Richard Burgess, also known as Richard Hill, was born in the West End of London, England, on 14 February 1829, the illegitimate son of a lady's maid and 'some one connected with the Horse-guards'. When his father disappeared, his mother moved in straitened circumstances to the East End. Difficulties at home and at school forced him to join the 'City Arabs' at the age of 14. He was soon gaoled and flogged for pickpocketing. By 16 he had graduated to housebreaking, and was sentenced to 15 years' transportation. After 20 months' solitary he was shipped to Melbourne, arriving in September 1847.
Released on conditional pardon (that is, unable to return home until the expiration of his sentence), Dick Hill, as he was then known, briefly worked as a stonemason, but soon resumed a life of crime. His offences included robbery, forgery, rustling and murder. The 'smart dapper little fellow' (5 feet and 4½ inches, fresh complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes, according to a 'wanted' poster) found easy pickings among the Victorian goldfield diggers. He spent the proceeds on gambling, liquor and women. Sentenced in 1852 to 10 years for a robbery of which he always maintained he was innocent, he experienced the brutality of Melbourne gaol and the prison hulks. He twice tried to escape from those 'floating hells of misery', the second time in an 1856 bid led by the infamous bushranger 'Captain Melville' (Frank McCullum). Three people died, including a policeman, but the nine defendants at the murder trial, including Hill, escaped hanging on technicalities.
Within a month of his early release in 1859, on a ticket of leave, Dick Hill was arrested again for armed robbery. His use of an alias enabled him to disguise his past and he received a light sentence. In October 1861 he was discharged from Pentridge stockade. To escape police vigilance, in January 1862 he departed for the Otago goldfields. Here he teamed up with various Australian colleagues and began to prey upon the miners. His closest mate was a man he had known in Pentridge, Thomas Kelly (alias Noon).
When in March three policemen attempted to bring Burgess (as he was known most of his time in New Zealand) and Kelly in for questioning at the diggings town of Weatherstons, the two escaped amid police gunfire. On their subsequent capture they were charged with armed resistance to the law, although they swore that Kelly's gun had gone off only once, accidentally. Burgess and Kelly received three years' hard labour for the firing charges and six months for possessing a stolen weapon. Even some of their digger victims were uneasy about these developments, since the evidence for any firing at the police was rather flimsy. Burgess vowed to take revenge on society when he was released.
After a failed escape attempt Burgess 'was considered the ringleader in every refractory outbreak' in Dunedin gaol. Tighter discipline was introduced, 'mutiny' broke out, and Burgess was lashed. He is said to have determined then that he would take a life for every lash received. Burgess and Kelly were released on 11 September 1865 and soon left town to escape close police observation. The Otago police escorted them both from Dunedin to the provincial border. There they eluded the Canterbury police and made their way to Hokitika. The local police had insufficient resources to place them under surveillance, so the pair, with others, resumed a roving life of crime on the West Coast goldfields. In the 'gangs' which formed for specific 'jobs', Burgess was always the leader.
In Hokitika Burgess indulged in 'gambling and other sinful excesses', and lived with a young woman called Carrie, whom he left when she became pregnant. 'My poor bird saw me occasionally when she ever pleaded for me to set her free from her shame', Burgess confessed later. From the end of April, when Burgess met up with former publican and prizefighter Joseph ('Flash Tom') Sullivan, who had just arrived from Victoria, his criminal activities increased. The West Canterbury police headquarters at Hokitika were twice robbed to procure arms and police uniforms for a bank robbery at Okarito. Burgess and Kelly were acquitted on charges relating to this by a pre-emptive strategy which included perjured evidence by Sullivan. To escape surveillance, the threesome went north to Greymouth on 26 May. Two days later a young surveyor, George Dobson, mistaken for gold buyer E. B. Fox, was held up and then strangled. It is not known which members of the gang committed this crime; Burgess and Sullivan later blamed each other.
The gang made another attempt to waylay and murder Fox and a banking associate, but Inspector W. H. James and a detachment of constables travelled with the gold buyers, disguised as diggers. Recognising them, Burgess and his companions remained hidden in the bush. James, who was unaware of Dobson's murder, visited Burgess and told him to leave the district. Burgess had already sent for a professional 'fence', William (alias Philip) Levy, to dispose of the proceeds of a planned bank robbery at the Buller, and so in early June Burgess, Levy, Kelly and Sullivan went by the steamer Wallaby to the Nelson South-West goldfields.
As there proved to be no bank at the declining Buller diggings, the four men decided to go to Picton (where there were further opportunities for crime) and then to Australia. Almost destitute, they disembarked at Nelson and walked the rugged, isolated Maungatapu track to Marlborough. While they were encamped at Canvastown, Levy reconnoitred the Wakamarina goldfield. At Deep Creek he learnt that an old acquaintance, Felix Mathieu, now a local publican and storekeeper, was about to depart with two other businessmen and a miner to investigate prospects on the West Canterbury goldfields. Burgess had already insisted that the gang should return to Nelson and catch a steamer, as they drew attention to themselves travelling on foot. On the way, he now decided, the party from Deep Creek, which would be carrying money and gold, would be waylaid.
According to Burgess, Kelly refused to participate in any hold-up and Levy was not told about it: the pair travelled on ahead. In Sullivan's version the whole gang was involved. There is evidence to support both versions; the only certainty is that Burgess was involved, by his own admission. En route they met an old miner, James Battle, who became suspicious of their intentions. He was robbed of his £3 17s., throttled to death by Burgess, and buried. Then, on 13 June, the Mathieu party was 'stuck up' and robbed of some £300 in gold dust and notes. To remove all witnesses James Dudley was strangled, Mathieu shot and then knifed, and John Kempthorne and American digger James de Pontius shot. De Pontius was buried so that the police would think, if the other bodies were found, that he had murdered his travelling companions and fled.
In Nelson the gang spent money freely while awaiting a steamer, not realising that the travellers had been missed. Before long they were arrested on suspicion of the murders. After seeing a reward poster offering a free pardon for any accomplice not specifically involved in the murders, Sullivan turned Queen's evidence and directed search parties to the bodies. However, he had not realised that the pardon applied only to the Mathieu party murders; he would eventually be tried and convicted for Battle's murder.
The news of the murders had caused a sensation, and consequently the trial excited intense public interest. In both the lower and Supreme Court hearings Burgess and Kelly represented themselves. Burgess was determined to establish Sullivan as his sole accomplice in the Maungatapu murders and as the murderer of Dobson. On 9 August he read out for five hours 'The confession of Burgess, the murderer', in which he detailed many crimes and exonerated Kelly, Levy and others implicated by Sullivan. Although fully acknowledging his own guilt, on 12 September Burgess stated, 'for the sake of form I shall plead Not Guilty'. This 'most extraordinary' proceeding, said the judge, 'according to all my experience, is a position unparalleled in the history of British trials.' In prison, meanwhile, Burgess had expanded his written 'confessions' into a full-scale autobiography, the publication of which was banned for fear of undermining public morality.
During the trial Dick Burgess castigated himself extravagantly, claiming conversion to belief in God. 'I stand here,' he said, 'an actual murderer, and I state this not from vainglory…but because I wish to clear the innocent men who are accused of the murders which I and the villain Sullivan committed.' His story was supported by his fellow accused, and the Crown acknowledged that Sullivan had previously lied and perjured himself. But the judge, Alexander Johnston, was hostile to Burgess, describing him as an 'arch plotter' and a 'cruel assassin' who possessed a 'braggard vanity'. The jury of course found Burgess guilty, along with Kelly and Levy. The judge, in pronouncing the death sentence, lectured Burgess at length for being 'one of the wickedest of men, one without any kindly feeling for your fellows', a man who had shown 'some of the cunning of the fox and a little more than the blood-thirstiness of the wolf'. Burgess, at first 'nonchalant' and then 'weeping, but with a steady voice', responded: 'I have deserved my sentence, and I receive it with humility.'
Burgess's theatrical conduct in court was matched by his performance on the day of execution. After cheerfully entering the prison yard, he declared that 'he had no more fear of death than he had of going to a wedding,' and thanked various officials in attendance. He then bounded up the scaffold steps, and choosing the centre rope kissed it, 'saying that he greeted it as a prelude to Heaven'. Meanwhile Kelly hysterically and Levy calmly protested their innocence. Nelson's first executions occurred at 8.30 a.m. on 5 October 1866.
Moulds for casts of the three heads were taken, before the necks were dissected in the interests of medical science. The bodies were buried in the gaol yard; mystery surrounds their fate after they were disinterred many years later. Almost immediately after the executions there was speculation that Burgess might have been telling the truth about the role of Kelly and Levy, and some reluctant admiration that Burgess had deliberately set out to get himself hanged in the cause of 'mateship'. A prominent phrenologist, A. S. Hamilton, who had visited Burgess's cell, gave a lecture in which he expressed admiration for the man's virtues but pity that 'so much daring, expertness and ability should have been lost to society by being wrongly directed.' Few would have disagreed with his declaration that Dick Burgess had 'no rival, either in the magnitude of his crimes, or in the part he acted in his last hour upon earth.'