The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3 (July 1, 1933)
Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial of Good, M'Ausland and Jones
Where was John Ellis? This was the question, the answer to which was sought in the little community of Wellington in the month of March, 1850. In those early days of the settlement of Wellington, shipping was very different from what it is to-day, and in accordance with the usual custom, when the barque “General Palmer,” of 573 tons, arrived in port and discharged her cargo the crew were paid off. In order to prevent pillage on board, as the ship lay in the harbour waiting cargo, one of the most reliable of the crew was employed, as custodian, to sleep on board. He was required to keep the ship clean and, between the hours of ten and eleven in the morning, to hoist a flag to denote to the ship's agent ashore that all was well aboard.
Messrs. Bethune and Hunter, the agents for the ship had selected John Ellis as custodian. He was a quiet, reliable seaman, generally respected, sober and industrious. Both ashore and on board he seems to have been liked by all who came in contact with him. Quite suddenly, however, Ellis disappeared.
William Good, who had been living on the barque with Ellis, provided an explanation as to his whereabouts. He had gone off, so he said, on the 17th March with a Maori girl for a spree. This explanation evoked surprise in the minds of those who knew Ellis, for he was not the kind of man whom one would have expected to behave in such a manner, especially as his job required his constant presence on the ship.
The agents for the ship were not satisfied, and communicated with the police. Acting on certain facts that they were able to piece together, the police set out in search of three men who had been on board the ship just before the disappearance of Ellis. One of these three men had been sleeping on board for about a month. These men were the accused.
On the 29th March, Police Constable Oxenham started in pursuit of these men, and on the 7th April, after having travelled north over the Rimutakas he arrested Jones at Tuingara, a farm settlement, about seventy miles north of Castlepoint. Having secured him he went on for another twelve miles and caught Good at the farm of a Mr. Tiffin, and four days later some Natives, who had heard of the chase, captured M'Ausland and brought him to Constable Oxenham. The march back took eleven days and on 23rd April the three men were under lock and key at Mount Cook gaol in Wellington. When the prisoners were searched, a knife was found on Jones, but in some inexplicable way the effects of the three prisoners were not separated by the constable until they got to Wellington, when a bloodstained towel, a cap, a waistcoat, a black silk handkerchief and a shirt were taken. These appear to have been taken from Good's bundle. The gaoler who took charge of the men at the gaol made a search on his own account and found some money sewn into Good's trousers, and some other sewing paraphernalia.
The evidence was then collected together and on Monday, 3rd June, 1850, the three men stood page 33 their trial at Wellington. Good was charged as a principal, and the other two men as aiders and abettors. There were five counts to the indictment. The first was causing death from a pistol wound, the second that death ensued from the joint effects of a wound with a pistol bullet and a wound on the skull with a hammer; the third that death had been caused by cutting the throat with a knife; the fourth that death had followed a blow on the skull with the butt end of a pistol, and the last count that death was caused by a blow on the skull with a hammer.
His Honour, Mr. Justice Chapman, presided, while the Attorney-General, Mr. W. Swainson and Mr. R. Hart prosecuted. Good was represented by Mr. King, but the other prisoners had no counsel to appear for them. A common jury was empanelled. The Attorney-General opened the case by reminding the jury that in order to do justice they must banish from their minds as well as they could any preconceptions of the case and not to allow themselves to be affected by the excitement that the murder had naturally created in the community.
This exhortation was necessary, for the whole township could talk of little else since the discovery of Ellis's body, which bore the indications that the unfortunate man had been foully murdered.
Dr. Monteith was then called, and he told the jury that the first wound he examined was one that had severed the carotid arteries. There was a contused wound under the right side of the jaw, and two extensive fractures over the right eye and the centre of the forehead. These two wounds seemed to have been done with a hammer. Ellis had been shot through the cheek also, which wound would have been fatal, but probably not for some time. Apparently Ellis had been shot on the deck of the barque, for there was a bullet mark in the bulwark, and then as perhaps he struggled, the murderer had closed with him and completed the crime in the manner described.
The evidence then proceeded and was levelled with more deadly effect against Good than against the others. Mr. Tiffin told how Good had called on him seeking work and had given his name as Frederick William Anderson. The inference, of course, was that he was fleeing and took a false name to cover his flight. Some articles of clothing were produced by Tiffin. These he had got from Good, and they were subsequently shewn to be Ellis's. Ann Guthrie then swore that a pair of boots she produced, proved to have been Ellis's, were exchanged by Jones with her for another pair. These boots a bootmaker named Collins, proved had been sold to Ellis the day before he was actually killed. After all the property found on these men, or which they had disposed of, had been proved to have been Ellis's, the Attorney-General went on to prove that these men were in company with Ellis just before the murder.
Basil Brown, for instance, who was a boardinghouse keeper, said that on the 16th March, Ellis, M'Ausland and Good were together about 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and he said he saw Jones and M'Ausland together the day after the tragedy. He then said that M'Ausland called on the Sunday where he dined and then he said to Brown “I owe you some money.” He then pulled some money out of his pocket and said he would pay all he owed. He said “Brown, are you afraid I won't pay you?” “No,” said Brown. Then said M'Ausland: “I'll pay you in a lump.” He then added: “You'll hear of something before long; they tell me I must not tell you, but you'll hear of something before long.” He would say nothing further. He then page 34 said: “I've got a bag of gold in the flax.” M'Ausland then left without paying the witness and the next time he saw him he was in the company of Jones. On the Monday after the murder the witness saw all three accused leave the wharf in the rowing boat usually taken by those living on, or going to, the “General Palmer.” He watched the boat and the three men went on board the barque.
Another witness said he saw Good and Ellis go off in a boat and he watched them go aboard the “General Palmer.” That night Ellis lost his life. The witness said that there was a third man with them, but he was unable to identify him as one of the accused men. However, the barman of Firth's Hotel said he saw Good and M'Ausland with Ellis on that Saturday, and on the following Monday M'Ausland, he said, was in the bar spending money with a freedom which in him was unusual. A small boy of eleven years of age, named Samuel Collins, said that on the Saturday he saw all three prisoners with Ellis on the beach.
Then came Mary Ann Jackson who said that Good and Ellis were at her house on the Saturday, and Ellis invited her, along with others, to make up a party and visit the ship on the morrow. She accepted the invitation and the next day when she went aboard Good told her that Ellis had gone ashore. Another woman of the party said that Good told her that Ellis had gone ashore for a spree with a Maori girl. This witness was the washerwoman whom Ellis had employed to do his washing, and she was able to recognise some of the clothing found on the prisoners as the property of the murdered man.
The next witness called was an important one. He was Solomon Hook, a seaman, who had lived with Ellis on the “General Palmer” for a month. He described Ellis as a most methodical man and of a saving disposition. He last saw Ellis between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on the night of Saturday, the 16th March, and he told Ellis that he would go aboard on the morrow. He did so about breakfast time and there Good told him that Ellis had gone ashore in a strange boat. Hook noticed that the deck was just washed down and Good told him that he and Ellis had washed the deck down before Ellis went ashore. Hook went to the party in the afternoon, and knowing Ellis as he did could not understand why he was absent. He noticed the casks and loose doors in the pantry and asked Good why the pantry was being turned into a bosun's locker. He was not made suspicious, however, by Good's manner. He said that he had noticed a roll of notes in Ellis's possession during his lifetime.
The Sunday afternoon party was described by the next witness. He said that men and women except Good were all more or less drunk and were making an awful row. There was evidence, too, that Ellis just before the 16th March received from the ship's agent the sum of £10 6s. 2d.
John Thompson, probably the most important witness, certainly the one who took longest in the witness box, came next and he told how he had been invited on board on the Monday following the murder, though he did not of course know of the crime and stayed a night or two on board. He was told that Ellis was on the spree. On the Tuesday evening he heard Good speaking to the other two prisoners on board in a low voice and then he spoke to the witness. He asked him if he could keep a secret. Good then said that the ship “The Sisters” had come into port from Hobart town and that they had his “descriptions” on board and that in consequence he would have to clear out as he was a bolter from Hobart prison. He then said that Ellis was depending on him to stay on board to raise the flag every morning between ten and eleven to denote to the ship's agents that all was well on board. He asked Thompson to take his place and hoist the flag each morning till Ellis returned and then Ellis would pay him for his time and trouble. The three prisoners then made preparations to depart and made Thompson presents of boots and clothing that caused him to inquire if it was all right, or whether they had been robbing the ship. The three prisoners hastened to reassure Thompson. The men then made off and Thompson stayed on board till the following Tuesday when the police took him in charge, where he remained for a little time till he cleared himself of complicity in the tragedy. Thompson was cross-examined as to a statement he had previously made to the police. He admitted that he had at first said that Ellis had left him in charge and that he had gone into the country. But he explained that he had done so to protect Ellis from the wrath of the agents. It seemed clear that Thompson had nothing to do with the murder.
Kenneth Bethune, the ship's agent, said that he had gone on board the “General Palmer” on the 6th March looking for Ellis and that the next day he saw his dead body. He said that Ellis had been left to look after the ship on account of his steady behaviour and general good conduct. After a few witnesses called to identify clothing or to speak of the movements of the prisoners round about the date of the murder, the evidence of the Crown closed. M'Ausland was the only one of the accused who called any witnesses. He recalled Constable Oxenham on a few unimportant features which told slightly in his favour.
The Attorney-General then addressed the jury, and while leaving the matter open so far as the other two were concerned, pressed for a conviction against Good. He pointed out that the whole weight of the evidence told against the accused. He had been living with the deceased. He was on board on the Sunday under suspicious circumstances. When asked if he had anything to say when he was first charged with the murder, Good had replied page 35 “That's my business.” The Attorney-General pointed out, too, that Good never slept on board after the Saturday. Perhaps Good was as superstitious as sailors are supposed to be.
Mr. King then addressed the jury on behalf of Good. He contended that the murder was probably the work of the other two accused. In the light of the evidence that seemed a dangerous course to take. The defence no doubt was difficult, but that kind of argument in the face of the evidence would, one would think, be calculated more likely to inflame the jury against Good than otherwise. The other two prisoners addressed long rambling remarks on their own behalf. The Judge took the same view of the evidence as the Attorney-General and clearly suggested a conviction of Good and an acquittal of the other two. The Judge traversed the whole of the evidence for the benefit of the jury and while scrupulously fair to the prisoners the very discussion of the evidence necessarily told heavily against Good.
The jury were out only thirty-five minutes and brought in a verdict of Not Guilty against M'Ausland and Jones, but they convicted Good. Good displayed not the slightest emotion when the sentence of death was passed upon him.