Tom Long was a 19th-century celebrity, known the length and breadth of New Zealand. Newspapers regularly reported his antics in detail. He was a habitual criminal, but did not commit crimes of great moment – his specialities were drunkenness, disorderly behaviour and vagrancy. Long was reportedly convicted on over 200 occasions, but was best known for a more sinister reason – he was the government’s hangman.
The career of this petty criminal turned killer is hard to track. An Irishman, Long was unmarried with no children; it appears he never registered to vote, and his life is best known through newspaper reports and people’s later reminiscences. He claimed he started his killing in the Indian army, acting as official hangman – an unverifiable claim. However, his first New Zealand execution can be dated to Picton in early 1877, when he hanged William Woodgate for murdering a child he had fathered with his 14-year-old niece Susan.
Locals were disgusted by Long, who, while adjusting the cap on Woodgate’s head, said, ‘Good bye old fellow, I wish you a pleasant journey. You’re only going a few days before us; perhaps I might follow you tomorrow, or the next day, myself.’ He adjusted the rope, saying, ‘How do you feel? Is it comfortable or is it too tight?’
When Woodgate replied it was all right, Long said, ‘Well, good bye. I wish you a pleasant journey.’ He kicked the bolt and Woodgate was hanged. After the hanging he quietly left the rear of the jail and raced to the port, where he boarded the Hinemoa for Wellington.
There was speculation as to the hangman’s identity. The local paper reported he was a swagman who claimed to have ‘slung them by the dozens’ during the Indian Mutiny.
Long then went to Hawke’s Bay, where he was soon imprisoned for drunkenness. In late 1879 he complained of police harassment. Charged with using obscene language, Long said he had hanged a man in the South Island and it was always brought up against him, agitating him and making him swear. He said he was always being ‘run in’ by some policeman.
Long was suspected of a far more serious crime in January 1881, when John Pierce died in a fire at Napier’s Albion Hotel. The inquest was told Long had been found drunk near the hotel, having previously said he would do something that would make headlines. The jury thought the fire was very suspicious, but, as no evidence of arson had been produced, they could not rule on that and Long was not charged. In court in 1884 he complained that the Hawke’s Bay Herald had referred to him as the ‘notorious Tom Long’, saying they had taken his character away and he should be called the ‘meritorious Tom Long’.
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