Photo Of The Day

Photo: Wairarapa Archive. Tom Long, Executioner, New Zealand 1877 – 1906.

Photo: Wairarapa Archive.
Tom Long, Executioner, New Zealand 1877 – 1906.

Tom Long, Hangman

Tom Long was a 19th century celebrity, known the length and breadth of New Zealand and newspapers regularly reported his antics in detail. He was a habitual criminal but did not commit crimes of great moment – his specialties were drunkenness, disorderly behaviour and vagrancy. He was reportedly convicted on over 200 occasions but Tom Long was best known for a more sinister reason – he was a known killer, the Government’s hangman.

His career is hard to track. He claimed he started his killing in the Indian army but his first New Zealand execution can be dated to Picton in early 1877 when he hanged William Woodgate, previously found guilty of the murder of a child he had fathered on his niece Susan, then only 14.

Locals were disgusted by Long who, while adjusting the cap on Woodgate’s head, had 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.”

There was speculation as to the hangman’s identity. After the hanging he quietly left the rear of the gaol and raced to the port, where he boarded the Hinemoa for Wellington.

From there, Tom Long went to Hawke’s Bay, where he was imprisoned for drunkenness. In late 1879 he complained of police harassment. Charged for using obscene language, he said he had hanged a man in the South Island and it was always brought up against him, agitating him and making him use bad language. He said he was always being “run in” by some policeman, with a charge of obscene language added.

He was a suspect in January 1881 when John Pierce was killed in a fire at Napier’s Albion Hotel. Tom Long had been found drunk near the hotel, having previously said he would do something that would make the headlines. The coroner’s jury decided the fire was very suspicious but Tom Long was not charged.

In court in 1884 he complained the Hawke’s Bay Herald had referred to him as the “notorious Tom Long”, saying they had taken his character away, suggesting he should be called the “meritorious Tom Long”.

One newspaper article mentions him being let out of prison when serving a three month sentence to travel north to hang a man with a goitre. In a newspaper interview in 1905 he claimed to have executed “fifteen in this country but hundreds in India.”

The Wellington correspondent of Christchurch Truth wrote 20 March 1905:

To most people Tom Long is no moro than a. name, and a rather gruesome and misty sort of person. I had tho experience — one could hardly call it a pleasure of discoursing with this celebrated individual the other morning. He is, as he proudly informs you, working in tho bush up Wanganui way — a vagueness of geographising that he did not seem inclined to strengthen by anything more definite.

He has worked there — “an* been me own boss” — for some twenty years or thereabouts. “They’ve a. prejudice against me on account of me doing the executions, but someone has to do them,” he complained, fixing his eye reflectively on my neck. “Once I refused to do an execution, but they was in a fix, and so I agreed after a lot of persuasion, and ever since then they can get me when they want to. How many have 1 swung off ? Fifteen in this country, but hundreds in India.

They pay me £30 a time now. They used to pay £40 and £50, but those times have passed.” He has a grievance, and it is this; that there arc men who would do the hangman’s work for £18 and then dissappear from tho country. “And I’m here all the time, an’ they know they can get me when they want me, and I reckon they oughtn’t to cut the prico.’

He did not seem to think much of my sugestion of a Hangmen’s Union, which I thought would meet this difficulty. He has been offered 10s per foot for some of the ropes he has used, but he has refused. “There’s some calous begars about,” he commented on this point.

Of medium height, plump, and with a red face and thick white whiskers, he looks anything but a hangman, until he talks to you on his hobby. He informed me that he would give me a six foot drop, when I asked him out of curiousity. tie is talkative, and sees nothing to be shy about in his business.

He relates with many winks how once, travelling with a plain clothes constable from the country to officiate at a hanging, the news got about that ‘Tom Long was on the train.” Tom saw a lot of curious people peering through the window of the railway carriage, and lie pointed stealthily to the constable and winked at him without the unfortunate Robert knowing him.

The crowd naturally concluded that the policeman was Tom, and the policeman was the most surprised and hurt man in the world when going on to the platform everybody scuttled away from him, and regarded him with disgust from afar. It breaks Tom up to ever think of it now.

Talking about hangmen and their perquisites prompts the office hangman to indulge in reminiscences. Nowadays, the hangman is selected generally, and wisely so, hides his light under a bushel, but it was not so in the old days. In the eighties and nineties, when old Tom Long used to give condemned murderers the official dispatch, he didn’t mind a little publicity.

Long was an Indian mutiny veteran, who, when not engaged in a hanging capacity, used to live with the Maoris up the Wanganui River. He was a bit of a character and would be described nowadays, as a hard case. One of his earliest “jobs” was the hanging of a murderer named Lewis, at Hokitika, in the ’80s.

Immediately after the hanging was over, Long started on one of his customary drinking bouts and before the day was out the police had to rescue him from a bunch of irate Hokitikans. They complained that the object of their resentment had insulted one of the town’s pet barmaids by offering her a piece of the hangman’s rope where with TO MAKE A GARTER.

On August 12, 1895, at Invercargill, Minnie Dean, the notorious baby farmer, was hung, she being the only woman in the history of New Zealand to suffer capital punishment, and Tom Long was engaged to carry out the grisly task.

Williamina “Minnie” Dean, had been convicted of killing the baby Dorothy Carter and was suspected of having killed other young illegitimate children. Although there was widespread revulsion at Dean’s crimes there was also general disquiet at her execution.

Feeling ran high in the country as to the propriety of hanging a woman, and every channel of reprieve  had failed — even that common circumstance of civilised law which refuses to put to death a creature who is dying would not die alone, who “bears within a second principle of “life.”

Minnie Dean’s only hope was if she could plead she was “quick with child,” and this she could not do. It was deemed advisable by the authorities to take certain precautions in regard to Long, the hangman, and he was smuggled into Invercargill gaol a week before the date fixed for the hanging, and kept there.

Everything seemed to be going on all right. Long, by reason of his enforced incarceration, had been kept strictly sober, but on the fatal morning of August 12, when the head warder knocked on Longs door at an early hour, and reminded him that the time had arrived for him to enter the condemned cell and perform the awful preliminaries, Tom went on strike.

The head gaoler was promptly, communicated with and an attempt was made to cajole Long into keeping the terms of his contract with the State. At last they found a weak spot in the obstinate hangman’s armor and he announced that he would “carry on,” providing he was allowed to settle as much whisky as he felt constrained to drink.

It was then discovered to the gaoler’s horror that there wasn’t a “spot” of whisky in the prison, and the predicament was explained to the hangman.

Tom, with a ” sly look at the gaoler and sheriff, folded his arms and said, “NO WHISKY, NO HANGING.” The gaoler then recollected that a bottle of brandy, which was kept for medicinal purposes, was on the premises, and he suggested to Thomas the pig-headed, that perhaps brandy would fill the bill. “Very well, bring out your brandy,” said Long.

When it arrived, he helped himself to a “long beer” glass full of raw spirit. This he gulped down, smacked his lips, and, turning to the sheriff, said, “Now, if you like, I will hang twenty women.”

The execution of Minnie Dean then proceeded without further hitch, but it is worthy to note that when the unfortunate, standing on the fatal trapdoor, which was soon to open under her and hurl her to her doom, said good-bye to the officiating clergyman and prison officials.

Long stepped forward and said to her, “Won’t you shake hands with me, ma’am? I am the hangman, ma’am.

I am only doing my duty!” The woman took the hangman’s hand in hers and pressed it. Then a short minute later, as she uttered the words, “O, God, let me not suffer,” the self- same hand she had clasped in forgiveness withdrew the bolt, which launched her into the unknown.

After it was all over, the police smuggled Tom Long aboard a northgoing train, but it hadn’t stopped at many wayside stations ‘ before Long the hangman was very drunk.

During the rest of the journey North he promenaded the train selling souvenirs of the woman he had just hanged, in the shape of her alleged shoes.

By the number of old shoes Long produced it would appear that the deceased woman either had a very extensive wardrobe, or that Long’s souvenirs were spurious. ‘

It appears that he had come to regard himself as a “SPECIALIST” IN HIS GRUESOME PROFESSION, and began to give himself airs. It is on record that on the morning of one of the last executions at which, he officiated, he nearly upset the arrangements by demanding that he be paid his £25 fee immediately after the hanging. In vain it was explained by the sheriff that a voucher would have to be sent to Wellington and put through” the usual channel.

Long would have no red tape or Government circumlocution. It was a case of “cash down or no hanging,” and in despair the sheriff appeased Long by paying the amount out of his own pocket and recovering it from the Government later..

One grim coincidence perhaps deserves mention. It is that one of the individuals who had given his name, to the Government as a potential and willing hangman, if he should be favoured with an engagement, later died on the scaffold himself.” “Truth” refers to Arthur Rottman, the young German, who was hung at Wellington, Terrace Gaol in 1915 for brutally murdering a Ruahine settler and his wife and baby.

Tom Long, New Zealand’s Irish-born hangman, died in December 1908 while bush-felling at Kuangaroa near Wanganui. A tree fell on him and his death was ruled as accidental, but those who knew him and his reputation were sceptical, thinking the death was planned, the tree being deliberately felled. True or not, it would have been a dramatic death for the man who had been the country’s biggest killer, for many years New Zealand’s official executioner.


Wairarapa Archive

Tom Long

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.