Mur­der tale buried un­der fam­ily tree

Hawke's Bay Today - - LOCAL NEWS - By Linda Hall linda.hall@hbto­ How did you feel when you dis­cov­ered that some of your an­ces­tors were mur­dered? Tell us about the re­search What was the most fas­ci­nat­ing thing you learnt about New Zealand his­tory while you were do­ing your re­searc

■ Pur­ga­tory By Rosetta Al­lan Pen­guin, $30 When for­mer Hawke’s Bay woman Rosetta Al­lan dis­cov­ered four of her an­ces­tors had been mur­dered in 1865 in the set­tle­ment of Otahuhu (13km from Auck­land’s city cen­tre) and buried in the gar­den of their cot­tage, she de­cided to do a bit of in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

The re­sult is Pur­ga­tory, a haunt­ing tale of tragedy, poverty, love and de­ceit.

Steeped in New Zealand his­tory, the tale is partly told through the eyes of the one of the mur­dered boys.

Al­lan writes with warmth and flair, bring­ing her char­ac­ters (even the dead ones) to life on the pages.

I couldn’t de­cide if I liked or loathed one of the main char­ac­ters, James Stack. I started off feel­ing sorry for him but as the story un­folded I just couldn’t de­cide if he was good or bad.

Pur­ga­tory is one of those tales that stays with you long af­ter you have fin­ished read­ing it. The char­ac­ters will pop into your head un­bid­den and know­ing that the story is based on fact is ac­tu­ally quite haunt­ing.

I asked Rosetta Al­lan some ques­tions. ■

It was to­tally fas­ci­nat­ing. I had been try­ing to get my hands on the fam­ily tree for years. Fi­nally there it was, and right at the top was in­for­ma­tion about the first fam­ily to come out from Ire­land in 1840 – the Fin­negans.

Listed neatly were their names with dates of births, deaths and mar­riages, and next to four mem­bers were the words “mur­dered, Otahuhu Mur­ders 1865”, the mur­derer’s name and the date he was sent to the gal­lows in Mt Eden Stock­ade.

Within five min­utes my re­search had be­gun. ■

Ev­ery as­pect had to be re­searched, from what chil­dren played with at the time, to clothes, the mur­der trial, con­vict set­tle­ments, Ire­land’s potato blight, Mt Eden Stock­ade, the Waikato Wars, and the list went on and on. I felt buried in in­for­ma­tion, then came my cal­vary.

John Cochrane, a re­tired li­brar­ian from Welling­ton stream­lined my searches and found the right books and ar­ti­cles to read, Dick Ben­nett from the His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety in Dublin helped me with his­tor­i­cal Dublin, and Bruce Cairns, who is cur­rently writ­ing a non-fic­tion ac­count of the 65th reg­i­ment in New Zealand, helped me with the Waikato Wars.

The knowl­edge and enthusiasm from these three men about the sub­ject mat­ter was so stim­u­lat­ing, it just kept pro­pel­ling me on. ■

For me it was the sense of dis­place­ment. While writ­ing the story of the Fin­negan and the Stack fam­i­lies, I was filled with a sense of loss. Not only had they lost their home­land to coloni­sa­tion, but their cul­ture had been driven un­der­ground, their re­li­gion re­jected, and the English had lit­er­ally at­tempted to starve them into obliv­ion. I saw par­al­lels be­tween the Ir­ish and the Maori in New Zealand, with one huge dif­fer­ence – the Ir­ish were half a world away from the land they once called home. ■

Not at all. The old­est Fin­negan son, Alex, went to the stock­ade the day be­fore the hang­ing and begged the al­leged mur­derer to tell him where his lit­tle brother John was buried. The man de­nied re­spon­si­bil­ity and re­fused to speak to any­one ex­cept a Catholic priest who took his last rites, who was un­der oath and could not re­peat what had been con­fessed.

The true mo­tive was never known, but there was some pretty damn­ing ev­i­dence in­clud­ing the forged deed of own­er­ship for the cot­tage that was found in the ac­cused man’s pocket, along with a strip of fab­ric from a woman’s dress. ■

To stick with one idea for two years was sig­nif­i­cant. Po­etry is some­thing you can dip in and out of – write some­thing one week and re­visit months later. The ded­i­ca­tion to stick at the story of was a com­pletely new dis­ci­pline for me. How­ever, I did find the con­straints and de­vices of po­etry pretty use­ful in­side the form of novel writ­ing. en­vi­ron­ment that en­cour­aged read­ing. A kind aunt once brought me a sto­ry­book for Christ­mas. I was mes­merised. I hid it un­der my mat­tress, but my sis­ter soon found it and cut it up for paper dolls. It wasn’t un­til I was in high school and I heard Ten­nyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott that some­thing ig­nited in me. But still it wasn’t un­til adult­hood that I be­came an avid reader. ■

A bot­tle of French cham­pagne with my hus­band at a lit­tle beach in Pt Chev where the dog is al­lowed to run around, blan­ket wrapped and rosy cheeked, watch­ing the sun go down in the west. Per­fect. ■

Novel num­ber two.


FAS­CI­NATED: Rosetta Al­lan search for her fam­ily tree led to a shock­ing dis­cov­ery.

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