The date of birth, the parentage and even the real name of Robert Butler are matters of mystery. He may have been born James Wilson, but in New Zealand he became notorious as Robert Butler. Police records state that he was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, or in Bury, Lancashire, England; his date of birth is variously given as 1844, 1845, 1846, 1847, 1848, 1850 and 1851, and the date of his arrival in Australia as between 1847 and 1855. In Australia he served sentences of varying length for vagrancy, theft, robbery under arms and other crimes. He was about five feet six inches tall and weighed 136 pounds. He had brown hair and piercing grey eyes; in later life he wore either a moustache or a beard, and had a fondness for wigs and disguises.
In January 1876 Butler came to New Zealand. Arriving in Cromwell, Central Otago, he advertised the Cromwell Commercial and Preparatory School: an 'Efficient and Experienced Teacher' offered a liberal education in subjects ranging from reading, writing and arithmetic to astronomy and moral and political philosophy. The name he used in this advertisement was C. J. Donnelly; later reports listed Edward James Donnelly as one of his aliases. In mid 1876 the local Catholic priest, Father Thomas Kehoe, reported the loss of £75 from his house. Butler was suspected, but Kehoe refused to prosecute.
Butler left for Dunedin where his life followed a familiar pattern. On 2 August 1876 Bishop Patrick Moran's house was burgled, and a pair of binoculars, a gold pencil case and an umbrella stolen. Butler was arrested and also charged with several further cases of burglary and theft. On 2 and 3 October 1876 he appeared in the Supreme Court. In spite of handing the judge 'a most skilfully written address…on the Shakespearean principle of tempering justice with mercy' he was sentenced to four years' penal servitude.
With the help of Detective Robert Bain, Butler became a reporter on the Evening Star on his release in 1880, but found the work 'too much for his head' and left. Bain then found him a job as a labourer with the Otago Harbour Board, but that lasted only three hours. About this time, in conversation with Inspector Frederick Mallard of the Dunedin Constabulary, Butler rashly talked about using fire to erase the evidence of a crime.
On 14 March 1880 there was a fire at the residence of James Dewar (also known as James Grant) in Cumberland Street. Dewar's brutally slain body was found; his wife had also been attacked, and died in hospital; their nine-month-old baby was found suffocated by the smoke. Butler was suspected, traced to the vicinity of Waikouaiti, arrested on 15 March and charged with the murder of James Dewar.
The trial caused a sensation. Butler had, it seems, attempted to engage Robert Stout as his counsel; Stout, convinced of Butler's guilt, refused to defend him but offered help to prepare his defence. Butler also received advice from Sir Frederick Chapman.
The evidence was strong but circumstantial. Butler cross-examined the Crown witnesses and threw doubt on their evidence; he challenged the legality and fairness of Inspector Mallard's interrogation after his arrest; and, to avoid cross-examination, he did not take the stand in his own defence. He relied on his right, as his own defence counsel, to make the final address to the jury. In a 6½-hour speech he reiterated his previous points, stressed his disadvantages in defending himself and cast fresh doubt on the crucial forensic evidence. The presiding judge, Joshua Strange Williams, gave a summing-up highly favourable to Butler, and the jury, after a retirement of one hour, found him not guilty.
This verdict caused consternation in Dunedin: the judge's summation was held to be 'extremely unsatisfactory' and, in some aspects, 'entirely misleading'. But the minister of justice, William Rolleston, advised against a second trial (for the murder of Mrs Dewar) unless fresh evidence was forthcoming. Butler, however, still faced charges of burglary, and on 22 April was sentenced to 18 years' penal servitude.
Butler was released from Lyttelton Prison in 1896 and returned to Melbourne where he received 12 months' hard labour for illegally entering Victoria and 10 years for housebreaking. Following his release he is said to have published a series of articles on Pentridge gaol in the Melbourne Herald. He moved on to Sydney, destitute and dependent on charity, and then to Brisbane; there, on 23 March 1905, he was arrested for murder under the alias James Warton. He was found guilty and died by hanging on 17 July 1905. His death certificate gave his occupation as printer and bookbinder, and stated that he was married, although the name of his wife was not recorded.
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.