Online "sextortion" and revenge porn are on the rise. But earlier forms of vigilante justice also had their followers. By Redmer Yska.
Digital technology helped people to remain connected in lockdown periods during the past year, but the spikes in online traffic brought unwanted baggage: a surge in harmful communications, such as revenge porn.
A study by online safety group Netsafe found the rate of offensive and threatening traffic in the March-May lockdown "quarter" was double that of other quarters during the year.
Compared with the same period in 2019, it recorded a 35 per cent increase in "sextortion" and a 45 per cent increase in intimidation. Its confidential helpline was inundated with requests for support from people enduring online bullying, threatening behaviour and hate speech.
Revenge porn – a wildly immediate version of old-style vigilante justice – continues to metastasise. In 2016 came the first local conviction for posting revenge porn online, a case that made headlines around the world. The remorseful Hamilton-based perpetrator, jailed for a year, later called his action "the worst decision of my whole life".
But the now-ubiquitous digital terrain is layered with complexity. Within months of that high-profile conviction, in a quiet corner of Taranaki, a jilted wife engineered a rough and ruthless version of revenge porn, garnering global headlines – and what some might consider a surprising outpouring of support.
The Hawera mother-of-two famously printed nude photos of her husband's mistress off the internet, placed them on car windscreens and mailed them to local businesses and the victim's husband. She and her best friend were later found guilty of plain old offensive behaviour and fined.
It's hard to view the rugged, remote 'Naki as a hotbed of passion. This is a region more associated with impassive rural folk, a place known for making fine cheese, harnessing energy and cultivating hillsides of rhododendrons. History, however, tells a different story, even if the gender tables have since been turned.
There are a few long-forgotten examples of vigilante justice in revenge for illicit philandering in this part of the North Island – activity of a scale and savagery that makes 21st-century digital utu seem mild by comparison.
Is passion woven into this landscape? Māori legend has it that Mt Taranaki and his kin once happily cohabited along the warm Volcanic Plateau. Taranaki and Tongariro then fell out over curvaceous Mt Pihanga, who chose the more virile peak over Taranaki. Banished far to the west coast, the story goes that when shrouded in cloud, Taranaki is actually weeping for lost love.
No tears were shed a century and a bit ago when a New Plymouth jury threw out a case against eight Ōpunake men charged with illegal assembly and assault of a pushy Canadian womaniser named Harman Hill. The eight accused were ringleaders of a larger group that enacted summary justice on the hapless dairy-factory worker after his "unwelcome attentions" to local women.
Then as now a dairying hub, Ōpunake is best known as the birthplace of athlete Peter Snell, whose statue was unveiled there a decade ago. Located southwest of New Plymouth, with State Highway 45 running through it, the town is much admired for its wild black-sand beach.
In 1907, it became better known as the place where a lynch mob nearly got their way. Hill incurred their wrath after openly boasting about his conquest of a married woman in the house in which he was lodging. Her gardener husband, an older man called Lister, was ill and bedridden. Challenged by a local farmer about his predatory behaviour, Hill unwisely threatened to seduce his daughters.
Battle was joined. Newspaper accounts, including in the sensational NZ Truth, indicate that as many as 80 men then descended on the house, dragging out the "libidinous wretch". What happened next seems scarcely believable.
"A long rope was tied around him and he was hauled into a ditch, the contents of a night-soil pan were emptied over him. He was next taken to a creek, where he was thrown in and dragged up and down till the unhappy wretch was nearly dead. He was hauled out of the creek, and his hair was cut close to the skin, his eyebrows were shaved off, and he was tarred and feathered from head to foot."
Hill was then returned to the Lister house, forced to apologise to the husband, and ordered to leave town. Police then arrived and escorted the victim to the station, followed by a huge crowd singing the popular Victorian ditty Why Don't You Get a Lady of Your Own?
Mrs Lister then made the unfortunate decision to shelter the Canadian in her house, resulting in the mob's return with plans to string him up. Only police intervention prevented it, and Hill was quickly escorted from town. Eight men were later committed for trial in the High Court at New Plymouth in October 1907. Newspapers described them as "a very respectable, well-dressed lot".
In his summing-up to a crowded court, the judge called tarring and feathering "a piece of blackguardism" imported, he supposed, from America, and spoke of a "disgusting assault". But a jury took an hour to acquit the accused.
Fast forward to 1923 when crowds again packed the New Plymouth court as four men were charged with a second sensational vigilante crime. In this case a horsewhip was used to attack a philanderer in the city's main street in broad daylight, a form of summary justice usually associated with the 19th century.
It emerged that Gilbert Jago, a prominent brewer, rugby club secretary and man about town, had been carrying on an affair with a woman named Norah Pickering. In typical style, Truth headlines proclaimed "Jago's Jaunt" and "Woman Worshipper Whipped/An Affair of Honor/Nasty Navigation in New Plymouth". The "Affair of Honor" subhead stuck and would be echoed by less-sensational papers.
The court heard that at 9.15am on a Tuesday in March, near the Public Trust Office on Queen St, Pickering's husband, Joseph, her father and brothers set upon Jago as he approached his office, cracking him over the head from behind. He was then kicked and punched.
A witness said he'd observed the assault from his office window, where he'd seen Jago "in a recumbent attitude". The witness saw Pickering "slathering" Jago with a whip, and said all four took part in the attack.
The Horowhenua Chronicle added: "A hunting-crop was said to have figured as an important part of the equipment of the aggressors in the assault, and the result was that Jago was somewhat severely handled, though not seriously hurt. The police were called in but the assailants took the course of going to the station and informing upon themselves, as they fully realised that they had taken the law into their own hands, but they got what they described in their own words as 'satisfaction which the law could never give."'
Jago's lawyer denied that his client had cried out "My God! My God" as the men continued thrashing him. Nor had Jago been expecting "for a long time something like that to happen". The case appeared to shine an unwelcome light on what Truth called "rather hectic disclosures concerning life in a certain strata of New Plymouth society".
The level of newspaper coverage indicates that the case preoccupied many people in 1923. New Plymouth police later downgraded the charge against Norah Pickering's husband and menfolk from assault to cause bodily harm to that of common assault. Joseph Pickering, a respectable land agent, was fined the equivalent of $190, Norah's father and brothers about half that.
The thrashing of Gilbert Jago spelt the end of a brief but sensational interlude of vigilante justice in Taranaki. Nearly a century later, a Hawera mother of two would harness 21st-century digital technology to spread nude photos of her husband's paramour to equally harmful effect.