Wanganui farmer Walter Bolton became the last man to be hanged in New Zealand when he was taken to the scaffold on this day 60 years ago. Steve Braunias reports.

They came for him at the close of day and hanged him at 6.30pm in a narrow little exercise yard in Mt Eden prison. It was a Monday. The weather was good, and the last of the summer sales included a special on hats for ladies. Invaders from Mars was screening at the Mayfair cinema on Queen St, and the Civic had Love Me Tender, the first Elvis movie.

Walter "Jim" Bolton, a 68-year-old farmer from Wanganui, climbed up on to a steel scaffold; it made a loud clang when the trap door opened. He wore a white hood and one of the fussy rituals of execution in New Zealand was that the hood was pulled off the body, taken to the prison laundry, washed, and folded, ready for the next hanging.

No one ever wore it again. Today marks the cheerless anniversary of the last man hanged in New Zealand, 60 years ago on February 18, 1957.

Bolton was sentenced to death immediately after a jury found him guilty of poisoning his wife. His method, as outlined by prosecution at the nine-day trial in Wanganui, was steady and diabolical: according to a police pathologist, Bolton measured out her death with teaspoons, stirring arsenic into her cups of tea for 17 months.

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During that time, Beatrice Bolton suffered regular bouts of intense vomiting, and was taken to public as well as private hospitals. Surgeons removed her gall bladder. It was found to be healthy. Her vomiting resumed and was relentless. She was dehydrated, and also suffered attacks of diarrhoea. The one time she seemed to improve was when she convalesced at her daughter's home in Bulls. Back at her own house, a villa behind a picket fence on a farm property with the grim name of Rusthall, she promptly fell ill again.

The court was told that the final, fatal dose of arsenic was put in her tea on July 10, 1956. A doctor gave her morphine, and she was rushed to hospital. She was on death's door; the door opened, and she died not long after midnight. She was 66. The post-mortem discovered arsenic in her organs, hair, and nails.

Police went to the farm. They noticed a packet of Young's Improved Sheep Dip powder on a shelf in the shed. The label advised that it contained arsenic.

For such an apparently meticulous and patient killer, hovering like an angel of death over the teapot for well over a year, it was a careless place to leave what was essentially the murder weapon. Bolton denied the charges. When hanging judge Justice Gresson passed the death sentence and asked Bolton what he had to say, he replied, for the record, "I plead not guilty sir".

Poison and adultery, sheep dip and tea leaves: it was New Zealand gothic, set on an isolated farm and ending in a narrow brick yard on the east wing of Mt Eden prison. But was it justice? Speculation that Bolton was an innocent man has floated around now and again over the years, although the prosecution case was strong.

Former chief inspector Sherwood Young outlined a thorough police investigation in his chapter on Bolton in his excellent 1998 book, Guilty on the Gallows.

Exhibit A was the sheep dip powder, and there was testimony that Beatrice had said, on one occasion, "This tea tastes queer." Bolton made his wife her cup of tea every morning and sometimes at night. Damningly, his own daughter told the court that he'd just about confessed to the murder when he said to her that he "might have to do a stretch".

There was motive: Bolton had been having an affair with his wife's sister, Florence. It ended on January 1956, by her account, and they'd slept together only three times, but police believed that Bolton wanted his wife dead so he could be with Florence. It was an unlikely late-life passion. A paparazzi of the time photographed a nice old dear with thick ankles creaking out of a car as she arrived in court; according to the Epitaph TV programme on the Bolton case, Florence was unable to talk above a whisper when she appeared as a witness, and a clerk had to repeat what she said so the jury could hear.

She committed suicide a year after Bolton was hanged. Three people dead, a family shattered. Bolton had six children; a son and daughter appeared in court as witnesses for the prosecution. Grace Bolton, who told the court about the late-night conversation when she claimed Bolton made his remark about the likelihood of "a stretch", added that he gave her an envelope after their talk. She opened it when she got home. It contained fifty pounds. New Zealand Herald court report: "She said she was angry and felt she was 'being bought'."

There was also the strange matter of Florence burning her diary, and her behaviour when she heard of the police were opening up a murder investigation. Court report from the Truth newspaper: "She got upset and drank two bottles of brandy, by lacing milk with it, at night. She thought that if the police saw two bottles they'd think she was a drinker, so she smashed it with an axe and hid it under the woodshed."

Her affair gave the case an erotic charge and also the whiff of scandal, but the reality was likely something furtive and shameful. "We are not here to judge these two elderly people for a breach of the moral code," Bolton's defence lawyer Bryan Haggitt told the court. Truth reported, "He described the intimacy between Bolton and his sister-in-law as a source of comfort and support to Bolton during his wife's illness and suggested he had turned to the other woman because he was a lonely old man."

In his police photograph, Bolton looks demented and afraid. Truth described him in court as "elderly, composed, patient, with a habitual half-smile, his elbow always on a small sponge rubber pad he had taken into the dock and his hand to his ear to assist a difficulty in hearing". He was also blind in one eye.

In his summing up, prosecutor Thaddeus McCarthy said, "One thing emerges with startling clarity. When Mrs Bolton was away from Bolton she was all right, but when she got back to him her trouble started again." The trouble started again whenever she drank the water at Rusthall. Bolton's defence argued that the water supply contained heavy traces of arsenic, and that Beatrice died of accidental poisoning.

Tests confirmed arsenic content in the water. Separate tests showed that Jim Bolton, too, had traces of arsenic in his hair and mails. Beatrice was frail and diabetic; the defence called a doctor who said she suffered long-standing gastritis, which worsened the effects of arsenic.

Another expert witness called by the defence said it wasn't possible that Bolton, as a layman, would be able to break down the arsenic powder into a clear solution before adding it to the tea. ("The devil's brew", as Truth put it.) The prosecution countered the scientific improbability by more or less blandly asserting that where there's a will, there's a way.

"This is the plan of a muddler," McCarthy said to the jury. "A man working with something he does not know much about, a farmer working by trial and error."

The half-deaf, one-eyed alchemist of Rusthall out on No 2 Line, plundering the lethal contents from his packet of sheep dip for 17 long months as the kettle whistled and the cups rattled on the saucers ... It was a nonsense, said defence, but the jury had heard about Beatrice complaining of "queer" tea, they'd listened to the testimony from Bolton's own daughter, and expert police witnesses had said there simply wasn't enough arsenic in the contaminated water to account for Beatrice's chronic poisoning; it took just over two hours to reach a verdict of guilty. He was executed 75 days later.

The family have never spoken about it to media, and resisted attempts to reopen an investigation. The possibility of fresh evidence was raised in Parliament in 1961 - a delegation had gone to see the Minister of Justice, alleging they could prove Bolton was innocent - but it was quietly dropped: "Relatives agreed there was ... little to be gained by attempts to rehabilitate Bolton," wrote Pauline Engel in her thesis on the abolition of capital punishment.

Another attempt to rehabilitate Bolton was made in strange and grotesque circumstances. In 1987, on the 30th anniversary of the execution, a man named Paul Waller claimed he had a nightmare that he was in Mt Eden prison waiting to be hanged. The dream led him to conclude that he was Jim Bolton's long-lost son. He changed his name to Bolton, and began a long campaign to prove that an innocent man had been executed.

Waller's claims played out as an invasion of a family tragedy. The Boltons were forced to prevent the Epitaph programme from filming a memorial plaque that Waller placed at Bolton's grave. It read, "Your loving son."

One of Bolton's real children, a daughter, was with the condemned man in his cell on the day of his execution. He signed some papers, and said, "Is this it, then?"

The Herald reported on it the next day in a three-paragraph story on page 23. The headline read, Poisoner pays penalty. The story recorded that Bolton died from a complete fracture of the vertebrae. A longer article on the same page alerted readers to a peeping Tom in Papatoetoe, and another crime story noted that a 17-year-old tore up a parking meter in Devonport.