Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Maungatapu Mountain Killings, 1866

Probably one of the most grisly crimes perpetrated in this country is that of the Maungatapu Mountain murders, and Murderers Rock in the Nelson district still bears the name with which it was invested when it was discovered that the killers used it for their ambush on 12 June 1866. As a result of this trial three men were hanged for the murder of four others. John Kempthorne and James Dudley (storekeepers), Felix Mathieu (a hotelkeeper) and James de Pontius (a miner) disappeared between the Wakamarina River and Nelson while en route to the West Coast goldfields with a joint capital of gold dust worth £300. They vanished so completely and inexplicably that murder was immediately suspected. Four men, Philip Levy, Richard Burgess, Thomas Kelly, and Joseph Thomas Sullivan, strangers in the area, were detained on suspicion and a 50-man search party at once began to scour the countryside. A dead packhorse and the missing men's swags were found, but there was no sign of the bodies. Rewards were offered in vain for information, but when the Government promised £200 and a free pardon to any accomplice (not the actual murderer) who would turn Queen's evidence, Sullivan, one of the four men in custody, confessed. Under his directions the bodies of the four men – two shot, one strangled, and the other stabbed and shot – were recovered on Maungatapu Mountain. And three days later a fifth body, that of James Battle, a Wakamarina farm labourer, who had not been seen after being paid off by his employer, was also found. He, too, had been murdered on 12 June. Sullivan's evidence was more than enough to hang the other three. He had been the party's lookout man. The trial took an unprecedented turn, however, when Burgess, one of the three accused, who was conducting the defence for himself and Kelly, savagely cross-examined Sullivan in the witness box. Failing to implicate Sullivan, who was in the witness box for 15 hours, he asked him why he had killed James Battle. The Court advised the witness that he need not answer such questions, but three days later, after his companions had been found guilty and condemned to death, Sullivan was charged with the murder of Battle and was also sentenced to be hanged. The other three were executed at Nelson Gaol on 5 October 1866, but Sullivan, because of his confession, escaped the gallows and received a life sentence. All four prisoners were natives of London with unsavoury criminal records in England, Australia, and the Central Otago goldfields. (See alsoMaungatapu Murders.)