Page 1: Biography
Horton, Edward Raymond
Criminal, murderer, painter
This biography, written by Peter Boston, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Edward Raymond Horton was born Edward Ray Gill at Blenheim on 28 July 1928, the son of Muriel Doreen Gill, also known as Amuri Fredreka Doreen Gill. His father, a married man, was Herman Edward Hermansen, a truck driver, who had a Norwegian father and used Horton as a surname. Edward was brought up by his mother until he was five and then went to live with his father, who had divorced in 1930 and married again in 1934. Edward took his father’s assumed name (Horton) and preferred Ray or Slim as a first name. He attended Blenheim Borough School, then, after the family moved to Nelson in 1938, Auckland Point School.
By the time he was 10 Horton had fallen into a pattern of truancy and theft, first appearing before the Nelson Children’s Court in August 1938. Placed under the custody of the Child Welfare Branch, he lived in boys’ homes in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. He repeatedly absconded from the institutions and committed petty offences. Then in 1943, while in placement as a farmhand, he tried to sexually assault his employer’s wife: he was sent to the boys’ training centre at Levin, but was returned to his father’s care later that year. In December, however, he was sentenced to borstal for breaking and entering; a similar sentence followed in 1945. He subsequently escaped from the Invercargill Borstal Institution and attempted to rape a warder’s daughter. Quickly recaptured, he was convicted for the assault and transferred to Paparua prison, Christchurch, where he remained until August 1948.
On his release Horton worked as a waiter in Christchurch. In late September, following a brief affair with a married woman, he moved to Wellington. Soon after, on Sunday 26 September 1948, he went for a walk on Mt Victoria, where he saw Katherine Gladys Cranston, a 47-year-old widow, just ahead of him. Horton hit her over the head with a stick, cut her throat with a broken beer bottle, then raped her. A group of schoolboys found the body that afternoon. The crime shocked the country, particularly Wellington, which was reeling from two unsolved homicides and the disappearance of teenager Marie West on Mt Victoria a year earlier. The murder led to a snap debate in the House of Representatives about capital punishment, abolished by the Labour government in 1941, and had a major influence on its restoration in 1950.
Although the police launched an exhaustive investigation, Horton’s arrest was actually on a vagrancy charge. His criminal record made him a suspect and he confessed in custody. The trial, held during November 1948, became a focal point for social concern about juvenile delinquency. Horton was only 20 and some commentators argued that his child welfare background symbolised the failure of the state’s handling of juvenile delinquents. On finding him guilty the jury added a rider expressing concern that his youth might lead to him being released at a comparatively early age. In sentencing Horton to life imprisonment, the chief justice, Sir Humphrey O’Leary, noted: ‘Our English language scarcely has words powerful enough to express the heinous nature of your crime’.
Horton was sent to Mount Eden prison, where he gained a reputation for being sullen and withdrawn. By November 1953, however, he had joined the prison band, and he began to participate in trips outside the institution. On 6 December 1955 he attended a bowling evening at the Hibernian Society’s Hall, Mount Albert, with a number of other prisoners who were serving life sentences. At around 8.30 the guards noticed that Horton was missing. The police launched a massive manhunt, with reinforcements coming from as far away as Christchurch. After three days he was recaptured without incident, but his escape embarrassed the penal administration, which, under the control of S. T. Barnett, had sought to use recreation as an aspect of rehabilitation. Under attack from the media and an anxious public, Jack Marshall, the minister of justice, issued a statement claiming that the escape represented a misapplication rather than a failure of the recreational ideal. None the less, Horton’s escape influenced a review of penal policy, announced by Marshall in 1957.
Horton was returned to Mount Eden, where in 1956 an unofficial prison visitor, Robert Goodman, who was an Auckland bookseller, began visiting him. A friendship developed which eventually included Goodman’s family, and by 1965 penal officials considered that Horton’s outlook had improved sufficiently to warrant his release. He was transferred to Waikeria prison and then to New Plymouth prison in preparation for parole. In May 1970 the cabinet decided he could be released on 5 February 1971 on lifetime parole.
Horton then worked as a painter in New Plymouth; he also met a woman with whom he had a child. He died of a heart attack in New Plymouth on 10 November 1977, and was cremated four days later. In death he was as controversial as in life. Some press reports portrayed him as a monster; others espoused the views of penal officials that Horton proved that no man was beyond redemption. Whether Horton is seen as a victim of a tragic family background, juvenile delinquent, psychopath, or rehabilitated prisoner, few New Zealand criminals have evoked so much public anxiety or had such a bearing on the operation of the criminal justice system.