In 1905 the New Zealand public was startled by the calculated murder of an elderly Chinese in Haining Street, Wellington. Joe Kum Yung was killed by Lionel Terry, a young Englishman who wanted to draw attention to his views on alien immigration. Terry's belief in racial segregation and his obsession with what was commonly called the yellow peril drove him to murder, and condemned him to nearly half a century in mental hospitals.
Edward Lionel Terry was born at Sandwich, Kent, England, on 6 January 1873. Known throughout life by his second name, he was the son of Edward Terry and his wife, Frances Lydia Thompson. His father claimed to be descended from Napoleon Bonaparte. He was a corn merchant in Kent but later established a real estate firm in Pall Mall, London. He was considered a successful businessman.
Lionel Terry was educated at Merton College, Wimbledon. He then joined his father's firm, but became unsettled and enlisted in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1892. A year later he transferred to the Royal Horse Guards. His father purchased his discharge in 1895 and Terry left almost immediately for South Africa. He joined the mounted police at Bulawayo and participated in the Jameson raid of 29 December 1895 to 2 January 1896. Returning to London he entered into partnership in the family firm, but stayed only a short time before leaving to travel extensively overseas. In the course of his travels he visited the United States and British Columbia. There, and earlier in South Africa, he worked alongside Chinese immigrants. The experience engendered a deep hatred of 'black and coloured races', especially the Chinese. Before long this hatred had become an obsession.
According to his own account Terry arrived in New Zealand in 1901. He spent some time as a temporary fieldworker with the Department of Lands and Survey in Auckland and then tried fruit-growing north of Auckland. He moved to Wellington in May 1903 and was re-employed by the department as a temporary draughtsman. After a few months he went to Taihape where he worked at bush felling. In 1904 he returned to the Lands and Survey Department and was sent to Mangonui in Northland as a surveyor. While there he wrote The shadow, a book of verse with a long introduction on the need for racial purity.
In July 1905 Terry attracted considerable interest by carrying out a marathon walk of nearly 900 miles from Mangonui to Wellington. A policeman who met up with him on the way described his appearance: 'He looked a perfect picture. As fine a man as ever I saw – bolt upright, and with as free an action as you'd see on an athlete.' People who came in contact with Terry invariably commented on his magnificent physique and were impressed by his striking personality, conversational powers and overall breadth of knowledge. Along the walk he distributed copies of The shadow and gave lectures on the yellow peril.
After arriving in Wellington on 14 September, Terry tried to convince members of the House of Representatives and immigration officials that all non-European immigration should be stopped. He had little success, and in an effort to gain further publicity for his views he shot Joe Kum Yung on the night of 24 September 1905. The victim was rushed to hospital but died soon after. Terry surrendered to the police the following morning, handing over his revolver and a copy of The shadow, which he said would explain his action. On 21 November he was tried in the Supreme Court at Wellington. He conducted his own defence but failed to justify the killing and was sentenced to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity; he was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Terry was to spend the rest of his life in Lyttelton prison and in Sunnyside and Seacliff mental hospitals.
He escaped from Sunnyside twice in 1906 and from Seacliff in 1907 and 1908. These escapes attracted considerable publicity and Terry's allegations of mistreatment at both hospitals and at Lyttelton prison gained him a good deal of public sympathy. Also, while few people had condoned Joe Kum Yung's murder, many shared Terry's dislike of the Chinese. It is said that a petition for his release was circulated and that the Chinese community responded with a counter petition.
Terry spent most of the time between 1909 and 1914 in solitary confinement at Sunnyside. He asked to be returned to Seacliff in May 1914, where the medical superintendent, Frederic Truby King, granted him various privileges on condition that he would not escape again. Terry was removed from his dark, lonely cell and given a suite comprising a bedroom and library–dining room. He wrote poetry and painted, kept pet goats and sheep, and cultivated an extensive garden in the hospital grounds. From around 1914 he turned increasingly to religion, but it was idiosyncratic and in most of his verse he referred to himself as the 'Prophet', 'Messiah' and 'Superman'. He wore white clothes, grew a long beard and wore his hair below his shoulders. However, despite his messianic tendencies, he wanted a Christian burial.
In 1940 he assaulted a doctor who was trying to give him a typhoid inoculation. As a result most of his privileges were withdrawn and he spent the last 12 years of his life in solitary confinement. Lionel Terry died at Seacliff Mental Hospital on 20 August 1952, aged 79 years. It is not known if he had ever married.