Friday, April 3, 2009

Other NZ executioners

An executioner in the 19th century tended to attempt to keep his identity a secret -- in what was then a lightly populated colony, and if the executioner was a prisoner with a good chance of being sent back to reside among his criminal peers, anonymity was key. Most reports of executions don't provide much detail as to who the mystery man who sent the condemned into eternity was, aside from descriptions of masking and such. But, some descriptions went further, and in some cases, the executioners were identified.

I've already posted about Henry Howard Heyman or Lewis, and (briefly) Frank (or William) St. Clair. Here are some others.

Unknown “black man”.
Executed: William Good (Wellington) 17 June 1850
"The prisoner then walked with a firm step to the front of the scaffold, and the executioner, (a black man who arrived in the colony about two years ago) having adjusted the rope round his neck the drop fell, and a few short struggles terminated the prisoner's existence."
(New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian, 19 June 1850)

Unknown prisoner at Mt Eden stockade (in 1863). Possibly James Stack.
Executed: Richard Harper (Auckland) 22 September 1863
Executed: Alexander McLean (Auckland) 21 October 1864
"The executioner in the present instance was a prisoner in the stockade, who was offered a sum of money and a reduction of his sentence, to perform the duties of Jack Ketch. He was completely disguised in person—having a soldiers' lone frieze coat on, his face and head covered with black crape, and a slouched hat drawn close over it. On retracing his steps from the scaffold after the execution, and crossing the yard for the purpose of entering the gaolers' room, to wash and divest himself of his disguise, he appears to have been recognised from some peculiarity in his gait, by his fellow prisoners, who had been watching the proceedings, as far as possible, through the gratings of their respective cells. His appearance was the signal for a perfect Babel of yells, hooting, curses, and the most terrible threats of vengeance. During the course of the day he was removed to another place of keeping, to be out of reach of injury from his fellow prisoners."
(Southern Cross, 23 September 1863)

Around late September 1865, a widow named Mary Finnigan and her three sons were murdered by James Stack, a discharged former private from the 65th Regiment. He was convicted of the murders and hanged at Mt Eden in March 1866. The Southern Cross (25 December 1865, p. 4) reported "It is said that Stack is the man who hanged Harper and McLean." Stack had been convicted of theft in June 1863, escaped from the Queen Street Gaol in July that year, but may have been recaptured, sent to the Stockade, served his time (possibly reduced due to the executions), then was discharged from the 65th regiment 14 September 1865.

John Thomas
Executed: Ruarangi (Auckland) 18 April 1864
Executed: Nikotema Okoroa (Auckland) 18 April 1864

Of course, anonymity wasn't on the top of the list for all the executioners. The braggart behaviour of Lewis was preceded by that of John Thomas, a mulatto who used his fee to fuel his own undoing.
"The hangman, whose head and shoulders were completely covered by a black veil, and who, judging from the appearance of his hands, was a coloured man, at length advanced to perform the duties of his office. He shook hands with the unfortunate men, and on the signal being given let down the drop."
(Southern Cross, 19 April 1864)
"The man who acted as hangman at the execution of Ruarangi and Okeroa is a man of color, who many persons may have frequently seen walking about the sheets of this town. He no doubt was well rewarded for undertaking the disagreeable task, but subsequent events have proved that he did not make a good use of his money, for at an early hour last evening he was so intoxicated that it was found necessary to put him in the lock-up."

(Southern Cross, 19 April 1864)

"The mulatto who officiated as hangman at the execution of the two Maoris on Monday last (whose name is John Thomas), has, we understand, been apprehended on a warrant taken out by Paul, the native chief, for using threatening language to him. It appears that on Monday last, after he came back to this town from the Mount Eden Stockade, he appeared ambitious to make himself known as the hangman, and very unprovokedly used language of a very insulting description to every Maori he met, and among others to Paul, the native chief. The latter very justly is desirous of obtaining satisfaction for the insult offered to him, and has accordingly taken out the warrant. It will be seen by our police report that the offender was brought before the magistrate yesterday morning, and released on the condition that he should leave the town. He has, however, been reprehended. On offering the insult to Paul to which we have alluded, some Europeans were by, and justly resented the outrage upon our friendly ally, who on all occasions conducts himself as a gentleman."
(Southern Cross, 20 April 1864)

"John Thomas, the man who officiated at the late execution, was brought up at the Police Court yesterday, before the Resident Magistrate, to answer to the charge brought against him by Paul, the native chief, and was bound over to keep the peace, but as he was unable to find the necessary sureties he was sent to gaol."
(Southern Cross, 21 April 1864)

Unknown prisoner, Mt Eden gaol
Executed: James Stack (Auckland) 7 April 1866
“The person who undertook the office of hangman was undergoing a short sentence of imprisonment, which, we believe, was within a few months of having expired, so that his object was not so much the liberty to be granted to him, as the £10 he was to receive. He is said to have had considerable practice in the horrid work in another part of the world.”
(Southern Cross, 9 April 1866)

A man of “very advanced age”
Executed: Robert Wilson (Nelson) 20 December 1867
“The man who performed the odious office of executioner was, we are informed by the gaol authorities, not a convict, but a man of very advanced age, who had volunteered his services, and who showed far greater signs of trepidation than the unfortunate prisoner himself.”
(Evening Post, 23 December 1867)

A Rangiora resident
Executed: Simon Cedeno (Lyttelton) 5 April 1871
Executed: John Robinson Mercer (Lyttelton) 7 May 1875
“The hangman was the same man who hung Cedeno, and who resides at Rangiora.”
(North Otago Times, 8 May 1875)

David Marshall
Executed: Hamiora Peri (Wellington) 16 November 1869
Executed: Tuhiata (Wellington) 29 December 1880
"Tuhi was placed in the centre of the drop and handed over to the executioner. This functionary—David Marshall by name— is the person who eleven years before had performed the same office upon the occasion of the execution of Hamiora Peri for murder. He is a little, spare man, with gray hair; long white beard; thin, wizen, and anything but pleasant features. He made no attempt to disguise himself in any way, and seemed quite at home in the performance of his hideous task."
(Evening Post, 29 December 1880)


  1. Fascinating. Some named some not. Not a nice job to do. Thank goodness they don't have the death penalty here any more Ice. Great post


  2. Great article on such a hideous job.
    No wonder some wanted to remain anonymous.