Murder and mystery on the Maungatapu Track
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.’’