Murder in Mangamahu

The men had been drinking steadily for almost two weeks and much had been said and done during this latest ‘bender’ before the final culmination of grisly murder took place.

The spirit of choice was ‘Sandy MacDonald’ whiskey; a brand that would be reportedly removed from the bottom shelf and denied to consumers; not being sold again until 1988; a full 66 years after the events of Friday the 22nd of July 1921, in a remote backcountry corner of New Zealand.

George Gordon was in his forties and had been a bushman for some time before he came to work on a farm which bordered the Whangaehu River, near the tiny scattering of buildings which accounted for the township of Mangamahu.

 

 

The farm’s manager was named Cecil and he had hired Gordon to primarily work on the road, along with any other labouring duties which might arise.

Gordon lived on the farm in a small hut or ‘whare’, perched near a rather high cliff which ran down to the river below. He shared this crudely made abode with another man by the name of Mervyn Addenbrooke who would recount the events of this rather bizarre and odd occurance in his autumn years.

Addenbrooke had become, as accustomed as one could, to the routine of alcoholic intensity which Gordon was prone to. These marathon drinking bouts would usually be interspersed between long periods of dry and methodical behaviour; ordinarily lasting between 6 to 8 weeks.

This latest binge had been especially loud and erratic and Addenbrooke had been prompted to find alternative accommodation at the nearby homestead, after Gordon’s drinking partner, a man by the name of Jack Kinsella, had threatened to bash his brains out when asked to cease playing Addenbrooke’s accordion in the small hours of the morning.

Further impetus for making a retreat from this unstable environment had been given, after Gordon had demanded from Kinsella to slit his throat, as Gordon presumably wished to be put out of his misery.

Kinsella had responded to this rather perfunctory masochistic request by taking up a long-bladed pig-sticking knife, which he proceeded to mockingly draw across Gordon’s throat, using the blunt side in order to hopefully provide some levity to the mood of the large bushman before him.

“You made a bloody bad job of that, Jack.” was Gordon’s riposte.

On the morning of the fateful day, Addenbrooke had passed by the whare and noticed Gordon sharpening an axe with a file.

The atmosphere had certainly been tense and Addenbrooke had remarked to Cecil that he had a bad feeling that an ultimate climax to this latest bout of insobriety was imminent.

Upon his return from work at about 5.30pm, Addenbrooke went to get the cows in, after which he proceeded to the whare to get cleaned up for his night’s meal at Cecil’s.

The whare appeared quiet in the mid-winter evening as he approached and upon entering he felt something wet  underfoot; sticking to the sole of his boots.

Striking a match in order to provide illumination, Addenbrooke was to now take in the full horror which awaited him.

Lying before him on the floor was the lifeless body of George Gordon; his head almost severed from the trunk and only still attached by a thin piece of skin.

Kinsella, sitting on a bench with another man nearby and still visibly intoxicated remarked:

“He asked me to cut his head off. He lay on the floor and asked me to cut his head off, and I did it.”

Recoiling from the scene before him, Addenbrooke ran up to the hut where Cecil was sitting down for his evening meal.

After hearing the news Cecil told Addenbrooke to immediately go and inform Jim Campbell who lived nearby as he feared for his safety in the light of this horrible reality.

When Addenbrooke got to Jim Campbell’s place he was forced to wait an interminable amount of time, as Jim was having dinner and insisted on finishing it before attending to this rude interruption; perhaps not fully taking in Addenbrooke’s meaning of Gordon losing his head.

Meanwhile Cecil had found a phone and had rung through to the Police Station in Whanganui, informing them of the need for their presence.

By this time Kinsella had begun to sober up somewhat, and perhaps becoming aware of the reality of the situation, had been making furtive attempts to remove himself from the area.

As the heavens opened and a heavy rain began to fall, Kinsella was coaxed into the nearby wool-shed and plied with more whiskey, in order to keep his mind calm while waiting for the authorities to make the three-hour journey to the farm.

The bizarre nature of the conversations which must have unfolded can only be guessed at, as the minutes ticked by, steadily turning into hours as the torrents of rain pelted upon the overhead corrugated iron shed; at times almost deafening.

Finally, the lights of a car were spotted in the far distance and as someone yelled out  “Here come the police!” Kinsella suddenly made a last ditch attempt at escape which was quickly foiled when one of his erstwhile guards tripped him up as others fell upon him.

The alleged offender was then duly arrested, handcuffed and taken away into custody; leaving one Police officer to stay and deal with the body; which it had been decided would be removed to the Wanganui morgue on the following day.

As the sun rose in the sleepy back country valley a hard frost had set in, covering everything in a crisp white fabric of ice.

The work began early as it would take a full day to transport the corpse of George Gordon the fifteen odd miles into town.

The body was rolled up into blankets, with the head being reattached to its former owner with the use of a needle and some baling twine.

It was then placed into the back of Cecil’s yellow Maxwell five-seater and driven the six miles into Mangamahu. Here it was removed to the pub and placed against the wall behind the front door as the constable in charge and the other men went for a few ‘spots’ at the bar.

Some of the local children, curious about the large parcel behind the door were told to run home as the men continued to wait for the arrival of the big Hudson bus which served as the Royal Mail carrier for the district.

News of the rather macabre delivery soon spread like wildfire through the tiny collection of homes, and as the Hudson finally lurched into the settlement a sizeable crowd had built up to watch as the dreadful cargo was hauled aboard, being placed near the rear of the bus.

As the journey commenced various routine stops were made in order to pick up and deliver mail, along with the odd person wishing to travel into town.

One such stop was made at Kaungaroa where a small party of Maori from the local Pa boarded.

One of the men who was carrying a large portmanteau asked the Police constable:

“Where I put my bag?”

The constable took the bag from him and placed it near the end of the bus.

When the bus arrived at Fordell where many of the passengers wished to stretch their legs, this same man asked the constable:

“Where you put my bag?”

“Just inside that back door” was the answer.

Upon opening the back door in order to retrieve his possessions he also was to notice a visibly decomposing foot protruding from the rolled up blankets.

None of the Maori boarded the bus again in order to complete their intended journey, and by all accounts none of the Maori from the nearby Pa ever travelled on the bus again.

The inquest which followed was to be attended by large crowds of people; all desiring to hear details of this most gruesome occurrence.

Addenbrooke would serve as a key witness, alongside the statements from the attending police who were all read out to the expectant listeners in court.

Testimony reported in the NZ Truth on the 30th July 1921 would state that when the police arrived Kinsella was to remark:

“I’m the coon. I’ve done it. Come round this way.”

Leading them into the whare he was to show them the body of his former friend.

After being formally charged and read his rights Kinsella would merely laugh and say:

“Right-O; I done it.”

Some remorse was finally shown by Kinsella on the journey into town when he was reported as saying:

“Poor George, I won’t be able to go to his funeral.”

Kinsella would ultimately receive a sentence not exceeding 14 years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, however, some accounts say he was released after only serving eight due to good behaviour.

 

 

His lawyer, Humphrey O’Leary, would go on to be knighted in later life for his services to the legal profession. He would also serve as the seventh Chief Justice of New Zealand from the 12th August 1946 until his death on the 16th of October 1953.

And as for ‘poor George’?

He would be buried and laid to rest, hopefully finding the peace he so desired but struggled to find in life.

 

Sources:

For a full retelling of this event by an eyewitness account, I would highly recommend clicking on this link.

Additional information was sourced from the New Zealand Truth, issue 830 which was published on the 30th of July, 1921.

 


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