The country’s dark corners

Police photographs of Bill Bayly, January 1934 (click for image credit)

Police photographs of Bill Bayly, January 1934 (click for image credit)

Recently the Listener had a story about Bill Bayly and the case against him – as they described it: ‘A grisly double murder on a Waikato farm 80 years ago was the start of modern crime-scene investigation.’

I have, at various times over the years, read a bit about infamous New Zealand criminal history but can’t remember having come across that case before. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard, but of course having read the article I immediately went online to see if Te Ara had anything about it. Sure enough William Bayly appears in our Biographies section.

It got me thinking that Te Ara biographies, most of which were originally published in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, aren’t just of the great and the good but are also of the disreputable, the evil and the nasty.

Death masks of three of members of the Burgess gang (click for image credit)

Death masks of three of members of the Burgess gang (click for image credit)

There are the obvious inclusions, such as Richard Burgess, leader of the notorious Burgess gang, perhaps the most famous of our colonial period murderers; anti-(non-European) immigration campaigner Lionel Terry, who murdered Joe Kum Yung just for being there and being Chinese; and of course baby farmer Minnie Dean, who is still providing inspiration for musicians, artists and writers today.

But there are other, lesser-known, characters to be found amongst our biographies, for example poisoner Thomas Hall, ‘the vilest criminal ever tried in New Zealand’ – though I suspect that epithet has now been passed on to some other person. Maybe Daniel Cooper, the Newlands baby farmer and abortionist, or career confidence trickster and convicted wife murderer George Horry.

It is also interesting to uncover cases that have parallels to today, such as ‘manslayer’ Alice Parkinson, who killed her lover and whose ‘case highlights the social and economic vulnerability of contemporary women and reveals the double standard of sexual morality common at the time.’ Or the suggested ‘failure of the state’s handling of juvenile delinquents’ that was implicated in the actions of Edward Horton, who, after his death, was upheld by some as proof that ‘no man was beyond redemption.’

There are many more stories to be uncovered in our biographies, both of ‘bad’ people and the ‘good’ people who brought them, or others like them, to justice. But, as Brian O’Brien writes at the end of his biography of Robert Butler (who was found not guilty of murder in New Zealand but hung for a later murder in Australia), ‘How many people like Robert Butler, living lives of crime and violence and yet exhibiting considerable capacities at need, passed through New Zealand will never be known. Butler’s career affords a glimpse into one of the country’s dark corners.’

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