Cyrus Haley was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on 22 September 1832, the son of Joseph Haley and his wife, Jane Knowles. He was an engineer by trade. When he married Emily Jane Haigh in London on 22 September 1865 he was listed as John Cyrus Haley and his father as manager of a coal company. He arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, with his wife and three young children in the Aboukir on 6 September 1870. In December Emily Haley, a singer using the stage name 'Madame Halle', performed a concert at the Music Hall which was poorly attended and critically savaged. Soon afterwards the theatre was gutted by fire, as were – in the same week – the ship City of Auckland and a kerosene store. An anonymous writer to the Daily Southern Cross gave details of how each fire had been started, and vowed to 'destroy £100,000 of property & to take five of the lives of the most obnoxious persons.' It was feared that the communist international, said to be responsible for much arson in Europe, now had agents in the antipodes. Special constables were engaged to augment the police night shift, which was three-strong at most.
On 27 August 1871 part of the New Zealand Insurance Company's new building, including Cyrus Haley's Exchange News Room (a reading room) and a 200-seater restaurant he was about to open, were destroyed by fire a few hours after Haley had left the premises. The arsonist was not found despite a substantial reward offered by the company, which had suffered much from this and the earlier fires. In December the new Choral Hall, built to replace the Music Hall, was razed. The New Zealand Insurance Company's principal was the magnate Thomas Russell, also a director of the Caledonian Gold Mining Company, in whose shares Haley claimed to have lost some £3,000.
On 22 January 1872 eight shots were fired into Russell's Onehunga mansion, one narrowly missing his eldest son. Two days later Russell received an anonymous note threatening him and his family with death for 'Accumulating Wealth at expense of, and by defrauding the humbler classes' and 'Caledonian: Book Closing'. On 27 January two hayricks on his property were fired. Police Inspector Thomas Broham, hastening to the scene, came upon the fleeing Cyrus Haley on Mt Eden, and after a violent struggle subdued him by using his riding whip. Haley abused Broham for being a 'minion of the ruling powers'. He told the doctor who treated his wounds that 'there are fifty of us, and I am captain of the band.' Broham, convinced of Haley's insanity, was later able to report that 'no such gang ever existed.'
Convicted of attempted murder, threatening to kill and threatening to destroy property, Haley was given three life sentences in April 1872 and incarcerated in Dunedin gaol. When his wife's heavy drinking led to the confinement of their children in the Otago Industrial School, Haley was distressed that they had not been sent to a benevolent institution, and threatened the prison chaplain whom he held responsible. On 4 October 1875 he made his second attempt to escape from custody (the first had been in 1873). Fleeing a hard-labour gang working on Bell Hill, he was shot dead in nearby Moray Place by a pursuing warder. The coroner's jury commended this act when announcing its verdict of justifiable homicide. Opinion was divided, however, with the editor of the New Zealand Jurist condemning the 'Manslaughter by proclamation' of a man running away. Warder James Millar 'worried himself to death' within a year. Emily Haley married John Thomas Sneade at Dunedin in 1878; she died of chronic alcoholism at Pakatoa Island in 1912.