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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May 1, 1934.)

Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial of Louis Chemis

page 24

Famous New Zealand Trials
The Trial of Louis Chemis.

On Monday, 8th July, 1889, before the Chief Justice, Sir James Prendergast, Louis Chemis stood his trial for the murder of Thomas Hawkins, at Kaiwarra, near Wellington. The murder, which took place on 31st May, 1889, and the trial will be remembered by many residents of the district. The dramatic and unexpected death of leading counsel for the prisoner (Mr. C. E. Bunny), and of the prisoner himself, and the long controversy which followed the verdict constitute this one of the most sensational trials in our criminal history.

Mr. H. D. Bell and Mr. M. Richmond appeared for the Crown, the prisoner being represented by Mr. C. E. Bunny (as before mentioned) and Mr. J. J. Devine.

When Mr. Bell opened the case to the jury he told them the facts he relied on to prove that Chemis was the man who had killed Hawkins. The deceased, when he left his farm to go to town was known to have had a number of papers in his pocket. It was to the advantage of Chemis to get possession of them, and it was proved that he had ample time to do this before the actual commission of the crime. Mr. Bell said that the strongest point against Chemis was that several fragments of the Wellington “Evening Post” had been discovered in the gunshot wound in the body of the deceased. The fragments of paper bore the date, 23rd May, and a copy of the “Evening Post” of that date had been found at Chemis’ house. The jury would be told by the witnesses that the torn pieces in the wound exactly fitted the torn portion found at the accused's house. There had been no blood found on Chemis’ clothing, but a gun in his possession had been recently fired. The deceased and the prisoner were not on friendly terms, the prisoner having refused to conclude an arrangement for a lease he had agreed to take from Hawkins, saying that he would be ruined if he did so, and that Hawkins had taken legal proceedings against him.

Then Mr. Bell told the jury that, apart from the gunshot wound, Hawkins had been stabbed no less than twenty-one times! The defence would be that it was a man other than Chemis who had committed the crime, and that this man had been observed near the scene of the murder, carrying a gun.

The story was then unravelled by the witnesses. The first witness was Mr. D. G. A. Cooper, the Registrar of the Court. He produced the writ and legal proceedings against Chemis. This was to supply some evidence of motive. Formal evidence of the signing of the lease was given by a solicitor who had witnessed Chemis’ signature to the document. Then Charles Bowles, a cousin of Mrs. Hawkins, described his finding of the body of the deceased. When he found the body he took it to Mr. Dimock's. He did not go home and tell Mrs. Hawkins, but went to a man named Nicholls and stayed with him until after midnight, afterwards going to his own house. He agreed that a German carpenter, Leddin by name, had been at the home of the Hawkins’ a few weeks before when the witness had been married, and that Leddin left the place suddenly. It was also true that George Bowles, the witness's cousin, was on bad terms with Hawkins. He did not know that Hawkins had surreptitiously taken two hundred sheep from his cousin to help him conceal them from his creditors when he became bankrupt, and that when Bowles got his discharge he refused to return them all. (It is as well to mention here that this allegation was shewn subsequently to be without foundation and nothing dishonourable was proved against Mr. Hawkins. The whole incident was proved untrue.)

Then a lad named James McCallum said that Bowles had told him that Hawkins was dead. Under cross-examination he said that Bowles did not seem at all excited. He had had a row with Hawkins, who had threatened to beat him and his two brothers for impertinence.

Dr. Thos. Cahill then said that he went to the scene of the tragedy on the 31st and ordered the removal of the body to Dimock's. There were two incised wounds in the neck. On the Saturday and Sunday following the murder Dr. Cahill said he conducted a post mortem examination. There were wounds in the side, chest and neck, as well as a gunshot wound in the right shoulder. The wounds were clean cut and one of them had penetrated to the heart. He removed some flesh from the shoulder wound, and when examining this discovered many small pieces of paper. The stiletto produced fitted into the wounds page 25 of the deceased. The blade was six inches in length and three-quarters of an inch wide at the hilt. He could find no blood on the stiletto. After first seeing the body, the witness had gone to Mrs. Hawkins but did not tell her that her husband had been murdered. He told Sergeant-Major Morice, however. So far as the witness could see there had been no struggle. Hawkins had been shot from behind.

William Dimock established by his evidence that Hawkins had called on him at 5.30 p.m. on the night of the murder. The witness got on well with Hawkins, though once or twice there was a prospect of litigation on account of the road running past witness’ factory. Malcolm McCallum then said he had gone to the scene of the murder on the day following and saw on a bush there, pieces of paper and a rag. In answer to Mr. Bunny witness said that on the Saturday morning Chemis delivered the milk as usual. Chemis told him he had heard the news about Hawkins when he was in Kaiwarra. That Chemis was working at Kaiwarra on the 31st, left his work at 4.30 p.m., and walked towards Ngahauranga, was sworn to by the next witness, Michael Green. A further witness, however, said he had seen Chemis at a few minutes to five o'clock on the same day at Pipitea Point walking towards Kaiwarra.

“When the witness arrested Chemis, he burst out, ‘It is all damn lies.“'

“When the witness arrested Chemis, he burst out, ‘It is all damn lies.“'

On the third day of the trial, Mary Hawkins, the widow of the deceased, said her husband had gone into town on the Friday, as was his custom. He usually got back about 6 o'clock. Bowles went to look for him about 7.50 p.m., and in a few minutes returned in the trap. Shortly after this Dr. Cahill arrived, and then it was witness's mother, who broke the news that Mr. Hawkins was dead. There had been no quarrel between her husband and Leddin. Leddin came to her husband's funeral. She had never heard of any quarrel about sheep between Bowles and her husband. Bowles had never brought sheep to the farm. There was a little feeling between the two men on account of Bowles’ losing some land through his bankruptcy, which Hawkins might have saved. After the bankruptcy, Mrs. Hawkins told Mr. Bunny, that Bowles never came to the farm for sheep. Hawkins had bought sheep in the Wairarapa. She was quite sure that her husband had never said that he would shoot Bowles like a dog. Hawkins paid Bowles for the sheep he had bought in the Wairarapa with a cheque drawn on the Bank of New Zealand. When Leddin came down on the last occasion he did not quarrel with Hawkins. The reason she had not gone herself to look for her husband was that she had a bad knee. She said she had gone out twenty times looking for Bowles. In cross-examination, Mrs. Hawkins said that she was never on bad terms with her husband.

At this stage it will have been noticed that the defence had made little ground affirmatively. Certain questions calculated to shew up Hawkins as a quarrelsome man had been made, but they could not be said to have availed the defence much. To meet the suggestions, Frederick Leddin was next called. He said he was a Finn, a carpenter by trade, and he lived in Foxton. He had known Hawkins for six years, and had never quarrelled with him. On the day of the murder he was fourteen miles on the other side of Foxton, at Westwood's flaxmills. William Durrell, a butcher, said that he bought his milk from Chemis. He said that when Chemis told him about his case with Hawkins he said he would be ruined if he did not win it, and he was quite disheartened. Durrell said he was not aware that he acted as public informer at Kaiwarra.

The next witness, who had given some evidence before the Magistrate, was again put in the box for crossexamination. To Mr. Bunny he said that on the 31st he was taking a short cut from Ngahauranga to Kaiwarra. He noticed a man with a gun going towards the summit of the hill. This was about 5 p.m. He turned on reaching Bargber's fence towards Hawkins's farm. The prisoner, said the witness, was not that man. He added that he had told the police of this, in particular, he told Detective Benjamin. The man he saw was about 5ft. 8in. in height. He wore lightcoloured trousers. He was also wearing a dark tweed coat and a lightcoloured hat. He said that he had known Hawkins for about six years, and that he got his milk from Chemis. The Crown subjected this witness to a long cross-examination for the purpose of shaking him on the identification of the man he alleged he saw. There is nothing in the reports of the case, such as the questions and the way they were answered, to suggest that generally the witness was shaken in his original evidence.

Then came the evidence of an expert concerning the stiletto. It was proved that there was no blood on the stiletto when examined, though it could have been washed or wiped off. The witness said that there were traces on the pieces of newspapers that had been handed to him for examination. The Government armourer then said that one of the barrels of Chemis’ gun had been fired off more recently than the other. The evidence of this witness seems to have been unsatisfactory, for it appeared that he said at first that the gun had been fired on the 31st. How he could swear to this is difficult to understand.

Inspector John Bell Thomson went to the scene of the murder on the 1st June. With him were Detectives Benjamin and Campbell. There they found further pieces of paper which were later identified as corresponding to pieces found in Chemis’ house. The Inspector examined Chemis’ gun, which appeared to him to have been recently fired. He collected all the pieces of paper on the premises. Mr. Bunny, in a long but unsuccessful cross-examination, tried to extract an admission from the witness that the inquiries had been limited to examining the movements of Chemis and his brother-in-law. Detective Benjamin told the same story as the previous witness. When the witness arrested page 26 Chemis he burst out: “It is all damned lies. I won't be here long. I wish I had better clothes to go in.”

The evidence for the Crown was rapidly coming to a close. William Burden, who said he was employed in Cook's grocery shop, Molesworth Street, Wellington, admitted that he had been on bad terms with Hawkins, but he had made it up. He always respected Chemis, who was a quiet, respectable man. John Tasker, of the Police Department, said that he had pieced together the fragments of paper found in the wound and on the ground with fragments found at Chemis', and he shewed how many of them clearly fitted.

The Crown case finished after a number of the witnesses already called had been placed in the box again to fill up small gaps in the story.

Then came the final speech for the Crown, which was made by Mr. Bell. In a powerful speech he told the jury that the case rested on circumstantial evidence in the main. The only direct evidence was that of the paper. There were three pieces in particular. Put together, they made up the wad in the gun when it fired the charge that entered Hawkins’ body. The rest of the paper, which fitted the wad precisely, was found in Chemis’ house. The deed had been committed by someone with evil feeling towards Hawkins. The nature of the injuries, the many stabs, shewed that it had been done by a foreigner. This observation brought Mr. Bunny to his feet protesting. However, Mr. Bell went on to say that the stiletto could have done the deed; it was Chemis’ stiletto. He referred to the litigation pending as supplying Chemis’ motive for the crime. So far as the absence of blood on the stiletto was concerned, there had been plenty of time for it to have been wiped off. Mr. Bell traversed the evidence in detail, and told the jury to do their duty. He finished his speech, which had taken 2 1/4 hours to deliver, by reminding the jury of the pieces of paper that went to make up the wad, and the fact that they fitted the torn pieces found at the prisoner's house.

Before Mr. Bunny addressed the jury he called two witnesses, who swore as to the prisoner's previous good character. In a long and elaborate speech, which took 2 3/4 hours to deliver, Mr. Bunny implored the jury to try and dismiss from their minds any preconceptions with regard to the matter. The onus of proving the case rested on the Crown. It was no part of the duty of the prisoner to establish his innocence. It was most important for the jury to understand that. He agreed there had been a foul murder. He supposed there had been first the shot and then the stabs. Was it safe to presume that there had been only one man involved? As to motive, so far as the litigation was concerned there was a prospect of a settlement. Chemis had not been disturbed by the law suit. Hawkins was undoubtedly a harsh landlord, he had committed harsh tricks here and there. He was surrounded by people who were at variance with him.

Far from the stiletto having blood on it, it had been shewn to have had verdigris at the hilt! What did the jury think of the strange conduct of Bowles in not going back to Mrs. Hawkins when he heard of the murder? The jury would remember, too, that Mrs. Hawkins did not aid the search for her husband. She did not bother her head! As to the condition of the gun, there were no reliable facts. The police had been slow and dilatory. Mr. Bunny denied that the police had identified the fragments of paper they had found. Some of the paper had Bowden's name on it. He was innocent. What if the name had been Chemis? Would they have said that he, too, was innocent? It was common knowledge that the locality was infested with poachers. The jury would remember, too, that Chemis was at work as usual next morning. Did that look like the action of a murderer? He warned the jury that only fifty years before an innocent man had been hanged in Adelaide. Towards the end of the trial Mr. Bunny contracted a severe chill and continued thereafter under great difficulty.

The Judge, in his summing up, issued the usual warnings against any preconceived ideas of the matter. They were to judge on the evidence alone given at the trial. He agreed that the principal evidence against the accused was the strange fact that the pieces of paper that went to make the wad fitted precisely into the torn pieces in Chemis’ possession. He told the jury that the incised wounds were committed by means of a two-edged weapon, a stiletto for example. A stiletto was a strange thing for an Englishman to have, but it was not strange to find one in the possession of an Italian. The charge of the Judge to the jury was exhaustive, and covered all the material facts without bias. It took three hours to deliver. Then, at 1 p.m., the jury retired, to bring back a unanimous verdict (over five hours later) of guilty.

When he was asked if he had anything to say why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him, Chemis said: “Yes, I reckon the detectives treated me too bad. They say they never found any powder flask in my place. It was right alongside the pouch with the shot, and with one hand they could have picked both up. They say they never saw any quail. There were three or four in a tin. Detective Benjamin was near to them himself. I can prove from the blacksmith at Kaiwarra that I got a wad punch from him. I can get the same man to prove that I brought him the wad punch since the 1st April. I never use paper at all in my gun. I hope Your Honour will see to-morrow whether I am telling you a lie or telling you the truth. About those bullets, James Gibson gave them to me last winter, when I took over this place from Hawkins. He gave me about ten of them to shoot pigs. The bullets were no good; they were too small for my gun. I hope Your Honour will prove this by calling James Gibson tomorrow morning. I am willing to die now or at any time. I will go to the scaffold to-morrow morning. I am innocent of this crime. I am sorry for my wife and little children, for myself I care nothing.”

The inevitable and dread sentence was then pronounced, and Chemis was taken off to await the pleasure of the Governor.

By this time the indisposition of Mr. Bunny developed serious symptoms and the gallant counsel who had done such magnificent work for Chemis collapsed. Typhoid fever supervened, and two days after the verdict Mr. Bunny himself died. He never knew the Governor commuted the sentence of death to one of life imprisonment. This, however, resulted, and Chemis started to work out his long sentence in the local gaol. Petitions were prepared, and applications from all quarters were made towards, either a new trial, or Chemis’ liberation. It was felt by many that the evidence was too inconclusive. Many others might have done the deed.

In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated the sixty years’ anniversary of her glorious reign. Amongst her many acts of clemency was one which liberated Chemis from serving any more of his sentence.

This story might have ended on this happier note, but it would have been incomplete. For a month or two Chemis tried to get work, but no one cared to have him working for them. Many believed him guilty. This depressed Chemis. Perhaps his Latin character was too unstable. Rapidly he became morose, and one day, a few months after his release from gaol, he placed a detonator between his teeth, the explosion killing him instantly.

page 27
General Manager, New Zealand Railways, Inspects the North Island Lines by Rail Car. A series of pictures taken during the recent inspection, by rail car, of the North Island lines by the General Manager of Railways, Mr. G. H. Mackley: (1) At Te Kawa station; (2) Waipawa; (3) Opua; (4) Hamilton; (5) the sawmill track, Mamaku; (6) Rimu log (21ft. lin. in circumference), at Ellis and Burnand's Sawmill, Mangapehi (this is the largest log handled by the mill for over 20 years); (7) Thames North; (8) group at Ohakune; (9) Glen Afton; (10) Woodville; (11) Te Puke; (12) Te Kuiti; (13) Waipapa; (14) Members of the locomotive staff inspecting the rail car.

General Manager, New Zealand Railways, Inspects the North Island Lines by Rail Car.
A series of pictures taken during the recent inspection, by rail car, of the North Island lines by the General Manager of Railways, Mr. G. H. Mackley: (1) At Te Kawa station; (2) Waipawa; (3) Opua; (4) Hamilton; (5) the sawmill track, Mamaku; (6) Rimu log (21ft. lin. in circumference), at Ellis and Burnand's Sawmill, Mangapehi (this is the largest log handled by the mill for over 20 years); (7) Thames North; (8) group at Ohakune; (9) Glen Afton; (10) Woodville; (11) Te Puke; (12) Te Kuiti; (13) Waipapa; (14) Members of the locomotive staff inspecting the rail car.