The murder of Mary Dobie was as brutal as it was unexpected. On a clear sunny afternoon in the spring of 1880, the visiting Englishwoman took a walk from Opunake in Taranaki towards Te Namu Pa - about two kilometres away. She was an accomplished artist and was probably intending to sketch the magnificent view of the mountain - Taranaki to local Maori, Egmont to the settlers - with a pencil she had bought that morning.

When night fell and Mary had still not returned, a search party set out. They found her body in flax bushes off the side of the road. One arm was flung across her face as if to ward off an attacker and her throat was slit so deeply that her head was almost severed from her body.

News of the murder stunned locals and scandalised the whole country. "Shocking outrage" reported the Evening Post. The New Zealand Times declared the killer was "a fiend in human shape", as the hunt for the murderer began in earnest.

But as historian and former journalist David Hastings explains in his new book The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, it was far from clear what kind of murder this was. Was it a robbery gone wrong or an attempted rape? Or was it the most frightening possibility of all for the nervous Pakeha settlers in Taranaki - a politically-motivated murder with links to the nearby passive resistance movement at Parikaha? The protesters' main leader, charismatic prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai, preached peace but many settlers feared he and his followers were secretly plotting violence - or as we would call it today, terrorism.

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The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie by David Hastings (Auckland University Press RRP $39.99)
The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie by David Hastings (Auckland University Press RRP $39.99)

Hastings, a former Weekend Herald editor now into his third book on New Zealand's 19th century history, says he became intrigued by the timing of Mary Dobie's murder in November 1880 and the Government-ordered invasion of Parihaka a year later.

"It always haunted me at the back of my mind, thinking it must have affected the attitudes of people in some way."

The 63-year-old author originally came across the story of Mary and her sister Bertha when researching his first book into immigrant ships to New Zealand. He was immediately struck by their willingness to make friendships with strangers and boldly explore their new surroundings, in defiance of the convention that Victorian women should sit demurely at home and look after their husbands.

The sisters created a diary on their journey out to New Zealand with their mother Ellen on the May Queen in 1877, which set a template for their later adventures. Mary's lively sketches and Bertha's writing reveal how they mixed freely with the crew, danced on deck with the captain and the passengers and took pride in their immunity from the seasickness that affected most of their fellow travellers.

Once in New Zealand, the three woman took a week-long trek on horseback to see the famous Pink and White Terraces near Mt Tarawera, accompanied by Major Forster Goring, who was to become Bertha's husband. Together they forded rivers, got stuck in the mud and recovered a runaway packhorse, all with the help of local Maori. Bertha's romance was virtually assured when she cooked wild duck curry in the geothermal steam of the White Terraces and an enthusiastic Major Goring had four helpings.

The two sisters followed up with a month-long trip to Samoa and Fiji with their brother Herbert. They enjoyed Fiji so much they stayed there a further five months on the 19th century equivalent of Overseas Experience - sailing between the islands, paddling up rivers in canoes and trekking through thick bush in search of the next spectacular view. Bertha proudly recorded that they were the first white women to visit the upper caves of the Yasawa Islands.

When they returned, Bertha married Major Goring, who had been posted to Taranaki while the sisters were away. The province was a powder keg of tension, as the colonial government moved to seize land it had nominally confiscated in the 1860s after the Land Wars. In response, the Parihaka-based resistance movement asserted Maori rights to the land by ploughing settlers' farms.

On the day of the murder, November 25 1880, Mary was in Opunake on the final leg of her grand OE. She and her mother had visited Wellington and were in Taranaki to say farewell to the Gorings, before heading home to England. During their stay, Mary and Bertha had even been to Parihaka and sketched Te Whiti and his followers. That night Forster had the grim job of inspecting his sister-in-law's body when a searcher found it in the flax.

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At first the killing was a complete mystery. Many assumed a sexual assault, as Mary's dress was pushed up above her knees. But this could have been caused by the killer dragging the body into its hiding place, and an autopsy firmly ruled out any attempt at rape. Robbery was a possibility but it was unclear why this would have led to murder. In the tense atmosphere, some newspapers jumped straight to the conclusion that Te Whiti and his followers must be involved, regardless of the lack of evidence. The Auckland Star summed up the hardline view; "Though the degree ... is difficult to estimate, it cannot be denied that he is in some sort culpable".

To add to the confusion, two men were fingered for the murder in quick succession. A Pakeha horsebreaker, Walter Stannard, who had passed Mary on the road to Te Namu, was arrested because he had bloodstains on his clothes, which he claimed came from a horse. Shortly afterwards a local Maori, Tuhi, was arrested on more compelling evidence. Tuhi, who had also passed Mary on the road, had bloodstains on his coat and was the owner of a pair of bloodstained moleskin trousers found at the scene of the crime. He surprised everyone by dramatically confessing to the crime at the inquest, held in the billiard room of the Telegraph Hotel in Opunake.

Tuhi, a local Maori man who confessed to killing Mary. This photo may have been taken while he was in jail.
Tuhi, a local Maori man who confessed to killing Mary. This photo may have been taken while he was in jail.

It was the first of seven confessions Tuhi would make in public and private, many of which contradicted each other. Hastings prefers the version Tuhi gave in Maori to his police guard, Constable George Taylor, which was later used at his trial.

Tuhi, who had spent several hours at the hotel bar, said he approached Mary on horseback, asking her where she was from. She kept replying in English, which he did not understand, and eventually gave him money to go away because she was frightened. "She said she would tell the soldiers of me or about me. I was then afraid of my crime of taking money from that woman."

Tuhi said he got off his horse and Mary started to run. He caught her, threw her on the ground and strangled her, then walked away thinking she was dead. As Mary rose and tried to escape, he came at her again with a knife, viciously stabbed her and hid the body away from the road.

Tuhi was tried in Wellington. A jury took 20 minutes to find him guilty and he was hanged in a public execution, vividly described in the book. By that stage, says Hastings, it was obvious the murder was a completely apolitical act. Yet the rumour machine could never let go of the convenient suspicion that the Parihaka peace movement was responsible.

"Parihaka had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Mary Dobie. But Mary Dobie was linked in the public mind - and by that I mean the Pakeha mind - with Parihaka."

Although the murder didn't affect the Government's decision to invade, which was driven by purely political considerations, Hastings says it had a clear effect on many ordinary people involved. Water Gudgeon, an Armed Constabulary captain who led one of the companies at the invasion, wrote in a later book that many of the men who rushed to sign up did so in response to the killing of Mary Dobie.

As the invasion force gathered, a Christchurch Star correspondent observed; "It is noticeable that the murder of poor Miss Dobie is as fresh in the minds of the men as though it had occurred yesterday. The effect appears to have been double, increasing their sense of the treachery of the Maoris and their determination to take terrible revenge should the opportunity offer."

The invasion of Parihaka took place on November 5 1881. A force of 1500 Armed Constabulary and volunteers ransacked the village and illegally arrested Te Whiti and his co-leader Tohu Kakahi, who were sent into exile in the South Island. The incident had a lasting impact on race relations - more than 130 years later, the Government is still working on plans for a formal apology.