Story: Violent crime

Page 5. Mass murders, 1840–1989

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Mass murders (the murder of four or more people at one time) have been rare in New Zealand, particularly before 1990.

Maketū Wharetōtara

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 Rewa, a Ngāpuhi leader. 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.

James Stack

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 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 apprehended, tried, and convicted of murdering the four Finnigans. He was hanged in 1866. The body of 10-year-old John was found in 1869.

Burgess gang

Five men were robbed and killed on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866 by the Burgess gang: Richard Burgess (also known as Richard Hill), William (Phil) Levy, Thomas Noon (also known as Thomas 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, where he was imprisoned before disappearing in 1876.

James Baxter

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 had seemed depressed before the murders, but his motive remained a mystery. 

Hēnare Hona

Four members of the Davenport family were killed near Te Kūiti in 1934 by 20-year-old Hēnare Hona. While he was being arrested for the murders, Hona killed police constable Thomas Heeps with a .32 pistol. He then died by suicide.

Stanley Graham

In 1941, seven people were killed at 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 to assist the war effort. Among the dead were police sergeant William Cooper and constables Edward Best, Frederick Jordan and Percy Tulloch. Eleven days later, Graham came out of the bush near his farm and died from gunshot wounds inflicted by police and home guardsmen.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime - Mass murders, 1840–1989', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Greg Newbold, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 3 May 2024 with assistance from Greg Newbold