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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 06, Issue 01, 1996

Drama in the Nelson Gaol

page 23

Drama in the Nelson Gaol

On the slope below the Father Garin chapel, in the Catholic section of the old Wakapuaka public cemetery, is a headstone on which is inscribed:

Warder. Samuel Adams

Native of Ireland Who was
cruelly murdered in Nelson Gaol
while in the execution of his duty
On 28 July 1883
Aged 40 years.

Samuel Adams had had 17 years experience as a prison warder "in the old country and this", and was on duty at Nelson Gaol early on Saturday morning 28 July 1883.

At 5.50 am he had roused convicted killer John Davidson, to light the fire and prepare to cook breakfast for the inmates of the prison.

Davidson aged 38, together with the illfated Mrs Mary Gramatica, had been tried for the murder of Tipperary born Irishman Dennis Quinlan at Lyell. Mrs Gramatica was found not guilty and discharged, after being admonished by the Judge for her immoral lifestyle. Davidson was given a life sentence for manslaughter and started his sentence in the Nelson Gaol on 15 March 1883.

He was appointed cook on 18 May 1883 because he was considered a model prisoner and was, at the time, the only inmate who spoke English. The other prisoners were Maori.

It was the practice in those days for long term prisoners to serve their time in Wellington Gaol. That Davidson was still in Nelson Gaol several months after sentencing was due to bureaucratic oversight.

A few days before the dramatic events of early morning 28 July 1883. Davidson had been informed that instructions had been received for him to be transferred to Wellington. This information was received very badly. He had, shortly after the murder of Quinlan, cut his throat in an attempted suicide. The doctor had given a certificate that he was fit to travel. Davidson had expressed a hatred of Irish Catholics and stated that he did not intend to go to Wellington where, he believed. Irishmen controlled the gaol.

Gaoler Robert Shallcrass, formerly Inspector of the Nelson Provincial Police, and his wife Annabella occupied the Gaoler's quarters upstairs in the gaol. On the fateful morning they were awoken by a scream, followed by a gun shot. Shallcrass went to investigate and was confronted by Davidson, who presented a revolver at him and demanded to be freed by the opening of the barrier gate.

page 24

Shallcrass, "with great coolness", kept Davidson "parleying" for 50 minutes. During this time Warder White arrived on the scene, as did Annabella. White made all haste to the Police Station and returned with constable Roscoe.

In the meantime Shallcrass made plain to Davidson that no matter what happened he would not escape, and suggested that rather than make matters worse he should shoot himself. Just as White and Roscoe arrived at the scene. Davidson carried out the suggestion and shot himself.

Immediately after the shooting Shallcrass and White went to rescue Adams, who they believed had been locked in a cell. Instead they discovered Adams' body. He had been stabbed by Davidson with a butcher's knife from the kitchen. The gun had been obtained by breaking into a cupboard in the warders' office.

At a subsequent enquiry Shallcrass was criticised for his role in the tragedy, and for placing trust in a desperate prisoner. The Gaoler responded by stating "I never could wish for a better prisoner, always orderly, civil and obliging to everyone."

A coroner's jury found that Samuel Adams was wilfully murdered by John Davidson, and of felo de se against John Davidson for taking his own life.

The body of John Davidson was interned in an unmarked grave just "without" the Hallowell cemetery.

Funeral services were held for Samuel Adams at St Mary's church and at the graveside, conducted by Rev Father Mahoney. A procession of considerable length followed the cortege from the church to the cemetery. There were prison officials, a detachment of police under Sergeant Nash, and many prominent citizens. Boys of St Mary's Orphanage brought up the rear.

Warder Adams' wife. Elizabeth, was left destitute to bring up a family of four children. The Nelson City Council petitioned the Minister of Justice for assistance for the Adams family, whose provider had died at his post of duty.


The Colonist newspaper

Lyell, The Golden Past. Margaret C Brown

The Nelson Police. June E Neale .