Murder tale buried under family tree
■ 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.