed Mrs Young and the police were after him.

A doctor examined him and diagnosed him as being out of his mind from the trauma of his fellow countrywoman’s violent death and committed him to Seacliff Psychiatric Hospital.

All the while, a case against Ah Lee was taking shape.

The day after the murder, Mr Parker, having found boot-prints with a distinctive nail pattern in the garden, approached Sgt Horton with the discovery. Sgt Horton showed the prints and Ah Lee’s boots to Naseby bootmaker William Harvey, who identified them as the same.

Three days after being detained, and 13 days after the murder, Sgt Horton examined spots of blood on the knee of Ah Lee’s trousers and asked Dr Whitton, who had recently read in a medical publication that old blood could be reconstituted and identified, to identify them.

Dr Whitton stated it was not sheep or goat blood, but could not say where it came from.

Ah Lee claimed it was indeed sheep blood, as he had killed a sheep some time before.

A silk handkerchief with a red border found under Mrs Young’s body, also became material evidence.

Local draper Joseph Pascoe claimed Ah Lee had purchased it in early May, paying for it with a cheque. The bank confirmed the date it was presented.

Alexander McHardy said it appeared to be the same one Ah Lee had dropped during harvest time and he had returned to him.

Such was the evidence that convicted Ah Lee.

It was hardly watertight.

For example, there had been numerous people milling around the property within a few hours of the murder, but no-one else’s boots were checked.

A Dunedin bootmaker, not called as a witness, said although the boot-print showed an unusual nail pattern it was not unique.

Dr Whitton had stated the blood on Ah Lee’s trousers was not sheep or goat, but he did not identify it as human.

In fact, the medical publication referenced by Whitton also noted that samples on clothing several days old could not be reconstituted to a standard where they could be positively identified.

Bishop Nevill
Bishop Nevill
And as far as the handkerchief is concerned, the timelines again fail close inspection. Harvest time, when McHardy claimed to have seen Ah Lee drop it, is March-April and yet the draper stated Ah Lee purchased the handkerchief later, in early May.

When Mrs McCarthy and Mrs Forgie spoke to Mrs Young, she had been bleeding slowly for five hours and died five hours later. Dr Whitton’s opinion was that she would probably have been conscious for only about two hours after the attack.

Ah Lee was also failed by his defence lawyer, who offered no evidence whatsoever, while Ah Lee’s interpreter spoke a different dialect.

Despite Bishop Nevill, who became involved with Ah Lee’s cause, and a Dunedin law firm lodging an appeal, the verdict remained and the death sentence was carried out.

Once Ah Lee was dead, several prominent Dunedin scientists and doctors publicly voiced their doubt regarding Dr Whitton’s blood findings.

The Naseby businessman, who had been discharged from Seacliff after a week, once again stated that he had killed Mrs Young. He was quickly returned to Seacliff where he remained for a year and was "cured".


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