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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 8 (December 1, 1933)

Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial of James Wilson

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Famous New Zealand Trials
The Trial of James Wilson.

Gold adulterates one thing only, the human heart.” So said a famous writer. Illimitable are the wrongs done, and the hearts broken, in the search for that elusive metal.

Lives have been lost and limbs destroyed in the eager hunt for wealth. From almost the earliest days of settlement in New Zealand there have been prospectors searching up and down the coast for that gold which does “more murders in this loathsome world.”

In 1867, the West Coast of the South Island was filled with prospectors, rushing hither and thither as rumour succeeded rumour of the finding of golden reefs.

From all parts of New Zealand and from overseas, came the gold seekers, good men and bad men.

Some good reefs had been discovered, and every boat from the north brought a full list of passengers. Some of the men were experienced goldminers from the Auckland district, and many were greenhorns.

They usually worked in small parties, sharing their fortunes, good or ill, equally. They called themselves mates, and their business relations they termed mateship.

In July, 1867, when the small schooner “Rifleman” left Manukau Harbour, it numbered amongst its passengers a dozen or more gold diggers bound for Westport. They consisted of small parties of mates, one of the parties including two men—James Wilson and Jem Lennox.

After thirteen days’ sailing the good ship reached Westport on Sunday, 28th July, and the passengers went off to their various fields. Wilson and his mate stayed a day in the township and then off they went to Deadman's Creek, which is a few miles beyond the town, where they, intended to prospect.

On the following Thursday, Wilson returned to town, telling several men that his mate had left him and had gone on to the Caledonian Terrace, where gold had been recently found. Wilson joined up with another party in mate-ship.

On the 2nd September, 1867, J. McKenzie, prospecting up Deadman's Creek, came upon the body of a man lying half submerged in the icy waters of the small river. He noticed signs of foul play, and leaving the body where he found it, at once repaired to Westport, and next day, with some police, lifted the body of a young man on to the river bank. It was of a young, fair haired man, clean shaven, save for a goatee on his chin, an adornment then popular;

The rest of this story can best be told as it was told before Mr. Justice Richmond at Nelson, when James Wilson stood his trial for the murder of Jem Lennox at Deadman's Creek, in August, 1867.

The trial, began before the Judge and a common jury, on the 19th November, 1867. In those days trials could not be held readily on the West Coast, and the prisoner, after a preliminary hearing before the Coroner, in Westport, was remanded to Nelson for trial.

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The Crown Prosecutor, Mr. Adams, appeared for the Crown, the prisoner being represented by Mr. A. Pitt.

There is no record of Mr. Adams’ opening address to the jury, and he may indeed have made none, but followed the Scottish fashion of calling his evidence without prefatory comment.

A surveyor, Mr. J. H. Lane, produced a plan showing Deadman's Creek, or rather that part of it where the body had been found, and he showed the relative position of the men's camp in the close vicinity of which certain articles, proved later to have been Lennox's, were found.

Then came McKenzie, a miner, who told the Court that as he and a mate were working up stream they noticed the body half submerged in the stream. The body was about a mile up from the coast and between four and five miles from Westport.

The accused and Lennox had made their camp in a very lonely spot, by which few ever travelled. The nearest camp was 500 or 600 yards down towards the coast. As the men gazed at the body they noticed two gashes on the head which betokened foul play. The men “Wilson said nothing, which was certainly surprising if he knew nothing of it before. went at once to the town and reported their discovery.

“Wilson said nothing, which was certainly surprising if he knew nothing of it before.”

“Wilson said nothing, which was certainly surprising if he knew nothing of it before.”

Constable Henry Hunter then took up the story, and told the jury how he had been taken to the place on the 3rd September, and with McKenzie and his mate, Miller, he lifted the body out. The body was then carried down to the Westport Courthouse. When it was lifted out of the water, they noticed that the icy mountain water had preserved the man's face, but under the influence of the warmer air a rapid change took place, and soon it was not recognisable. He handed the body over to the doctors for post mortem examination. Three days later he returned to the site of the tragedy and carefully searched the vicinity. Within a few feet of the stream he found the place where the tent had been erected. He could see that quite clearly. From the camp site the policeman carried out a systematic search. Fifty feet away he found a pannikin marked “J,” then, noticing the earth disturbed some thirteen feet further on, he turned over some sods and unearthed two pairs of trousers and a prayer book; nearby he found a man's coat; forty feet further away a boot was found, and its fellow still further away. The boots were described as half Wellingtons. Other things found were two combs, one bottle of laudanum, and a pair of blue blankets. The prayer book showed it had been sold from an Auckland bookshop.

On the 16th September the witness went to a swampy lagoon, known as Waite's Pakihi. There he was shown a tent and fly, blood stained, and another pair of trousers, three calico bags, a looking-glass, an axe, two flannel shirts, and other articles taken from Wilson's possession.

Wilson volunteered the information to the police witness that Lennox had gone off and had taken his blankets with him.

Dr. Bond, who lived at Westport, examined the body on 3rd September. It was then recognisable. There was a long clean incised wound with contracted edges. This wound was three inches long and had cut through the frontal and temporal bones of the skull. The injury on the other side of the head was of a similar deadly kind. The doctor thought that the second blow had been dealt as the deceased was lying down or stooping.

Dr. John Frederick Rockstrow, the local gaol and hospital surgeon, who helped at the post mortem, thought the body had been dead perhaps five weeks. He tested the stains on the tent, and these he found to be blood stains. A third doctor, S. A. Cusack, also said the stains were of blood, but that it was impossible to say how old they were.

After the medical evidence had been given, Detective Robert Lambert spoke of the visits he had made with Hunter on the 6th and the 16th September. He spoke to Wilson about Lennox and was told that he had gone off to see some old friends up North. On the 23rd September, the prisoner sent for witness, but page 34 page 35 after he was cautioned Wilson said to the detective: “A man came to the tent where I and my mate were and asked us to let him go mates with us. We consented. We were then up a creek, and the man went away next morning, and Jem then said he would go away to the Caledonian rush to see some old mates. He went away and I then took down the tent. I made enquiry of a storekeeper about the man, but he knew nothing of him.”

The witness admitted, under cross-examination, that in those days gold diggers sometimes brought their raw meat to the tents. This was asked for the purpose of suggesting that the blood stains on Wilson's tent were caused in that manner.

Dennis McCarthy, a miner of Waite's Pakihi, said he had known Wilson in Auckland and had travelled on the “Rifleman” with him to West-port. Jem was Wilson's mate on the voyage. He described Jem's appearance, which was the same as that of the man whose body had been found at Deadman's Creek. On the trip down he had noticed Jem's clothing—it was similar to that produced. Three or four days after landing at Westport the prisoner had told him that Jem had gone to the Caledonian rush with some mates. The prisoner then became a mate of the witness and one Barnwell. He said he had £30 when he joined up.

The next witness was James Barnwell. He bore out his mate's version. The day after joining them as a mate, Barnwell said he went back to Deadman's Creek with Wilson to help him bring his gear. They did not go to Wilson's old camp site, but only to the bottom of Dead-man's Creek, to a store, where the prisoner had left his property. Later on, when all three were prospecting at Waite's Pakihi, one Hamilton called and told them of the finding of a murdered man's body at Deadman's Creek, and said that the man was Lennox. Wilson said nothing, which was certainly surprising, if he knew nothing of it before.

The second day of the trial opened with the evidence of the witness, John Murphy, who had also travelled on the “Rifleman.” On the Friday following their arrival at Westport he met the prisoner, who told him Jem had gone off with some mates to the Caledonian or German Terraces. Prisoner told him it was very wrong for Jem to have gone off without an understanding after they had both purchased tools, etc., and if he found him he would “pull him for mateship.”

George Greenaway, another passenger by the “Rifleman,” recognised some of Jem's effects that had been taken from the prisoner. On the Tuesday after his arrival at Westport, the witness, with his mate, had gone up Deadman's Creek, and half a mile upstream came across Wilson and Jem. They were prospecting. They talked for a while, and when they parted the prisoner and Jem went upstream while the witness went downstream. A bootmaker, Henry Roberts, measured the prisoner's feet, and said they were too large for the boots found in his possession, which some of the witnesses said resembled Jem's. There were a few more witnesses who tried to recognise, and thought they did, some of the effects as Jem's, taken from the prisoner. Then the Crown's case closed, and the only witness called for the defence was a Nelson shoemaker, Peter Cooke, who also measured the prisoner's feet. He thought the boots in question would fit the prisoner. (Apparently it did not occur to Mr. Pitt to get the prisoner to try the boots on in Court.) It would not have been very difficult for Mr. Pitt, in cross-examining the Crown witness about the size of the boots and the prisoner's feet, to have demonstrated by placing the boots against Wilson's feet for the jury to see whether he could have worn them or not. Had he done so, there would not have been any need to call the one and only witness for the defence; and in that event the last speech would have been Mr. Pitt's, and not the speech for the Crown. (In a criminal trial the defence loses the “last word” if evidence is called for the prisoner.)

Mr. Pitt, on closing his case, addressed the jury skilfully. He properly warned the jury that the whole of the material evidence was circumstantial, and he warned them that the strength of such evidence was no greater than was the strength of the weakest link in this chain of evidence. Juries are always careful to weigh circumstantial evidence, and though, as Mr. Adams later told the jury, circumstantial evidence was often the best kind of evidence, juries seem to prefer something more direct, if they can have it, than the indirect form of proof that circumstances surrounding the act provide.

Mr. Pitt relied, too, on the fact that the evidence of identity was unsatisfactory, and in that regard it is to be remembered that within twenty-four hours of the removal of the body from the icy waters of Deadman's Creek putrefaction had set in so rapidly that the body was soon completely unrecognisable.

It was also contended that the Crown's theory was unlikely. Was it probable that a man should murder his mate at their camp site and leave the body there? Would it not have been buried? All the tools were there to enable the murderer to bury the body so that it could never have been found. Then, if guilty, would Wilson have raised the blood-stained tent for everyone to see? Mr. Pitt cautioned the jury to come to their conclusion only with the greatest care, and warned them not to hasten to an adverse verdict based on suspicion or on their horror of the foul deed. Probably Lennox was still alive and he had gone, as Wilson said he had gone, to more distant fields, whence others, too, had gone in search of gold. Mr. Pitt, who seems to have made a powerful address, warned page 36 the jury of the inevitable result of a verdict of condemnation.

Mr. Adams, when addressing the jury, went out of his way to congratulate the prisoner on the excellent defence advanced by his counsel. He insisted, however, that there was clear proof of identification and of murder. He connected the links in the story that went to shew guilt. The two men had travelled together in the small schooner “Rifleman” from Auckland; they went together up that lonely track alongside Dead-man's Creek, and only one came back, and he had in his swag much that had belonged to the missing man. The two had been seen together on Wednesday, the 31st July. Then Wilson had varied the story as to where Lennox had gone. “Why,” Mr. Adams asked, “had he done this if he were an innocent man?” It was unlikely that this man, who had been the close companion of the prisoner, would suddenly go off with strangers. If Wilson's story were true, he had to meet the fact that Lennox's murdered body was found at their camp site. There was, too. the careful hiding in the bush of a number of the murdered man's effects. The Crown contended that the case against the prisoner was complete.

Mr. Justice Richmond summed up the evidence to the jury in a way that must have told heavily against Wilson. He gave the jury the usual warning not to come to a hasty conclusion, and told them that if they entertained a reasonable doubt to find a verdict of acquittal. He traversed all the facts; he stressed the finding of the body at the camp site; the blood on the tent; Wilson's unreasonable accounts of the disappearance of Lennox; and, too, he reminded the jury that many of the effects traced to the prisoner were recognised as having belonged to Lennox. It was not necessary to prove motive, but it could be remembered that after the murder Wilson had £20 or £30 in his pocket.

(Rly. Publicity photo.) The Auckland-Wellington overflow train leaving Palmerston North Station, North Island, New

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The Auckland-Wellington overflow train leaving Palmerston North Station, North Island, New

The jury retired, and after considering their verdict for an hour they announced Wilson's doom by a verdict of guilty. When asked if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed on him, Wilson replied: “No; except that I am innocent of the crime, Your Honour.”

In the remarks before the formal and awful sentence of death, the Judge, after referring to “a murder so foul and treacherous of a comrade and friend,” said: “The law reserves for you the doom of death; for that prepare. But as some sign that you look for forgiveness and mercy from the inexhaustible fountain of mercy, I hope that you will revoke that false declaration of innocence, for false I fully believe it to be, as a duty to your own soul and as a fit preparation for death.”

On the 20th December, 1867, the sentence was carried out. Although Wilson did not confess his guilt to the public, he did not, when asked if he had anything to say, as he stood on the scaffold, repeat his declaration of innocence.

One of the amazing features about this crime was that Wilson went to some care to scatter in various hiding places the goods and effects of Lennox that he did not want, yet he left the body of the victim in the stream, where it was most likely to be found by any prospector passing up the creek. It needed very little effort on his part to drag the body into the dense bush and there bury it. The likelihood of discovery of the crime would then have been very remote. It is perhaps providential that criminals so often omit to take what would appear to be ordinary precautions to cover their tracks. This case is a typical example of such carelessness. “For murder though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.”