Long Read: Where history lies

The old Dunedin Gaol, on the corner of Stuart and Castle Sts, where three of Otago's four...
The old Dunedin Gaol, on the corner of Stuart and Castle Sts, where three of Otago's four condemned men were executed. Photo: ODT Files

Where are the bodies of Otago's four executed murderers? Bruce Munro digs up a halloween mystery of gruesome hangings, lost graves and headless ghosts.

If Captain William Jarvey had looked up, he would have seen a beautiful, spring afternoon sky.

If he had wanted to turn around, he would have been able to look over the prison walls at the lapping waters of Otago Harbour.

That was the view condemned men had - standing with the hangman's noose around their neck and the trapdoor beneath their feet - from the gallows of Dunedin Gaol, more than a century and a-half ago.

It is 152 years, this week, since the first official colonial execution in Otago.

On October 24, 1865, Jarvey, a convicted murderer, was "hung by the neck until dead''.

It was an historic event in the life of the young city and province. So, the weather, the view and the details of the hanging were all diligently reported in the Otago Daily Times the next day.

 Alfred Hanlon
Renowned lawyer Alfred Hanlon represented murderers Minnie Dean, of Winton, and Charles Clements, of Dunedin, who were executed. PHOTO: ODT FILES

"Had the convict looked to the right from where he stood, he would have seen the waters of the Bay, blue and bright under the sunlight; but he looked not,'' the news story stated.

"No thought of the years he had passed on the ocean could have intruded then! He was ghastly pale as the cap was drawn over his face.

"The instant before this was done, he softly called to [Rev] Connebee, who stood at one corner of the scaffold. The reverend gentleman advanced, and the convict spoke two or three words. They were, we believe, his last farewell. Certainly they were not a confession, nor an indication of any yielding towards one.''

Jarvey has the ignominious distinction of being the first person in Otago to receive capital punishment.

When he had been executed, his body was buried in the grounds of the gaol compound on the corner of Stuart and Castle Sts, Dunedin, on what was then the edge of the harbour.

He was the first, but not the last executed in Dunedin.

In all, there were four: Jarvey, John Jones a year later, Ah Lee, in 1880 and Charles Clements in 1898. All found guilty of murder. All hung in the gaol grounds.

But, where did their bodies go? Where are their bodies now? And what of the rumour they were dug up and reburied beneath a large tree in the Northern Cemetery?

Capital punishment was the ultimate penalty in colonial New Zealand, the price to be paid by murderers, traitors and pirates. The method of execution was always hanging.

The first official hanging was in 1842, when Wiremu Kingi Maketu was sentenced to death for exacting utu by killing five people on Motuarohia Island, in the Bay of Islands.

Aotearoa has had no pirate executions. And only one for treason.

Hamiora Pere, a member of Maori prophet Te Kooti's armed forces during the New Zealand land wars, was controversially executed for treason in 1842.

Of the 85 people executed in New Zealand, all were men except Minnie Dean, of Winton, who was hung in Invercargill in 1895 for infanticide.

The last person to be executed was Walter Bolton, of Auckland, who was hung in 1957 for murdering his wife.

Several bodies, including that of executed murderer Charles Clements, are buried in unmarked graves in free ground in Southern Cemetery. Photo: Bruce Munro
Several bodies, including that of executed murderer Charles Clements, are buried in unmarked graves in free ground in Southern Cemetery. Photo: Bruce Munro
Otago's executed men were all convicted of murder, but each had a unique tale.

Jarvey was almost certainly a psychopath and sexual predator.

A womaniser who had already allegedly killed three of his illegitimate children in Tasmania, Australia, Jarvey poisoned his pregnant wife Catherine with strychnine, a colourless pesticide, at their home in Caversham. This was while he was having an affair with a younger woman. He was also accused of sexual assault against two of his daughters, including one who was on her death bed.

Jarvey was hung about noon on that fine October day.

A story soon started circulating that he had foretold how he would die.

Less than a year before, as captain of the small coastal steamer, Titania, Jarvey had slipped and fallen into the harbour at Carey's Bay.

After being rescued, he had reportedly said, "If a man is born to be hanged, he will never be drowned.''

The ODT article about the execution includes two interesting footnotes.

This plaster death mask of William Jarvey was taken after his execution at Dunedin Gaol in 1865 for poisoning his wife. Photo: Hocken Collections
This plaster death mask of William Jarvey was taken after his execution at Dunedin Gaol in 1865 for poisoning his wife. Photo: Hocken Collections

"After the execution, a person who was stated to represent the proprietress of a Melbourne wax-work exhibition, was allowed to take a cast of the convict's face and head'' and "a local `professor' of phrenology was also permitted to make an examination''.

John Jones, who also went by the name John Pool, was the second person to be executed at Dunedin Gaol.

Two months after Jarvey was hung, Jones was a guest at the Hiberian Accommodation House in the then-bustling gold mining town of Waipori, 40km west of Dunedin.

On the evening of December 22, Jones, apparently unprovoked, stabbed local farmer Richard Atkinson, who was lending a hand at his daughter, Margaret Dickson's, guesthouse. Jones also stabbed Dickson, but not fatally.

Mr Atkinson, who was stabbed in the stomach, died eight days later from a combination of his injuries and the "help'' he received from two local doctors whose treatment included turpentine injections.

Jones was tried and found guilty, although the jury recommended mercy as it believed Atkinson might have survived if the doctors had been competent.

A report on the trial was sent to Sir George Grey, the Governor-General, who agreed with the judge that the death penalty was appropriate.

Jones was executed on April 6, 1866, and also buried in the grounds of the gaol.

Murder was murder, including execution. So, a short inquest was held after each hanging to verify that the execution was indeed "justifiable homicide''.

If the justification for Jones' hanging was a little dubious, then Otago's third execution, that of Ah Lee, seems highly questionable.

In August 1880, Mary Young was found bludgeoned, but not yet dead, at her property in the gold-mining settlement of Kyeburn in the Maniototo.

Young could not identify her attacker but said he was Chinese.

She died and Lee, a recent immigrant from Canton, China, was arrested.

The evidence was largely circumstantial, Lee's interpreter spoke a different dialect and Lee maintained his innocence.

But he was found guilty and, just one month later, on October 10, was hung and buried in the grounds of Dunedin Gaol.

There was one more to come, 18 years later.

In late 1897, Charles Clements and his wife, Ruth Ann, of George St, Dunedin, visited a lawyer for advice about getting a divorce. They left the law office hand-in-hand.

The next time the lawyer heard from Clements was when he asked the lawyer to defend him on a charge of murdering his wife.

That lawyer was Alfred Hanlon, one of the most outstanding criminal lawyers in New Zealand's history.

Two years previously, Hanlon had represented Minnie Dean in her murder trial.

Clements had tried to commit suicide after killing his wife. But, still being alive, he wanted to dictate to Hanlon how his defence should be conducted.

In court, Clements represented himself, with Hanlon watching on and offering advice.

The jury took only 26 minutes to return a guilty verdict.

On April 12, 1898, Clements became the final person to face "the last penalty of the law'' at Dunedin Gaol.

Here's where mystery enters, slyly, stage left.

By the time of Clements' hanging a new, orange-brick prison had been built behind the old one, where it still stands on Castle St. And the old gaol was about to be demolished to make way for the Law Courts building, which still occupies the site today.

So, Clements could not be buried next to the others in the old gaol compound. Where was he buried?

And what about the others? Do they still lie buried somewhere beneath the Law Courts building? Could one of the workmen involved in the $20 million upgrade of the building make an unexpected and grisly find?

To the mystery, add a riddle: Alan Riddle.

Almost two years ago, after an article appeared in the ODT about Richard Atkinson's murder at the hands of John Jones, Riddle contacted the newspaper to talk about Jones and the others executed at Dunedin Gaol. Riddle did not know about Clements, but said he believed he had information about what happened to the remains of the other three.

At least middle-aged himself, Riddle said when he was young his mother had told him the bodies had been dug up and reburied in an unmarked grave in Dunedin's Northern Cemetery.

This macrocarpa in the Northern Cemetery is thought to mark where three of the men hanged at the...
This macrocarpa in the Northern Cemetery is thought to mark where three of the men hanged at the Dunedin Gaol were later reburied in unmarked graves. Photo: Gerard O'Brien.

"The Northern Cemetery has a loop road. On a sharp bend, beneath a huge macrocarpa; that's where they were buried,'' Riddle, quoting his deceased mother, said.

During the past month, the ODT has made efforts to find Riddle, but to no avail. 

Searching the pages of the ODT reveals there was indeed a plan to move the remains.

On May 4, 1899, a report about construction of the Law Courts states, "The places where the bodies were interred have been located, but the remains have not yet been uncovered''.

In an effort to find out what happened next, phone calls are placed to historians, archaeologists and archivists.

The Dunedin City Council's comprehensive cemeteries database starts to give up its secrets.

Clements was buried in the Southern Cemetery, on the same day he was executed.

A block and plot number lead to a remote corner of the cemetery; a tree root and pine needle-strewn strip of unmarked land bordered on all sides by tombs and headstones in various states of neglect.

Five other people are also buried there, the database records. None of the graves are marked in any way.

It is free ground, says Sandra McCord, who is the city council cemeteries administration officer.

"Which explains why there are multiple unrelated people buried in that plot,'' McCord adds.

"Free Ground means that the grave site was not purchased ... but a fee was charged to be buried there.''

The database also reveals that the other three, Jarvey, Jones and Lee, were reburied, together, in the Northern Cemetery.

Richard Hercus, who works out of the Northern Cemetery sexton's cottage as a volunteer for the Southern Heritage Trust, leads the way down the winding cemetery road, through seemingly endless rows of burial sites, to where the executed lie.

Here there are headstones, concrete edges, wrought iron fences and ... the wrong names.

The convicted murderers were reburied here, somewhere, in unmarked paupers' graves, Hercus says.

But then, in the first years of last century, this gullied portion of the cemetery was reshaped. New graves were added over the older paupers' graves.

It is not clear whether the families of those later arrivals knew their loved ones were being buried on top of the graves of executed men.

Just as Riddle's mother had said, a large macrocarpa stands guard over this corner of the cemetery.

Mysteries solved.

Well, not quite.

Dr Thomas Hocken, photographed here in 1893, was the coroner for at least two of Otago's murders...
Dr Thomas Hocken, photographed here in 1893, was the coroner for at least two of Otago's murders that ended in execution. Photo: ODT Files

An ODT report two days before the reinternment had some disturbing news. Jarvey's skull was stolen before he could be reburied.

"The police are investigating a theft of a most peculiar nature,'' the May 10, 1899, edition declared.

"The Department of Justice were removing the remains of the three murderers who were buried within the precincts of the old gaol. After being uncovered, the remains were left pending an order for their removal being received from Wellington.

"In the interval, however, some person, presumably a collector, took a fancy to the skull of the late Captain Andrew Jarvey, executed for the murder of his wife, and annexed it.

"The police hope that anyone offering for sale a skull `other than their own' will be made to account for it.''

Jarvey is buried, somewhere in the Northern Cemetery, without his head.

It certainly is creepy and there are stories about it, says Andrew Smith, of Hair Raiser Tours.

People have claimed to see Jarvey's headless ghost in the Northern Cemetery and around the old gaol site, Smith says.

"Some of my best stories come from ex-police,'' he says.

The former Dunedin Police Station is behind the Law Courts building.

"They said they took showers after night shift and they would have to hop across the area where they believed the bodies were buried. And that was where all the weird, creepy stuff happened.''

The mystery of who stole Jarvey's skull remains unsolved.

One possible suspect is the un-named "professor of phrenology'' who examined Jarvey's head after the execution.

Phrenology is the discredited pseudo-science of using the bumps on the skull as a guide to the person's mental and moral capacity.

In the mid-1860s, reports of a Prof Griffen's well-attended public lectures on phrenology were making the local newspapers in Dunedin and elsewhere in Otago.

He disappears from public record after that. But in recent years, it has been suggested he might have married a woman from Milton.

Could the good professor have developed such a deep interest in the bumps on the head of Jarvey that 25 years later, when he read the bodies were lying exposed awaiting reburial, he seized the opportunity, literally, with both hands?

Any decapitated ghosts sighted this Halloween should be advised to head to Milton.


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