Mass murders (the murder of four or more people at one time) have been rare in New Zealand, particularly before 1990. Noteworthy cases before 1990 include the following.
In 1841 five people were killed on a Bay of Islands farm by Maketū Wharetōtara (aged about 16), the son of Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe. Maketū killed his employer Elizabeth Roberton, her two children, Thomas Bull, and Isabella Brind, the granddaughter of Ngāpuhi leader Rewa. Abuse by Bull, who worked with Maketū on Roberton’s farm, appears to have prompted these murders. Maketū’s father handed his son over to the authorities to avoid conflict with Rewa. He was convicted and hanged in 1842.
In September 1865 neighbours noticed that Ōtāhuhu woman Mary Finnigan and her three sons were missing. Finnigan’s son-in-law James Stack, who lived in the family home, said they had all gone to the West Coast goldfields. After Stack abruptly left Ōtāhuhu in December, the property was searched and the bodies of Mary, 17-year-old James and 14-year-old Benjamin were found buried in the garden. Stack was captured, tried and convicted of murdering the four Finnigans. He was hanged in 1866. The body of 10-year-old John was found in 1869.
Five men were robbed and killed on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866 by members of the Burgess gang: Richard Burgess (also known as Hill), William (Phil) Levy, Thomas Noon (also known as Kelly) and Joseph Sullivan. After selling the gold they had stolen, the gang was arrested and Sullivan testified against the others. Burgess, Levy and Noon were found guilty and executed. Sullivan was sent to prison in Dunedin after being convicted of one of the murders. He was deported to England, but escaped to Australia and was imprisoned there before disappearing in 1876.
In 1908 Invercargill merchant James Baxter murdered his wife and five children in the family home before committing suicide. Baxter had been ill with cholera the month before and acquaintances noted at the inquest that he seemed depressed leading up to the murders, but his motive remained a mystery.
Four family members were killed near Te Kūiti in 1934 by 20-year-old Hēnare Hona. While being arrested for the murders, Hona also killed police constable Thomas Heeps with a .32 pistol. He then died by suicide.
In 1941 seven people were killed in Kōwhitirangi on the South Island’s West Coast by 41-year-old farmer Stanley Graham, who had refused to hand over his rifle to police as part of the war effort. Among the dead were police sergeant William Cooper, and constables Edward Best, Frederick Jordan and Percy Tulloch. Eleven days later Graham died in the bush from gunshot wounds inflicted by police and home guardsmen.