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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 5, 1993

Death at Deadmans Creek

Death at Deadmans Creek

page 34

The gruesome details of the hanging at the Nelson Gaol-yard of three of the perpetrators of the Maungatapu murders, on 5th October 1866, has been well documented in many publications. Not so well known or publicised is the hanging of Robert Wilson, a little over a year later in the same yard and using the same scaffold. The date was Friday 20th December 1867.

Robert Wilson and James Lennox arrived at Westport on 28 July 1867 aboard the small schooner Rifleman. They formed a "mateship" to prospect for gold in the Deadmans Creek area, a few miles beyond Westport. After a few days Wilson returned to Westport, telling others that his mate had left him.

On the 2nd September 1867 two prospectors, working their way up Deadmans Creek, came upon the body of a young man submerged in the stream. They left the body as it was found, made their way to Westport and reported their find to the Police. Next day the prospectors, accompanied by a constable, returned to the scene, recovered the body and identified it as being that of James Lennox. The body showed signs of foul play as there were gashes to the head.

A search of the general area located a tent site and various items belonging to Lennox. Robert Wilson was found at Waites Pakihi, where he had discovered a profitable lead. He stated to the Police that Lennox had taken off for Caledonian Terraces, but a search of his swag revealed items that had belonged to his former mate, and his tent had blood stains. He was arrested for the murder and, following a preliminary coroner's hearing at Westport, was remanded to Nelson for trial.

The trial began on 19th November 1867. The prisoner was respresented by Albert Pitt, the Crown by Henry Adams, and Mr Justice Richmond presided. A common jury was empanelled. Much circumstantial evidence was given by the Crown's many witnesses. The Defence called only one, Peter Cooke, a shoemaker, to rebut earlier evidence as to whether a pair of boots found among Wilson's possessions would fit his feet.

After a two day trial the jury retired for one hour, before returning the Guilty verdict. The death sentence was pronounced. On being asked if he wished to say anything, Wilson replied by simply stating that he was not guilty. He was incarcerated in Nelson Gaol to await his fate. The warrant for execution was received by the Sheriff on 19th December 1867 and carpenters worked during the night, erecting the modified scaffold in the gaol yard. A grave had already been dug by prisoner Sullivan on the hill behind the gaol.

Robert Wilson suffered the extreme penalty of the law on Friday 20th December 1867, a few minutes after 8am, for the murder of his mate, James Lennox, at Deadmans Creek in the Buller goldfield. The prisoner, although stating after the trial that he was not guilty of the murder, when asked just prior to the hanging if he wished to make a statement, said he had nothing to say, which to those present implied his acceptance of guilt.

The hangman was masked but his visible grey whiskers showed him not to be a young man. A fellow prisoner, he demonstrated considerable ineptitude for preparing Wilson for his fate, and it was evident that he was not used to his work. After he had let the drop fall he went into a building, out of sight, but was called back by the doctors in attendance to add his weight to the body for some seconds. The pulse of the prisoner did not cease for 17 minutes, when the doctors pronounced death. The Reverend Father Charevre attended Wilson. After 30 minutes the body was removed, an inquest was held and the interment took place that evening.

page 35

An enigma in this story was revealed at the trial. Wilson was convicted on the circumstantial evidence that some of the property belonging to Lennox was found in his possession and that his tent was bloodstained. During a systematic search, a number of items belonging to Lennox were found distributed around the former campsite, some at a distance from it, some even buried. Yet the body was left in plain view. It was said that it would have been an easy matter to have dragged the body into the dense bush and buried it, where it would probably never have been found. A few days before the execution The Colonist reported that by some means, probably gaol telepathy, the identity of the prisoner who had volunteered for the task of hangman became known to the inmates of the gaol. A few days prior to the Wilson execution, the prisoners were working in Botanical Gardens and were observed by a bystander to pounce on one of their number. With a one, two, three they flung him far into the waterhole, from where the warders dragged him out looking like a half drowned rat.


The Colonist newspaper

Notable New Zealand Trials. C.A.L. Treadwell

Westport Struggle for Survival. Bruce Macdonald

Policing the Colonial Frontier, part 2, Richard S. Hill