Mur­der and mys­tery on the Maun­gat­apu Track

Marlborough Express - - WEEKEND -

Over two mid-win­ter days in June 1866 the Burgess Gang mur­dered five men in cold blood on the Maun­gat­apu track be­tween Pelorus and Nel­son as part of a planned rob­bery. To­day it is con­sid­ered New Zealand’s most no­to­ri­ous case of bush-rang­ing, and a gen­uine Kiwi cow­boy tale of rob­bers, thieves, mur­der­ers and law­men.

The gang made up of Richard Burgess, Joseph Thomas Sul­li­van, Philip Levy, and Thomas Kelly had planned to rob four busi­ness­men fol­low­ing a re­li­able tip-off of gold and money mak­ing its way through the bush to a bank in Nel­son.

And while the mur­ders were ap­par­ently part of the in­evitable plan to rob Ge­orge Dud­ley, John Kempthorne, James de Pon­tius, and Felix Mathieu, there was a fifth vic­tim, named James Bat­tle, who hap­pened to have ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled upon the gang hid­ing out the day be­fore the at­tack. He was sub­se­quently al­lowed to pass, only to be caught up with and stran­gled, then buried in a shal­low grave.

Prior to the mur­ders the gang spent time in Marl­bor­ough as they headed for Pic­ton, but only made it as far as Can­vas­town.

The case has be­come leg­endary, not only for the bru­tal­ity in­volved with the mur­ders of the busi­ness­men and Bat­tle, the lone trav­el­ling flax grower who hap­pened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but also the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and trial that fol­lowed.

Many his­to­ri­ans have con­tested the events sur­round­ing the mur­ders on record, as well as who was ac­tu­ally guilty of the mur­der, and also the meth­ods by which the in­for­ma­tion was gath­ered by the court.

In 1866, New Zealand was more of a colony, than a sovereign coun­try with a func­tion­ing le­gal sys­tem, and re­ports about the gang’s ar­rest, trial and ex­e­cu­tions trav­elled quickly and cap­tured world­wide at­ten­tion.

Now a full length play about the rob­bery and killings by Nel­son play­wright Justin Eade is mak­ing the rounds in the top of the south, and it’s next stop is the home of the mur­ders, Marl­bor­ough.

The play opened to enor­mous crit­i­cal and au­di­ence praise in April last year in Nel­son, and since then play­wright Eade has length­ened the play and the num­ber of play­ers in or­der to pro­vide a more de­tailed story of the Maun­gat­apu mur­ders.

The play ex­am­ines the re­la­tion­ships be­tween gang mem­bers Burgess, Kelly, Levy and Sul­li­van as they plot and carry out the mur­der. It then fol­lows their ar­rest, trial and ex­e­cu­tion. From Burgess’ death row ‘con­fes­sion’, to Sul­li­van’s be­trayal of the other men in re­turn for a par­don. The play also delves into Levy’s pos­si­ble in­no­cence, and ren­ders the emo­tional dra­mat­ics of Kelly’s ex­e­cu­tion who, it is said, went kick­ing and scream­ing to the gal­lows.

Eade says his in­ter­est in the story goes back 22 years, from when he first read Burgess’s con­fes­sion:

‘‘I first got in­ter­ested in the Maun­gat­apu case after read­ing Burgess’s con­fes­sion,’’ Eade says.

‘‘From a writer’s per­spec­tive, it’s a fan­tas­tic piece of lit­er­a­ture [about] some­one who was a mur­der­ous thug all of his life.’’

In­deed, when Amer­i­can au­thor Mark Twain made his visit to Nel­son in 1895, al­most 30 years after the mur­ders, he re­quested to go straight to the mu­seum to read the con­fes­sion writ­ten by Burgess.

Twain said about the con­fes­sional: ‘‘For brevity, suc­cinct­ness, and con­cen­tra­tion, it is per­haps with­out its peer in the lit­er­a­ture of mur­der.’’

Eade orig­i­nally wrote a screen­play with the in­tent on turn­ing it into a film, and after leav­ing the script on the shelf for a while he said it was his brother who nudged him to turn it into a play.

‘‘Over­all, it’s such a fan­tas­tic story. It was just wait­ing to be turned into some for the stage and screen,’’ Eade says. ‘‘It’s a real like New Zealand West­ern, and I was sur­prised that it hadn’t been drama­tised.’’

Coin­ci­den­tally, New Zealand his­to­rian and au­thor John Rosanowski has re­cently pub­lished a gold­fields mur­der mys­tery, Treach­ery Road, which calls into ques­tion the facts about the trial and ev­i­dence given which led to ‘The Burgess Gang’ be­ing led to the noose.

‘‘It seems clear that two in­no­cent men were ex­e­cuted in the Nel­son jail in 1866,’’ says Rosanowski, who has

Writ­ten by Justin Eade, di­rected by Giles Bur­ton fea­tur­ing Nick Kem­plen, Cameron West, Daniel Al­lan and Pete Coates.

Have­lock Town Hall, Have­lock: Oc­to­ber 19, 7.30pm Boathouse Theatre, Blen­heim: Oc­to­ber 20, 7.30pm Pic­ton Lit­tle Theatre, Pic­ton: Oc­to­ber 28, 7.30pm

re­vealed new ev­i­dence about the in­former, Thomas Sul­li­van, in his book.

Sul­li­van had turned in Queen’s Ev­i­dence in ex­change for a par­don and pre­sented him­self as a de­voted fam­ily man at the trial, and that he was merely the ‘look­out’ on the road.

How­ever, gang-leader Burgess as­serted that the mur­ders were the work of Sul­li­van and him­self alone, and he stressed that Kelly and Levy were not even present.

The jury, nev­er­the­less, ac­cepted Sul­li­van’s ac­count of events, and Kelly and Levy died protest­ing their in­no­cence on the gal­lows in the Nel­son jail.

‘‘This new ev­i­dence about the In­former, Thomas Sul­li­van,’’ says Rosanowski, ‘‘shows that the his­tory of the callous Maun­gat­apu mur­ders will need to be rewrit­ten.’’

In­deed, and be­tween the new play and Rosanowski’s new book, fur­ther de­tails are added to the big­ger pic­ture that is the Maun­gat­apu mur­ders.

‘‘The case is a lot like David Bain, or Scott Wat­son,’’ play­wright Eade says. ‘‘There are so many ques­tions sur­round­ing the case that we may never re­ally know what hap­pened that day. For me it was more dra­mat­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing to choose one po­si­tion, and go with it.’’

Eade says that after this short sea­son, the play may be see­ing a big­ger au­di­ence in the main cen­tres: ‘‘We have been ac­cepted to at­tend the Arts Market in Welling­ton next year to pitch the show to national theatre prac­ti­tion­ers, and we are hop­ing to be picked up ei­ther by other arts fes­ti­vals or other theatres na­tion­wide.’’

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