1866, Robert Shallcrass: Ruse catches the killers

From left: The Burgess Gnag - Burgess, Sullivan, Thomas Kelly and William Levy. (Alexander Turnbull Library)
From left: The Burgess Gnag - Burgess, Sullivan, Thomas Kelly and William Levy. (Alexander Turnbull Library)

Police sergeant Robert Shallcrass pulled off a clever, insightful piece of detective work when he caught a gang of Australian bushrangers who killed at least six people in a series of robberies near South Island goldfields.

Known as the Burgess gang after their leader, ex-convict Dick Burgess, the four men preyed on miners and businessmen in Otago and on the West Coast.

In June they went to Nelson where, in a 24-hour period on the Maungatapu track, they ambushed, robbed and killed five men from the goldfields who were heading into town to bank their savings.

When the victims failed to turn up in Nelson, suspicion quickly fell on the gang who, like most robbers in the first flush of their success, could not resist flashing their ill gotten gains.

Shallcrass had some slender evidence connecting the gang to the missing men, and the magistrate allowed him to detain them in custody.

He used what little time he had to great psychological effect.

First he placed a reward poster, offering £200 and a pardon for a confession, where the men could see it. And then he moved one to a separate cell so the other three were left to stew in their private suspicions.

The ploy worked. Joseph Sullivan, thinking he might be betrayed, got in first and told Shallcrass what had happened and where the bodies were buried.

He also told him about a murder near Greymouth and alleged that, from the conversations of the other three, they had committed about 30 killings in their New Zealand crime spree.

These crimes were never confirmed but the gang were convicted of the Maungatapu murders. Three were hanged but Sullivan's life was spared.

Shallcrass was promoted to inspector for his great detective work. Even Dick Burgess, the leader of the gang, was impressed.

As he walked to his execution he made a point of shaking Shallcrass by the hand, blessing him, congratulating him on his promotion and complimenting him on his efficient work.

We agree, and Inspector Robert Shallcrass is our New Zealander of the Year for 1866.

From the Herald archives:
'The Maungatapu Murders', New Zealand Herald, 10 July 1866

Suggestion of further murders, New Zealand Herald, 23 July 1866

Examination of witnesses, New Zealand Herald, 2 August 1866

Trial and sentencing, New Zealand Herald, 26 September 1866

'The Execution of the Maungatapu Murderers', New Zealand Herald, 15 October 1866

Statement from accessory Wilson, New Zealand Herald, 7 November 1866

Further reading:
Animated digital flipbook, NZ History Online

The Maungatapu murders, NZ History Online

'Famous New Zealand Trials: The Maungatapu Mountain Murders', NZETC

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